How To Get People To Share Stories
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Stories about people and times gone by float around the table at Thanksgiving. They move us to laughter, to hugs or tears. Most of all, they help us remember who we are and where we came from.
Over the past six years, the StoryCorps project gathered tens of thousands of these stories one at a time. The idea is for people to talk with the people they know best, to record a conversation with a loved one and ask for the stories that need to be remembered, for answers they've always wanted to know.
For example, Dr. Lynn Weaver, a professor of surgery at Morehouse School of Medicine, went into the StoryCorps booth with his daughter, Kimberly.
Dr. LYNN WEAVER (Morehouse School of Medicine): My father was everything to me, and it's actually kind of difficult talking about him without becoming very emotional. Up until, you know, he died, every decision I made, I'd always call him. And he would never tell me what to do, but he would always listen and say, well, what do you want to do? And he made me feel like I could do anything that I wanted to do.
I can remember when we integrated the schools that there were many times that I was just scared, and I didn't think that I would survive. And I'd look up, and he'd be there. And whenever I saw him, I knew that I was safe. And I always tell you that your mama is the smartest person I've ever met, but I think my father ranks right up there as brilliant.
When I was in high school, I was taking algebra, and I was sitting at the kitchen table trying to do my homework, and I got frustrated and said I just can't figure this out. I'm just - so my father said what's the problem? He came by. He said, what's the problem? And I said it's this algebra. And he said, well, let me look at it. I said they didn't even have algebra in your day.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. WEAVER: And I went to sleep. And around 4 o'clock that morning, he woke me up. He said come on, son, get up. He sat me at the kitchen table, and he taught me algebra. What he had done is sit up all night and read the algebra book, and then he explained the problems to me so I could do them and understand them.
And to this day, I live my life trying to be half the man my father was, just half the man. And I would be a success if my children love me half as much as I love my father.
CONAN: And Dr. Lynn Weaver joins us now from his family's home in Phoenix, Arizona. Welcome. Happy Thanksgiving.
Dr. WEAVER: Well, thank you, Neal. It's a pleasure to be on the show.
CONAN: And I'm taking from that, if there was one person you could take into the StoryCorps booth, it would be your father?
Dr. WEAVER: It's no question. If I could talk to him again, it would be all I could ask for.
CONAN: What would you ask him?
Dr. WEAVER: I would ask more about his life as a youngster, growing up in the segregated South and how he felt about his lack of opportunities and how he was able to take care of his family, even though there were many restrictions on him.
CONAN: What did he do for a living?
Dr. WEAVER: Well, he was an operator at Oak Ridge Chemical Plant for a few years, but then he was laid off, and he ended up being a chauffeur. So he was a chauffeur.
CONAN: And is there anywhere where his voice is recorded, where his stories are preserved?
Dr. WEAVER: I taped him during one time I was home visiting, and I had a tape recorder, and I taped him talking about his father and some other relatives. That's the only recording.
CONAN: Have you played that for your children?
Dr. WEAVER: You know, I haven't. My oldest daughter, who was in the interview booth with me, she was the one who had the most contact with my father, and that's why she asked me that question, because she knew how special he was by personal contact.
CONAN: And what did she go on to ask you about your life?
Dr. WEAVER: She asked a lot of things about my life: Why did I decide to go into medicine, what life was like being one of the group that integrated the high schools in Knoxville, Tennessee. And I think, just in general, what my views on - and my thoughts about her and her brothers.
CONAN: Hmm. And it is - just as I think you derive some knowledge and some satisfaction from having a recording of your father's voice, I suspect your children and your grandchildren will feel the same way about having that recording available to them.
Dr. WEAVER: And that's the special thing about the StoryCorps project. You know, you get a CD, and I have that recording where I can play for my children and my grandchildren, and they'll learn about my father, their grandfather, their great-grandfather, from that recording. So it's extremely - just a blessing that continues to keep giving.
CONAN: And I hope you family gathered around you today.
Dr. WEAVER: Well, I do. I actually live in Atlanta, but I'm out visiting my cousin and her husband in Phoenix, Arizona. We're spending Thanksgiving with them. My children, I hope, are listening to this interview back in Atlanta.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, Dr. Lynn Weaver, thank you very much for your time today. Happy Thanksgiving.
Dr. WEAVER: Well, Neal, thank you so much. And say hello to Dave Isay for me.
CONAN: I will. He's listening right now. Dr. Weaver is a professor of surgery Morehouse School of Medicine, and he recorded memories of his father in the StoryCorps booth, with his daughter, Kimberly, with us today, as he mentioned, from Phoenix, Arizona.
And who would you want to speak with? Who would you want to interview? What story would you like to hear? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We'll get to Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, in just a moment, but we'd like to talk with Joseph, Joseph on the line with us from La Crosse, Wisconsin. How are you? Joseph, Happy Thanksgiving.
