Thinking ahead about the past
March 20, 2010 12:09 PM   Subscribe

What should I consider before going to interview my Great Great Uncle?

I'm going to try to go visit my 88 year old Great Great Uncle in two weeks to ask him about as many family stories as he can remember. He lives in a small town about two hours away from my nuclear family who lives eight hours away, so this may be my only chance to talk to him. He doesn't have a computer. After an initial visit, he might be willing to work over the phone with me, but I can't count on that - I don't know how good his hearing is lately.

A) My interest is not genealogy (another family member is researching that end) but on who the people in our family were. Where did our personality traits come from? What were we like on a day-to-day basis? What kinds of questions can I ask to get the mundane details? I've made a list of some questions I want to ask him, by browsing previous threads, looking at Legacy, and looking at Story Corps. Does anyone have any favorite questions? Conversely, there are some things in my family that no one will talk about. Since they don't talk about them, I don't know what they are. Does anyone have any advice on avoiding land mines?

B) Technology - I was planning to write up the stories, with photos. Is this good enough? We have these old reel videos of family members that none of us can watch, because we don't have the machines. I can type as fast as someone speaks. If I *don't* tape record my Great Great Uncle, will we regret it?

Because this might be my only chance to interview my Great Great Uncle, I'd like to think about all the angles so we don't miss anything. Any advice you have will be appreciated by not only me, but by my extended family.
posted by arabelladragon to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you have access to a tape recorder, definitely tape it - there's nothing lost by doing so.

Asking about earliest memories is great. Asking about parents -- like "What one thing did you learn from your mom/dad that has been most valuable?" "What was school like for you?" "What was your first job?" "How did you meet your wife?" Things like that. If he was in the military you probably want to ask about that, however I suggest holding off on that until you cover everything else you wanted or it will be impossible to get off of the old war stories -- which are definitely of interest, but you want to make sure you cover non-war related things too!

If something said sounds like it might be a "land mine" then say something like "What did you mean when you said..." if you want to find out more about it.
posted by thorny at 12:17 PM on March 20, 2010

You can go armed with a whole slew of questions, but try to make your visit all about listening. Don't try to steer the conversation...let it go where it goes. When his stories go in a direction you like, ask follow-up questions, or ask him to expand upon what he's talking about already.

In other words, don't hold an interview, hold a conversation.

I would bring a voice recorder, definitely. It'll free you up to listen, it will keep self-consciousness on his part to a minimum, and it will allow others in your family to hear his stories in his own voice.
posted by xingcat at 12:18 PM on March 20, 2010

Definitely record. It changes the whole situation if you can just be conversational. Typing dictation may not be distracting to you but it will be to your uncle.

Ask about his childhood. What he got in trouble for, how he interacted with his siblings, what special occasions were like, etc. Try for stories about old people he knew when he was young. Ask about the changes he's seen in his life.

If you want info on other family members you might want to bring copies of pictures to ask about. In fact, you may want to bring pictures regardless so you can get names for everyone in them. My family has started a project to identify all the people in the old family photos.

Good luck and don't be upset if you don't cover as much as you'd like. Have fun. If you both enjoy yourselves you'll be more likely to do it again.
posted by irisclara at 1:03 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd definitely bring an audio recorder - it means you'll be listening and talking and not trying to remember, and you'll get to hear the tone and laughter and pauses, bits you'll lose without the audio. Mine was under €100 and picks up conversation very clearly even without a mic, even in a noisy cafe or with ambient sound. If you're typing while talking to him, that has serious potential to distract him, as well as making him constantly aware that you're recording the exchange.

I've done quite a few interviews lately including one with a 93-year-old yesterday (about folklore - other than him finding my accent incomprehensible, he kept telling me he loved getting to talk about old stories and his house growing up, and seemed surprised anyone would drive for hours to have a chat about those things.

If you can bring photos/documents/family tree as a prompt, I would, and I think opening with a specific question lets a conversation grow - maybe asking him about one of his grandparents or uncles or something, if there's someone of interest who isn't so super-close as to be a personal/emotional question straight away. From there, you should get the threads to ask about other people, or life, or how the family is relative to your traits or habits or values. Opening with a broad question, unless the person's a performer, is a great way to end up unnerving yourself and irritating the interviewee.
posted by carbide at 1:04 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have great recordings of my grandfather that he did on his own. Someone in the family went and visited and interviewed him. They ended up returning w/ an easy-to-use recorder for grandpa to use on his own since he showed an interest. He ended up telling his own stories/jokes when he wanted to (he suffered from that old age induced insomnia) or when bored.

