Tell Me How You Hurt Me
June 15, 2021 § 4 Comments
Hello? Ex-Husband? Why you were such a terrible person?
Interviewing people in your memoir can fill in details about settings you were too young (or emotionally unable) to remember, and explain personal logic behind choices that hurt you. But how the heck can you have a civil conversation with your abuser, your estranged parent or your ex?
Writing a good memoir means connecting deeply with your own feelings and experiences—then setting them aside and approaching potentially traumatic conversations with the detachment of a documentary filmmaker.
Don’t start with “Why’d ya throw me down the stairs, Dad?” If you’re there to make a point, challenge your sister’s truth, or get your mom to agree with your version of events, your interview is already tainted. They’ll feel it. They’ll get defensive. And there you are, right back in the relationship you were trying to process and move past. When interviewing perpetrators of your trauma—or just plain awful people—focus on knowing and understanding another person and the logic that made their own choices make sense. Truly listening doesn’t mean you agree!
Start easy. First interview people you enjoy talking to. Even if you clearly remember a positive event, they’ll fill in more detail. Your best friends can gently remind you of times you weren’t on your best behavior, and those belong in your memoir, too.
Lower the stakes. Set up interviews in comfortable, reasonably neutral locations.
- Record on your phone if needed. Microphones feel “official.”
- Talking in the car can yield intimate, thoughtful conversations—you’re sitting close, but without uncomfortable eye contact.
- Avoid assigning blame or questioning their integrity. Instead of “Why did you…?” or “Why didn’t you…?” ask, “When (specific event happened), what were your feelings and thoughts?” or “Are you able to tell more about what happened when…?”
Give fair warning. Anna Sale of the podcast Death Sex and Money says:
First, you need to ask yourself why you want to have a conversation about something hard. Then, when you initiate, start by asking if it is a good time to talk, and talk about why you want to have this particular conversation. “I’ve been wondering about something,” or “I need to tell you something I haven’t.” With this groundwork, you are signaling that you want to go into a different mode together. Again and again… when I explain why I am asking a particularly sensitive question, people are much more open to answering it. They feel invited in, rather than ambushed…
Prepare…then go with the flow. Make a list of questions, but let the conversation roam. Near the end, pull out your list and see if there’s anything important you haven’t gotten to. You can say ‘I really want to hear more about…’ ‘Can we talk about…?’ or ‘I’m going to take a jump here and ask you about…’
Let them feel heard. The Body Keeps the Score author Bessel Van Der Kolk says, “Being validated by feeling heard and seen is a precondition for feeling safe, which is critical when we explore the dangerous territory of trauma.” Use validating language like:
- Thank you for sharing this with me.
- I hear you.
- I appreciate that this must be difficult for you.
Nonverbal cues, like nodding or “hm/uh-huh” can be helpful. If someone gets emotional:
- This reaction is normal considering what you’ve been through.
- I’m sorry you had to go through that.
Use silence. Let the silence stretch after you ask a question. After an answer, avoid jumping right in with the next question. Often, your interviewee will feel the need to fill the silence, and their spontaneous response may be more revealing.
Stay aware of body language. Watch for closing-off gestures like folded arms, looking away, or legs crossed away from you. Listen for short, clipped answers or vocal tension. These are cues to back off or leave this subject for another time. If your subject is open and relaxed, you can probably push further.
Bring them back to normal. If you leave your subject happy, they’re more likely to talk again. End your interview with a positive question:
- How’s your day-to-day life now?
- How do you like to unwind or spend the weekend?
- What’s the best part of your life right now?
- Do you have any plans for after we talk?
Ask twice. If you can, talk again a couple weeks later. Often, people remember more details after your questions have been on their mind.
Interviewing with a genuine intention to hear and understand the other person helps you treat them fairly in your book. You’ll also be able to contextualize poor decisions other people made, or times they hurt you, if you allow them to tell you their logic at the time. You don’t have to forgive them, or forget what they did. But asking real questions and allowing truthful answers (even from shitty people!) yields information you need to write your book. Let your readers judge their character. Your job is to extract more truth with less trauma—for you or anyone else.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the editor of books published by Penguin Random House, Mantle, Knopf, Hachette and many more. Not completely appalled by her editing style? Find out about Project Novel, an MFA year crammed into eight weeks. Or just join the mailing list.
I know Allison already knows this, but it’s a great reminder to me: “Interviewing [Talking to] people with a genuine intention to hear and understand the other person helps you treat them fairly in your book [everyday life].” I don’t have to be writing a memoir to listen to and appreciate others’ experiences.
Thanks, Allison. There are practical tips here for lots of interviewing situations. I’ve done a couple scripts from audio interviews for clients and I wonder how much more they’d have gotten from their subjects with these tips.
Thank you for this. I have interviewed hundreds of strangers, but when it comes to family, I’m terrified. Most of the players in my book are dead, but approaching my long-estranged stepchildren? I’d rather have a root canal. Thanks for giving us some tools.
[…] Tips for tough interview situations (aimed toward memoirists who may be interviewing people from a traumatic past, but useful much more broadly), courtesy of Allison K. Williams on the Brevity blog. […]