JOSEPH (Caller): Happy Thanksgiving to you, and your guests as well. This is wonderful. And I thought it was fitting that when you said what would you ask him, what would you ask your dad about to your last guest, he said I would ask him about him.
And it wasn't about, you know, how do you think I did or anything, and I thought what a wonderful moment to be able to get more information about another person.
CONAN: And what - who would you want to talk to?
JOSEPH: Actually, my dad, as well. And I think the thing I would want to ask my dad is I was - let's see. I was almost 40 when my dad died, and my dad was an alcoholic. And the entire time I was growing up and even as an adult, I had exactly one conversation with him about his drinking, and he said - I said, you know you're an alcoholic, right? He said no, I'm not. And I said you drink every day. I said I've never seen a day that I can remember that you didn't drink. And he said I'm not an alcoholic.
And that was the only discussion I ever had with my dad about his drinking, and my dad was an alcoholic for my entire life, as far as I can tell. And I'd really like to ask him about where that came from, what created that for him.
CONAN: It's a lot of pain in there, but it'd nice to hear the answer.
JOSEPH: And it's interesting. I know this sounds weird, but there was an episode of Archie Bunker years ago, and everybody remember Archie Bunker as the classic bigot and everything. And he got stuck in the cellar with his son-in-law, and he asked him about his origins. And he started to tell a little bit about how, when he was a child, that he was - they were very poor. He had very little, and his father, his father beat him pretty hardly, but his father was the man that he got his bigotry from. And he said, but he's your dad, you know, and he's the one that throws the first ball to you and takes you to football games and stands in the stands when you do something amazing. And he said, you know, how could you go against your father? And I really think there's something to that moment of awareness, because we have to learn that someplace. We have to find that pain someplace, and I'm just curious where my father found his.
CONAN: Joseph, thanks very much for the call. Happy Thanksgiving.
JOSEPH: Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving to you.
CONAN: And Dave Isay is with us from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston. Dave, thank you so much for sharing part of your holiday with us.
Mr. DAVE ISAY (Founder, StoryCorps): Hi, Neal. I'm really glad to be here. Thanks for doing the show.
CONAN: And this is the eve of the National Day of Listening, and I wonder, the day after Thanksgiving, is that because there is - that lingering echo of all those Thanksgiving Day stories still wandering around our heads?
Mr. ISAY: Yeah, I think so. I mean, what we're doing tomorrow is asking the country to take an hour and interview a loved one by any means necessary, using any equipment you have around the house.
CONAN: You don't have to go to the StoryCorps booth, you can just�
Mr. ISAY: Exactly. So you can use your computer, or a lot of people's cell phones can record, video cameras, and ask those important questions. I mean, that - the call from Joseph just now was really beautiful, and I think something you know is that the microphone gives you the license to ask questions and have conversations you don't normally get to have.
And, you know, we picked the day after Thanksgiving because family is around, and also, it is kind of neat antidote to the, you know, shopping craziness of Black Friday. But, of course, a lot of people are working tomorrow, and if you can't do it tomorrow, you can really do it any time.
But, you know, we think of this as kind of the most meaningful and least expensive gift we can give one another, especially during these tough economic times.
CONAN: It's funny. We were sitting around in our morning meeting here at TALK OF THE NATION this morning, and so many people said, you know, we've determined in our family we need to get the voices. There's only four of my parents' generation left alive, and yet we don't do it.
Mr. ISAY: Right. Well, you know, one of the things - you know, I travel around the country talking about StoryCorps all the time, and every day, every day, every day, I have people come up and say I wish I'd interviewed my grandfather. I wish I'd interviewed my brother or my dad, but I didn't do it. And I hope that, you know, come Saturday, there will be a few less people who will be saying that, you know, next year.
And you know, that's the thing. I mean, we have - we actually have a Web site, nationaldayoflistening.org, with the very - it's really easy to do this, and you know, I guarantee two things. One is you won't regret it, and the second thing is no matter how well you think you know the person you're interviewing, you're going to find out things you didn't know before.
CONAN: And we'll give you some tips on how. If you'd like to know that, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. But Dave, one thing that people ought not to be intimidated by, they may hear the excerpts from the StoryCorps stories on MORNING EDITION every once in a while, a gee, those sound professional and really tight. Well, those are professional and tight because they're edited by professionals.
Mr. ISAY: That's right. Yeah, the StoryCorps - you know, we've done, as you said, tens of thousands of StoryCorps interviews, and those are 40-minute interviews, and what you hear are excerpts of three minutes from one out of every several hundred interviews, you know, and - but we see StoryCorps as a public service, and it's a human service. It's about giving people the opportunity to stop and look a loved one in the eye and tell them how much they mean to you by asking them about their lives. And StoryCorps, at its core, tells people that they matter and won't be forgotten.
