Gone With the Wind? No Way

Times Staff Writer

First-time author Franco Antonetti pours out his immigrant-coming-to-America story in a 251-page self-published memoir, "I Wouldn't Die."

There's his arrival from Italy as an impoverished child and his determined rise up the rungs of American business. There's tales of first love and lost opportunities.

And there's a funny recounting of his first day in the United States involving Ellis Island immigration officers, 30 feet of sausage and some very loose pants.

Though good with a tale, Antonetti, 60, wasn't shooting for bestseller lists when he wrote his autobiography in six months. The Arizona retiree wrote it mostly for his children and grandchildren.

"Once the money is gone," said the father of three, "it's 'Big deal, who's Papa?' But a book lasts forever -- even if it's a bad one."

Growing numbers of Americans are chronicling their histories through books, audiotapes and video, often turning to self-publishing houses, ghostwriters and even a new crop of professional "personal historians" for help.

Many of them came of age during the Great Depression and World War II.

Call them the wordiest generation.

"Senior memoirs are booming," said Calvin Reid, an editor at Publishers Weekly in New York. "Print-on-demand vendors are publishing hundreds of thousands of books each year, the overwhelming majority of which are meant only for an audience of family and friends."

Rare is the amateur who rises to the heights of, say, Frank McCourt and his "Angela's Ashes." Legacy, not literature, is the point, said Ellie Kahn, a Los Angeles documentary filmmaker who started her memoir business, Living Legacies, in 1988.

"Some older people think it's egotistical or that their kids won't be interested. They don't imagine anyone will care about the details of their lives," Kahn said. "But kids want to know and need to know about their heritage. It's a huge void when they don't know."

Children frequently foot the bill, pressuring parents to remember a painful childhood, a fluttery first kiss and the successes and failures of life, said Lettice Stuart, president of the Assn. of Personal Historians, a trade organization whose membership has grown from 15 to 400 in a decade.

Society has also become more forgiving of failings that in the past remained behind closed doors, she said. Things kept hush-hush a generation ago are now being dissected openly on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Dr. Phil."

"I always tell people to get everything down, even the dirty secrets," said Steven Friedman, a San Rafael, Calif., ghostwriter. "As long as it doesn't harm anyone who's living, go for it."

Margaret Morris, 66, was one of eight seniors who started a writing group at her Ventura church. Out of that grew "Reflections," a paperback collection of their life stories published in July.

Morris said she was able to write about family demons -- her father's drinking and her mother's depression -- in a way her parents never could.

"If you go back even a generation, families didn't tell their stuff, their family secrets," Morris said. "But look under the surface and you've got alcoholism, child abuse, affairs -- a real soap opera."

Morris' essays touch on a father who "smelled perpetually of cigarettes and whiskey," and a mother who struggled to put food on the table. She tells how her love of climbing began in the hills above her Sunset Boulevard home.

One day when she was about 10 years old, she fell from a high fence and ended up with two black eyes. To Morris' distress, her mother made her go to school, a trauma she still recalls with clarity.

"There is probably something inherently humiliating to a child about showing up battered in front of other children -- some animal dread around exposing one's vulnerability, perhaps," she writes in "Reflections."

"For a girl, it was the ultimate mortification because it suggested she must have in some way been treated like or been behaving like ... ugh ... a boy!"

Mary Embree, the 71-year-old editor of "Reflections," said her own essays brought back painful memories of Woody, her abusive stepfather, and of her beloved sister Ernine. Her older sister, with whom she had shared so many struggles, died an alcoholic with a broken spirit, Embree said.

Her death, Embree writes, "left a hole in my heart nothing will ever fill."

"I'll always wish I could have spoken to her one more time before she left," she writes in the essay. "I would have said, 'Goodbye, big sister, Queen of the trees and flowers, the butterflies and lightning bugs, the moon and stars and nearly everything in the universe."

Reliving the past was therapeutic, said Embree, who used her skills as a freelance writer to edit and put "Reflections" together.

"It made me get in touch with my past so I could understand myself better," she said. "I think my children will understand me better too."

In the past, memoir writing was reserved for a privileged few with access to ghostwriters, book agents and a printing press. Ordinary folks turned to newspaper clippings and the stories of elderly family members to trace their roots.

But technological advances in the past two decades have democratized the process.

Computers, Internet-based services and a growing number of professional ghostwriters are widely available. People can tap out a story on their home computer, then edit at their leisure. When it comes time to publish, authors send the whole manuscript via e-mail.

