Of my 34 years, I've spent 18 of them, half a life, interviewing people for a living. (OK, I spent more time at USC writing about moody postmodern Irish poets, but I spent plenty of time in the summers cutting my teeth as a newspaper intern, so that counts!)
But today I did one of the most, if the not most important interview of my life -- interviewing Dad for the StoryCorps Project.
For those not familiar with StoryCorps, it's a non-profit that travels the country and offers people the opportunity to quite simply tell their stories. In short, you bring a partner and ask anything of him or her in the span of 45 minutes while sitting in their tricked out Airstream (more about this in a moment). Participants are then given a CD and their stories are archived in the Library of Congress, with some of the best being played on NPR.
Their motto: "Every Voice Counts."
I've been a big fan of their NPR broadcasts for years, and was excited when StoryCorps announced a visit to Birmingham. So, when tickets went on sale, I was sitting by my computer, nervously hitting the refresh button to get a spot. (It's a good thing that I did, since all the spots were taken within a few minutes.)
I didn't think twice about who I would interview. My Dad is such a great storyteller, and despite the tales he's told me and shared on his blog, we'd never sit down and done a formal interview, never mind a recorded one. He seemed a little trepedatious, but I promised that I wouldn't throw him any crazy curve balls.
Preparing the list of questions was tough -- there were so many subjects I wanted to cover. Going over that list was like a flashback of our family's life, and more than a few tears welled up when I got to some of the more difficult questions.
Against the advice of some, I actually shared the list with him. I get why in general it's not good to do this (and as a journalist I rarely share). But I asked Dad if he would feel more comfortable getting a general outline and he said yes, so I respected his wishes. (It worked out well for us, but I also understand not wanting to compromise the spontaneity too -- everyone has to decided on the best strategy for theme.)
We arrived a few minutes early to the shiny silver Airstream parked outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and were greeted with warm welcomes by a young woman who would help facilitate our discussion. The first step was filling out paperwork. (On a side note, I thought it was interesting that they listed "transgender" as a category -- right on. Not sure about the difference between "gay" and "queer" -- meant to ask aout that.)
I was getting really nervous at this point, mostly because I wanted to get the interview right -- and because I'd never interviewed my Dad before. Before we got started, asked him how he felt:
Before we knew it, our host was ushering us into the Airstream, which felt a bit like hallowed ground. The Airstream! We were lead to its studio, which takes about half of the space (the other half has a small space with a desk and seating). She closed the door and was great at explaining what would happen.
Dad and I sat face to face in a booth similar to that of a restaurant. In fact, she stressed several times to think of our talk as a conversation that would take place at a kitchen table, which is always good advice. She advised me to just use the question list as a guide and to feel free to go wherever the story took us.
We were asked to turn off our cell phones and advised that any noise, including the shuffling of papers, would be recorded. (She even took away my beloved pen cap -- they know what they are doing!) We were also given small cups in which to pour our drinking water. Shhh...
She explained that she would help us keep time by giving simple signals when we were reaching 10, 5 and one minute points. I also put my father's watch on the table to help me gauge time. And we were off ...
(Note: both of these images were taken afterwords.)
The conversation flowed effortlessly. We talked about questions I'd prepared -- about how a boy who grew up in New York ended up in Alabama, about his time at Woodstock, about the evolution of technology and its influence on his life, and advice on how he did such a great job of raising three kids (ahem).
But we also talked about things I hadn't planned for, like the state of his religious beliefs (I seriously didn't know I would ask about this) and the time he could have gotten a full ride to Harvard (wo.)
There were many other things we shared too, which were recorded on a CD and handed to us right after we finished. Some of them are a bit private to talk about now, but we might share later. And heck, you can look it up in the LIbrary of Congress to get the real skinny.
Why did I think it would be so difficult to interview Dad? Maybe, in addition to admiring him so much and always wanting to make him proud, it's because I knew that long after we're gone, great-great-great Shaws and Streets could listen to the recording and learn about this great person's history -- and our family's history. That's pretty serious stuff.
At the end we were both pretty relaxed, and posed for photos that they take to go along with the recording. We listened to the CD in the car before he dropped me off, and the audio was remarkably clear.
I'm eager to hear about the experiences of others who participate in Birmingham (and elsewhere). Thankful to have been given this opportunity.
And wanting to record more stories of my family, with a reminder that sometimes the best stories are right in front of you.