Paula Stahel is a personal historian and the author of Listen Up!: The Art of Interviewing for Personal History, which she self-published in 2013 just in time for the Association of Personal Historians conference, where I purchased a copy. Paula and I are longtime colleagues in APH, where we have served on the board together. Paula served as president in 2008-2009, following service as secretary in 2003-2007, and conference director in 2002 and conference program chair in 2001. I spoke with Paula recently about her book.
Sarah: I’d like to begin by asking you about the relevance of your personal history interviewing technique to people who are writing their own memoirs, as so many readers of True Stories Well Told are.
Paula: It’s important because sometimes we have to verify whether our own memories are accurate. When we’re at work on a memoir, we need to remember that when we’re asking other people about their experiences, we need to be open to different remembrances. We’re not journalists setting out to write a story: They have a preconceived concept of the outcome they want, so they conduct their interviews to support their own angle. Whereas in interviewing family members for our memoirs, we need to approach it by being very open to different experiences from our own.
Sarah: I agree—There will be situations you remember one way that others remember differently—it’s important not to have preconceptions if you interview family members. Next question. Can a memoirist interview immediate family members?
Paula: I personally discourage family members from interviewing their nuclear family. When you’re interviewing within that nuclear dynamic, it’s very difficult to set aside the personal family dynamics to just let the truth come out. We come into it with too much baggage. I stress NOT interviewing a parent, because they’re not going to tell you things. “Even though she’s 60 years old, she’s my little girl, and she shouldn’t know these things.” Whereas, they will be very open with someone who isn’t going to be looking at them across the dinner table at the next holiday.
The dynamic is different when you’re interviewing extended family members. You can talk to an aunt or an uncle in a different way than you can talk to a parent or sibling. Remember, perspectives of extended family members will be different, but just as valid as our own. While interviewing we have to hold your own experiences mum. Interviewing extended family members you can bring unexpected insights. I did a book for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I wrote letters to hundreds of people asking for reminiscences. The letters I got back from my cousins were eye-opening. They remembered my father as being so patient, so good about teaching them, so willing. These words kept coming up. This was not the man I grew up with! The father I knew had no patience, expected us to know how to do things without being taught.
Paula’s book contains excellent advice for interviewers, from what to wear to put your subject at ease, to silent alternatives to sympathetic noises to encourage while avoiding crosstalk. Chapters cover using a pre-interview questionnaire, getting over your own nervousness, scheduling interviews, and how to conduct the interview itself.
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Sarah: Another thing I like about the book is your observation that questions can be TOO open. You wrote,
Remember when you were a kid and some relative you hadn’t seen in months would ask, ‘How’s school?’ That’s an overly open-ended question. What was your answer? Probably, ‘Fine.’ … We give closed-ended responses to questions that are too open.
This has bugged me for years and I couldn’t figure out why until you put your finger on it. How did you come upon your insights on that?
Paula: That came out of doing profiles when I was a working journalist. I learned there are times when closed-ended questions are appropriate, when going for specific information related to the slant of the article. With a memoir or personal history, there’s no slant. The purpose of your questions is to keep people talking.
Sarah: Effective questions have to do with being well-prepared for the interview—having enough knowledge about your subject or narrator to ask questions that open the door and don’t just hang there like ‘how was school today.’
Paula: Remember, it’s not a conversation. A conversation is talking back and forth, each taking a turn. The interviewer’s role is simply to get the other person talking and let that person talk as long as he or she is going to.
Sarah: In your chapter on “Touching a Nerve” you cite research by Marshall Duke, a psychology professor at Emory University, about the “Do-You-Know” scale—I’ve followed that with great interest. His research shows that family stories have a beneficial effect on young people, specifically the “oscillating narrative” that reveals how, through ups and downs, the family sticks together. Children who know these stories have better emotional health and achieve greater happiness. This research gives people a reason WHY to tell the dark stuff. It’s a way of saying, “It’s important, it will have meaning to people who come after me.” If you tell the stories of how you got into trouble and how you got out again, you’re giving strength to the coming generations.
Paula: When we hear people just talk about how wonderful they are and how successful, and everything went right, it also feeds a level of insecurity and depression in the person hearing that, thinking, “Boy, I don’t have it that easy, things don’t come to me like that; he’s lucky, I’m not.” It’s almost detrimental to focus exclusively on the successes.
Sarah: Your final chapter, “Bearing Witness,” also struck a note with me. I recently listened to Denis LeDoux talk about “telling a story that comes out a yes.” That phrase struck me—that it comes out feeling like it had meaning and purpose. Is that what you’re getting at, about bearing witness?
Paula: Yes. Bearing witness is important because we recast our stories when we tell them. With every telling we reshape the memory; we alter our perceptions. When you tell them to someone who is sincerely interested, as a good interviewer is, that interviewer reflects back that you have succeeded. You are not a victim, you’ve survived. You’ve come this far.
When you are being interviewed by someone who is engaged and involved, that person is reflecting back to you, even if she says nothing, that your knowledge has been passed on. It’s not going to die with me. Several years ago at a reminiscence conference I heard Dr. William Randall say something that has just stuck with me. He said, “Everyone needs a good listening to.” It’s the truth. People don’t need a good talking to; they need a good listening to.
Sarah: Let’s wrap up with how you came to publish. I know you’ve been teaching interviewing for several years, so you have had your intellectual property on this for some time. What got you to get it between two covers?
Paula: Paula Yost [a colleague of ours in APH.] She told me she wouldn’t let me teach at another APH conference if I didn’t do it! I’ve taught 8-hour intensives and 90-minute workshops at APH conferences on interviewing. They were jammed. Afterward, people were so enthusiastic. When a number of people said, “You really need to write a book,” I got the message. That’s what started the seed.
Listen Up!: The Art of Interviewing for Personal History can be purchased from Paula’s website.