Some thoughts about interviewing my Dad

I want the post of my Dad’s story to stand on its own, and reflect on the interview process, here, separately. The thought which looms so large over any other: An interview is probably the single most concentrated way to bring out a ton of “I never knew that” revelations. Especially if the interviewee is a parent. It’s one surprise after another about a person whom I’ve known all my life.

I suppose if I were to look at it statistically, the concentration of surprises per time spent would be pretty dense. In a 2.5 hour conversation, I heard, oh, 8 to 10 “wow!” things. So that comes out to 1 shocker per 15 minutes of interview. YMMV. (My shocker ratio could be way off; when I transcribed the portion I included in the last post, I didn’t listen to the entire interview, so my “Total Surprises = N” count is not accurate.)  There were several snippets from Dad’s youth—a protracted illness, stories of learning Morse code and learning to use firearms, swimming in high school and mathematical prowess in the Navy—those were there all along, but didn’t come up in the day-to-day life while I grew up.

There are two other matters related to the sense of surprise. The first is that a parent is occupied with the now of living and raising kids, and not of stories of days gone by. Then, too, there’s the child’s inclination to think that life begins the day I was born, and life really began at the point where I have conscious memory. Anything prior to that is ancient history (and irrelevant at that.) As one accrues more years, one’s sense of time and history changes. Now that I’m 40-something, I look at a 20-year span in a single breath, and re-evaluate events in the formerly-“ancient past” differently. Now I grasp how I grew up when (for example) the first atomic bomb was recent history—less than 15 years before I was born. I sense that events from the “ancient” past loom large. I’ve also accrued enough years to see my elders as people in their own right. It’s into this context that a childhood illness or facility with Morse code or gun-angle calculation now fits. For the most part, these new revelations are a series of good and welcome surprises. “Oh my gosh, Dad, I had no idea. That is so cool!”

Sometimes, though, the surprise brings up a disconnect. The story as revealed jars against one’s own experience. This Dad is a Math-Whiz story has a bit of that. Until this interview earlier this year, I had only a bare idea that my dad was The Math Whiz, and the initial inkling about it came within this past decade, when my grandfather said something to him in an aside, recalling a possible hiring decision “those people wanted to hire you because you’re so good at math…” and I thought, “he is?!?” His math stayed out of the house, and I didn’t visit his realm of the office. Funny that I should express the surprise ratio as, well, a mathematical thing. I grew to hate math in elementary school. I recall a conversation I had with Dad. “I don’t like Math!” I told him, after I’d brought home a report card with a bad math grade. His response to me was that if he did only the things he liked, we’d be living in a shack. (Suck it up, Susan. You must do what you hate) I have no idea if I’d’ve taken his advice differently if he told me about his own experiences, of how being able to do math allowed him to do some practical and cool things in life. Plus, actually enjoyed it. But lo these many years later, the “M1 computer, Number 2 pencil, well-sharpened” story and his obvious pleasure of the task and pride in his accomplishment pokes against that “living in a shack (do what you hate)” conversation.

In interviewing, disconnects may come up. It’s hard for me to extrapolate from my experience to all possible experiences of interviewing family members. I described this disconnect to my boyfriend; he says that when he interviewed his father, there were surprises a-plenty, but none of those “Say what?!?” moments.

What do you do if one of those moments comes up? In the moment of interviewing, though, when the recorder is going, and the microphone is live, and one is in the presence of the other person, the most important thing is to get the story. My job as interviewer is to elicit stories from the interviewee. What is your recollection? What did you experience? What are your thoughts about what happened? For me, when a jarring moment comes up, I set aside the “say what?!” reaction to think about later.

Or, in this case, I probably enjoyed the story in the moment, but on the drive home, I had that “hey wait a minute” reaction. It’s not an either-or, but a both-and. Both “very cool!” and “Whaa?!”

And speaking of eliciting stories, those stories came from a question to clarify a term that Dad just blurted out in passing.  He talked of the physical aspects of navigation. I asked what that meant, and what tumbled out were these stories of sextants and well-sharpened number 2 pencils.

What types of experiences have you had interviewing family members? Have you had a jarring moment? What happened? Have you had surprise revelations? What were they?


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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on September 15, 2007 in • Do it: YourselfInterviewing
2 CommentsPermalink

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Susan, I am looking for some help in doing this very thing with my 84 year old Dad.  We are meeting in his home town in Terra Hautte, next month and I had planned on bringing a video camera as well as just a voice recorder.
  Do you have any suggestions or perhaps a document of leading questions you used to ferret out information and stories you never heard before?
  Any help is greatly appreciated.

Paul Mooter  on 04/29  at  07:34 PM

I can relate to the moments of surprise when you understand your perception of someone left out the fact that they have feelings and life experiances that had nothing to do with you.  They truly are people too.

One thing that always interested me was watching current events or pointing it out in a paper to a parent or grandparent and getting a response.

I was watching a talk show with my 80+ yr old grandma and the show was about teen sex.  My grandma made the comment “these kids today act like they invented something new, it’s been around for a ling time” and I understood the connection between her life in the past and how she lives in the now.  I will always remember her love of life and family (family is more than just relatives)

Rick S  on 10/29  at  09:58 AM

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