Becoming the Family Storycatcher, part 3: Getting the Story


Photo via Jon Rawlinson via Flickr.

In the first two posts in this series, we discussed how to invite your family member to tell his or her life stories, and how to select a format for presenting their stories. Today, we’ll talk about how to set up the interview environment and conduct the interview in order to best capture your loved one’s narratives. Thanksgiving and the December holidays represent an ideal time to catch the stories of visiting relatives, and these tips will work no matter where you’re conducting the interview – your house, their house, or another place (such as a relative’s house or even a hotel room).

Getting ready on interview day
Once you’ve confirmed a time and location for the interview, review your own schedule so you can plan to start your preparations 30-45 minutes before the designated start time.
If you’re meeting at someone else’s house, ask the host if it’s OK for you to move furniture in order to facilitate conversation or allow proper audio/video recording. Test your camera and microphone placement before your narrator arrives. (And use headphones when you test, to be certain of the quality of your audio output.) Evaluate the recording location for background noise, such as the hum from a nearby appliance or the surprisingly loud “thunk” of the heater kicking on or off.
If other people will be at the recording location besides you and your narrator, explain what you need in terms of privacy and quiet. And make sure all the pets in the household have whatever they need in order to remain calm and quiet!!

Setting your narrator at ease
Many people find it awkward to sit down and just start talking about their life history. This feeling can be compounded if they aren’t used to being recorded. Your job as the story-catching interviewer is to set them at ease – to get them so focused on their stories that they forget they’re in an interview at all!
One way to smooth the path into the interview is to begin with small talk. If you’re able to quietly turn on your recording device, you can start with some conversation about the weather, or how their day has gone so far, then gently move into a series of factual questions that have definitive answers and (important point here) you know your narrator can answer without struggle. It’s always a good idea to get your recorder rolling as early as possible – your loved one may say something remarkable and you want to be able to preserve it right the first time.
Another strategy for reducing interviewee jitters is to share your questions with your narrator beforehand. This allows them to think about what they want to say, and may even prompt them to check on a fact by digging out an old photo album, yearbook, or cache of letters – all of which could yield a trove of fabulous stories for you!

Answers about questions
Becoming a good interviewer takes practice, but it’s a skill that’s easy to learn if you focus on LISTENING to your narrator and adjusting your approach to respond to what they are saying to you in that moment. Here are some tips on how to draft story-igniting questions and how to ask them.

– As mentioned above, start the interview segment with easy factual questions, to get them used to the rhythm of your conversation. Examples of this kind of question could include their year of birth, where they were born, names of the schools they attended, etc.
– Do NOT leap into the “hard stuff” – such as divorce, war experiences, job loss – immediately. That’s a good way to get them to clam up. Ideally, you and your narrator have agreed on a list of topics, and they have seen your question list, so they can feel safe sharing difficult information or recalling painful memories.

Framing questions and answers

If you’ve ever watched Bill Moyers at work on PBS, or listened to interviews conducted by the late radio journalist and oral historian Studs Terkel, you know that how a question is asked greatly influences the quality of answer you will get. Here are a few tips for how to frame your questions to elicit fascinating stories from your narrator.

If you’re recording the interview and don’t want your “interviewer” voice in the recording, you’ll want to ask questions in such a way that interviewee is encouraged to provide a “story frame” for remarks. A story frame simply means that your narrator, in the final product that you are going to produce, will sound as if they are truly telling a story, and not responding to questions.

You should discuss why you’re doing this with your narrator ahead of time. Explain why this is important to you, and let them know you’ll gently coach them if their answers don’t provide the frame.

Here is an example of an unframed versus a framed answer.

  • No frame answer: “We went there in 1932.”
  • Framed answer: “We went to Texas in 1932.”

Probing for detail
Even in the case of stories that your narrator has related to you informally many, many times, they may not remember every detail of the event or time period. For some interviewees, this is upsetting; for others, it’s not that big of a deal. But pre-interview research on your part can help fill in faded memories. Looking up facts such as the date of a marriage, years that your narrator attended a certain school, or some local history related to a geographic setting your narrator may be talking about will both help you prompt them when they’re relating the incident, and give you a rich source to draw questions from.

For topics that you and your narrator want to cover, but for which they struggle to remember some of the fine details, you can employ two strategies to get around the memory issue.

1. Ask them, “How did this make you feel?” Often, feelings about a time period or person or event remain long after the fine details fade in one’s mind.

2. Ask subject how incident fits in the context of their entire life. What lessons did they learn, or what is the significance of this person/time period/event in their life?

Pauses that refresh
Outside of the holidays, a typical family history interview conducted by a professional personal historian typically runs 60-90 minutes. Since you and your narrator may have many other activities you want to pursue this week, and/or you may not have that long a stretch of quiet at your recording location, you may want to break the interview down into a couple of 15-to-30 minute sessions. (Just remember that your narrator’s “costume changes” might need to be explained if you do recordings on different days!)

The pace at which you proceed with the interviews should be determined by your narrator’s energy level. Even for short interviews, 1-2 breaks during a session are fine. Keep a glass of water handy in case they need to take a drink (it helps keep the vocal cords fresh and comfortable, too).

Interviewees often have extra insights on a topic after a break, so it doesn’t hurt to ask as you resume, “Would you like to add anything to a previous answer?”

How to handle regrets

For some interviewees, talking about difficult subjects may create some real emotional upheaval, even if they’re interested in sharing these memories. You may have them come to you after the interview and say they do not want to have that material in your presentation of their story. You can reassure them that this a collaboration between the two of you and that, in the end, it is THEIR story, so they get to determine what gets edited out. But keep the raw tape/notes from your interview — your narrator could just as easily have a change of heart back towards inclusion of that material!

You may also want to reassure them that they will see the edited final product first, before anyone else does, so they can approve how you’ve assembled the material.

Rewarding your interviewee
Talking about one’s life story can be taxing, even for motivated, enthusiastic narrators. If it’s possible, plan something for after the interview that your family narrator will view as a treat. If they’re able, going for a walk together (especially if you’ve been eating all that delicious holiday food!) can shift your mutual perspective and get the blood flowing. Sharing a meal or joining the rest of your clan for informal visiting time or a favorite family activity can reaffirm the context of your story-catching and reconnects both of you with those who have helped make the interview session possible. If there is a small favor you can do for your narrator, this is a good time to do it – it reinforces that you are doing him or her a favor by participating in your project.

 Good luck with family history interviewing this week and in December! In the next installment of this series, which will be posted after the holidays, we’ll explore how to make an interview happen if you and your narrator can’t be in the same place at the same time.

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