These stories we hear are those stories that kind of rise up and have this universal quality, and I think the stories we listen to - which have been, you know, recorded all over the country, 50 states, every kind of person you can imagine. And when you hear a story, almost by definition, the person whose story you're hearing is very different than you, but it's pretty likely that you're going to walk in their footsteps for just a moment. And I think that act of recognizing yourself in someone else has the potential to really build bridges and remind us how much we share in common, and it binds us.
CONAN: We're talking with Dave Isay about tomorrow's National Day of Listening. Who would you interview? What story would you want to hear? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us. We'll be right back. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We've all heard a profound moment or a touching story from one of the many StoryCorps segments over the years and thought of a person we've always wanted to interview but never quite knew how.
Today, we're talking with Dave Isay, the creator of StoryCorps, about how you can get those stories and about his latest project, the National Day of Listening. That's tomorrow.
Who would you want to speak with? Who would you interview? What story would you want to hear? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Dave Isay also wrote the book "Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project." He's with us today from Boston.
Let's get another caller on the line. This is Patricia, Patricia with us from Richmond in Virginia.
PATRICIA (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you?
CONAN: I'm good, thanks. Happy Thanksgiving.
PATRICIA: Happy Thanksgiving to you. I had a son when I was very young, and he was adopted before he was born, basically. And recently, we reconnected, and it's truly amazing. We really enjoy one another's company, and over the weekend, he brought his wife to meet me from Chicago, and we had a great visit.
The person I would really like to talk to is the woman who raised him, his mother, his real mother, and to find out things like what it was a like to have this wonderful child and whether she ever wondered if he would be different if he were her birth child. And - because I'd always thought that the babies, you know, they learn their facial expressions from the person that they're looking at. But this man is 39 now, and he - when we smile, we smile alike, and we laugh at the same things, and we have the same kind of weird, quirky intellect. And�
CONAN: Well, genes win out, you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PATRICIA: Apparently so, but it has been really wonderful, and�
CONAN: Has he spoken with you about why you decided that he should be adopted?
PATRICIA: We have talked about that, yeah. And I was young and really didn't have a very - I had a kind of a strange childhood myself, like the guy who was just talking to you. My father was an alcoholic, and my mother left and came here when I was a little child, and then I ended up being raised by nuns. And so what girls did in those days if they got pregnant was give their children up.
PATRICIA: And so that was just kind of - you know, it was almost - it was just the right thing to do, and when I see the upbringing that he had and the opportunities that he had, I'm not sure I could have given him all that.
CONAN: And do you hesitate to contact this woman?
PATRICIA: Well, she died, and it was funny that you had this subject because earlier today, I texted him - he called me this morning just to tell me, you know, Happy Thanksgiving and all that. And later on, I thought, well, he probably called his father. So I said the next time you talk to your father, please thank him for me.
CONAN: Well, you may want to talk to him sometime, too.
PATRICIA: Yeah, I do. I do, definitely, yeah. So - but anyway, that's what I had offer to you all today.
CONAN: Patricia, thanks very much.
PATRICIA: You're welcome. Have a good day.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Dave Isay, stories like that are so compelling, and the lost opportunities are so - well, you wince a little bit.
Mr. ISAY: Yeah. And Patricia, I hope that you will - I'm sorry that - I was thinking a lot of things when you were speaking, but, you know, we just - I was just working on the second, the next StoryCorps book, which is called "Mom," and we could have filled that book with interviews that were done between adopted kids and their adoptive or biological parents. So many people come to StoryCorps to have those conversations.
And, you know, if you - take a look at our Web site. Go to nationaldayoflistening.org and find out from your son whether his dad would do an interview with you and do it. There's no reason not to. And also, you may want to talk to your son as well, either through StoryCorps or, you know, do it yourself, do it tomorrow.
We have - on our Web site, we have something called a pledge page, and you can pledge to do an interview, and hopefully, that'll get you think about who you're going to talk to and help you get your equipment together and all that kind of stuff so you can do this interview. And again, it doesn't have to be tomorrow.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from John in Rocky River, Ohio. Is there a list of starter questions to ask?
Mr. ISAY: We have something called a question generator, which not only has starter questions, but hundreds and hundreds of questions. We have what we call our best questions, which through the 30,000 interviews we've done at StoryCorps have proven to be, you know, the 10 most effective questions, and those will get you far.
And those questions are kind of big life questions. What are the most important lessons you've learned in life? How do you want to be remembered? But the trick in doing these interviews, as we've - you know, as the first caller said, it's really all about listening, and it's about asking the questions you've always wanted to ask.
So, yeah, go on - please do go on our Web site, and you can find all the questions you could ever want to ask.
CONAN: I was going to ask you to email me those questions. I could probably use a few of them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Steve, Steve with us from Arnold, Missouri.
STEVE (Caller): Good afternoon, wonderful show, as always.
CONAN: Thank you.
STEVE: The natural thing is to say parents or something like that. Mine actually would be a gentleman who I grew up across the street from. He was an elderly man from the time I first knew him, and he was a musician. He played piano, and at the time, all I remember is that he played this old rinky-dink-sounding, funny-sounding music that we all kind of sat outside and laughed at night. That sounds so funny.
