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Lessons for Family Historians from Paul Theroux’s "The Trouble With Autobiography"

Biff Barnes

In 2500 rather turgid words on, American travel writer (The Great Railway Bazaar) and novelist (Mosquito Coast) Paul Theroux tells us The Trouble With Autobiography.

He begins with a short account of his own family history, a terse, factual summary of several generations. He then states, “And these 500-odd words are all I will ever write of my autobiography.”

I am sure Theroux didn’t mean for his brief sketch of his family history to be interesting. He was making a point about why he wouldn’t write one of any greater length.

Theroux’s foray through the genre isn’t all that interesting on its own terms, but it does offer a couple of unintended lessons for family historians. Unfortunately, many drafts produced by novice family history writers resemble Theroux’s abbreviated account. They reduce people’s lives to lists of facts, rather than capturing the stories behind the facts.

Let’s examine a paragraph from Theroux’s summary:

My maternal grandparents, Alessandro and Angelina Dittami, were relative newcomers to America, having emigrated separately from Italy around 1900. An Italian might recognize Dittami (“Tell me”) as an orphan’s name. Though he abominated any mention of it, my grandfather was a foundling in Ferrara. As a young man, he got to know who his parents were—a well-known senator and his housemaid. After a turbulent upbringing in foster homes, and an operatic incident (he threatened to kill the senator), Alessandro fled to America and met and married my grandmother in New York City. They moved to Medford with the immigrant urgency and competitiveness to make a life at any cost. They succeeded, becoming prosperous, and piety mingled with smugness made the whole family insufferably sententious.

Just look at the untold stories! His grandfather’s “turbulent upbringing in foster homes’; the “operatic incident’; his grandparents’ meeting in New York City; and, the story of how they made a life. To bring these people to life, a family historian would have to tell these stories. It is the stories that will draw readers into a family history.

Interviews with living relatives and close examinations of family documents provide windows into the family lore that provide the researcher with the stuff of stories. Yet there’s another lesson to be learned from those stories in Theroux’s piece. It’s good to conduct your interviews and research with a degree of skepticism.

Why? Theroux quotes Rebecca West, the English journalist and literary critic, who said, “Everyone realizes that one can believe little of what people say about each other. But it is not so widely realized that even less can one trust what people say about themselves.”

A family historian seeking the truth about her ancestors may need to look carefully into the margins of what they wrote and said about each other and about themselves.

Click here to read Paul Theroux’s The Trouble With Autobiography