Going the distance

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

Our ancestors had two options when they wanted to interview relatives about the family history. They either did it in person, or they relied on the Pony Express driver to get their letters full of questions safely to their destinations. Fortunately, you live in the 21st century, so you have better options when you need to conduct interviews long-distance. With the convenience of modern communications, you have no excuse for waiting to squeeze each and every genealogical detail out of your relatives — whether they live around the corner or across the continent.

And let’s face it: You probably don’t have the time (or money) to hop planes from Uncle Albert in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to cousin Phoebe in Scranton, Pa., to Great-aunt Louise in Snowflake, Ariz., in your quest to capture family stories. But you still can cull their memories — without even leaving the city limits. We’ll take a look at five ways to conduct interviews from afar, with hints for doing so successfully. But before we do, let’s review some of the highlights from Oral History Interviewing 101, since they apply to all types of interviews.

Oral history basics

Your first task is to consider potential interviewees. While older relatives will be your priority and the best source for stories, don’t neglect your younger relatives. They’ve likely heard their elders recite family stories, too. Other good interview candidates include your parents’ and grandparents’ friends and neighbors, the town historian, or simply someone from the same generation, same ethnic background and same area as your relatives. As your pool of possible subjects grows, so does the likelihood that you’ll need to conduct long-distance interviews: All your sources probably won’t live within driving distance from home.

Next, you need to ask yourself a question: “What is the purpose of conducting an oral history interview with this particular relative?” Is your goal to get “just the facts, ma’am, nothin’ but the facts”? Or is it to learn about what life was like for that person? We genealogists do have to start with the basic facts — the who, when and where. But keep in mind that you’ll probably find all of that information in a record somewhere once you begin research. What you won’t find in the records are people’s thoughts, feelings and motivations — the why, how and what These arc the intangibles that make a person unique, and they’ll go to the grave when that person dies — unless someone records them. Aunt Enid’s birth certificate and Great-grandpa’s pension record, however; will be around long after we’re all gone.

In Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life (Story Press), Philip Gerard reminds us of three facts about human nature that apply to conducting interviews:

1. People love to talk about themselves to someone who seems genuinely interested.

2. If someone talks long enough, he or she will inevitably tell you something (he or she] didn’t intend to tell you.

3. People have a strong aversion to long pauses in a conversation … [so) without [your] even asking a question, they will usually talk to fill the silence.

My favorite book for preparing questions to ask in oral history interviews, whether in person or long-distance, is William Fletcher’s Recording Your Family History: A Guide to Preserving Oral History Using Audio and Video Tape (Ten Speed Press). This book is the best guide I’ve found, and you can track down a used copy at online and brick-and-mortar bookstores. Fletcher offers hundreds of questions to help you capture family stories that will likely be lost if they’re not recorded. The book’s chapters are broken down by the life cycle and specific national events as they relate to the everyday person: family history, childhood, youth, middle age, old age, narrator as parent, grandchildren, historical events, general questions, unusual life experiences and personal philosophy and values. Fletcher also suggests special questions for interviewing Jewish, black and Hispanic relatives. Other guidebooks, such as Emily Anne Croom’s Unpuzzling Your Past, 4th edition (Betterway Books), provide similar questions, but if you can latch onto a copy of Fletcher, too, you’ll have a broad variety of prompts to use.

Long-distance reminiscence

OK, now that you’ve prepared your laundry list of prompts, how do you put them to use? Let’s look at five possibilities for interviewing your relatives when you can’t be there in person:

1. Telephone: Since people do love to talk about themselves, interviewing by telephone is the next-best thing to doing it in person. These tips will help ensure your phone interview is successful:

? Write or call ahead to set up a good time for the interview.

? Know the saying “Don’t call us, we’ll call you”? Make this your motto, and always call your interviewee, not vice versa — if he has long-distance charges on his mind, he may keep his answers short or cut off the conversation abruptly.

? Have your questions prepared, but don’t be afraid to deviate if the person you’re interviewing takes you in a different direction.

? Send questions in advance, so the person can think about the answers. Something you ask may trigger a memory of a photograph or family artifact that the relative may want to refer to during the interview.

? Send in advance copies of any photographs or documents you want your relative to discuss,

? If possible, record the telephone interview by turning on an answering machine or getting a phone recording device from an electronics store.

? Keep the interview to about an hour. Unless both parties have hands-free earpieces, someone’s sure to wind up with sore ears. That can lead to crankiness, and you won’t get the results you expected. Remember: You always can schedule a follow-up phone conversation after you’ve had time to review your notes and absorb what your relative has told you.

? Don’t be afraid of silence after you ask a question. Give the relative time to think, and remember Gerard’s words about how people usually talk to fill silences.

2. E-mail: Although e-mailing questions to a genealogy cousin or relative is a great way to conduct an interview, consider whether or not the person is a decent typist — if not, this method of responding might be quite a hassle. Even though most people have joined the electronic age, plenty of folks still use the two-finger method to communicate from their keyboards. If that’s the case for your interview subject, you won’t get detailed answers. It might be better to e-mail the person and ask if she’d prefer being interviewed by e-mail or in a telephone call (at your expense). Even if she chooses e-mail, remind her that if typing responses is burdensome, you can always call. Remember to send copies of photographs or documents — either by traditional mail or as an e-mail attachment — to trigger memories and stories. (Before you attach any files to a message, though, check to see if your recipient has any limits on the size of incoming messages, and let her know the attachments arc coming — fear of viruses may lead her to delete the files without even opening them.)

