An important principle to consider when working with any informant is reciprocity. When you interview someone, you're asking them to give up their time and their information / story. What do they get out of it? If the person is also keen on studying the family's history, the relationship can be different -- you are peers working on a collaborative effort. If they aren't eager collaborators, you are asking them for a big favor: first, to give up their time and energy to you when they could be doing something else, and second, to reveal things that they may not want to talk about. Consider that they may have good reasons that they haven't talked about those things before. They should have the right to refuse to answer any question that they don't feel like talking about. Oh, and speaking of time -- limit your sessions to an hour or so.
One way to learn good interview techniques is to study other interviewers. What can you learn from interviewers who don't work in the genealogical field? Some of my favorites:
- Craig Ferguson. Most of the guests on talk shows are making the circuit because they are promoting a new book or movie, and they get asked the same questions over and over again. Sometimes you'll see people with a set of cards that contain talking points. Craig's first act in every interview, after greeting the guest, is to rip up those cards and throw the pieces away like confetti. Craig's often a terrible interviewer,
but what I take away from his opening gimmick is this: Don't bore the guests by running down a checklist of standard interview questions. The standard questions are for your preparation -- they aren't a quiz which the guest has to answer. Craig's act is a symbol that the guest won't be put through the standard interrogation that they'll receive on all the other talk shows.
- Isaac Mizrahi. Isaac's interviews took place in a blank white set and were always done while Isaac and the guest were doing something, like cooking, or making something. Cooking is a fantastic shared experience for studying family history. Going over ephemera, like photos, is another. Instead of going down a boring checklist, the questions can arise naturally from the subjects of the photos. 'What house is this? When did the family live there? What's happening in this photograph?" One activity that would be fun for a family reunion, if you have photos taken at the house where the reunion is taking place, is to create a new photo in the style of the website Dear Photograph. Another might be to have people bring family photos to a reunion and create a 'today' photo with a group posed the same way as the 'yesterday' photo. Another possibility is to watch a show about a historical event, like PBS's American Experience, and then to ask your older relatives to talk about the events in the show as they experienced them. Use the photos, the recipes, the television show as a springboard.
- Charlie Rose. In a recent interview, when Charlie was interviewing a biographer about their recent book, Charlie made the observation that the preparation that he made for an interview was the same process that the historian does when writing a biography. (I think it was the interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin for her book "Bully Pulpit", which is available for viewing online via several different options -- in any case, it's a fun hour and well worth watching for its own sake.) [P.S. just went looking for transcripts of the Charlie Rose show, hoping to find the interview so I could quote the comments where Charlie responded it was the same process he used in preparing for an interview, and I discovered his AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit in which he talks about interviewing his father about his experiences in WWII.]
Don't just dismiss your relatives' favorite stories that they like to tell over and over again. Record those too, with love, because once they are gone, you will miss hearing them tell those stories. But by watching skilled interviewers, you may learn how to ask follow-up questions that will take the conversation beyond the favorite stories and into new territory.
Prepare, listen, and give something back. In twenty years, when you look back on the interview, what would be most satisfying? A list of answers to a bunch of questions that you found on the internet? Or a set of family recipes, a group of photos where you know their significance, and a shared family experience?