One of my favorite interviews for demonstrating my preferred interview technique was conducted in 2005 with Peggy L. Cornett.*
That November I traveled to Washington DC to assist the Texas Tech University Vietnam Center and Archive as they collected oral histories with the men who had served and fought with the 1st Calvary Division at the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, in 1965, and their families.
This was the 40th anniversary of the battle, and many veterans and their families had come to Washington to pay their respects at the Vietnam Memorial wall on the National Mall, and to attend a gala banquet hosted by General Harold G. Moore and journalist Joseph L. Galloway.
Over a very intense weekend I conducted 18 interviews, most of them relatively short, running between 45 minutes and an hour.
In the course of those interviews I met and interviewed Peggy L. Cornett, whose brother 1st Lt. Donald Cornett had been killed in the fighting.
Peggy volunteered to be interviewed, because she felt she had a story to share about her brother and the aftermath of his death. She wanted to make sure that her — and his — experience was memorialized in the Texas Tech Vietnam archive. She came in the room knowing what she wanted to say.
What I like about this interview is the fact that the momentum develops naturally. After speaking a few introductory words, I let Peggy have the floor, to say what she needed to say. I did what I try to teach my undergraduate oral history students to do; that is to say, I placed my hands underneath me; I sat on them. I leaned forward in my chair, and I gave Peggy my full attention. I tried to focus on her eyes as I listened. I didn’t interrupt her or stop the flow of her words for at least 12 minutes. When I did so, it was only in order to request a clarification, and then I fell silent again, until she finished that segment of the interview.
Now, of course I don’t know for certain that my body posture and behavior played a significant role in the resulting narrative that Peggy shared. But what I can say is that what followed was a very intense 12 – 14 minute story of her life.
She told of growing up with her brother, and why he was so important to her. She spoke of her deep family history and brought the story up to 1965. Then she described what happened when her family learned that Don had been killed. At that point, the narrative turned inward, as Peggy began to relate the impact of his death on her. She used a story of a dream she recalls having soon after he died as a way of illustrating its identity – shattering impact. The dream story itself illustrates powerfully symbolic themes in her life, with its emphasis on earth, water, burial and regrowth. And she spoke of how she and her mother began to come to grips with Don’s passing, and the way that grieving process influenced her life, long – term.
If you listen to the interview, you will hear that Peggy is a gifted storyteller. I have often compared this narrative to the kind of short story you might read in New Yorker magazine. I claim no credit for the power of her narrative, of course.
But, if you want to know how I interview, look at this video and watch me, effectively ‘disappear,’ as she makes clear what’s important to her.
This is my goal in interviewing.
I am not the most important person in the room — my interviewee is. I want their recollections to flow, relatively untrammeled by interruptions. I want access to the past, as the interviewee recalls it, in all of it’s color and emotional intensity.
I am not a journalist, seeking some specific bit of information; nor am I a therapist, trying to heal. I’m an oral historian functioning as a student, trying to “gather a little knowledge,” as one of Alessandro Portelli’s interviewees said to him.
*Interview with Peggy L. Cornett, 11 November 2005, Peggy L. Cornett Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/virtualarchive/items.php?item=OH0481>.