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successful memoir interview

8 Tips: How to Have a Successful Memoir Interview

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A successful memoir interview will add depth to your memoir. While you know much about your story, it is always beneficial to gather information from other sources to fill in the gaps. These sources can be formal research on the net or in a library or it can be reviewing letters and journals or talking […]

A successful memoir interview will add depth to your memoir.

While you know much about your story, it is always beneficial to gather information from other sources to fill in the gaps. These sources can be formal research on the net or in a library or it can be reviewing letters and journals or talking with people who know parts of your story.

Here is some guidance on an important step that will ground your memoir. This step involves interviewing people.

In this post, I offer eight tips for making a successful memoir interview as part of your research.

1) For a successful memoir interview, plan enough time to be with your subject. 


Elders may move at a slower pace. Be aware that the fast tempo you take for granted may be exhausting and unpleasant for them. Your elderly interviewee may not have considered some of these memories for some time; it may be disturbing to relive the past. Allow for a “cool down” period—small talk as you put your materials away—that will ease your interviewee back to the present and give her a chance to re-establish her equilibrium. Ask, “Are you comfortable with my leaving now? Is there anything I can get for you before I go?” A phone call later to check in and thank your elder is both kind and comforting.

2) Come to the interview with a list of questions. 

If you prepare yourself carefully, you are more likely to leave with the information you need—and more likely not to forget to ask a crucial question. 

Because you have listed the information you are looking for (what work conditions were in an airplane plant in the early 1950s, what it was like to be a first-generation student attending an Ivy League university in 1960, or how tenure was achieved in the 1970s, etc.), you can keep the interview on track. Toward the end, say fifteen minutes before the time you need to leave, check your list. Usually, most questions will have been answered. Sometimes, however, key ones have not yet been broached, and you ought to focus the remaining time on getting answers to those questions. That’s when you will be very grateful for the list I have encouraged you to prepare. 

3) Be specific with interviewees about what you are looking for.

“I want to know about the first years your parents—my grandparents—were in this country. First, can you tell me the name of the town in Norway they came from?” (Always be thinking of memory jogs. For instance, a map of Norway could be useful. The person might say, “I don’t really remember, but it was not far from Oslo. Oh, yes, there it is on the map! I remember now.”) 

Often, the interview is necessary to fill a specific gap in a story that you already have a lot of information about. While having an interviewee repeat information that you already know is often a waste of everyone’s time, I’d let some wandering occur. In doing so, I am hoping to learn new details to flesh out my story. 

If time is at a minimum, however, be decisive in asking the questions to fill the gaps in your information. 

4) Take notes during the interview. 

Consider recording to preserve the information for later retrieval. However, I find taking notes is more creative for me. It forces me to analyze what I am hearing and leads to further questions. At the beginning of the interview, tell interviewees you need to jot down their answers, but they should not try to interpret the importance you are attributing to various bits of information by the length of time you spend writing them. 

5) Be wary of asking for information that can be answered by a yes or a no.

These questions are called closed-ended and they do not deepen or extend the conversation. 

You: “Did you enjoy working in the mayor’s office?” 

Interviewee: “No.” 

Instead of the above question, which is reasonable but uselessly (for you) answered with a no, you might ask: 

You: “Tell me something you liked about working in the mayor’s office and then something you didn’t like about it.” 

This second example is an open-ended statement. “Tell me about…” cannot be answered by a yes or a no. An open-ended statement forces the interviewee to provide additional information—often very useful information. 

6) Do not provide information or conclusions. 

If you were to say “Those were meaningful years for you!” you might be putting words into the interviewee’s mouth. Her answers may then reflect not what she is thinking but her wish not to contradict you! Instead, ask “Can you tell me what conclusions you have drawn from this experience?” This allows you to know how she interprets her own experience. (Haven’t we all been surprised to find that another person viewed as positive what seemed to us clearly negative—and vice versa?) 

7) Do not rush your interview. 

Tolerate silences and allow time for thinking. During these silences, it is likely that your interviewee could be arriving at new definitions of his experience. Or perhaps he is simply sorting his memories right on the spot. All of this takes time. People who are slow to speak could be shy or simply unused to sharing ideas and memories. 

Here are three techniques to help you keep the interview flowing. These techniques can provide a treasure trove of new information that gives insight into character and action in your family history! 

~ Repeat the interviewee’s last words. This can re-affirm your deep interest and help her feel comfortable. (This is not a summary statement or an observation on your part—it is entirely different.) For instance: 

Aunt Jeanette: “Those were difficult times.” 

You, nodding your head in support: “Mmm. …difficult times.” 

This is the antithesis of saying, “Those must have been difficult times because wages were so low!” When the interviewer provides the “because…,” she is planting information and could really end up quoting herself! 

~ Ask a question based on the interviewee’s last words. 

Aunt Jeanette: “Those were difficult times.” 

You: “How were they difficult?” or “Why do you think they were difficult for you?” 

~ Remain silent after the interviewee has spoken. 

Aunt Jeanette: “Those were difficult times.” 

(Silence—even an awkwardly long one!) 

Aunt Jeanette, who is wondering why you are not speaking, feels compelled to fill in the silence: “Well, those were difficult times because Uncle Hank was a union leader and so he lost his job. It was around that same time that I had a miscarriage. I couldn’t stand all day at the cash register. I was still too weak to go back to work.” 

I have found this “silent treatment” very effective in eliciting information beyond what an interviewee had originally thought to offer. To achieve this effect, however, you must not speak to break a silence as you would in a social situation where the silence might be understood as awkward. Risk awkwardness for revelation! Sit patiently. Do not distract the interviewee with fidgeting or with prompts. Silence will allow her time to synthesize, analyze—and share.

8) End an interview with this question. 

“Do you have anything you want to add to what I have asked?” I always say this, and often the interviewee will share unexpected, and potentially valuable, information. The new material is often prefaced by a statement like, “This may not be important but…” What you get then is often quite interesting, useful, and important.

To see the video for how to have a successful memoir interview, click here. 

The text for this video was excerpted from my book Turning Memories Into Memoirs / A Handbook for Writing Lifestories. For your own copy of this classic, click here.

Good luck writing your stories!

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