I thought it would be easy. Don’t we old people love to talk about our memories of the past? You generally can’t get us to shut up. Yet so far I have not managed to interview anyone at all. Why won’t they talk to me?
I asked respectfully and carefully. “Nancy, I’ve so enjoyed your posts about growing up here. I’d love to ask you more about your memories of St. Johns back then. I’m writing fiction that’s set in St. Johns at that time and I want to make sure I get it right, from someone who was there. Would you have coffee with me and let me ask you some questions?” Now honestly—wouldn’t you expect that to work? Of course it would work.
I tried Nancy first (names changed, obviously) because she was already my friend on Facebook. She did accept immediately and we made a date. Then I tried Ron. He said, “I don’t know about that—I really just want to talk about St. Johns history.” I said that’s exactly what I want, to talk about St. Johns history! He said, “Let me get back to you.” End of conversation. And then he blocked me. What? My third attempt, Betty, went almost exactly the same way as Ron, except that so far she has not blocked me—I just haven’t heard from her again. Then when I messaged the first one, Nancy, to confirm our date, she said she wasn’t available at that time after all, and did not know when she would be available. And unfriended me.
They don’t even know that I’ve got a list of about 100 nosy questions to ask them.
What in Sam Hill is wrong with my approach? Why won’t they talk to me? Wouldn’t you be happy to be asked?
I am bewildered and frustrated.
Strange problem. Maybe a better option is to just ask to meet for coffee … your treat. Once you are face-to-face you can talk about your project. They may be more accommodating if they feel like they know you.
Thanks, Mary Ann. I thought they’d already feel like they know me because we had communicated on a Facebook page dedicated to St. Johns history. But apparently not. I dunno–I guess I could be less open about what I want from them. Like, just “to talk about St. Johns history,” or something.
Hi Sylvia, this is Nicky. I came to your house to pick up a t-shirt a couple of weeks ago and we have done cake luck together several times. I am not native st johns, but I have lived here for 50 years and have been in my present home for 30. I would love to talk to you if it fits your story line. I don’t know why other people flaked out. Your approach looked inviting to me and I even read the questions! Give me a call if you want to talk 503-283-9489
Hi, Nicky! Of course I remember who you are. Oh yes! If you have been here for 50 years I would LOVE to talk to you. I will call you. Thank you.
That is just plain odd. I don’t see anything wrong with your approach — you’re friendly, interested in hearing their stories (and people LOVE to talk about themselves!) and open about what you’re doing. Mary Ann is right — try just asking to meet for coffee first. The other thing would be to put out a request on your FB page about what you are doing, and would anyone be interested in sharing their stories? You might add something about “all names and pertinent details will be changed to protect your privacy.”
Hi, Jodi! Thank you–you may be right. I thought I’d have better luck on pages specifically dedicated to local history, but it may be time to just put something on my FB page. The people who would see that are, at least, people who already more or less know who I am.
They so don’t need to worry about privacy! None of their stories are going in this book. I just need their memories of what St. Johns was like back then.
How utterly strange, Sylvia. They don’t all know one another, do they? It almost sounds as if someone started a rumor about what you are “really” doing and they are nervous to talk to talk to you, perhaps fearing they will end up as characters in a book. That’s really sad.
If you haven’t run out of possible interviewees, maybe it would work to just meet and chit chat about the history of St. Johns and not even mention a book.
Hi, Kerry! That exact thing did occur to me, that maybe someone got paranoid and they talked to each other and decided I was scary. They actually probably do all know each other. This is not a big town, and when these people were young it was much smaller. I think you’re right–I need to make it clear that their own life stories will not make an appearance in this book. I need their memories only to have a clearer picture of what St. Johns was like back then.
There’s a place specifically dedicated to chit-chat about the history of St. Johns–the monthly meetings of the St. Johns Heritage Society. I went to a few of those meetings, but it was not exactly welcoming and there was not really a time to ask the kinds of questions I want to ask. I asked a couple of the attendees to meet me so I could ask them stuff but they seemed unenthusiastic and it never materialized.
I agree with M.A.
Since I’ve moved here (now 12 years), I’ve come to understand that anything in person is easier than an online ask. I always have a list of questions for people about this or that (history or current events) but I try to not show up with an agenda. It may be a slow process but I think it is important.
You may very well hit upon someone who knows what you are working on who heard about it from someone else and they will ask you. But expect it to go slow.
Hi, Babs! Thanks–I do think you’re right. Once I get someone to do this, I bet they’ll hear about it from each other and more people will be OK with it.
That’s strange. I interview people all the time and it goes in the newspaper.
Online, I see that there are a lot of historical resources. You might find willing subjects through the museums or historical society.T
Good luck to you! It’s just a slow start. You’ll find people who will talk.
Hi, Peggy! I used to interview people all the time for work, but they pretty much didn’t have a choice. Their lawyer would tell them they had to talk to me. Yes, I tried the local historical society but had similar lack of success there. I think you’re right–I will find someone who will talk, and when they do, they’ll tell each other and then it might get easier.
One reason I expected this to be much easier is that for my previous book I interviewed people who had lived in Red Bluff, CA, in the 1930s, and they were WAY happy to talk to me. Fell all over themselves being helpful, even offered to give me a tour, pointing out where everything was. I don’t know what the difference is.
I’m also thinking of my next-door neighbor, who was a survivor of the Vanport flood (an event that occurs in this current book). I ran into her on the sidewalk outside her house and asked her if I could ask her some questions about Vanport, and she said no. She said memories of the past made her sad and she didn’t want to talk about it. And then she was talking about it. 10 or 15 minutes later I suggested that we go inside and sit down “for a minute” because it must be uncomfortable for her to stand for so long. She ended up talking to me for about an hour and a half.
I wonder if there are any retirement homes in St John that you could visit? That might be a great source for people who would love to chat.
That’s a great idea, Cheryl, thank you! Yes, there are two large facilities and several small homes. I’m familiar with the two larger ones and could try talking to people there.