Interviewing your relatives is both a simple task and a complex one. It’s simple in that the activity at the heart of the interview—talking to family members—is something you’ve done all your life. It’s complex in that this conversation is a directed one, which you conduct for the purpose of gaining information.

To make things even more complicated, you must also handle a host of difficult personal matters during this interview. Some of your relatives may be reluctant to speak. Some may speak in a curious, roundabout way, evading the very topics you are most eager to explore. Others may seize on forgotten quarrels, and it will be your job to prevent these conflicts from reigniting and overwhelming your work.

But let’s begin at the beginning. When you first decide to interview a family member, plan the conversation in advance. Consider what information you need and what your relative can actually tell you.

Compile a list of questions, and make it a good one. Ask open-ended questions, the kind that elicit long and thoughtful responses. Include alternate questions for when you run into difficulty and backup questions for when you need to explore a topic in greater detail. But be prepared to depart from your list once the interview starts. You never know what’s going to happen.

Begin your interview with small talk. Set a relaxed and informal tone for the conversation and put your subject at ease. When you sense the right time has come, state your purpose and explain what information you’re looking for.

If you are interviewing by phone and recording the interview, ask for your relative’s permission before you begin recording. Asking for permission is not merely a courtesy—in many places, it’s required for law. Ask your relative’s permission every time you record a call, even if recording has become a routine.

Then start asking questions. Give your relative plenty of time to think and formulate each response. In many cases, your questions will draw on ancient memories, and it may take your relative some time to recall the time and circumstances of the episode.

If necessary, prompt your relative by mentioning something you already know about the subject at hand—a name, a place, a date, or the color of some old car. Then wait. See what effect your first prompt has before offering another.

Sometimes the best tactic is to use silence as a prompt. People, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Many feel an obligation to fill dead air. By withholding your own words, you might release someone else’s. If you are interviewing in person, allow a pensive, expectant look to settle onto your face at the moment you lapse into silence.

Once my relatives are warmed up and talking, I generally give them the lead. Within limits, I let them ramble and wander off topic, if that is what they are inclined to do. Serendipity leads to interesting moments, and what I learn at these times may be entirely unexpected.

In some circumstances, I pull on the reins and take firmer control of the interview. If I hear the same story repeated three times in exactly the same way, I’ll ask another question, or repeat one I’ve asked previously. If my relative begins to recite an old grudge, I’ll redirect. If the account simply becomes dry and uninteresting—which rarely happens—I’ll steer the interview in a different direction.

It takes only an hour or two to interview a relative, but the interview has a significance that extends far beyond the conversation itself. Capturing the interview—on paper, tape, or film—is a vital part of realizing the full significance of an interview. Deciding what to do with the information you gain is also of paramount importance. In later posts, I’ll talk about how to record your interviews and what you can do with the information you get from them.

© 2011 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.