3. Postal mail: I know it’s hard to believe, but many older people don’t have computers or e-mail, so you may have to rely on traditional mail if a phone interview isn’t possible. Along with questions and copies of photos and documents, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for your relative to return his responses. Allow plenty of room on the page for each question, and if possible, use lined paper, putting questions that require longer answers on a full page. And don’t expect a quick response. If the elderly relative has arthritis, it may be difficult to write, and that person may need to find someone to help answer the questions. In your cover letter, explain what you’re doing and offer to call if writing responses is a problem.

4. Self-taping: If your relative has a tape recorder or video camera, that person may be willing to tape him- or herself talking. Once again, send your questions and copies of any photographs and documents, so your interviewee knows what you want and won’t feel so self-conscious just talking about whatever comes to mind. Offer to pay for not only the postage to send you the tape, but also for the tape itself.

5. Surrogate: For some relatives, it’s just too much trouble to respond to all those questions in writing or to tape themselves. They may be in a nursing home or have health problems that make even telephone interviews difficult or impossible. Can you find someone in the area who’d be willing to conduct the interview for you, say, another relative, a nursing-home volunteer or someone from the local historical or genealogical society? If so, you can send questions and so forth to your “proxy” and ask him to tape the conversation. Remember: Everyone’s time is valuable, so offer to compensate your surrogate, even if it is a relative.

Questionable manners

No matter which method you choose, observe these rules of oral history etiquette:

? Put the person at ease. If you’re quizzing relatives you’ve grown up with and know well, they may already feel at ease talking to you. Some might he stubborn, however, regardless of how well you know them, and won’t easily open up to your questions. Begin by getting them to talk about something they like, such as a favorite hobby or TV show. Tell them that they don’t have to answer all your questions. If a personal question makes someone feel uncomfortable, let her know that it’s OK for her to tell you she’d rather not answer it.

My aunt was one of those reluctant interviewees. She dreaded coming for a visit because she knew I wanted to interview her. By the second day, however, she informed her daughter who had also come for the visit, “You’ll have to find something to do to entertain yourself. Sharon and I are going to do more interviewing because this is important, and we have to get this done.” My aunt had been worried I’d be asking for names, dates and places, which she couldn’t remember that well. But once she saw I wanted stories about her life and her memories of her parents and grandparents, she relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed telling me.

It’s easy to reassure interviewees when you’re speaking over the phone. When the questions are delivered on paper or via e-mail, however, you can’t gauge your subject’s reaction — and you don’t want to risk someone changing his mind because your queries touched a nerve. So for written interviews, emphasize in your cover letter or at the beginning of your question list that your subjects should answer only the questions they feel comfortable discussing. If you know certain questions are sensitive, try explaining why you want to know, rather than asking point blank. You might even follow up with a brief telephone call or e-mail to head off any confusion about your intentions.

To that end, always keep e-mail correspondence straightforward: We tend to be casual in e-mail messages, so remember that on screen, jokes and quips might not come across the way you intended. Don’t be too formal, though — you don’t want your relative to feel that the interview’s a chore.

? Gain the person’s trust. For distant relatives you might not know that well, you may need to gain their trust before they’ll open up. Even though you’re supposed to be the interviewer, begin by sharing information about yourself and your interest in family history. Plan to do more than one interview. The more they get to know you, the more they will open up.

? Keep interviews short. As I mentioned earlier, keep phone interviews to about an hour to avoid a crushed and sore ear. When interviewing by e-mail, regular mail, self-taping or a surrogate, you’ll feel a strong urge to ask everything you can think of all at once. Resist that urge — you can always arrange for further interviews later. Pick about a dozen questions to begin.

? Remember to listen. As you conduct an interview by phone, ask a question, then wait to hear the response. Don’t interrupt to clarify a point or ask another question; make a note of the item and come back to it. And never correct the interviewee. Even though you may have a document that you know is accurate, let your relative tell you the way he or she remembers the event. Just note the discrepancy.

In a face-to-face interview, you’d show interest in what the narrator is saying by nodding, using appropriate facial expressions, or occasionally saying “uh-huh.” Over the phone, all you have is your voice to let the person know you’re interested and listening. Respond appropriately to what you’re being told.

If you’re doing a written interview, study the relative’s responses for clues and then send follow-up questions. Ask for clarification on people and places. Always remind the person that you can call if answering your questions in writing is becoming troublesome.

In most cases, you shouldn’t have to resort to booking that plane ticket to Saskatoon to get answers. You have a lot of options when it comes to uncovering oral history from a distance, and most people will respond to at least one of these interview formats. So don’t let the family stories fade away just because you can’t conduct an interview in person. Be flexible, and pick the method that’s best for both you and your relative. I guarantee that your ancestors, waiting for the Pony Express to deliver those replies, would envy you.

From the February 2004 Family Tree Magazine