A close relative of mine has Alzheimer’s and for a long while, I’ve had the longing to interview her. The way the disease is affecting her means she has virtually no short term recall, but her long-term memory, particularly of her childhood and youth, is intact. I’ve been surprised and delighted on many occasions by the tales and anecdotes she’s come out with, many that I’ve never heard her talk about previously. I am all too conscious that a time could soon come when she may be unable to articulate these precious memories anymore.
I’ve had some time off recently, so I took the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with this relative and ask her questions about her past. (I made sure to ask her permission several times throughout the process about recording our conversation, and she was very happy for me to do so).
It was fascinating to hear about her early experiences of childhood and young womanhood, even seemingly mundane things about her first job as a typist, what she used to wear and how she styled her hair. From a family history perspective, I was captivated by stories of her early family life and her relationship with her husband. It also made me realise how rare it is that I sit down and ask anyone in my life these sorts of questions, even though it’s these early experiences and our significant relationships that shape who we are.
Although I’m not quite sure how I will use the interview yet, I am so glad I found the time to do it, not least because it was a lovely bonding experience and she expressed how much she had enjoyed sharing stories of her past.
As well as thinking about a potential non-fiction piece based on the interview, I also found it hugely beneficial for my fiction writing. It reminded me how important it is to get to know characters in depth, even if only a small snippet of this makes it into the final story. It’s the only way to make characters feel ‘real’, with the human flaws and motivations that make people who they are.
I’ve been so inspired by this undertaking that my plan is to work my way through interviewing other family members. Not only will this help me to learn about myself and where I come from, but will also increase my understanding of the complex human condition. It may even throw up some interesting untold stories from my family’s history!
If you’re interested in doing something similar, here is a link to 20 questions when thinking about interviewing relatives.