How exciting, Sonia, that you have such a delicious interview
coming up! Most of us don't get so lucky.
Having done lots of interviews for familly and regional
history, I want to tell you that five years from now you'll probably
look back and wonder, "Why didn't I ask this question?" Going into
any interview, just know that You Won't Get It All. Do your best to
relax. You're already preparing by taking a descendancy chart with
you, and asking her to correct it or to build on it. That can lead
you into all kinds of directions. And the family photographs might
be a great way to provoke her interesting memories.
Take a little tape recorder with you, so you won't have to
strain so hard to remember everything. Ask her permission to use it.
She may not want you to; ask again when you go back a second time.
If she's hesitant, tell her that you can't remember stories, nor take
notes fast enough to really get the details, which is true. Check it
beforehand, to see that the tape works and that you're familiar with
how to push the buttons. (You'd be surprised how many people buy a
tape recorder just for this kind of thing, then try to understand how
to work it in front of the captive interviewee.) Take lots of
batteries with you.
Also take a notebook, like a stenographer's notebook, not to
take lots of notes as she speaks, but to ask her how to spell
surnames or place names. My Bowles married into a number of
German-surname families in south Texas---whew! Talk about mangled
surnames! All I've had to go on, in researching them, are distant
relatives sitting around a kitchen table, trying to remember what the
name was, or might have been, or what it sounded like. That's no
help in trying to find records in the local courthouse. Don't be
afraid to apologize about interrupting her, but do interrupt, so that
you get the spelling right, as best she knows it.
If you *have* to make the interview a one-shot deal, then you
do. But if you can, do your best to break it up into short
interviews, such as no longer than a half hour. Or even shorter.
Elderly folks get tired quickly. My grandmother never tolerated more
than ten minutes at a time. My second cousin, at 93, would do about
five minutes. But if you're prepared with the questions that you
really want to know, you can cover a lot of ground in five minutes,
and then ask if you can come back tomorrow or the next day.
Decide whether you want her to 1.) give you a bare-bones
accounting of who was married to whom, where they went, how many
children they had, who they married, etc., or 1.) tell you stories
about other people she knew in the family, but not her own (some
folks refuse to get personal), or 3.) or tell you her own life
story. You may want all of that, but she might get tired of doing
this work, so think about what's most important to you.
She may be like a great many people I've interviewed, who
have a set piece that they want to perform, and that's all they want
to do. You just have to be gracious about what they're willing to
do. What you want, and what they want may be very different, once
you get started. There are a lot of people out there who are
delighted and flattered that you're asking them to talk about family
history, and they may start with the couple who you're interested in,
and then switch to the vast non-Boles side of the family, which has
nothing to do with you at all. And that's all they can talk about.
That's all they've thought about, and all they've wanted to talk
about. She's going to move the conversation where she wants it to
go, and sometimes there isn't a lot you can do about it. Some people
don't want questions; they just don't have ears when you ask them.
They want to talk about the tales they've carried, which are not the
ones that pertain to your tree. That's the way that goes...
If she does want to talk about her own life, especially life
in her beginnings, and her parents and her older siblings, and how
they hung their clothes on the bushes to dry and all kinds of details
about their daily lives, fine. If you want to know about *her*
specific life and how it intersected with the many other Boles in
your tree, she may want to leave out lots and lots of information
that you're interested in. Because she doesn't want to talk about
the baby who died or her fiance who died during the big influenza
epidemic. But do go ahead and ask the sensitive questions, as
delicately as possible. You'll find that if people don't want to
talk about them, they'll act as if they never heard the question, and
they'll talk about something else. You can think up another way to
ask the question later, and if they've come to terms with it in the
meantime and trust you with their feelings, they may answer it. Or
This brings up the point: if you want to know if she knows
why your great-grandfather committed suicide, put that kind of
question last. Rank the questions you're really eager to have
answered by how hard they are to talk about. Begin by asking when
her birthday is and where she was born, and why her parents were in
that town at the time she was born and what her parents did for a
living at that time. Those questions are usually pretty neutral,
emotionally. You never know until you ask. You might think that
asking what she did for a living is a neutral question, but I didn't
find out that my grandmother was running a bookie operation until
after she died.
Agree to meet in a place that's comfortable for her. This is
usually in her home, but not always. Even if it's in the person's
home, you hope that ten small children aren't continually running
through the house. One person I interviewed insisted on having the
interview in her home---with the police scanner talking. Even if the
place looks serene and quiet, such as a fairly isolated park with a
fountain or beside a river, try not to do the interview there.