Dozens of small publishing houses offer customized service for amateur authors, from editing copy to designing covers to registering the books with the Library of Congress. Depending on the number of books printed, the whole process can cost less than $2,000 if the writer does most of the work. Professional help can cost from $5,000 to $20,000.

Online writing classes and books offering advice on how to get started are also plentiful. The process can be as varied as recording histories on audiocassettes to publishing a book to creating a full-length documentary.

After teaching autobiography classes at Santa Rosa Junior College for six years, Steve Boga started his own website, www.memoirwritings.com.

Boga encourages his students to just tell stories -- scenes from their lives that are especially memorable or poignant. Emotion drives writing, Boga said, and if writers stick with it, after a few years they will have a folder full of scenes from their lives that they can weave into a book.

Ranging in age from 50 to 92, his students have weathered the Great Depression, World War II and the tumult of the '60s. But the best stories are wrung more from a wounded heart than social upheaval, Boga said.

"I've had people write letters to their dead mothers to try to heal scars," he said. "There is no statute of limitation on emotion."

For those fortunate enough to get through life with little conflict, Boga has only disdain: "That idyllic life may have been great to live, but it doesn't make for great writing," he said.

Men make up just 20% of his students, and they aren't very good storytellers, he said. He attributes that to an unwillingness to honestly explore their emotions, especially among men who came of age before the '60s, Boga said.

"I had two people who were at Pearl Harbor and both of them managed to make it boring," he said. "They had a story to tell, but you didn't see the smoke, you couldn't feel the fear."

Stuart said most members of the Assn. of Personal Historians were creating books for their clients. But video and even film is gaining rapidly in popularity, she said.

"Eighty-five-year-olds are familiar with books, so it makes sense for them," she said. "But I think video and film will become much more popular. When I started seven years ago, it was really just talking heads. And now the videos look like A & E 'Biography.' "

The cost of a documentary-type video production can be up to $60,000, Stuart said.

Stuart, who lives in New York City but travels the country for clients, said business was brisk.

"Our membership has doubled over the past two years," said Stuart, who quit freelance writing to start her business, Portraits in Words. "Everyone is just really busy."

Kahn has produced video and books for clients ranging from the great-granddaughter of African slaves to Hollywood celebrities. She interviewed Holocaust survivors for the Survivors of the Shoah project spearheaded by film director Steven Spielberg.

That high-profile job brought plenty of other work, she said.

"One woman hired me as a surprise for her husband," Kahn said. "I interviewed his parents, who were Holocaust survivors, and did a book for him. He said he sat up all night crying because there were so many things his parents never told him."

The real adventurers, like Antonetti, go it alone.

He hadn't thought about a memoir until he reconnected last year with a high school buddy who is a writer, Antonetti said. As they shared what had happened to them through the years, the friend encouraged Antonetti to get his story in print.

Always gung-ho, Antonetti sat down in August 2003 and started writing. He tapped out the chapters on a home computer.

"I made it a job," he said. "I'd get up in the morning and work on it for 10 to 12 hours a day and think nothing of it. And when I wasn't writing, I was thinking of sequences and making notes."

The resulting paperback, published in May, tells how Antonetti escaped starvation and several brushes with death as a child in wartime Italy. On the day in 1954 that he and his family arrived at Ellis Island, his mother insisted that he smuggle 30 feet of dried Italian sausage in his pants.

"I guess she thought America did not have any, so she brought her own," Antonetti wrote. The 10-year-old boy was so loaded down that he could barely walk, and before long, he was pulled out of line by an immigration officer, Antonetti wrote.

"In no time, the inspector was pulling sausage out of me and another guard came to see what was going on," he wrote. "We attracted a small crowd of guards and they could not believe that the links kept on coming."

Luckily, Antonetti's ensuing years in America were less humiliating as he married his high school sweetheart, worked for Mack trucks and prospered. But his book doesn't shy away from trauma, recounting his first wife's fatal car crash and his children's struggles with money and marriage.

Writing about his life was a healthy experience, he said.

"It was hard work, but I feel better for it," he said. "It's like going to confession. You spit all this stuff out and then you feel better."

The discipline of writing deters many would-be memoirists, Stuart said. Deciding where to start can keep people from trying, she said.

But they shouldn't give up, she advised. Her biggest regret is that she didn't get around to recording her own mother's stories before she died unexpectedly in her 70s, Stuart said.

"I thought she'd be around for at least another 15 years," she said. "It's on your list somewhere, but you don't quite get to it, and then they are gone."

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