BACK STORY: I became a folklorist because of my grandfather. He had wonderful stories about life on the farm and growing up in the Ozarks that connected me not only with him but with all the past generations. So I got my PhD in folklore and folklife, and I've been at the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage since 1983. Lately we've been involved in planning the World War II Reunion [May 27-30 on the National Mall], where you can hear from people who fought in the war -- men and women -- and people on the home front: the "Rosie the Riveters" or women who kept households going.
WE ARE FAMILY: Most people are honored to be asked about their experiences. To conduct your first interview, start with a relative, friend or neighbor you feel comfortable with. Be clear about your goals; that'll determine what questions you ask. (If you want help, there's an interviewing guide on our Web site, www.folklife.si.edu.) Use a tape recorder. The laughter, the nuances, the accents all come to life on tape.
SHOW AND TELL: Family photos can break the ice. Objects or heirlooms carry stories, too. I interviewed an Italian American woman and she had the metal spoon her mother always used to make pasta. It kept alive the stories of her mom; it had been used so often, it was worn away and had this slant to it. Often you'll find things are incorporated into quilts -- Grandpa's old pants that he wore to work every day, for example.
Q&A: You want to have questions that don't elicit a simple yes or no. Ask questions that begin with "what," "why" or "how": "What was it like growing up?" as opposed to "Did you have fun growing up?" And ask for stories. People's values and ideas about things are embedded there. I asked a stone carver about his apprenticeship. He remembered the first time he was carving, and he broke off a lily. His master finished the piece, stuck the lily underneath his nose and said, "Take this home and every morning smell it and remember never to knock anything off again." That made me realize the rigor of the apprenticeship and demands for precision.
SOUNDS OF SILENCE: All of us are a little uncomfortable with silence. Resist the urge to jump right in. Let people collect their thoughts. Maybe it's something that's a painful memory but could be cathartic or a relief to tell. Or if you see it's something they would rather not talk about, move on. In general, most people want to pass on their memories; it's meaningful.
As told to Nicole M. Miller