Preserving Lives and Legacies
By Lisa Hanchey
A 94-year-old man proudly holds up a beautiful book that contains the story of his life. An Acadiana-native 70 years his junior helped him to document his memories just as she has done for many other beloved grandparents.
Olivia Savoie always knew that she wanted to be a writer. Her aspirations began in middle school, when at age 13, she began her first novel, finishing it at age 16. After the book was published, she traveled around the state talking with middle school students about the book and following their dreams.
Upon high school graduation, Savoie studied at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, completing a degree in English and a minor in history. While at UL, she was the Outstanding English Graduate and led the Creative Writing Club. During her early years, Savoie played the harp at retirement communities and nursing homes. There, she discovered a passion for life story writing. “I’d be performing and making older friends, and I always wanted to hear their stories,” she reveals.
For fun, she would write stories about these residents, as well as those of her elderly neighbors, grandparents and their friends. When she graduated from UL, she immediately founded Raconteur Story Writing Services, with her husband, fellow UL graduate Joshua Savoie, in the fall of 2016. “I walked out of my last final and into my first client’s house to do an interview,” she shares. “I’ve been writing a new life story about every four to six weeks since then.”
Raconteur derives from the French word for storyteller. Since starting Raconteur, the couple has found clients mostly through word-of-mouth. “People hear that a friend’s mom got this book done,” she explains, “and families usually share the books.” Savoie emphasizes that these books are primarily for families – not for bookstore shelves or the New York Times bestseller list.
“They are keepsakes,” she explains. “So that, even a hundred years from now, my clients’ great-grandchildren will know all about their great-grandparents. The kids get the books, then the grandkids get the books, and then the great-grandkids get the books.”
One storyteller has shared the story of storming the beaches of Anzio during World War II. Another has recounted memories of overcoming a gang of armed robbers. Most all recount stories of young love and raising children. They share about saving their pennies from their paper route in mason jars and one day starting businesses that are now community fixtures. All of the storytellers have one thing in common: interspersed with their biographical data, they tell the tales that made their lives worth living. Olivia says, “We really get our storytellers to open up.”
As for her own life story, Olivia Spallino met New Iberia native Joshua Savoie at a church event in 2013, marrying him two years later. After graduating from UL, Josh worked in banking and hospitality for a while. But, that all changed when he joined his wife full-time in the life writing business.
At Raconteur, Josh does community outreach and project management. Olivia handles the creative side, tackling the writing and editing. “We actually have a great time together,” she reveals with a giggle. Since starting Raconteur, the couple has added two writers in Lafayette and one in Baton Rouge, as well as an editor and designer. “Josh manages the workflow of all of that, and I get to write, edit and interview, which is what I really enjoy doing,” Olivia shares. Olivia’s favorite part is interviewing, which she does at clients’ homes, where they are the most comfortable. She steps into their shoes and writes their life stories. “It’s not like a biography that’s bland,” Olivia explains. “We use their own language; it’s from their perspective. And the way we do that is by asking the right questions.”
How does the life story writing process work? Raconteur developed 200 to 300 questions, which are customized to each individual. Writers meet with their subjects in their homes for three to four three-hour sessions. The interviewers start at the beginning, asking questions like, “What’s your earliest memory? Where did you grow up? What did your house look like? What did your dad do for a living?” Then, the Raconteur writer takes the storyteller through the teen years and high school, college, military and early married life, until the present moment. “We keep it very organized so that it’s not overwhelming for them,” Olivia explains.
Once obtaining that information, the writer spends several weeks organizing and crafting a cohesive narrative. Later, the team scans the client’s special photographs – the pictures never leave the home – and put them into the book. “Each book is one-of-a-kind for the families,” Olivia confirms. “Most clients ask for anywhere from five to 50 copies of the book to give to family members and close friends.”
So far, Raconteur has published over 30 books. Through the storytelling process, the Savoies have become close friends with many clients. “It’s so special,” Olivia gushes. “Every time I meet a new client, I think, ‘I love this one so much; this one is my favorite.’ And then, I meet the next person, and I love that one so much, too.”
Olivia has now gained many surrogate grandparents through Raconteur. “It’s such an intimate exchange to get to know them and ask them these questions that they haven’t thought of in years,” Olivia reports. “It’s so special to help them unearth these things that they didn’t even realize they remembered. The interview questions help remind them of things they don’t think about anymore.”
The Raconteur process involves six steps: Step One: The Raconteur writer talks with the client over the phone or in-person to explain how Raconteur works Step Two: At-home interview process Step Three: Photo scanning Step Four: Writing phase Step Five: Review by the storyteller and their family Step Six: Design and publication
Typically, the interviewing stage lasts between 10 to 15 hours over the course of a few days. Within about two and a half months, the client has their heirloom book in hand. “The clients’ direct time involved is less than 24 hours,” Olivia explains. “It’s very easy for them, and that’s how we want it to be.”
Raconteur offers several types of books – life storybooks for individuals narrating their own memoir; couples’ life storybooks that intertwine the narratives of long-married couples while only separating their narratives in their earliest years (before they met); and tribute books, where family members tell the story of a loved one who has passed away or has dementia so that their legacy is still captured.
Currently, Olivia is working on a tribute book where she has interviewed a few dozen people. This is unusual, as she typically interviews several people for these books—the subjects’ closest relations such as a spouse, child, and sibling. “Tribute books often are for people who passed away in their forties, fifties or sixties, so that their grandchildren can still know them—or for those of any age,” she explains. “They are very emotional, very special.”
Olivia loves listening to raconteurs and plans to continue life writing for the long run. “I love what I do, and don’t planning on giving it up,” she confides. “I love it too much, and I love my people too much.” To learn more about Olivia and read excerpts from local stories, visit www.RaconteurWriting.com.