Keep it in the family: How best to interview a relative

Keep it in the family: How best to interview a relative
Gareth St John Thomas, author of ‘Finding True Connections — How to Learn and Write About a Family Member’s History’.

Many of us would like to write about a family member but have no idea how to go about it, which is why Gareth St John Thomas’ book will be such a helpful aid, says Ailin Quinlan

When publisher Gareth St John was a young child, he never took much notice of his grandad.

Gilbert Thomas, he recalls, seemed to be a simple, quiet man who “sat in the room and smoked; he never said very much.”

However, just before his grandfather died, around the time St John was in his early teens, the young boy had become aware that Gilbert was actually an extremely interesting man.

Not only had he been a conscientious objector in World War One and served the entire period of the war in prison, he was also an accomplished poet and had published a number of books.

“I became very curious to find out what kind of person he was,” St John recalls now.

“He died when I was 14 and only just beginning to realise what an interesting person he was.”

Finding out about him was comparatively easy for me because there were still a few relatives left alive and he had published books of poetry.

“He was publishing poetry before I was born and his collected works came out as a reprint when I was 12 or 13.”

However, he says, getting second-hand views on what his grandfather was like following his death was not, he discovered, the optimal way to go about researching his life and work — he found he wished he’d done it while the old man was still alive.

“I asked relatives about him, but they were the next generation and anyway opinions and politics became involved so that clouded the picture somewhat.

“I didn’t have a way to look at it in an objective sense,” he says, adding that he realised that researching and writing up a family history was not just something quite a lot of people would like to do but that it could be quite difficult.

However in 2006 he produced a small booklet about Gilbert’s life and work for the family network.

Realising that this was the sort of project that many, like himself, embarked upon belatedly, after a person has died — and one which they often don’t get around to completing — he went on to establish a special service for people who wanted to find out about a family member’s history.

“We set up a company called Emotional Inheritance which would carry out the necessary work for people,” he recalls.

EI was an offshoot business of St John’s existing publishing business, Exisle Publishing, which focuses on the area of health and well-being.

“We had people who’d do the interviews and the research for you, but it’s an expensive process to get done professionally,” he says, adding that it cost on average about €4,000.

“It’s actually a job that you can do yourself if you know how.”

Keep it in the family: How best to interview a relative

So the obvious next step, he felt, was to offer a DIY option for interested people — and he’s just published a book of information, guidance and tips, using tried and tested interview methods for people who want to interview and write about a family member who is still alive.

“We (Exisle) have psychologists and historians whose books we publish so we have good access to experts who critiqued our recorded interview and suggested alternative ways of doing it.

“That way we eventually developed an approach that worked extremely well — and that’s the approach that has formed the basis of my book,” he explains.

Described by St John as “an uncomplicated workbook,” the book offers about 100 headline questions for interviews, as well as a battery of follow-ups.

Topics of conversation vary from First Memories to the Advice you Want to Give your Grandchildren: “This book is very much aimed at people who want to interview family members who are still alive — still living.

“We’d strongly encourage people to get to it earlier rather than leaving it too late because if you do that, you’ll be like me and miss out on talking to someone who is very interesting,” he says.

“One of the best things about it in terms of active history is that the interviewees can give you a different view, what your grandparents know is highly informative,” he says, adding he has some tips for people who are interested in a project like this:

  • Be very clear about who will be present at the interviews. Overly-interfering relatives, St John warns, “can end up doing the talking for the elderly person — and the older person can be less frank or even less truthful if a relative is there
  • Be aware that the story belongs exclusively to the person who is being interviewed and keep yourself out of the write-up. “You have to respect that the interviewee wants to have recorded. Don’t push too much.”
  • Do two sets of interviews which run for no more than four hours each. “If you are talking to an elderly person and going through 100 questions with supplementary questions they can find it tiring so it is good to have a break.
  • Stage One questions should refer to the person’s own family, heritage and grandparents. Once a rapport has built up, the second half of the interviews can offer a good space for the interviewee to, as St John put sit, discuss “their attitudes, their beliefs and things closer to the soul.” Don’t rush the process, but aim to have the interviews finished and transcribed within six weeks. People can be intimidated by the writing process, he says, but if they know it has to be done within a time period they will get it all written out. “Better to get it down in a slightly imperfect way than not to have done it at all. People often want it to be perfect, but it is fine to do something that is okay.”
  • Read through the questions in the book before doing the interview: “There are 100 questions in the book and each of them has supplementary questions. You may not need to use the supplementary questions, but if a person is staying on a topic and appears to be interested, these supplementary questions can be used to keep the conversation going.”

Finding True Connections — How to Learn and Write About a Family Member’s History by Gareth St John Thomas, Exisle Publishing, €22

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