‘Everyone’s got a book in it’: Memoir industry boom as ordinary people record their stories | Autobiography and memory


Brian Lewis grew up in a difficult area after arriving in Britain 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 compete in championships, usually against children from more privileged backgrounds. At 12, he faced – and beat – an international grandmaster.

You’ve probably never heard of Lewis and yet he’s one of thousands of everyday people joining a rapidly growing trend to preserve their life stories for posterity with a ghost-written autobiography. And there has been a surge in demand for these services after the pandemic.

“I think during the shutdowns maybe people started thinking about their own mortality and that of their loved ones,” said Rutger Bruining, founder and CEO of StoryTerrace, one of the biography services at the fastest growing 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 approximately 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 to come straight out of a book, like Desiree Home’s. 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.

Her life had changed irrevocably, it seems, until one day her husband bought a EuroMillions lucky shot and won £1million.

Brian Lewis with a copy of his ghost-written autobiography.

With a life like this, Home, who lives near Maidstone in 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 So what ... Because every time I was telling people about my life, just when they thought I had told them the most important thing, I was like, ‘And then…’” she said.

But she never had time to sit down and write, so 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 added: “One of the reasons I did it was because I used to tell my kids stories that my grandmother used to tell me, and I realized that no one passed on those stories anymore. by 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 very cathartic for me – it helps keep my feet on the ground and I can pick up my book at any time and remember what happened.”

An image of Brian Lewis at the age of 10
An image of Brian Lewis at the age of 10 from his living memoir produced by StoryTerrace

And then there are those who want to register a significant change in their life of another 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 post-traumatic stress disorder, Qayyum had 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 journaling,” he said. “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 about it, say something about it and 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.”

“The process of writing the biography was like a form of therapy in itself – going through the process of interviewing the ghostwriter and sharing my experiences was amazing. It helped organize my thoughts , to harmonize what happened and put it in such a way that someone can go away and read it and know that no one is alone – in particular, men where suicide affects us disproportionately.

Bruining says people have different reasons for wanting to record their lives. “Sometimes their motivation to write their biography can be the result of a big moment in their life, whether it’s an accomplishment or a turning point, good or bad. But most of the time, the motivation simply comes either from themselves wanting to pass on their stories to their families, or from their families wanting to record stories of parents or grandparents.

He says that the urge to start a memoir business came to him when he was a child, when he was spending school holidays with his grandparents.

“My grandfather was a great storyteller and he had started a resistance group during World War II, then he moved with my grandmother to the Caribbean, where they opened a general practice.

“There were a lot of stories and there always seemed to be new ones or additions to the old ones. But when they passed away the stories seemed to fade much faster than expected and I regretted never having asked the questions 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 her if she wanted to write her life story. Vina, whose background is in writing and editing, set up the business, providing biographies, including pictures, of up to 50,000 words.

She says the business has grown steadily and her team of writers currently produces around 100 books a year. “We noticed a significant increase in sales during the shutdowns,” Vina said. “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 influential 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 meal voucher company, which was established in 1946 as a means for businesses to obtain tax relief by providing food stamps to staff.

Rutger Bruining, the founder of the life memoir company StoryTerrace
Rutger Bruining, founder of the living memory company StoryTerrace.

“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 said.

“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. The Biographers Hospice 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 others.

The charity recently changed its name to stories for life to reflect its enlargement mandate; he is in the process of offering his services free of charge to people receiving palliative care in various settings.

Stories for Life is funded by fundraising events and donations, and rather than producing a printed book, it provides a professional-level audio file of the interviews its team of 100 volunteers conducts with the subjects.

It is set to launch a paid service available to everyone, with revenue being reinvested into the free biography initiative.

“It can be very therapeutic for a person to talk about their life,” said Claire Cater, president of Stories for Life. “Very often during interviews they remember things that they 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 especially when people couldn’t see each other, the ability to pass on those stories to family was removed. I think that made people want to preserve those family stories for the future.

The biggest hurdle for people embarking on a biography is, according to Bruining, that they don’t think they’re important enough. “They say, ‘My life is too boring, I’ve never done anything,'” he said.

“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.”


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