Well, now, here I am 35 years later, trying to be a part of keeping alive the sounds of '20s and '30s jazz, and one tune I remember him playing specifically is Duke Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo." And every time I hear the tune, every time I play it, I think about him, and I think what an opportunity I missed by - this man was active as a territory musician, playing bands that toured through the lower Midwest and beyond, probably, for all I know. And I just think what a golden chance I had to really pick a brain of somebody who was there, and I blew it.
CONAN: Well, you remember them, and it's important to get your memories of him down at some point.
Mr. ISAY: We also, you know, it really isn't just about interviewing family members. One of the partners this year on the National Day of Listening is the Corporation for National Community Service, and we think of doing these interviews also as an act of service.
So whether it's the guy who lives across the street or someone in a veterans hospital or someone at a soup kitchen, you know, doing these interviews is a way to honor people - not only to preserve their memories and pass on their thoughts and who they were, but, you know, to tell them that their lives matter.
So you missed that one, but there are plenty of other musicians, older people, around at senior centers and so forth. So take the opportunity to go, to find someone else and honor them.
STEVE: All right. Unfortunately, he did pass on maybe 35 years ago. So that's why I said it that way, but thank you very much, and you are an inspiration.
CONAN: All right, Steve, thanks very much for the call.
STEVE: Thank you.
CONAN: Happy Thanksgiving.
STEVE: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye. Let's go next to - this is Carlotta(ph), Carlotta with us from St. Louis.
CARLOTTA (Caller): Hi, hi. Actually, Arnold is just right down the road from us here in St. Louis.
CONAN: Indeed it is. Happy Thanksgiving, Carlotta.
CARLOTTA: Thank you very much. I'm calling because I wanted to talk about my dad. We had always, my siblings and my nieces and nephews and I, wanted to record my dad telling his stories about World War II and Korea and never got around to making a recording, but he got ill and died kind of unexpectedly. But the day before he went into surgery, I did take the time to go over and spend the day there with him and asked him to tell me the stories about being shot down in Korea, and I'm so glad I did because he never really made it out of the surgery, and I never would have heard that story.
I very much regret that we didn't record it, and I encourage everybody to - that's thinking about doing this to do it before it is too late. And I'm so glad to hear you talk about this because at least I still have my mom, and we can get her stories. It's not too late for that.
Mr. ISAY: Don't wait on your mom, okay? Interview her tomorrow.
CARLOTTA: Yes, definitely. Yes.
CONAN: Your dad was a fighter pilot?
CARLOTTA: Yes he was, in World War II and Korea. Well, he was a fighter pilot in Korea. I don't honestly know what kind of a plane he flew in World War II.
CONAN: Well, probably a fighter. That's probably why they brought him back, like Ted Williams, who came back and flew in Korea, as well, flying P-51s, I think during the Second World War and then F-86s in Korea.
CARLOTTA: Yeah, that sounds familiar, as a matter of fact.
CONAN: Yeah. All right, well, thanks a lot, Carlotta. Appreciate it.
CARLOTTA: All right, thank you very much.
CONAN: Here's another email we have, another war story, this from K.J., also in St. Louis. One year after opening Christmas gifts, I sat down with my father. Daddy was a medic with the 501st Paratrooper Unit. He didn't talk much about the war. For the next four hours, he told a magnificent tale, from basic training at Fort Bragg to landing off coordinates from his unit on D-Day, facing German soldiers while protecting a farmhouse full of wounded soldiers to going through the Eagle's Nest. Now, I wished I'd had a tape recorder or a StoryCorps booth. Regardless, people need to ask about those stories. I will always treasure that time with my father.
So remarkable stories, and that's a generation that is passing. Most everybody who is a survivor of the Second World War who participated has got to be over 80 years old, David.
Mr. ISAY: Right. And you know, I think when - what you hear, whether it's Carlotta's(ph) story or the email that you just read or, you know, Lynn Weaver's dad, Thurman Weaver, who's - the tape you played earlier today, I mean, these are - to me, this is the real American story and these are the real American heroes. It's the character and conviction and courage and kindness and poetry you find in the voices all around you that are the stories we should be celebrating as opposed to Balloon Boy and, you know, Ponzi-schemers and, you know, and these are the stories that really matter and the kind of stories we should be holding up to our kids as examples of who they can and should grow up to be.
CONAN: And what are they used for? They're preserved, I know, in the Library of Congress.
Mr. ISAY: The StoryCorps stories, yeah, as Dr. Weaver said, you - the - a copy goes home with the family and then another copy goes to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress so that not only your grandkids but your great, great, great, great, great grandkids can someday get to meet your father or mother or grandfather through their voice and story.
