12 Tips for Interviewing Relatives

Written by Laura Blumenthal and Libby Atwater


First of all, it is much better for a Personal Historian to interview your family member than to attempt it yourself.


  • Family members will often be more open with strangers.

  • Personal historians are skilled at drawing out reluctant speakers and making them feel comfortable. Also, just knowing that a stranger is interested in hearing his /her stories encourages the person to speak.

  • The storyteller will give more details if he/she knows that the person is hearing the story for the first time. These details bring the story to life.

  • When you interview your own family, you’re going to hear family secrets stories you may not want to hear. You cannot remain neutral. Like it or not, you’re going to have an emotional reaction. Personal historians are non-judgmental and have more practice in remaining non-emotional and supportive.

  • Most people need the motivation, structure, prompting and encouragement that an experienced personal historian can give them.

If you must interview your relative yourself, here are 12 tips to help you:

1. Before you begin, be clear about your own goals. Decide:

A. Are you interested in the person’s entire life, or just a part of it?

B. What other family members will read this person’s stories?

C. If negative material comes up, how will you deal with it?

D. Will the stories be published, made available to others or kept private?

2. Make sure the storyteller knows the purpose of the interview and who will see it. Remind the person that this is for his descendants up to hundreds of years from now to read and understand.

3. Interview the person alone in a quiet room of his home, away from other people, noisy appliances, ringing phones and interruptions.

4. Use a good tape recorder with a separate microphone. Test your equipment before going to the interview and periodically throughout. Bring extra batteries and tapes. Check the recorded sound level to make sure it’s loud and clear.

5. Listen attentively and let the person talk. Don’t interrupt. Give the person time to call up memories. Pay attention and show interest. Don’t rush to the next question. Strive for objectivity, even though it’s difficult. Practice keeping quiet, no matter what the person says.

6. Show respect for the person’s integrity and choices even though you may disagree with him. You’re trying to record the narrator’s story from his point of view for future generations, not to “correct” him. Save your opinions for your own story.

7. If a person’s account of an event differs significantly from the historical record, gently tell im, and ask if that’s how he remembers it. Often people honestly don’t remember exact dates or sequences of events. Gentle questioning can help discover the proper facts and sequence.

8. If a person refuses to talk about a particular subject, respect his wishes.

A. Reassure him that you won’t force him to say anything.

B. Point out that it sometimes helps to review painful periods, and that his survival techniques can be a valuable aid to future readers when they go through dark times.

C. Offer to skip the topic and stick to areas he feels comfortable talking about. As he relaxes and begins to feel more confident, he may reveal more on the subject.

9. If the person is reluctant to begin the interview, here are some tips for getting him started:

A. Ask him to confirm or counter what someone else has said.

B. Show him books or tapes of others, rather than starting with his own story.

C. Assure him that he can edit the transcript of his interview before it is shared with anyone.

10. If the person insists that no one would be interested in his life story, tell him that everyone’s life is valuable to future generations: the challenges they faced, the obstacles they overcame; their talents, their principles, their decisions. No matter how “ordinary” you might think your life is, it’s extraordinary to your descendants, to historians, and to future readers.

11. If the person refuses to be interviewed, respect his wishes. Give him time to think it over, then:

A.   Write a heartfelt letter stating your reasons, ideas and feelings, and tell him how much his story would mean to you and to future generations.

B. Try again at a later time. Time can change people’s perspectives and give them the distance they need in order to talk about painful events.

12. If the person wants to put off being interviewed until a later time, remind him that memories fade with time, and the farther away we get from events, the hazier they become. So it’s best to record them now.

If the person insists that he will write his own memoirs alone, suggest books and classes to help him do it. Unfortunately, most people never get around to it on their own. They need motivation, structure, prompting and encouragement.

Best of luck! And if you get stuck, call a Personal Historian!

Laura Blumenthal (310) 473-0509 Libby Atwater (805) 642-2672