A person who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way; a storyteller; a narrator
Every life is a story. Olivia Spallino Savoie made it her mission to see those stories preserved.
A lifelong lover of words and tales, Savoie would listen to her grandmothers’ stories and absorbed every detail they would share. Stories of times long passed, well before her birth, of hardships and experiences she could only imagine for herself but that helped form the women who shared them with her.
The loss of her grandfather in 2014 sparked a concern: What would happen to these stories once their tellers passed?
“I remember my Mimi’s attempts to write her memoirs,” Savoie said. “There would be sheaves of paper everywhere but she never could seem to get it all down.”
The spark caught while Savoie worked in a retirement community in Florida. She founded Raconteur Story Writing Services to capture these life experiences in the voices of those who lived them. And for her first interviews, Savoie couldn’t ask for any better subjects than the women who helped fuel her passion: Her grandmothers.
Raconteur operated as a one-woman business for the first year of its existence: Savoie conducted the interviews, composed, edited, and revised the content, and sent her final drafts off for publication. As you can imagine, this left a crunch on her available time to meet and come to know her clients as people, not merely customers.
Now Raconteur employs two full-time parties – Savoie and her husband, Joshua – and three freelance operatives as it seeks to document histories throughout the South. Savoie can now focus her energies on the building of these interpersonal relationships while the others handle proofreading, editing, and graphic design duties.
“I typically spent between nine to 18 hours in interviews with people who share their stories with me,” Savoie said, “but I get a true insight into each person with the off-record time we share. For instance, I baked macaroons with one lady. I visited a gentleman’s wife as he and I worked together to record their love story. I saw for myself how in love he remains with her, even though she can’t remember him.”
The process begins once a potential client contacts Raconteur. Sometimes a family member makes contact to arrange a meeting, sometimes it’s the subject him- or herself. The type of book involved might be a memoir of a living person, a tribute of a departed loved one, or a love story to document a couple’s romance.
Savoie never turns down an interview, but admits she does encounter a similar sentiment time and again:
“So many people will say, ‘I don’t have much to say,’ or, ‘My life isn’t really that interesting.’ It’s a great joy to me to prove them wrong and see how they light up when they remember some little thing from the past.”
The average storyteller is elderly, the oldest a New Orleans resident of a spry 105 years old. Locally, the highest age sits around 97 years, but ages, much like stories, vary. Savoie recently completed a tribute for a 58-year-old father who passed on as a way for his unborn grandchildren to know him as their parents did.
During the interview itself, Savoie will ask questions from a constantly-evolving questionnaire that started with 150 topics; it currently sits in the neighborhood of 200 items. These three-hour sessions are dictation periods: She will take down exactly what her storyteller shares as well as record the session to help keep the proper tones, inflections, and emotions present even in the printed word. How many sessions ranges from a single day (due to health concerns or hospice situations) to approximately three months.
More often than not, Savoie also helps people choose the photographs that will become a part of their heirloom treasure. While this initially started as an activity for the storyteller, over time it became a co-operative effort between muse and scribe. Savoie can help remind her clients of images that would help best illustrate their tales, such as wedding photos or family shots through the years. She scans them onsite so these precious memories never leave home.
For the one-on-one time, though, she keeps a pen and pad handy just incase something pops up outside the interview time so she can jot down a quick note for the next session. Sometimes a stray thought or casual remark will become a topic of conversation during the next interview.
Once Savoie completes her initial draft of the history, the storyteller reviews the work and makes revisions. This is often the “a-ha” moment when people realize just how much substance their seemingly “ordinary” life truly contains. The revised version then heads to the presses and becomes a legacy product that will keep memories alive for generations to come.