Writing Oral History

Artful Life Stories: Collecting and Gathering Oral
Histories for Fiction and Nonfiction
Ariella Van Luyn
Lecturer, Writing, James Cook University
[email protected]
Writers in Townsville Anthology
• Due 31 March
• Nonfiction only
How I came to be involved in oral
• Honours and practice-led PhD in
creative writing, investigating the
fictionalising of oral history.
• Joined the Oral History Association
of Australia, Queensland. President
• Queensland Business Leaders Hall of
• Cardwell and Cyclone Yasi.
• Novel Hidden Objects based on oral
histories and shortlisted for
Queensland Literary Awards 2012,
Unpublished Manuscript Category.
What is oral history?
• Semi-structured interview,
• Conducted by a
interviewer who has
researched the subject,
• About the interviewee’s
first hand experience,
• which is recorded.
Why oral history?
• Rich source of details that
are sometimes missing
from historical records.
• The voice of the
interviewee is evocative
and often filled with the
vocabulary of previous
• Oral storytelling reveals the
personal significance of
events and experiences.
Frank Warren, Post Secret
Frank Warren, Post Secret
Steps in an oral history project:
1. Create a vision for your project
that is achievable.
2. Consider what resources are
available: people, research
material, community spaces,
3. Prepare budget.
4. Think about who you will
interview and for how long.
Steps in an oral history project:
4. Organise recording equipment.
5. Write ethics and permission
6. Conduct research.
7. Consider interview questions.
8. Interviews: who, when and
Steps in an oral history project:
9. Transcription.
10. Presentation: editing audio and
Plan each of these steps before you
begin, but be prepared to be
Reflect and re-plan throughout.
Ethics: treating life stories with respect
• Ensure that the interviewee understands
how you will use their interview.
• Get it in writing.
• This helps to build a relationship of trust.
• In the oral history context, interviewees
should never feel pressured to tell their
stories. Paul Rosenblatt (2003): ‘entitlement
to deceive.’
An ethical interviewer is:
• Friendly
•Aware of the interviewees’ wants, needs and unique
situation and view of reality.
•Well informed through research and prior conversations
with interviewee
The interviewer is responsible for:
• Explaining the purpose of the interview and the project
and who owns copyright;
• Giving each interviewee an agreement to sign;
• Conducting interviews with objectivity, honesty and
• Being aware of defamation laws;
• Treating every interview as a confidential conversation
until an interviewee gives the right to share information
through an agreement;
• Ensuring that interviewees are given the opportunity to
review, correct and/or withdraw material;
• Allowing the interview to be access by future
researchers in a way agreeable to the interviewee.
• The interviewees own their words.
• You can ask permission to use their
words in your writing, either by licensing
you to use them or by assigning
copyright to you.
• This is included in your information and
consent form.
Developing questions
• Create open ended questions.
Q: ‘When was that?’
A: ‘I don’t know.’
Q: ‘What else was happening in your
life at that time?’
• If you do ask closed questions
(sometimes you might have to), follow
it up with an open ended question.
e.g. Q: So you were there?
A: Yes.
Q: Can you tell me about it?
Developing questions
• Ask yourself the questions: do you
get meaningful answers?
• Try to avoid questions that are too
general or abstract — ask questions
relevant to your interviewees unique
situation .
• Ask questions that speak to a variety
of ways of experiencing the world:
emotions and sensory details.
Evoking the past and present through arts-based methods
Maps, relational maps, self-portrait, timelines
Art Spiegelman Maus
• Finish with two questions:
Is there anything I haven’t asked
you’d like to talk about?
Is there anything you’d like to say
more about?
In a bigger project: who else do you
know who would like to be
A well structured interview will have an arc: we see how the interviewee
has changed as a result of their experience.
In the interview
• Don’t be afraid to stray from your
prepared questions.
• Follow up points that interest you.
Ask for details (sometimes this is not
obvious until you listen to the
interview again).
• Good stories appear unexpectedly.
Go with the flow.
• Avoid interrupting the interviewee. If
you think of a question while the
interviewee is talking, write it down.
In the interview
• Interview doesn’t have to grind to a
halt because the interviewee can’t
remember something. Say, ‘it doesn’t
matter, you might remember later.’
• Allow the interviewee to speak and
also to think. Let silences happen.
• Listen closely.
• If you need to ask difficult questions
later in the interview, when you feel
you have built a strong enough
relationship with the interviewee.
In the interview
• Interviews are context dependant:
Where are you conducting the interview?
How will the place effect what the
interviewee will say and their comfort?
• An interviewee may not tell you
something because they find it hurtful,
embarrassing or that it doesn’t fit into
their idea of themselves or how they
want to represent themselves to you.
• You don’t have to force the interviewee
to tell you. You just need to be aware of
all these problems when conducting and
understanding the interview.
