Many of us have a now-departed family member whose extraordinary tales disappeared forever when they died. The Lifebook service seeks to put that right by helping people write autobiographies to preserve their stories forever.
‘Everyone has a book in them’ is the oldest adage in publishing. Sadly, far too many of those books never get written. We’re talking here not of page-turning thrillers or romantic dramas — there are plenty enough of those — but instead the real life stories which disappear as those who lived those lives pass away.
It’s hard not to feel sadness at such a thought, and most of us will have a grandparent or parent whose tales we regret not listening to or remembering more carefully. The number of people left from the generation that lived through the Second World War and its aftermath is dwindling; the bulk of their memories often go with them.
Roy Moëd has spent the last 10 years trying to do something about this. He set up an autobiography-writing service called Lifebook. It became a business almost by accident — one that started with Roy’s own father, Jules.
Aged 86 and increasingly ill in 2002, Roy asked his assistant to sit with Jules and talk him through his life story, to preserve it in a series of recordings. Jules died a few months later and, while it took eight years, Roy did eventually turn his tale into a book, Life is for sharing. So moving did he and his family find the finished tome that Roy decided to help other people do the same thing.
“The interviewer will typically carry out ten 90-minute interviews to gather all the information needed, and to probe and prompt for the details that bring things to life”
At the core of the service is a team of interviewers, ghostwriters, editors, typesetters and proofreaders who put together an autobiography. The interviewer will typically carry out ten 90-minute interviews to gather all the information needed, and to probe and prompt for the details that bring things to life.
Normally they’d be face to face, but at the moment the interviews are conducted via Zoom, making this an ideal lockdown project. Lifebook have tried to make that change as easy as it can be. The average age of their authors is 82, and many are wary of technology; the company is well aware of this, and will send a free tablet — all set up, with internet connection included — to enable interviews to go ahead. Previously, interviewers would have scanned in any pictures needed for the book; now, any photographs or documents are collected contact-free via courier to be scanned and returned.
“Lifebook are at pains to stress that they want their clients to tell their own story, not something with another person’s voice or added angle.”
That process takes a lot of time — typically a few months — not least because Lifebook take their time to find an interviewer who’ll click with the subject, make them feel comfortable and help tease all their life highlights out before handing the transcripts over to the ghostwriter. Once the manuscript has been put together, there are two more meetings to go through it, make any changes and even record some passages for an audiobook version. All the way through, the emphasis is on letting people share what they want to share: Lifebook are at pains to stress that they want their clients to tell their own story, not something with another person’s voice or added angle.
At the end of it, a 200-plus-page autobiography will be printed and handsomely bound in hardback, with copies distributed to as many friends and family as requested. There’s also a digital copy if you want to have more printed, and the abridged audio version on a USB stick.
It’s a huge amount of work for Lifebook’s staff, so as you can imagine the cost reflects that: prices start from £7,500 for a 200-page, 45,000-word book with up to 60 pictures. That said, it seems a modest amount compared to the value of keeping alive the stories of extraordinary lives lived by extraordinary people.