Brian Lewis grew up on a tough council estate after arriving in England as part of the Windrush generation. At the age of eight he developed an interest in chess, and joined a team formed of council estate kids to take part in championships against children from generally more privileged backgrounds. Aged 12 he took on – and beat – an international chess grandmaster.
You have probably never heard of Brian, and yet he is among the thousands of people who are joining a rapidly growing trend of “ordinary” people preserving for posterity their life stories with a ghost-written autobiography. And there has been a sharp rise in demand for these services following the Covid pandemic.
“I think that during the lockdowns people perhaps started to think about their own mortality, and those of their loved ones,” says Rutger Bruining, founder and CEO of StoryTerrace, one of the fastest-growing biography services in the UK. “People couldn’t see their parents, kids couldn’t see their grandparents, and people didn’t know how long that would last.”
The company has a team of some 750 interviewers, many of them journalists or former journalists, who are deployed to interview the subjects. Prices vary from £1,800 to £5,850, depending on the package.
There are stories of hope that already seem like something 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 up bowel cancer, her husband lost his job, and they ended living in a caravan. Her daughter became homeless and was living on the streets.
Life had changed irrevocably, it seemed. Until one day her husband bought a EuroMillions lucky dip, and won £1m.
With a life like that Desiree, who lives near Maidstone, Kent, always knew she had a book in her. She even had a title. “If I ever wrote my life story I always said it would be called And Then. Because whenever I told people about my life, just when they thought I’d told them the biggest thing I would say ‘and then…’,” she says.
But she never had time to sit down and write, and when she saw StoryTerrace mentioned in a magazine article she got in touch, was sent samples of writing from potential ghostwriters, and chose one after a telephone consultation.
She adds: “One of the reasons I did it was because I used to tell my children stories that my nan told me, and I realized nobody was passing on those stories by word of mouth any more, and I wanted to get this down in writing now that I have grandchildren and a great-grandaughter.
“Also, talking about my own story is very cathartic for me as well, it helps to keep me grounded, and I can pick up my book any time and remind myself of what’s happened.”
And then there are those participants who want to record a significant change in their lives of a different kind. Noshad Qayyum was one of these. A good Muslim son, he married a woman his family approved of but on his wedding day, disaster struck. His father stood to make a speech and died instantly of a heart attack. Developing depression and PTSD, Noshad faced suicidal thoughts and sought help, and later dedicated his life to helping men face mental health problems.
“In the time after the incident and when I was receiving therapy, I was journalling a lot,” he says. “It was part of the healing process as advised by my therapist and it was also around this time that I sadly lost a lot of male friends to suicide. It seemed like I was given a chance to do something about it, to say something about this and raise awareness because we can’t live like this.
“It sort of clicked into place that I could use what I know and write a book, or have someone help me to do it as a way to speak up.”
Bruining says the impetus to start a memoirs company came as a child, when he used to spend school holidays with his grandparents. “My grandfather was a great storyteller and he’d set up a resistance group in the second world war, and later moved to the Caribbean with my grandmother where they started a GP practice. There were lots 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 quicker than I expected, and I regretted that I never asked the questions I should have done.”
StoryTerrace is not the only company ghostwriting ordinary people’s stories. Book of My Life was started by Alison Vina in 2007, when a neighbor asked if she would ghost-write her life story. Vina, whose background is in writing and editing, set up the company, providing biographies, with pictures, of up to 50,000 words.
She says the business has steadily grown and is now producing, with a team of writers, about 100 books a year. “We noticed a significant increase in sales during the lockdowns,” Vina says. “I believe this was partly because people had more time for reflection and an opportunity to get on with those jobs that they’d long thought about but not got around to doing – like writing their memoirs.
“We’ve written books for businessmen, scientists, nurses, doctors, peers of the realm, teachers and more. I am fascinated by all our client’s 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 standout stories include the engineer who fled to Germany during the second world war, the female entrepreneur who changed the General Post Office’s policy on women wearing trousers, and the advertising man who founded the Luncheon Vouchers company, which was started in 1946 as a way for business to get a tax-break through supplying food vouchers for staff [LINK: https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/feb/06/workers-benefit-from-luncheon-vouchers-archive-1957]
“My advice to anyone thinking of writing their story, or giving a ghostwritten life story to a loved one, is don’t leave it 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’ve yet to come across anyone who has regretted writing their story.”
Not all biography writing services are for-profit. Hospice Biographers was set up in 2017 by Barbara Altounyan, a journalist who recorded her terminally ill father’s life story through chats with him, just before he died, and realized this was a service that could be offered to other people.
The charity recently changed its name to Stories for Life to reflect its widening brief 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 financed through fundraising events and donations, and rather than a printed book it provides a professional-level audio file of the interviews its 100-strong volunteer team carry out with the subjects. It is about to launch a paid-for service for anyone to access, with the income plowed into 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 the course of the interviews themselves, they remember things they had forgotten themselves, and there might be stories from their lives that even their own families don’t know.
“Traditionally, family stories were always recounted at gatherings, and that is something that I think is being lost a little. And during Covid especially, when people couldn’t see each other, the opportunity for these stories to be passed along to the family was taken away. I do think that has made people think about wanting to preserve these family stories for the future.”
The biggest obstacle to people taking the plunge with a biography is, says Bruining, 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 to their family, and their stories show how the world has changed. And we’re not trying to write a bestseller, we’re telling real stories. There’s the old saying that everyone has a book in them and that’s true, it just doesn’t need to sell 100,000 copies to be valid.”