Brian Lewis grew up in a difficult area after arriving in England as part of the Windrush generation. At the age of eight, he took an interest in chess and joined a team made up of children from low-income housing to participate in championships against children from generally more privileged backgrounds. At 12, he faced – and beat – an international chess grandmaster.
You’ve probably never heard of Brian, yet he’s one of thousands joining a rapidly growing trend of “ordinary” people preserving for posterity their life stories with a ghost-written autobiography. And there has been a surge in demand for these services following the Covid pandemic.
“I think during the shutdowns people may have started to think about their own mortality and that of their loved ones,” says Rutger Bruining, founder and CEO of StoryTerrace, one of the fastest-growing biography services. faster in the UK. “People couldn’t see their parents, kids couldn’t see their grandparents, and people didn’t know how long it would be.”
The company has a team of some 750 investigators, many of whom are journalists or former journalists, who are deployed to interview subjects. Prices range from £1,800 to £5,850, depending on the package.
There are stories of hope that seem straight out of a book, like that of Desiree Homes. She had a privileged life in a huge house when everything changed. She was diagnosed with bowel cancer, her husband lost his job and they ended up living in a trailer. Her daughter became homeless and lived on the streets.
Life had changed irrevocably, it seemed. Until the day her husband bought a EuroMillions lucky shot and won £1million.
With a life like this, Desiree, who lives near Maidstone, Kent, always knew she had a book in her. She even had a title. “If I ever wrote the story of my life, I always said it would be called And Then. Because every time I told people about my life, just when they thought I had said the most important thing, I was saying ‘and then…’” she said.
But she never had time to sit down and write, and when she saw StoryTerrace mentioned in a magazine article, she got in touch, received writing samples from potential ghostwriters, and chose one after a telephone consultation.
She adds: “One of the reasons I did it was because I was telling my kids stories that my grandmother used to tell me, and I realized that no one passed on those stories anymore. word of mouth, and I wanted to write about it now that I have grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
“Also, talking about my own story is also very cathartic for me, it helps me keep my feet on the ground, and I can pick up my book anytime and remember what happened.”
And then there are the participants who want to register a significant change in their lives of a different kind. Noshad Qayyum was one of them. A good Muslim son, he married a woman his family approved of but on his wedding day disaster struck. His father stood up to make a speech and died instantly of a heart attack. Developing depression and PTSD, Noshad faced suicidal thoughts and sought help, then dedicated his life to helping men cope with mental health issues.
“During the period after the incident and when I was receiving therapy, I kept a lot of journals,” he says. “It was part of the healing process as advised by my therapist and it was also during this time that I sadly lost a lot of male friends to suicide. It seemed like I had a chance to do something something about it, to say something about it and to raise awareness because we can’t live like this.
“It kind of fell into place so that I could use what I know and write a book, or have someone help me do it as a way of speaking.”
Bruining says the urge to start a memoir business came as a child, spending school holidays with his grandparents. “My grandfather was a great storyteller and he started a resistance group during World War II, then he moved to the Caribbean with my grandmother where they opened a GP practice. ‘stories, and there always seemed to be new ones, or additions to the old ones. But when they died, the stories seemed to fade much faster than expected, and I wished I had never asked the questions that I should have asked.
StoryTerrace isn’t the only company writing stories about everyday people. Book of My Life was started by Alison Vina in 2007, when a neighbor asked if she would write her life story. Vina, whose background is in writing and editing, started the business, providing biographies, with pictures, up to 50,000 words.
She says the business has grown steadily and now produces, along with a team of writers, around 100 books a year. “We noticed a significant increase in sales during the lockdowns,” says Vina. “I think it was partly because people had more time to think and an opportunity to focus on those jobs that they had long thought about but hadn’t had time to do – like writing their memoirs.
“We have written books for businessmen, scientists, nurses, doctors, kingdom peers, teachers and more. I’m fascinated by all of our customers’ stories, not least because the world they grew up in 60 or 70 years ago is so different from the one we know.
She said the most notable stories include the Ukrainian engineer who fled to Germany during World War II, the female entrepreneur who changed the General Post’s policy on women wearing trousers, and the publicist who founded the Luncheon Vouchers company, which was established in 1946 as a way for businesses to get tax relief by providing food vouchers to staff [LINK: https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/feb/06/workers-benefit-from-luncheon-vouchers-archive-1957]
“My advice to anyone considering writing their own story or giving a ghost-written life story to a loved one is to not wait too late,” she says. “Many of us regret not asking our parents and grandparents more about their lives while we had the chance, but I have yet to meet anyone who has regretted writing their story. “
Not all bio writing services are for profit. Hospice Biographers was established in 2017 by Barbara Altounyan, a journalist who recorded her terminally ill father’s life story through conversations with him, just before his death, and realized it was a service that could be offered to other people.
The charity recently changed its name to Stories for Life to reflect its expanded mandate, as it is in the process of offering its free services to people receiving palliative care in a variety of settings.
Stories for Life is funded by fundraising events and donations, and rather than a printed book, it provides a professional-level audio file of the interviews its team of 100 volunteers conducts with the subjects. He is set to launch a paid service available to everyone, with proceeds being invested in the free biography initiative.
“It can be very therapeutic for a person to talk about their life,” says Claire Cater of Stories for Life. “Very often during interviews they remember things that they themselves had forgotten, and there may be stories from their lives that even their own families do not know.
“Traditionally, family stories were always told at gatherings, and that’s something that I think is getting lost a bit. And during Covid in particular, when people couldn’t see each other, the ability to pass on those family stories was removed, and I think that made people want to preserve those family stories for the future.
According to Bruining, the biggest hurdle for people embarking on a biography is that they don’t think they’re important enough. “They say my life is too boring, I’ve never done anything,” he says. “But it’s not boring for their family, and their stories show how much the world has changed. And we’re not trying to write a bestseller, we’re telling real stories. There’s the old adage that everyone has a book in them and it’s true, it just doesn’t need to sell 100,000 copies to be valid.