The Gremlin, The Machine And The Quest

by Lou Liberty | Jul 24, 2012

Lou Liberty

In the tale of the Fisher King, the Grail part of the King Arthur stories, Arthur's knights fail over and over again. Most cannot find the castle where the Grail is kept. Those who do stumble upon it cannot find entry. When Percival does enter the castle, he fails to ask "the Question" although he comes close. He talks a lot instead of listening. Thereby, the world is deprived of the return of the Grail and restoration.

It is not until that true and perfect knight, Sir Galahad, arrives on the scene that the task is accomplished. Galahad asks the Fisher King in essence, "What happened to you?" Then he is silent and listens to the king's answer. The result of Galahad's perseverance, insight, and restraint is the revelation of the Grail and the restoration of the Wasteland.

As we all know, the Grail story is the quest for ultimate truth. As interviewers, we often find ourselves on such a quest. If we are wise, we learn to emulate Galahad. We ask the important questions and then actively listen and like him, we are presented with great treasure and revelation. One of the most important aspects of interviewing where these skills are practiced is with alumni.

How do we know what questions to ask?

Interview Resources

Like Galahad, we can prepare. He understood his task and he had trained as a knight. Most importantly, he trusted his instinct so that when the moment came, he did not overlook it.

There are many helpful sites that provide a framework with which to begin an interview. For example, if you are simply exploring genealogy,'s 50 questions that framework a good beginning interview. If you are doing a different kind of interview, say creating background for a history of a school, a number of these questions are adaptable for such a project.

For an oral history interview, the Smithsonian offers an excellent guide. You may want to do some changes and adapt parts of the guide for your specific project but it does provide a good framework for opening a discussion.

There is another excellent PDF interview kit available at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum site. Although this kit is oriented toward the exploration of a particular experience, it can easily be adapted to many purposes.

George Mason University's Oral History Online is a premier resource. The information on this site provides a full grounding in resources and techniques for gathering information in an interview.

Finally, StoryCorps provides support for story collecting about students, teachers and schools.

Oral History Archives

These sites, however, are only basic training. A look at selections from actual oral histories can be invaluable to your preparation for your project. To this end, several independent schools and colleges have useful oral history collections. One of the best is the Curtis School located in Los Angeles. Another is President Obama's alma mater, Punahou School in Hawaii.

As you can see, these two Independent Schools have an active program of gathering histories from alumni as part of their archives. Addtional examples are the 'Iolani School and Sacramento Country Day School.

The oral history projects at Smith College and Rutgers are also excellent resources for examining the scope and range of history gathered through interviews.

Some projects are wide ranging, a collecting of general history. Others are specific, the gathering of history related to the institution. In interviewing alumni, the interviewer must understand that the story of the institution is the result of the stories of the individuals who attended it.

Gremlins I

Even with the best preparation, Gremlins remain. While gathering oral histories for Constant Possum: The History of Sandia Prep School, one of the most important things I discovered was the significant difference between generations. Understanding these differences was the key to successful interviewing.

For example, with the World War II generation and earlier, the Gremlin most of the time is the machine itself. I had begun my interviewing process for the book with the alumnae of the first Sandia School whose last graduating class was 1942. The school existed from 1932 to 1942 and was closed because of WWII. Sandia was a day and boarding school at that time and in those uncertain days, parents no longer wanted their children geographically separated from them. Kirtland Air Force Base also coveted the school property for the war effort, so the school closed.

The women of the first Sandia School are an exceptional group of individuals. They are also modest. They represent the reticence of their generation. I came to the interviews equipped with the latest tools at that time: a state-of-the-art Apple laptop and a portable cassette recorder. I was soon taking notes by hand in a notebook and most of the time just listening and not writing.

Although more of this generation has become willing to be recorded or appear on camera, exceptions that prove the rule, for the most part, they are very uncomfortable with recording devices of any kind. They are hesitant to share their stories in general, considering them nothing extraordinary or worthy of capture. As I said, they are modest, believing that their lives consisted of just doing what was necessary on their part, as anyone would do.

So the challenge for the interviewer with this group is to gain their confidence with patience, the right questions, and the lack of recording devices. They don't mind if you write things down but they will often share information with you if you do not record it, even in writing.

Gremlins II

As I proceeded with my research and story gathering into the classes from the current Sandia Prep I found a change in attitude toward devices. Those students who graduated in the 1960's through the 1990's, I found much more willing to be recorded, either by audio or video or both. Comfort levels increased as the years rolled forward. In this process, I learned that the Gremlins were often snafus in the machines.

As I accumulated equipment - digital audio recorder, video camera, a new laptop - I also learned that the opportunity for things to go awry increased. I soon learned to check and re-check my equipment each time before I arrived at an interview. With so many batteries, plugs, attachments, and such, the loss of one component could and did disrupt the interview process. I also learned to always have pen and paper handy. They are not very high tech but they have been proven over the long period of time to be workable when all else fails in recording an interview.

The E-mail Interview

By the new millennium and the most recent Sandia Prep history, Transition and Legacy: SPS at 50, I conducted interviews almost exclusively through e-mail. Not only were the alumni comfortable with the technology, they preferred it to face-to-face interviews.

E-mail is indispensable when distance is considered. I could and did interview alumni halfway around the world for this book, something I could not have done before without great expense. The convenience of e-mail cannot be disputed. However, I found this process to be both a gain and a loss at the same time.

E-mail interviewing is a fast process, exchanges captured in moments at times. It is also, in some ways, soulless. So much is said in facial expression, a look, and the sound of a voice - all those nuances are lost within the technology.

In addition, an e-mail collected set of interviews requires the interviewer to be even more anticipatory, thorough and thoughtful regarding the questions asked. Clarity is primary and there are no openings to what I call the unexpected "Grail moment", that opportunity that arises out of a tone or an aside that are subtle parts of conversation. Perhaps this will change as technology continues to present us with innovation, for example cameras in our computers for real time exchanges and services like Skype.

Perennial Process

In our quest for true stories, those that illuminate and enlighten our histories and our lives, we are aided by numerous technological innovations. Some of these present their own impediments and Gremlins but all in all, they afford us opportunities for collecting we would have previously missed. This is especially true with a select group of storytellers such as alumni. Still, when all is said and done, the whole process relies on a fundamental exchange. We as interviewers must always be prepared to ask "the question" and then to listen.

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