Family History Interviews: Handle With Care

29 Dec 2023


Questioning relatives calls for interest, finesse, and empathy. 

A family history book can give living family members a sense of heritage and belonging. It introduces them to the personalities, places, and times of their ancestors, and becomes a treasure for present and future generations

It can also become a historic and cultural reference for others.

As valuable as this type of book can be, the process of creating one is, arguably, as important as the finished product. 

Why is that? It’s because the process requires questioning flesh-and-blood family members who have their own opinions and thoughts, good and bad memories, strong feelings and apathies, success stories and regrets. 

These personal factors make doing family interviews tricky. You must choose questions for each interviewee deliberately and carefully, and then decide how and when to ask each. 

Also, when interviewing loved ones, you probably have your own feelings about your family’s past. Setting those feelings aside can be challenging, but the more objectivity you can muster, the better the process. 

An interview, basically, is a conversation in which one person learns about another. A family history interview is normally a discussion that covers a person’s entire life, future aspirations, and hopes for younger relatives. Interviews can be done in person, by phone, Skype, Zoom, or a similar app. 

General Tips for Family History Interviews

Working on a project with family members can be both gratifying and complex. Anyone preparing to interview relatives can use some helpful pointers. Here are a few: 

  • Determine the best method for interviewing each person (phone, video chat, in person).
  • Get permission to record the interview and use two recording methods to ensure you don’t lose the conversation. (For example, the “record” function on a video chat app plus a small digital voice recorder.) When you record, you’re capturing your loved one’s voice, not just their words. This is valuable both for writing and as an audio keepsake.
  • Be sure you’re ready with a list of appropriate questions before the interview.  Send or give your relative the questions beforehand. 
  • Ask in advance that they find anything that would help with recall such as photos and albums, family trees, letters, yearbooks, birth certificates, marriage or business licenses, diplomas, old trunks, or musical recordings.
  • Help your interviewee get relaxed by ensuring they have comfortable seating, offering them water, and chit-chatting a bit before you begin. If they’re resistant to any question, be prepared to skip it. 
  • Begin by verbally identifying the people involved in the interview, the date, and place of recording.
  • Be sure your body language is encouraging, make eye contact, and listen respectfully and attentively. 
  • Word your questions so that a more in-depth response is required. For example, not only “Which branch of the military did you serve in, in which war?” but “What are some memories that stand out to you from your time in the military?”
  • Let silence happen because times of silence following a question can be times of best recall. Don’t feel the need to fill the empty air. 
  • Redirect your relative back to the current question gently if they go down too long a verbal “rabbit trail.” But remember that rabbit trails can be interesting!
  • Thank your family member for taking the time to contribute to the book-to-be. It’s also good practice to get back in touch soon by phone, text, or email so they can add anything else they’ve remembered.

To Ask or Not to Ask: Sensitive Issues in Family History Research

There are skills involved in doing interviews for a family history book, and the process requires delicacy. You’re getting into family members’ “business.”

Some of it is pleasant, some is not, and some is so unpleasant interviewees will refuse to “go there.” 

The emotions evoked by recalling mental illness, suicide, traumatic accidents, crime and incarceration, marriage problems and divorce, abuse, adoption, and other issues are powerful.

A sensitive issue needs to be handled as carefully as a crystal vase.

Other family members besides the ones directly involved may also have strong feelings about whether these delicate questions are asked, and their answers included. In some cases, they don’t mind because the “secret” has been out for a long time. In others, they mind very much.

If an interviewee or other family member insists that something not be included in your interview and book, the request must be honored. If it’s still up for discussion, though, there’s nothing wrong with sharing reasons you believe inclusion would help complete the family story.

If a mutual decision is made to include the sensitive issue:

  • Be sure when doing interviews that everyone is clear on who will be reading this book. (Just family members, or a wider audience?)
  • If you’re at all concerned about repercussions of including the answer to a sensitive question in your book, get the involved family member(s) to sign a consent form.
  • Listen thoughtfully and compassionately.
  • Seek to understand the historical, cultural, and family context in which the issue happened.
  • Ask only as much about that topic as the interviewee, and the family, is comfortable with. 
  • Ask only about what is truly important for your story’s continuity.
  • Always remember that one important objective of a family history is family unity! Doing anything that works against that unity is counterproductive.

Why hire a professional ghostwriter to do your interviews (and writing)?

It’s possible that the process of interviewing your loved ones will spark wonderful, generation-connecting conversations. 

If, for any reason, though, you don’t feel up to having those conversations, hiring a professional family history ghostwriter is an excellent option. A ghostwriter’s help can get you a book your family can share and love—sooner. 

This type of professional is equipped with a genuine interest in other families and their stories. They’ve learned some techniques for convincing reluctant family members to participate and shy ones to open up. They can develop the best questions while listening and change directions mid-interview as needed.

An adept family history ghostwriter also demonstrates a helpful objectivity and lack of bias that’s only possible for an “outsider.” This enables them to ask questions more freely, without emotional baggage attached.

Beyond interview skills, there are other good reasons to hire a professional ghostwriter. These professionals know where and how to do necessary research, find helpful documents, and write in the voice of the interviewee.  

And if you’re shooting for a significant date for completion of the book, a ghostwriter can help make that happen. Many ghostwriters have publishing connections, as well.

In short, a professional can expedite and improve the process of making your dream a reality that you, your relatives, and future generations can hold in their hands. The process begins with great interviews.

Shelley Carpenter 

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