Ali Levin struck upon the idea of her elderly father turning his life story into a book as a way of helping lift his spirits.
‘Angel-haired’ aid worker memoir ridiculed
Be warned, penning your memoirs can leave you wide open to criticism. Actress Louise Linton found herself at the centre of a social media storm this week after publishing her recollections of a student gap year trip doing aid work in Zambia as an 18-year-old. The hashtag #LintonLies has been used on Twitter more than 7500 times.
A distinguished endocrinologist and academic, Robert Levin, now 82, from Boston, Massachusetts had Parkinson’s disease and his faculties were fading. “His profession was his purpose in life,” said Hall, a leadership coach in her 40s, who lives near Oxford in England.
Across the Atlantic from her father, Hall was saddened that their telephone conversations were tending towards small talk. “Our conversations were more and more about sport and less and less about things I thought were really meaningful or interesting. At the same time there was more and more I wanted to know about his life.” Through word of mouth she heard about a biography writing service.
It was an opportunity for him to reflect and tell the story he wanted to tell about his life
“When I mentioned the idea to him he really lit up,” Hall said. She entrusted the project to LifeBook, a company which has produced more than 400 personal memoirs since its launch in 2012. Over about eight months, her father confided his memories to an interviewer who visited him regularly at home. “Dad would review his notes, go through pictures. It was something he could think about and engage with,” she said.
The recordings were then crafted into a narrative by a ghostwriter. The result was Dancing with the Doctor, a hardback book with photographs and letters which Levin gave to family, friends and former colleagues.
“The process really gave my dad a sense of purpose again,” said Hall. “It was an opportunity for him to reflect and tell the story he wanted to tell about his life.”
Memoirs are most often written by well-known personalities with book deals from traditional publishers. But now, companies specialising in producing biographies in small print runs are allowing anyone to share their memories in print. While the rise of e-books has allowed anyone to write a book and publish online, the quality can vary a lot. Unlike self-publishing, these biography providers are producing books crafted by seasoned professional interviewers, editors and publishing professionals.
Unlike bestselling celebrity autobiographies, these are stories of ordinary people, told in their own words, using private photographs, with print runs limited to a few copies. Demand is spreading throughout English speaking countries in particular. A growing number of biography makers are catering to people prepared to pay for professional help to capture precious memories before they are lost.
Capturing life experience
Each author’s motivation is unique. Ichko Gombodorj, 39, wanted to map the rocky path she has travelled since leaving post-Soviet Mongolia. “I wanted to close a chapter in my life and move on to new opportunities,” said Gombodorj. “I’m not 100% Mongolian or 100% English. That’s the idea I wanted to share with the rest of the world. I want to create a bridge between east and west.”
After settling in southern England 18 years ago, she found her Mongolian qualifications were unrecognised in the UK. So she studied for a master’s degree in finance at Henley Business School, University of Reading, while coping with single motherhood and holding down a job.
After graduating, she felt compelled to document her story. Online she came across Story Terrace, a biography writing service, and in 2015, over a period of around six months, she worked with one of their professional ghostwriters to produce her memoirs, Rising Butterfly.
She said the book was an extension of her CV, a way to thank people who had helped her over the years, and a way to inform them of Mongolia. “People only know of Genghis Khan. I wanted to update them about 21st-Century Mongolia.”
How it works
The memoir makers quote from 10 weeks to six months for the full production process, but it often takes longer, depending on how long the customer needs to track down family photos.
LifeBook USA charges $6,000, paid in instalments, for five hardback copies of an individual autobiography of up to 160 pages and 60 images.
Story Terrace offers three packages, of which the most popular costs between $2,250 and $3,150. These include four hardback copies and a digital copy of an autobiography of up to 90 pages and 30 photos.
Those who decide to try and sell their books have to accept legal responsibility for risks such as defamation, breach of privacy and copyright infringement.
Telling your story
As well as leaving an heirloom, many people find the process of telling their life story therapeutic. It’s a benefit LifeBook founder Roy Moed witnessed first-hand after devising the concept to cheer up his own father Jules, who in his later years had become blind.
My parents live on because of this book
Moed had his secretary interview his father every week about his life, and the stories were brought together in a book, with photographs. “My parents died within six days of each other. It was quite a traumatic time.
“For me, my parents live on because of this book,” Moed said.
The book had been a one-off idea to bring comfort to his father. But Moed, a serial entrepreneur, realised that many people might welcome the opportunity to set down their story in print.
“The major breakthrough was when I realised that the interviewer and the ghostwriter didn’t need to be the same person,” he said. “We could find someone within 30 minutes of where a client lives, train them in our methods and in how to keep an interview log.” This raw material could then be transformed into biographies by professional ghostwriters.
Originally set up in the UK, LifeBook has crafted biographies for clients in 15 countries and in March 2016 launched LifeBook USA in Florida. Most books are in English, but the firm also works in Spanish, German, French and Greek.
Moed said he had seen “huge growth” in the US. “Since we launched trials for LifeBook USA six weeks ago, we’ve had several hundred enquiries.”
Meanwhile, Story Terrace launched in Holland in 2014, moved into the UK in 2015 and this year into the US. It has created more than 100 memoirs, mostly for grandparents keen to pass on their stories and mid-lifers curious about their parents’ experience. Some are commissioned by entrepreneurs who want to record the development of their business alongside a personal narrative, as well as charities and sports teams looking to document their stories.
Finding a writer But whether it’s the history of a business or of a life journey, for Story Terrace, the most important part of the process is finding the right writer — unlike LifeBook, the company uses the same person to conduct interviews and write the story. “The whole experience and how the voice of the customer is captured is driven by that,” said London-based Rutger Bruining, founder of Story Terrace.
The most important part is finding the right writer
“We want people to feel as comfortable with their writer as they would sitting at home chatting over a glass of wine with family and friends.”
Although it is possible for people to sell these books, most of the memoirs are intended purely for family. That was certainly the case for Hall. Her father’s hardback memoir Dancing with the Doctor is a treasure to be passed down through the generations, revealing his “great spirit”. But the process was also a heartening experience for both father and daughter.
“Some people go their whole life without being able to tell their story and to be able to give that as a gift is amazing. One hundred percent it gave dad a new lease of life.”