The Storyteller’s Story
Olivia Spallino Savoie preserves and publishes stories of the past for future generations
“Honestly, I think it might be easier for someone to tell their story to someone they don’t know. You don’t have the social pressure. You don’t have the concern that you’re saying something that you’ve already said before. You’re talking to someone who doesn’t know anything about you, someone who’s there to learn about you and everything you’ve experienced.”
Photo by Romero & Romero
The history of Acadiana — or, at least, this very specific and personal chapter of it — is told by a 103-year-old woman who last summer still had enough gumption to cast a reel on a salt-water fishing excursion, and is recorded by a 22-year-old woman who takes notes with pen and paper.
Next week, the topic of conversation and the person sparking it will be completely different. Economic hardship told by a self-made man who now lives in a big, old house. Gruesome military battles recited by the gentlest soul. A first kiss. A meager investment that bloomed into a multi-million dollar corporation. The birth of great-grandchildren. You never know.
The only constant in these scenarios is Olivia Spallino Savoie, the aforementioned note-taker and founder of Raconteur Story Writing Services out of Lafayette — a start-up business venture efficiently offering old-fashioned services like tribute books and memoir publishing that unintentionally preserves the fading history of the diverse and eclectic region.
“I’ve always had a love for history and older people, just going around to nursing homes in the area, or my grandparents, or their neighbors, and just hear their stories,” says Savoie, whose love of writing manifested at an early age. “In college, these are things I’d just do for my own pleasure. That’s how much I enjoyed it. And the spring before I graduated, I started thinking, ‘How could I make this my reality?’”
“As far as I know, there’s no one else who does this in the South.”
Well, that might be because this isn’t the easiest trick to pull off. Within a week, Savoie, who graduated from University of Louisiana at Lafayette, conducts a wide-ranging interview that touches upon every aspect of a full life, sifts through that extensive transcript, plucking out key details, then pounds out (with her gifted prose, of course) and creates a 50-to 60-page first-person memoir, basically a literary time capsule. From there, the not-quite-yet-a-book goes to a proofreader and gets the final thumbs up from the family before it’s shipped to the printer. From first interview question to hardcover finished product takes eight weeks.
“I can’t quite figure that out,” Savoie says when asked why her subjects are so forthcoming. “I consider it a real honor, and I don’t take the responsibility that comes with that honor lightly. These stories are for their children and their grandchildren, so that 50 years from now, someone in their family can pick up the book and know their story.
“And it’s important that the story not only reads, but sounds like their story. I’ll read aloud a couple times, so that it sounds like the way it sounded when we talked.”
To ensure prompt completion of the finished project, Savoie sticks to a script when interviewing her clients. As you might imagine, the list of inquiries is quite long considering Savoie needs to excavate a lifetime worth of love, laughter and lament — roughly 150 questions.Though there’s wiggle room for nuance and follow-ups in the course of Savoie’s back-and-forth with the people she’s putting in ink, for the most part she doesn’t deviate off-script.
“I literally just write down every word they say,” Savoie says. “And then I go back and spend a few days with the transcript and try to shape these thoughts and memories and everything that’s all jumbled up from our talk, and turn it into a cohesive narrative.”
“I tested the water with this for about six months, before I started going into business for it, and when I’d just walk in and ask people to tell me their stories, we’d end up with massive holes. We’d miss out on their teenage years, or I wouldn’t know where they were born and I felt with the questions, it really gets the broad scope of their life — the biographical framework but also the funny stories, the travel. So the framework really isn’t designed to limit the story but have it be more well-rounded in the end.”
On more than one occasion, a younger family member than the one Savoie is writing about has commented (while fighting through tears sometimes) that the writer has unearthed tales even they haven’t heard before. She’s been privy to acts of selflessness and heroism, moments of paralyzing heartbreak and agony, and oh-so-human snapshots that are timeless.
“The thing that really stands out is how ambitious these people were at my age,” Savoie says. “What they accomplished, a lot of it occurred at a pretty young age. So of course our lives are different. I’ve interviewed a gentleman who fought in Korea, another who fought in World War II and a woman whose husband fought in World War II, so the issues they faced were a lot different than the issues I face.”