Memoir Writing: Preserving Legacies
Danny Verbov interviewed by Rachael Masri, Tirza Deutscher, Deborah Gazit
Key Words: Danny Verbov, memoir writing, Holocaust survivors, Rev. Leslie Hardman
Everyone has a story to tell. Memoir writer and editor Danny Verbov has developed his career around recounting personal life stories, and preserving them forever. He calls his profession a “labor of love,” writing stories of mostly elderly people, including Holocaust survivors, who want to commemorate their lives in a special book full of photos and memories, which family members can cherish for future generations.
As a British ex-pat living in Israel, Verbov began this vocation after working in editing, translating and copywriting. He decided to write a memoir of his grandfather, the late Rev. Leslie Hardman, in honor of the first anniversary of his death. Hardman was a British Army Chaplain who was stationed in Europe when the concentration camps were liberated. After working on his grandfather’s memoir, Verbov was commissioned to write similar memoirs for acquaintances. The work is time intensive, involving extensive interviews, transcript writing, editing, and organization, but he enjoys the meaningful work and the finished product.
Clients have been pleased, and via word of mouth, more and more people have been seeking Danny’s skills. His website (http://dannyverbov.com/) offers many testimonials of satisfied clients. The memoir writing process involves a consultation, interviews, transcription of the interviews, re-organization of the material, the addition of photos and graphic designs, proofreading, and then the final publishing. The entire process can take up to 6-10 months and sometimes more, involving hundreds of hours of work.
In this interview, Danny shares his expertise on memoir writing, from the practical considerations to the business aspects. He offers wise advice to potential writers in the field, to simply “learn, listen, and enjoy what you do.” The rest is history.
Q: How did you get into this field? What is your prior work experience?
I was involved in translation, editing and copywriting, mainly working with marketing texts (brochures, websites, etc.) when a neighbor approached me and asked me if I would like to translate her father’s Holocaust memoirs from Hebrew to English. I jumped at the chance and was fascinated by the content and the process. After a number of sessions with the author – in which I asked for greater clarity and explanation, and triggered more memories – we were able to add many more pages to the English version. It was also a more satisfying feeling than finishing one of my usual smaller translation projects.
After that, two clients asked me to edit/rewrite other people’s life stories that had been poorly written by volunteers. I had always wanted to write a book about my grandfather while he was alive but – as is so common among families – we never got around to it, it was never a priority and so it never happened. My grandfather was Rev. Leslie Hardman, a British army chaplain who went into Bergen-Belsen two days after its liberation, on April 17, 1945. He was only there for a few months but what he saw and did there shaped his life after the war as a community rabbi in London, England. He died, at the age of 95, after 71 years of marriage!
(Please note: it is always preferable to “capture’ the subject before they pass away. There is somuch more clarity, answers to questions, etc. and the process also gives them the pleasure, pride and peace of mind knowing they have left their stories and wisdom for their future generations.)
At any rate, I aimed to produce a book about him in time for his first Yahrzeit. I had no idea what I was doing, having never produced a book before from start to finish but, thank G-d, it all came together and we had it ready in time. Once that was done, a friend asked me to do something similar for his father, also a Holocaust survivor, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I now not only write and edit but manage the whole book production process from start to finish, particularly for beautifully designed, coffee-table-style family legacy books. You can see samples here http://dannyverbov.com/samples/
Q: How much familiarity with the specialty area in which you work did you have prior to your first project?
Not too much, as you can tell from my previous answer. I knew how to write and edit, I knew how to structure a text but in terms of interviewing, specific techniques and the whole book production process, I learned on the job.
Q: What do you remember about that first book?
The translation and rewriting jobs were not really overwhelming but the book about my Grandfather was, yes, because as I said I didn’t really know what I was doing. But that was a labor of love so I was able to overcome all the obstacles. I think that’s a great attitude to take on all these kinds of projects. I have found that once one gets to know these people (in my case generally 80+ year olds from the Holocaust/post-Holocaust generation) every project becomes a labor of love. One can learn so much from these individuals and I believe there is so much value – for every family – in recording memories for generations to come
Q: Describe your work: How do you obtain the material and what do you do with it?
