Writing Oral History
Guest post by SLQ's Oral History and Digital Storytelling Coordinator, Gavin Bannerman
Traditionally, oral history has involved a very particular interviewing style. It is seen as serious, worthy and comprehensive. A person’s life history recorded via tape deck. Cultural institutions like the State Library of Queensland have literally thousands of hours of such recordings. They have been created by working historians, social activists and enthusiastic genealogists. Whatever the intentions of the interviewer and interviewee, they have shared a common belief: “this is serious.”
Yet, in spite of the practitioner’s lofty ideal to get a person’s life down on tape, there are moments of frivolity and lost-in-the-moment fun. One well-respected Queensland oral historian recounted to me an interview with a woman that had lived in Brisbane during WWII. “What was the big difference between the Australian and American soldiers?” the oral historian asked. The lady, now of an advanced age, replied that the American servicemen had zippers on the fly of their trousers, whereas the local uniforms used the more traditional button method.
With the staggering potential of modern technology, most people now have the opportunity to become oral historians. Using a smartphone, an interviewer is now able to capture a person’s reflections instantly.
I believe there is still a fundamental difference between a good and a bad oral history interview. A journalist recording a conversation on their iPhone is recording oral history, usually for the purpose of putting together a written article. Occasionally, such interviews cross over to be truly interesting pieces in their own right. But often the journalist simply requires a few pithy soundbites, a quote for the media cycle and the conversation ends up on the cutting room floor.
Fantastic interviews are bigger than the sum of their parts; they transcend both the interviewer and interviewee and offer up new knowledge and new perspectives.
Oral history is a rich resource for writers. For writers of non-fiction, oral history has tremendous potential to corroborate facts, to confirm or deny rumours. It can also connect us with a very distant past. In the State Library’s collection, we have 1980s interviews with Cape York residents in their 90s, talking about the stories their parents told them. That means that you are getting stories from the late 19th century, during the time of first European settlement in the area.
Fiction writers can also draw a great deal from these recorded voices. The speaker’s intonation or turn of phrase comes through marvellously in old recordings. Imagine, a time when an interview would not be peppered with the word “awesome.” Without a face to look at, or physical cues to go on, you are forced to form an opinion of this person solely through their voice.