If this sounds like something your uncle would be into or capable of consider suggesting it. Dirty jokes in your elderly relatives own voice are quite special.
posted by kanata at 1:28 PM on March 20, 2010

I'm about to do the same thing with my grandparents. I'll be attaching a mic to my iPod (under $40) to record it all in a way that I can easily distribute to the family, via podcast, blog, youtube, facebook, etc.

We have a fairly thorough family tree, so I'll be pointing at the names and asking, "What do you know about this person?" And then letting the stories roll.

I'm also considering videotaping (what an old word :) ), as that's something we can do so easily now.

I'm really glad you asked this question. Would you consider posting an update after the conversation? I'd love to learn from your experience.
posted by Galen at 1:39 PM on March 20, 2010

Record, with video if possible.

I think you may find that what you're doing is not really divorced from genealogy; make sure you share what you get with your relative that's doing the genealogy.

For instance, from an anecdotal note in the genealogical record of our family, I learned that my grandfather had his own band ("orchestra") in the 1950s because a great aunt met her husband at a dance where the "Anthony Doohickie* Orchestra" performed. I also learned that a rift opened up between my dad and his uncle (and therefore all his cousins through that uncle) after a dispute during a pinochle game. These are likely the kinds of stories you will get, and I think they help flesh out the genealogical record.
posted by Doohickie at 2:40 PM on March 20, 2010

It took me a long time to update, just because it took me a long time to think about it.

Interviewing my Great-Great Uncle is part of a larger project that my Grandpa and I have been working on since January. We've been blogging the story of his childhood, Grandma's childhood, and how they met and got married. I've been corresponding with distant relatives to learn more about where the families came from.

With regards to this particular interview with my Great-Great Uncle - I didn't record him. My Great-Great Uncle is not technologically inclined and is resistant to recording. He wasn't bothered by the laptop.

I did bring a scanner. It's too late to identify most of the people in the hundred year old photos (it was his mother who tracked that, and she didn't write names down) but I did get a lot of photos of my Grandmother as a child that the rest of us hadn't seen before.

We did the interview in two stages. We took him out to a buffet and just talked. Then we went back to his house and he started pulling out all the family albums. It didn't work too well to ask him "who's in this picture?" because in most cases he didn't know, and because he'd get too distracted. Splitting stories and photos worked best.

We didn't have to worry about tiring him out. After four hours, I was more exhausted than he was - he would have been happy to keep talking for hours.

Here's what I learned:

1) Several members of the family came, but they had it in their head that it was "my" project and so they were staying "out of it". We should have discussed goals before going, because my mother remembers a lot but didn't speak up much. If I can get back later this summer, I'd ask her to do the "interview" and I'd just focus on recording. I've been learning that getting people in dialogue who know different aspects of a story is more interesting than just one person.

2) Decisions that seemed small at the time (my Great-Great-Great Grandfather deciding to play poker one night and losing the farm, my Great Grandma deciding, as a teenager, to elope, and so on) have effects for many, many more generations than expected. Asking different people about the effects of these decisions has been more productive than asking general questions. This might depend on the goals of a project. I already knew everyone played kick-the-can, but I didn't necessarily know that being a child of divorce in the 30s and 40s meant that you had a job by the time you were eleven or you wouldn't eat, even if child labor was illegal. Since my original goal was to learn *who* people were, having an idea of the big picture and asking about ramifications is a tactic that works pretty well.

The catch is getting the big picture. Lesson 2a) is that there will be lots of backtracking and cross referencing, as more people tell more of the story. One time interviews don't do it. Also, people seem to want to talk about different things on different days.

3) Family wide, I ran into one of the big minefields which is that there are things which the family is happy to discuss but they don't necessarily want it discussed publicly. I'm dealing with it by keeping two stories. It's not a perfect solution. What Grandpa and I are writing is what descendants will read, and it's only one rose-colored view. It's frustrating to be inaccurate, but for the sake of love and harmony it seems to be what we have to do.
posted by arabelladragon at 7:32 AM on May 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

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