• Interviews are messy and organic. Why?
Personalities, cultural and social influences,
agendas, awareness of the purpose of the
interview, the problems of memory.
• Interviews are a dialogue: the interviewer
is always implicated its creation.
• Who you are as an interviewer will effect
the outcome:
How will your position in relation to the
project effect what the interviewee will
How will you represent yourself before and
after the interview?
Telling life stories
• An oral testimony cannot be treated as only a
repository of facts and errors of facts’ (Tonkin,
1992, 12).
• Oral history interviews are evidence of the
way we understand the past (Firsch cited in
Grele, 2006, 58).
• Hayden White (1997, 170): the real world is
‘inherently random and meaningless, and that
humans confer meaning by imposing narrative
• Problems of memory: e.g. Al Thomson’s
ANZAC interviews
The past is another country, they do things
differently there; and we are no longer they.
The shadow past is shaped by everything that
never happened. Invisible, it melts the present
like rain through karst. A biography of longing.
It steers us like magnetism, a spirit torque. This
is how one becomes undone by a smell, a
word, a place, the photo of a mountain of
shoes. By love that closes its mouth before
calling a name.
I did not witness the most important events of
my life. My deepest story must be told by a
blind man, a prisoner of sound.
(Anne Michaels. Fugitive pieces. p.17)
Thinking about your
end product
• Edited transcripts,
• Interviews integrated
into a historical account,
• Digital stories,
• Fictionalised narratives,
• Art exhibitions,
• Museum displays.
Image: Fiona Davies, Intangible Collection
What do you think this voice sounds like?
What has happened to the human voice? Vox Humana.
Hollering, shouting, quiet talking, buzz.
I was leaving the airport, this was in Altanta. You know, you
leave the gate, you take a train that took you to concourse of
your choice and I get onto this train. Dead silence. A few people
seated, or standing. Up above you hear a voice. Not a human
voice but you know, talks like a machine. Concourse one,
Farnsworth, Dallas, Roebuck. That kind of voice. Just when the
doors were about to close, automatic doors, only a couple rush
in and push open the doors and get in.
Story Corps, Studs Terkel, The Sound of the Human Voice
The problems with transcribing
‘The Sound of the Human voice’
transcript demonstrates that:
•Transcription, no matter how skilful,
inevitably flattens the spoken quality of oral
memoirs (Berger Gluck, 1999).
•Transcription is also time consuming. It takes
between 4 to 6 hours to type one hour of
written interview, depending on the quality of
the recording, skills of the typist and the
complexity of the interview.
Why transcribe?
•Transcription makes the information easier to
present in exhibits, publications and other
research outputs.
•Transcripts are more ‘searchable.’
• Interviewees may prefer written to oral
recordings. Often more prestige is attached to
written documents.
• Interviewee can correct spelling and any
misheard or misunderstood information.
• Audios formats may change, but paper based
copies will always be readable.
Decisions, decisions…
• Hesitations, repetitions, and ‘redundant’ words
are rich in communicative value, and deleting
them distorts the narrator’s intended message
(Moore, 1997)
• Bowden (2005) advocates preserving oral
testimony ‘ “as she is spoke” on the printed page.
But encourages ‘tidying up’ the transcript by
removing ‘ums’, redundant words and long
silences—so long as the character and the sense
of the interviewee is not lost in the process.
And more decisions…
Michael Frisch (1990):
• depends on the purpose.
• aggressive editing and manipulation is often
necessary when translating an interview into
a different medium of communication.
• reproducing non-standard vocalisations can
make the text so incoherent that it is an
obstacle both to conveying the narrator’s
meaning and to capturing the ‘texture and
feel’ of voice and character.
Beth Robinson (2006) Oral History Handbook:
•Single dashes indicate pauses within sentences;
•Three dashes indicate unfinished sentences;
•Don’t use ellipses (...) as, in academic language,
this indicates that material has been left out
•Put non verbal actions (laughing, gestures) in
•Square brackets around information not in the
• The person who conducted the interview
should always proofread a draft.
• Interviewee should also proofread. While
typing, underline words that you’re unsure how
to spell to ensure interviewee will correct them.
• HOWEVER when you send a transcript to an
interviewee warn them in a cover letter that it is
meant to be a verbatim transcript of their words.
Many will be horrified by how they sound when
they speak and will want to change it.
• Make changes and send interviewee a clean
copy. Get them to sign the bottom of the
approved copy.
• Send interviewees copy of final interview
audio, transcript and any images you took or
Edited oral history
• Miguel Barnet and Esteban Montejo,
Biography of a Runaway Slave
Oral history as part of an historical account
• Helen Klaebe, Sharing Stories: A Social
History of Kelvin Grove Urban Village

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