After a family has expressed interest in writing their grandparents/parents’ stories, I usually meet with them and assess the parameters of the job. We discuss the outline of the story they want to tell, the values they want to transmit and we plan a series of interviews (usually 6-8 of about 2 hours each) in which they give me the material they have (verbally and also photos, documents, etc.). If necessary, I may do some basic background research on the historical period, the place, etc.
I record the interviews and send them off to be transcribed. I then edit and fashion the transcripts into a cohesive and compelling text, checking with a family representitive regarding things that are still unclear: facts, name spellings, etc., before giving a final text to the graphic designer to shape into a book.
Q: Do you work with other professionals on a job?
Certainly. Sometimes there’s a camera crew involved if the subject wants a film as well as a written document, a transcriber, graphic designers, photographers (if the family doesn’t have good enough book quality photos), printers, binders, etc.
Q: Please describe the editing process– including the revision and second pass. Do you have a specific method that works for you?
As I said, I start by editing the interview transcripts, taking out what I judge to be irrelevant (never deleting the full transcripts thoughJ) and organizing the text into a usually chronological, flowing order. I am also aware of the target audience, usually the person’s family, so I aim to include stories and anecdotes that are not only humorous or mythological in the family but also have an educational or value-oriented message for future generations.
As I go through, I note down inconsistencies, things that are not clear or confusing, and write down the questions I need to ask in order to make everything make sense.
Once I have completed this part of the project (which can take anything from 2-4 months – I find I can only write/edit effectively for 2 hours a day on a particular project like this) I send the edited text back to the family for their comments and answers. If they are cooperative they will respond and even add and change things and I generally try and accommodate what they want.
There is a certain back and forth until we reach a text that I can send to the designer and even then there are always more questions and final proofs that I send to the family and sometimes also to an outside independent editor/proofreader, who can read the text fresh for the very first time. When you’re so intimately involved with a text – and have read it and re-read it numerous times – it’s easy to gloss over and miss the errors.
Q: Are there any specific areas of editing which you feel are imperative to be an expert in before undertaking editing work?
Fluency and competency in the language are a given – vocabulary, syntax, punctuation, etc. And of course attention to detail and a good eye. But just as important as the technical side is sensitivity to the person and the subject matter and an understanding of the purpose of the text and the intended reader. This can express itself in editing by leaving in the particular speech patterns of the subject even though they might not be grammatically correct, maintaining a certain style that may not be your usual one and substituting long and unusual words with simpler alternatives.
Awareness of historical or other context is always useful as is reading in your particular genre.
Q: What advice can you give to potential editors in this field?
Not particular to this field but listen, learn and enjoy what you do. If you enjoy what you do it will come through in the writing. Check facts. Don’t trust spellcheck. Get to know and understand the writer if possible. Try and always sleep on a text – more than likely you’ll find something to improve in the morning.
Q: Regarding the business aspect of the job, could you describe how you determine the pay you receive. Is it per word, per time involved, per article, etc?
In this field I work mainly on full book projects, which have a different price structure. In general though, editing and translation is priced per word or per page (250 words usually in the target language.) If it’s an article, then usually per article. Sometimes you can determine the price, sometimes the client.
In my experience it is not a good idea to bill by the hour, because 1) neither party is clear how long the work will take 2) the writer/editor will usually err on the side of the client 3) it’s annoying to keep a record and 4) the client could suspect that you’re adding extra time.
Q: How do you find/receive jobs? Do you advertise your services, and if so, where?
Best is always word of mouth, referrals. Do a good job, keep to deadlines, respect your client and be a pleasure to work with.
I have a website and I’m constantly working out how to attract more clients. Lots of trial and error. I think you have to decide on a target audience and find out where they hang out and what they read and try and get in there, either through advertising, articles, networking, speaking, etc.
There is also the ITA (Israel Translators Association) which is a professional organization offering workshops, an annual conference, online forums and connections with others in the field. There are many editors who are members too. Plenty of online and overseas forums and job sites too.
Q: At the end of the day, what’s the most satisfying part of the job for you?
You might think I would say the most satisfying part was seeing the first book come off the press but it’s not, although it does give me a lot of pleasure, as does seeing the client open their book for the first time. The most satisfying thing – for me at least – is to sit with these people and learn from their experience and wisdom. Because if we don’t learn the lessons from the past, how are we going to make our future better?
You can contact Danny at firstname.lastname@example.org or 052-3115682