And with the National Day of Listening, we don't have the capacity to take those interviews into the Library of Congress, unfortunately, but we do have something called the Wall of Listening, so you can register your interview and tell us who you talked to and what you talked about.
And now, with technology on our side, you know, it's quite easy to, you know, burn CDs and make copies and you can - there are sites you can upload the audio to. And with a little bit of care, these recordings can survive for a long, long, long, long time to come.
CONAN: It's important also to make sure you preserve artifacts, letters, that sort of thing. But there is nothing quite the same as hearing somebody's voice.
Mr. ISAY: Well, that's, you know, the - you know, as your listeners know and as you know, the soul is kind of contained in the voice, so it's a very powerful - it's a very powerful way to document someone's life.
And I think the structure of these interviews, and it sounds like what your -what the callers are saying, these - their interviews turn out much the same. The structures of a StoryCorps interview, it's kind of 45 minutes to sum up your life and 45 minutes to pass on what you've learned to the next generation. And it's a powerful and important act.
CONAN: And if you think about how to structure the interview, well, again, listen and your subject will often tell you the next question. But when in doubt, stick with chronology. You can depart from the timeline, but you ought to have a really good reason.
In any case, we're talking with Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps and the National Day of Listening about that project. And if you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call. Who would you like to talk to? What story would you want to hear? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Sharon, Sharon with us�
SHARON (Caller): Yes.
CONAN: �from Folcroft in Pennsylvania.
SHARON: Yes, that's true. I just want to say that the program is wonderful. It's given me an idea for interviewing a cousin who is like my grandmother's first cousin. But I have interviews from my grandmother before she passed, but I would've loved to have been able to interview her grandmother. She was raised by her grandmother.
SHARON: And in doing family history, yeah, I find out so much. And there's so many stories that I do know, but I would just love to touch her and to know so much more about her life, you know, about being - marrying a man who bought three farms down in the South and how she - in buying the farms, he couldn't go to the office and buy them directly, you know, because he was black, but had a friend pose as him in order to purchase those farms, and how they raised their children and how they succeeded, and just so much about her life I would love to know.
Mr. ISAY: One of the great questions for - to ask grandparents or parents is: who are your grandparents?
Mr. ISAY: You know, I did an interview with my mom at StoryCorps a little while ago, and I'm close to my mom. I didn't expect there would be much that I didn't know that we talked about, but I asked her about her grandparents and we'd never had that conversation before and it just kind of opened up this whole new world.
SHARON: That's true. It really does. You know, and I regret not having that opportunity, but I came home right before my grandmother, you know, unexpectedly passed away, and to have that time with her was incredibly special. And there were things that I told my mom that my mother didn't know about my grandmother. So I'm glad to have, you know, that time with her before she passed away.
Mr. ISAY: I'm glad you did that. You know, one of the - as you say, that one of the questions that's on that top 10 questions list, is there anything you want to tell me that you've never told me before or never told anyone before - which often turns out to be a very powerful question and a way for people to talk about things they've always wanted to talk about and get some closure on difficult moments in their lives.
CONAN: Sharon, Happy Thanksgiving.
SHARON: Thank you so much and thank you for your work.
Mr. ISAY: Thank you, Sharon.
SHARON: Thank you.
Mr. ISAY: Bye-bye.
CONAN: Dave, why did you wait so long to talk to your mother?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ISAY: Well, you know, life is like that, right? I mean, it's - just because I run StoryCorps doesn't mean that I don't fall into the same pitfall that everybody else does. It was - you know, it was more than a year into StoryCorps starting that I took my own mother into the booth. But it was really - it was eye-opening because, you know, when I came out of that booth, really the only things that I had known from that conversation before going in were, you know, her name and what the date was. Everything else was new. And you know, that's -yeah. It's interesting. I mean, it really is true that you're going to find out things that you had no idea about.
CONAN: Let's go to Paul, Paul with us Morehead City in North Carolina.
PAUL (Caller): Hi, good morning.
CONAN: Good morning. Afternoon here, but go ahead.
PAUL: Oh, thanks. I am a huge fan of StoryCorps. I recall earlier this year they came to Beaufort, North Carolina, and I was thinking of all the different people in my family and friends that I'd like to interview. And then what - I decided that who I'd really like to interview is my ex-wife, and I came up with a list of questions. And then I realized that my list of questions were questions that were never answered during our separation, divorce. So I thought maybe the forced environment of the StoryCorps would be a good way to facilitate that conversation. And I never did ask her if she would do it because I was pretty certain that she wouldn't. But I just wanted to sort of comment or ask about the environment of the StoryCorps trailer or�
CONAN: Right. Yeah.
CONAN: And let's get a quick answer from Dave.
Mr. ISAY: That's a great question. You know, I don't think it's really about the environment of the StoryCorps booth. It's really - you can't force people to answer questions. But you might be surprised, because there is something about respectfully asking someone to have a conversation like this where people will open up and have - and answer questions that you wouldn't expect them to answer.
