Photo: Jens Mortensen
You may think you already know everything there is to know about your sister or your father or your crazy curmudgeon of an uncle. Trust me, you don't—as you can easily discover when you get together with them this holiday. All it takes is turning on a voice recorder and asking them to talk about themselves: Drag a relative, any relative, away from the dinner table, and you'll be fascinated by what comes out.
In 2003 I founded StoryCorps, a project that helps families record their loved ones' stories on CD. Over the past four years we've logged more than 15,000 interviews in StoryCorps recording booths across the country, and I've learned that amazing stuff emerges when you stop to ask a relative about his or her life. I've heard a brother's reflections on his family members' reactions when he told them he was gay ("really good," "a bonding moment," "she cried for three weeks"); a mother's memories of what her sixth-grade classroom smelled like during the Depression (everything from Blue Waltz perfume to skunk); a father's account of a time when he was so lonely, he'd get a haircut once a week just to experience human touch. The stories are funny, sad, moving, and sweet; many are filled with "You never told me that!" moments. Yet the storytellers are ordinary people, no different from the relatives you've known all your life.
I did my first oral history interview at my home in Connecticut when I was 11 and my grandparents and two of my grandmother's sisters were visiting for Thanksgiving. I found a tape recorder lying around, set it up, started asking questions—and came away with stories about my grandmother raising her sisters after their parents died in the 1918 flu epidemic and about my grandparents meeting as teenagers and falling in love.
I was a rotten interviewer—constantly interrupting, making idiotic jokes, talking too much about myself. But in the 30 years since then, I've learned a few things about how to do an interview right.
First, pick your person. You might start with the oldest relative, or the one who's meant the most to you, or the family's biggest character. Some will jump at the chance. Others might shy away. With a little nudging and cajoling—tell them you really want to hear their story, and don't be afraid to play the posterity card—they'll likely come around.
Before you begin the interview, get comfortable with your equipment. You don't want to be distracted by technology when you're supposed to be totally focused on listening. If you can, ask someone else to operate the equipment for you so that nothing distracts from the intimacy of the conversation.
Wildly uncomfortable dining room chairs are probably not a good choice, and being in the path of family traffic will be disruptive. Instead, find the coziest, quietest spot in the house; soft surfaces—couches, pillows, rugs—are good for absorbing stray sounds. Close the door. Turn off your cell phone and unplug the landline. Make sure the TV and radio are off. Your ability to tune in completely will help the person you're interviewing open up.