Fountains and rivers produce white noise, and will make the tape hard
to understand when you play it back. Restaurants are also fairly
impossible because of background noise. A quiet room in someone's
home is ideal.
You might ask, somewhere along the line, who was in the
service, when and where and which branch and where were they sent to,
as you can find out quite a bit of military history surrounding them.
And ask if anyone in the family was a minister or priest or rabbi or
especially religious or belonged to a church, as there are often very
good religious records to be found with your ancestors' names on them.
Oral histories and family histories are something that
thousands if not millions of people are interested in doing these
days, so there are lots and lots of good books on questions to ask
and how to start. Large cities will have oral histories conducted
through their historical societies, or colleges and universities will
teach students how to conduct them through their history departments.
Regional parks departments will be training docents for their
historical sites, and will have local volunteers who know how to do
oral histories. Remember the Foxfire books? Grade school and high
school students and Boy and Girl Scouts often have oral history
projects. So try Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble online (or in
real stores), and college bookstores for related books to use.
My favorite that I always recommend is "How to Tape Instant
Oral Biographies," by William Zimmerman. Anyone can understand this
book and be off and running---it's equally applicable for fourth
graders and college students and a rabid genealogist like me. It's
published by Guarionex Press, 1988, small paperback, not very
expensive, though the price isn't on the cover. ISBN 0-935966-00-5.
A number of oral history courses have used it and I have its fifth
printing. But if you can't find it call William Zimmerman at (212)
724-5259. (Wm. Zimmerman, Guarionex Press, Ltd., 201 W. 77th St.,
NY, NY 10024.)
Bob Greene's book is a good one, too.
One that helps you decide the scope of the book you want to
write is, "Writing Family Histories and Memoirs," by Kirk Polking.
Better Way Books, paper, $14.99. ISBN 1-55870-394-2. It also has
I know that this last book isn't the one you want right now,
Sonia, but it's another favorite full of interviews of people over
80. Eliot Wigginton, of Foxfire fame, edited the interviews done by
high school students for the Bicentennial celebration, carrying on
the wisdom, humor, warnings, memories of our elders. There are
interviews of individuals from all kinds of ethnic and income groups
and regions. It's a wonderful read---witness some of the exemplary
"I could just see myself hanging on top of that pole."
"I've been Jim Crowed."
"We started walking all around the mountain collecting snails."
"I wish I could give my son a wild raccoon."
"We would look through thick catalogues and wish for this and that."
"I used to swing on the telephone wires."
"Don't come in here with your mouth poked out."
You can hear the people talking; Studs Turkel couldn't do
better. It's entitled, "I Wish I Could Give My Son a Wild Raccoon,"
ed. by Eliot Wigginton, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976. You might be
able to find it in a used book store, or online via Alibris. ISBN
Good luck with your interview! Let us all know how it's going.
Very best wishes,
Date: Sun, 27 Jul 2003 12:26:15 EDT
Subject: how do I interview someone?
I met a fascinating woman this past Thursday. Julia Constance Young is a
descendant of my Boles family line and is my second cousin, once
removed. Julia is
100 years old (she says), although the way she said it, she might have meant
she's going to be 100 in November. In any case, her mind is sharp and she is
eager to talk about the Boles/Bowles family line.
Due to Julia's advanced age, it's obviously imperative that I gather as much
information as I can, as quickly as I can. I'm sure there are others on this
list who will be interested in information that I gather. With that in mind,
can anyone give me suggestions of questions I may wish to ask Julia?
I was told by the Andrew County (Missouri) Historical Society a couple of
years ago that I really should talk to Julia, that she's a repository of great
information and loves to visit with people. I didn't follow up then
but am doing
so now. I'm sure someone out there can give me some guidance as to the
questions I should ask.
I am going to take a copy of the family genealogy as I know it, and let her
make additions and corrections, which I can follow up on. I also am taking a
notebook so that if she wants to write down any stories or information when I'm
not there, she can do so. I also plan to visit sometime this week with a
family photo album, hoping that will spark stories that might not otherwise
immediately come to mind.
Due to her advanced age, I think she's likely to know some of the stories of
things that had occurred in the late 1800s, things that maybe nobody else in
this family line would know. I am hopeful that the interviews will not only
bring pleasure to her, but be of value to us as genealogists.
Any suggestions as to how to proceed with the interviews will be greatly