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Memoir Interviewing

Memoir interviewing is an integral piece of research. Although you may assume you can depend on your memory when you write your lifestories– memory isn’t always as reliable as you want it to be. Interviews with relevant family members and friends can supplement your memory and broaden the perspective of your memoir.

How To Prepare For Memoir Interviewing

1) Select whom you will interview. If your time is limited, or your family is large and offers many choices, it will be all the more important to identify a manageable number of knowledgeable relatives and friends to interview.

For example, Aunt Mary tends to talk endlessly–all afternoon if you let her. Her conversation seems to have little content as she wanders from one topic to another. Aunt Jane, on the other hand, is an incisive person whose intuition is always informing her about what things mean. Her many observations and reminiscences are usually interestingly told. Furthermore, they are consonant with your other research.

Can there be any doubt whom you will interview first–Aunt Mary or Aunt Jane? (Being nice to lonely Aunt Mary is a work of charity and it should not be confused with collecting information to write your stories.)

Another example: Cousin Luigi married into your Irish family. He is a dear old man and you love him very much, but his tales about his Italian family are irrelevant to understanding the history of your Irish ancestors. Cousin Luigi’s are not the accounts you need to collect.

2) Ascertain who else is likely to want to participate in the interview–and decide whether that person may or may not sit in. An unexpected, or inappropriate, person can blur the focus of your interview.

For instance, your aunt by marriage, sitting in on the interview, may find what you are doing so interesting she begins to talk about her life experiences and, in doing so, may not allow your uncle (your mother’s brother) much time to talk about his childhood relationship with your grandparents and your mother. Your aunt’s experience, however interesting, will not provide the information you need to understand your grandparents and parents.

Conversely, don’t dismiss other people’s input too quickly. Their experiences can be valid for your family, too. By listening carefully to an articulate person talk about a general experience, you might learn a lot about your own family. For example, you are interviewing your mother’s brother, and his wife (your aunt by marriage) begins talking about her family. It’s likely you didn’t know these people she’s talking about and their lives don’t fit into your story. As your aunt shares her stories, however, you realize how many of them are about work in and life around the mining towns of eastern Ohio and western West Virginia in the 1930s. Your family’s experience in similar mining communities across the state line in Kentucky are not likely to differ widely from her family’s. Use some of the information provided by your aunt-in-law to flesh out your family’s story (“In those days, many Polish miners used to…”). But do not get sidetracked on her niece’s love story. At that point, the conversation is slipping into gossip and you risk losing the focus of your interview (but this story of a Polish niece in love with an “American” miner may reveal nuggets about relations between immigrants and “Americans” that could additionally round out the story of your immigrant ancestors).

3) Sometimes, an observer at an interview can provide important coaching. “John, why don’t you tell about the time your mother confronted the company store manager?” or perhaps the other person will offer: “But, wasn’t that before 1937-we were still living on Maple Street then. It wasn’t until a month after Edward was born in January of 1938 that we moved to Elm Street!”

In fact, if you know of a person who might be good at prodding a significant but reluctant interviewee, ask that person to be present. But, again, be clear about what you are asking this person to do. “I’ll be interviewing Uncle Alec about his childhood. Would you come along to encourage him to share his information with me? You might remind him of parts of the story you know when you notice he’s overlooking them.”

Clear communication and thoughtful preparation of your goals for each interview will heighten your chances of success when memoir interviewing.

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2 Responses to Memoir Interviewing

  1. Gay Finkelman July 22, 2013 at 3:59 PM #

    This article on interviewing and preparation was excellent. I am reminded of how important it is to keep in mind whether a kernel of information, planned or a spontaneous comment just may have value for the memoir even if not directly tied to the specific person being interviewed. Also, asking someone else to act as a prompter on your behalf to cull every worthy morsel is a great idea.

  2. Denis Ledoux July 29, 2013 at 2:46 PM #

    The Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman wrote someplace that he needed to know what sorts of flowers the characters who were arguing in the livingroom had planted along their cellar wall if he was going to shoot the scene well. He added that most often the audience did not have to see the flowers but he did. Writing is often that way—requiring much more info than goes into the story.

    Keep writing.

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