We don't have the capacity, obviously, through StoryCorps to serve everybody who wants to be served through StoryCorps. Reservations get booked up in moments. So go call - give you your ex-wife a call and see if she'll do this tomorrow, you know? It certainly can't hurt to ask.
PAUL: Yeah. But - that's very true. And I am inspired by this conversation that I'm hearing, and also just the idea that sort of - by any means necessary.
CONAN: By any means necessary, Paul. Good luck.
PAUL: Thank you very much.
CONAN: We're talking with Dave Isay about the National Day of Listening. That's tomorrow. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: Today we're talking with Dave Isay, the creator of StoryCorps, about how to get your own StoryCorps moments, interviews with family members and friends, people you've always wanted to ask some burning question but never found the right opportunity. Who would you want to speak with? Who would you want to interview? What story would you want to hear? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also go to our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now is Sarah Darer Littman. She stepped in to the StoryCorps booth and was interviewed by her 12-year-old son Joshua, who has Asperger's syndrome. And here's a little part of that conversation.
(Soundbite StoryCorps recording)
Mr. JOSHUA LITTMAN: From a scale of one to 10, do you think your life would be different without animals?
Ms. SARAH DARER LITTMAN: I think it would be an eight without animals, because they add so much pleasure to life.
Mr. LITTMAN: How else do you think your life would be different without them?
Mr. LITTMAN: I could do without things like cockroaches and snakes.
Mr. LITTMAN: Well, I'm okay with snakes as long as they're not venomous (unintelligible) constrict you or anything.
Ms. LITTMAN: Yeah, I'm not a big snake person.
Mr. LITTMAN: But cockroach is just the insect we love to hate.
Ms. LITTMAN: Yeah, it really is.
Mr. LITTMAN: Have you ever felt like life is hopeless?
Ms. LITTMAN: When I was a teenager, I was very depressed and I think that can be quite common with teenagers who think a lot, you know, when they're perceptive.
Mr. LITTMAN: Am I like that?
Ms. LITTMAN: You are very much like that.
Mr. LITTMAN: Do you have any mortal enemies?
Ms. LITTMAN: I would say my worst enemy is sometimes myself, but I don't think I have any mortal enemies.
Mr. LITTMAN: Did I turn out to be the son you wanted when I was born? Like did I meet your expectations and�
Ms. LITTMAN: You've exceeded my expectations, sweetie, because, you know, sure, you have these fantasies of what your child's going to be like, but you have made me grow so much as a parent because you think differently from what they tell you in the parenting books.
Mr. LITTMAN: Yeah.
Ms. LITTMAN: I really had to learn to think out of the box with you, and it's made me much more creative as a parent and as a person. You are just so incredibly special to me and I'm so lucky to have you as my son.
CONAN: Sarah Darer Littman joins us from her home in Connecticut. Happy Thanksgiving. Thanks for coming on the program today.
Ms. LITTMAN: Happy Thanksgiving to you. And I'm wiping my tears again.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I bet you are. To hear that last question from your son, did you expect that?
Ms. LITTMAN: That question came as a total blindside to me. When we were going into the city for the day, the StoryCorps interview was part of a one-on-one day as - during his school vacation. I tried to do a one-on-one day with each of my kids, and that was part of our day. And I gave him - as we were going into the city on the train, I handed him my notebook and said, just write down 10 questions. And he wrote down these questions. But that question was one he hadn't written down.
Ms. LITTMAN: It was one that he just came up with on the spur of the moment. And I think that part of the reason that that question really struck a cord with so many people is that, really, it's what we all want to know from our parents. We all want to know that - or you know, do you still - do you love us for what we are, rather than the person that you might have hoped that we would be?
Ms. LITTMAN: Even with all our many faults and imperfections. And it was just such a profound question for a 12-year-old to ask that - it really struck me very much at the core.
CONAN: I liked the mortal enemies question too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LITTMAN: He really does have a way with words. And now, when I listen to that - you know, now he's taller than me and his voice is so much deeper, it really has captured a moment. Also a moment where he actually thought that my opinion mattered.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: A rare one, yeah.
Ms. LITTMAN: Well, now he's a teenager. And you know, you know how teenagers feel about their parents' opinion. It's not quite the same.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Dave, that's telling, because it captures the interviewer, as well as the subject.
Mr. ISAY: Yeah. One of the - Josh - hi, Sarah.
Ms. LITTMAN: Hi.
Mr. ISAY: Nice to hear your voice. The - one of the interesting things about this interview, which is such a beautiful interview, is that, you know, most people do use - almost everybody who has ever participated in StoryCorps uses that question generator. And Josh is one the few people who completely came up with the questions all by himself, and they're extraordinary.
CONAN: Sarah, is your son with you celebrating Thanksgiving this year?
Ms. DERER-LITTMAN: He is, yes.
CONAN: And do you get story - well, I wonder, if you could speak with him, what would you ask him?
