Recording stories for a memoir


Here’s the scenario. You’re writing a memoir, one story at a time. You wonder how Aunty Flo remembers a certain incident. She is getting pretty old and you decide to interview her and record her answer.

You’re going to record a short oral history, not because you need absolute historical accuracy for your life story, but because:

  • it’s going to be interesting
  • Aunty Flo will probably love the experience: everyone likes an audience for their precious life stories
  • Aunty Flo’s children may be pleased to get the recording as a memory.

From my experience (interviewing numerous popular novelists and my own father) here are some tips to get you started.

  1. Arrange a time to visit the story-teller; tell them that you want to hear about their life, especially the incident that interests you. Tell them it won’t take more than 45 minutes. set the protocol and make sure both parties agree. Cover the interview’s purpose, privacy issues, communication and so forth.
  2. When you first make contact, do not let the person start telling you their stories! If you do, the recorded interview will become less interesting to both of you.
  3. Rehearse with your chosen technology until you are very comfortable using it. Will it work for 45 minutes without an adaptor? Is the sound quality acceptable for your purposes?
  4. Prepare a few questions with the most important to you at the top. Don’t try to cover the person’s entire life. (That’s another type of oral history.)
  5. When you arrive for the interview, be aware that the person may instantly start talking about the most significant episode in their entire life. This is what they’ve been thinking about ever since you made this appointment. They’re busting to talk about it. Keep them on hold until you get your recording equipment set up, but be quick: you need to hear this most important part.
  6. Start by saying, for the record, “My name is X, and I’m talking to X about her life. The date is <date> and we’re in <place>.” Ask X to state her full name, and her date and place of birth.
  7. Then ask an open question, for example, “I’d like to know about …” “Can you tell me about…” Keep questions very short. This is not about you.
  8. Feel free to ask them to clarify things you don’t understand, but again, briefly. “What do you mean by xxx?” “Why did that happen?” Avoid questions with a yes-or-no answer if possible.
  9. Finish by saying, “Our time’s nearly up. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?”
  10. Take a photo of your subject when the interview is over.

The key to a family oral history interview is respect. You are being granted a great favour—but the experience should be fun for both!


6 thoughts on “Recording stories for a memoir

  1. Sadje says:

    Great tips.

  2. Useful! Thank you.

  3. colonialist says:

    Are you saying that the most important things to them should be overridden? Probably not, but if so I think the opportunity should be given to unburden those right away. Those not of general interest can always be edited out.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      No! The opposite. I will edit my post to make that clearer! Thanks for pointing that out.

  4. JOY journal says:

    Great ideas! I interviewed my grandma in her 90s. I did it newspaper style and have lots of notes tucked away. I slip some of her experiences and her cadence of speech into my fiction here and there, kind of a secret tribute to one of the most important people in my life.

  5. To anyone considering interviewing relatives: do it! I so regret not recording or taking better notes when my parents were alive.

%d bloggers like this: