I have a couple of elderly relatives who have not kept a journal and refuse to write down their "life story." I really would like to know their stories and who they were and who they are. They have their favorite stories that they rehash every time I see them, but I'd like to get more. I have no experience with "interviewing" and am looking for information on how to get their stories. Any websites, books, and or tips\techniques would be greatly appreciated.

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    Do the answers to this question address your problem? Jan 6, 2014 at 15:49
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    Just because someone "really would like to know" doesn't mean an elderly relative is obligated to tell a younger person their life story. I'd like to see this question re-written with less of an emphasis on how the interviewer can Get More and more of an emphasis on how the interviewer can make the interview experience more enjoyable for the interviewees.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jan 6, 2014 at 23:30
  • @AmericanLuke: The question you provided does help. Thanks you.
    – dwwork
    Jan 7, 2014 at 20:16
  • @JanMurphy: You are right. They're not obligated to tell me anything, I just feel like I could get to know them better than I do. We are on very good terms. I'm sorry my wording was offensive.
    – dwwork
    Jan 7, 2014 at 20:18
  • @SuperCow -- apologies for my grumpiness. But it's not me that you have to worry about offending -- think about your relatives.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jan 8, 2014 at 14:10

2 Answers 2


I can offer a few small techniques that are at least alluded to in the question American Luke references, and which have worked for me in the past:

  1. Ask specific questions, rather than broad, vague "tell me about your life" queries. I once off-handedly asked my father how his step-father got the nickname "Captain", and got back a long story about the summer my Dad and a friend spent in Long Island (among other things, trying to sneak aboard Guy Lombardo's yacht, which happened to be docked at the same marina as his step-father's fishing boat). I'd never heard the story before, and wouldn't have without that offhand remark. With more distant relatives, questions about family get-togethers ("how often did you see your cousin Elias?"), family vacations, etc. Every relative I know who was living during WWII has stories about it. They're not always genealogically useful, but once you get someone talking, you never know what detail will pop out.

  2. Some people who are reluctant to offer information outright will often correct misinformation ("so, your mother had two brothers?" "No, she had three brothers, and a sister" or "did you live in Baltimore until you were married? "No, we lived on a farm until I was six, then moved to Baltimore").

  3. Make sure your "interview" is a conversation rather than an interrogation. Even if you have a list of specific things you want to know, many people aren't comfortable having questions fired at them. If you're asking specific questions, and getting terse (or non-) answers, change the subject until you find something they want to talk about, even if it isn't what you're looking for. You may eventually find some detail you can latch onto to help steer the conversation in the direction you want (or not, in which case you can try again later). You should spend most of your interview listening, rather than asking.

I think the main objective is for your elderly relative to enjoy talking with you. The more they look forward to your conversations, the more forthcoming they'll be.

  • Thanks. I actually think this is a pretty good summary of the question that American Luke pointed out. I guess this shouldn't be as difficult as I'm making it out to be.
    – dwwork
    Jan 7, 2014 at 20:29

An important principle to consider when working with any informant is reciprocity. When you interview someone, you're asking them to give up their time and their information / story. What do they get out of it? If the person is also keen on studying the family's history, the relationship can be different -- you are peers working on a collaborative effort. If they aren't eager collaborators, you are asking them for a big favor: first, to give up their time and energy to you when they could be doing something else, and second, to reveal things that they may not want to talk about. Consider that they may have good reasons that they haven't talked about those things before. They should have the right to refuse to answer any question that they don't feel like talking about. Oh, and speaking of time -- limit your sessions to an hour or so.

One way to learn good interview techniques is to study other interviewers. What can you learn from interviewers who don't work in the genealogical field? Some of my favorites:

  1. Craig Ferguson. Most of the guests on talk shows are making the circuit because they are promoting a new book or movie, and they get asked the same questions over and over again. Sometimes you'll see people with a set of cards that contain talking points. Craig's first act in every interview, after greeting the guest, is to rip up those cards and throw the pieces away like confetti. Craig's often a terrible interviewer, but what I take away from his opening gimmick is this: Don't bore the guests by running down a checklist of standard interview questions. The standard questions are for your preparation -- they aren't a quiz which the guest has to answer. Craig's act is a symbol that the guest won't be put through the standard interrogation that they'll receive on all the other talk shows.
  2. Isaac Mizrahi. Isaac's interviews took place in a blank white set and were always done while Isaac and the guest were doing something, like cooking, or making something. Cooking is a fantastic shared experience for studying family history. Going over ephemera, like photos, is another. Instead of going down a boring checklist, the questions can arise naturally from the subjects of the photos. 'What house is this? When did the family live there? What's happening in this photograph?" One activity that would be fun for a family reunion, if you have photos taken at the house where the reunion is taking place, is to create a new photo in the style of the website Dear Photograph. Another might be to have people bring family photos to a reunion and create a 'today' photo with a group posed the same way as the 'yesterday' photo. Another possibility is to watch a show about a historical event, like PBS's American Experience, and then to ask your older relatives to talk about the events in the show as they experienced them. Use the photos, the recipes, the television show as a springboard.
  3. Charlie Rose. In a recent interview, when Charlie was interviewing a biographer about their recent book, Charlie made the observation that the preparation that he made for an interview was the same process that the historian does when writing a biography. (I think it was the interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin for her book "Bully Pulpit", which is available for viewing online via several different options -- in any case, it's a fun hour and well worth watching for its own sake.) [P.S. just went looking for transcripts of the Charlie Rose show, hoping to find the interview so I could quote the comments where Charlie responded it was the same process he used in preparing for an interview, and I discovered his AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit in which he talks about interviewing his father about his experiences in WWII.]

Don't just dismiss your relatives' favorite stories that they like to tell over and over again. Record those too, with love, because once they are gone, you will miss hearing them tell those stories. But by watching skilled interviewers, you may learn how to ask follow-up questions that will take the conversation beyond the favorite stories and into new territory.

Prepare, listen, and give something back. In twenty years, when you look back on the interview, what would be most satisfying? A list of answers to a bunch of questions that you found on the internet? Or a set of family recipes, a group of photos where you know their significance, and a shared family experience?

  • Since I can't resist an in-joke: here are the 10 questions that James Lipton asks every guest at the end of the interview, borrowed from French talk show host Bernard Pivot: wowzone.com/pivot.htm
    – Jan Murphy
    Jan 8, 2014 at 15:53
  • Many good suggestions here: Interviewing Mom and Grandma: Oral History Tips by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack genealogy.com/95_carmack.html
    – Jan Murphy
    Mar 1, 2014 at 17:44

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