Ms. DERER-LITTMAN: I constantly am asking him questions, although now as a teenager I don't always get the answer. I get more of the grunts. But from time to time I actually do get some very interesting answers. But I do sometimes ask him how he felt about the interview. And it really did - it was very meaningful for both of us, which I was - I was surprised how much he enjoyed it. Just the opportunity to sit down was - what was really a very tumultuous time in both of our lives - I had been going through a divorce for three years, and I think that actually showed up in some of the questions he asked me. For example, he asked me - one of the questions he asked me was have you ever thought you couldn't cope with a child?
Ms. DERER-LITTMAN: And - which is quite telling when�
Ms. DERER-LITTMAN: �you know, here I was about to be a single - you know, being a single parent and, you know, it's - are you going to fall apart on me, Mom? And one of the questions he asked was, have you ever lied to me, which I thought was also very good. You know, like, are you telling me the truth that everything is going to be okay or are you just�
CONAN: Yeah. Sure.
Ms. DERER-LITTMAN: �telling me a lie.
CONAN: I'm not going to ask you what you said.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DERER-LITTMAN: I actually - I tried to be honest with him. I said, you know, I'm sure I probably have - I have probably lied to you, but I, usually I try and tell you the truth. Usually if I lie it's because I'm afraid you're going to be upset and - but I really do try and tell you the truth because I think kids know when you're lying to them, which is really what I think, you know?
CONAN: Well, we hope you and Josh have a - and the rest of your family have a great Thanksgiving.
Ms. DERER-LITTMAN: Well, thank you. And you too.
CONAN: All right, Sarah.
Mr. ISAY: Happy holiday, Sarah.
CONAN: Sarah Derer-Littman is a writer. She participated in StoryCorps when she was interviewed by her then-12-year-old son Joshua. And let's go to Janet. Janet with us from Sarasota.
JANET (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, go ahead.
JANET: I am.
JANET: Oh, I'm on the air.
JANET: I am moved by the people who wanted to interview a parent and who didn't. And 25 years ago I did interview my mother when she was 75 years old and she had the answers to all the questions. I was prompted by a book - actually an interview, excuse me, an interview on NPR by a woman who had written a book about interviewing a parent, a grandparent. And they prompted you with the questions, such as what did you do when you were young, and what did you do for fun, and what was the music, and how did you meet my grandfather and those kinds of questions.
My mother was able to answer all the questions. We spent three days sitting under a tree in the backyard in the summer afternoons, filling in this question. She lived to the age of 98. She just died this past month. And we used that book as a prompt for her. My granddaughter, my niece read it to her, reminding her of when she was young and she was no longer able to remember the - articulate the answers. And it brought such a smile to her face when we were able to say, do you remember when you did this, do you remember you did that. We were very grateful to have had that record and that we were thought to ask the questions when she was able to answer.
JANET: I'm in my 70s. I have a twin sister. And the two of us are recording our memories so that hopefully one day our children may want to know what we were like when we were younger.
CONAN: Well, I'm glad you got involved in the proto-StoryCorps.
JANET: Pardon me?
CONAN: In the proto-StoryCorps, before it existed. So�
JANET: Yes. Exactly. That's what we were.
CONAN: Okay. Thank you very much, Janet.
JANET: Thank you. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Here's an email that we have. This from Amy in Nevada City, California. After my dad died at 58, I picked up a zoom recorder that I take everywhere. I collect stories from my grandmother, (unintelligible) childhood memories to my disabled consumer's life experiences. What a way to grow through others. Today I would like to interview my father's cousin and ask him what it has been like growing up in a religious family and hiding his sexuality.
And that's an interesting question. And these are stories that - ultimately, David, do you think that the researchers will be interested in some of these family stories, to get some idea of what actual people's lives were like in the 20th century?
Mr. ISAY: Sure. I mean, I think - you know, again, the - for us at StoryCorps, the primary important piece of this is having that connection with a loved one today and having the chance to ask questions and honor someone in your life. But I think that the StoryCorps archive, you know, is going to be incredibly valuable, because, you know, Studs Terkel cut the ribbon on our first booth six years ago. And he spoke all his professional life about the importance of bottom-up history. And I think that the StoryCorps archive is going to present a very vivid and rich portrait of what life was like for everyday people in the 20th and 21st centuries.
CONAN: Another email, this is from Theresa in Salem, Oregon. My mother is in her 80s and has never been want to share any of her thoughts. Even when I was a tiny girl, my attempts to sit with her and have her share her life story for my own children and grandchildren was met with a sentence or two, summarizing her first 20 years, then an abrupt - that's enough - as she got up and left. Her life was obviously painful, but I feel so left out in not being able to break through or even now be part of her life. Do you have any advice for those of us from difficult families who ache to have a story of any sort to hang on to?
Mr. ISAY: You know, I - when you're in that kind of situation, I don't think there's much you can do because you can't force people to tell a story if they don't want to. So - or to speak if they don't want to, and there's - nothing positive is going to come out to trying to force that. So I think the trick would be to try to find other people around her. It could be a friend of hers. It could be another relative, and do it that way. You know, I'm thinking of my - I had this - my great-aunt, the last living person of that - of my mother's - my grandmother's sisters, great-aunt Bertie(ph), who is a big character, but she - they had a very painful childhood and she never wanted to talk about - she was a real character. And I tried to interview her - you know, I was in public radio for many years, even before starting StoryCorps and I tried to interview her many, many times and she just wouldn't talk. It was too painful for her to talk about her childhood.
But after she died, I ended up interviewing her husband, her husband Sandy(ph), my great-uncle Sandy, and that was actually the first StoryCorps interview. And he wasn't a character. He was a quiet, humble farm boy from Connecticut. And he opened up in ways I never would have imagined and told the entire story of his love affair with Bertie.
So we got it - I got to learn about Bertie through him. If there's someone who doesn't want to talk, there's nothing you can do.
CONAN: Hearsay evidence is acceptable.
Mr. ISAY: That's right.
CONAN: We're talking with Dave Isay about the National Day of Listening, that's tomorrow. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go to Margie. Margie with us from Columbia, South Carolina.
MARGIE (Caller): Yes. This has not been eye-opening. This has been heart-opening for me. The person I would like to interview is the only grandparent I never really knew because he was a man of mystery. His wife, my grandmother, was always just incredibly much a lady and delightful. But my grandfather had been a wealthy wheat farmer up in Saskatchewan and in the dark of one night, so the family story goes, he took his wife and four little children and fled to come down to Iowa.
There was a story that he shot a man and had to leave quickly. But the pictures of them in their life in the rolling hills out in Saskatchewan, they were just handsome. My grandfather was so lovely. I don't even know his first name, my grandfather Lada(ph). And then he was always quiet in the few times that I saw him later. And then they moved into a sanitarium in Iowa ostensibly because he was maybe losing, you know, his - maybe dementia. I don't know. But�
CONAN: His faculties. Yeah.
MARGIE: �I feel sad because when I look at the pictures, I really want to know him and want to know why. My grandmother's fervent wish was that all of her sons would become Methodist ministers. And I know she joined WCTU and I just wonder if that's a reaction to whatever happened.
CONAN: The Women's Christian Temperance Union, yeah.
CONAN: The people who fought so hard for the prohibition of alcohol. I wonder -she's talking about pictures, Dave. Does it work sometimes to bring pictures with you and say, tell me about this, tell me about this person?
Mr. ISAY: Sure. I mean, whatever - whatever - whatever you think - it's however you want to do it. And if you want to bring pictures, that's great. You know, I also - as this person was talking and thinking back to the last question as well, about when people don't - when people don't want to talk, there are some people who will say that my story doesn't matter. And those are the people that you don't give up with. And I think one way that you can get people to talk is to say this isn't for me, this is for your - you know, for generations to come, and they will want to know where they come from.
But yeah, I think you - people can use whatever tools they want to use to have these conversations. And I hope that the caller also will come in and do a recording, even the little bit that she knows about her grandfather, to pass that on so that, you know, future generations can get a sense of, you know, where they come and who they are.
CONAN: A good mystery is something to leave your�
Mr. ISAY: Yup.
CONAN: �posterity to. Margie, good luck.
MARGIE: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Here's an email. This is from Yvette in Anchorage. I want to interview my 78-year-old father. He's the oldest of 10 children from a farm on the northern coast of North Carolina. I never knew either of my father's parents because we were an Air Force family and moved away from his family on the East Coast. I grew up in Alaska.
We just lost his sister, Honey, the first of the 10 to die, and she bridged the family connections for all of us. I want to listen to my dad talk about his father, his mother, the family farm life and the early history of his family and the children who are my aunts and uncles.
I love my huge, extended family of cousins and aunts and uncles. I want my father's stories and memories to be available for all of us. He's the patriarch and we all look up to him. I also want this for my nieces and nephews. They've had had the gift of growing up with my father in their lives. I want to record his voice and memories for all of us to have long after he's gone.
And Dave, tomorrow's as good a day as any.
Mr. ISAY: Yeah. I mean, that - what a call to action that is. You know, look, this is the second year of the National Day of Listening. And this is StoryCorps and NPR coming together to create this ongoing national tradition. So it's up to us. It's up to the people who are listening to spark this, to do the interviews, to let other people know about this idea, and to spread it through the culture so that someday it becomes just part of what we do on the day after Thanksgiving and on other days as well.
CONAN: Dave Isay, thank you so much for your time and for taking time out of your holiday to be with us.
Mr. ISAY: Thanks to you as well, Neal.
CONAN: Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps and the National Day of Listening. He's also the author of "Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project." He joined us today from the studios of our member station in Boston, WBUR.
Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving. And Happy Thanksgiving to you all.
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