Lee’s new memoir, Dimestore will be published in March, 2016 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Click to hear Lee Smith read a portion of The Last Girls.

Guidelines for doing Oral History

Since we began this project, Debbie and I have had so many inquiries about "how to do it" that we want to include these pointers for people interested in conducting an oral history project of their own.

First, identify the project specifically, limiting it as much as possible. For instance, we decided to concentrate on the town of Grundy--not the surrounding communities, and not the whole county. You may be planning to do an oral history of your family, your church, club, town, or group...whatever. Then decide who will be conducting the interviews and who will be editing the final version. Make up a packet of information for the interviewers. Our packet included both directions and examples (aimed at high school students, in our case, but you can tailor these items to fit your needs). For instance:

Sample Letter for Student Interviewers
We are embarking on an exciting project together--our aim is to create an oral history of the town of Grundy before it is forever changed by relocation. We want to capture many people's stories of life in Grundy, told in their own words, so that a written record of this community will exist. Our ultimate goal is to publish a book containing these oral histories, plus photographs. The success of this historic project is up to you, frankly! You will be the reporters--the oral historians for this important, historic project.
Here are some tips!
Good luck!
Lee Smith


  1. Miss Raines will help you decide who you are going to interview. You may already know this person. If you don't, find out some things about them before you make contact. This will give you a frame of reference for your conversation. If it's a downtown merchant, for instance, be sure you have gone in their store recently. Ask your parents, friends, or teachers to tell you a little bit about this person before you go to visit.
  2. Go over the sheet of questions, which is intended merely as a guide--a list of suggestions. Your aim is to find out what living in Grundy has been like for this person. Make yourself familiar with the questions, but don't feel that you have to ask every one on the list. These are suggestions, remember. Your person may answer 4 or 5 of the questions when they are responding to the very first one! This is O.K. You may change your questions to fit your person, too. If he/she is a minister, for instance, you'd want to concentrate on that...use your common sense! Sometimes, some of you may be going out to ask for a particular story that somebody knows. In this case, you can skip some of the list and ask other questions that will get the story you're after. Either way, go over your questions ahead of time. Think through the interview. Be sure to take your list of written questions with you!
  3. Learn to use your tape recorder. Play with it--record yourself, then play it back. Experiment with the best position for the tape recorder, etc. Do a trial interview. Practice on a parent or other family member, such as your grandmother. Be very serious about this; it's great practice. Set a time for the trial interview when you will not be interrupted. Write out your questions ahead of time, if you are not using the list provided. It would be fun, for instance, to interview your parent about his/her own childhood--you'll be surprised by how much they have to say! The key to successful interviewing is always ask very specific questions. For instance: "Where did you live when you were real little? Describe the house. What did you play? Who did you play with? Were you ever bad? What kind of punishment did you get? Where did you start school? How did you get there? How did you like it? What did you do on Saturdays? Did you have chores at home? What were they? Would you say you were a happy child? Did you go to church? Where? Who was your most favorite person in your family? Why? Your least favorite? Why?" etc.
  4. Make contact with the person you want to interview. Do this well ahead of the time you want to do the interview--but not so far ahead that they will forget!
    • If you have a contact (somebody who knows them well), ask that person to call up and tell them about the project, and tell them that you will be getting in touch.
    • CALL the person you want to interview. Tell them who you are (if you go to their church, or if they knew your father, etc., mention this connection...tell them who suggested them...etc.) Tell them what you are doing. Flatter them! Tell them how much it will mean to you/everybody for them to be a part of this exciting and important project. Set up a time and place for the interview. (You will go to their home/business.)
    • Make a trial run. Drive by their house just so you won't get lost and won't be late for your interview.
    • Call the day before, to remind them that you are coming, and tell them the time you are coming.
    • Make sure your equipment is working. Make sure you have done at least one trial interview.
    Be on time!! You will go in two's, as Miss Raines has arranged. One of you will be responsible for taping and asking questions--and making eye contact, acting real interested; the other one will take notes as the person talks. Write down details of dress and appearance, particular facial expressions or gestures, whatever seems notable. Describe house and yard--whatever strikes you as telling about that person and how they live. Write down good lines that especially "hit" you, too. (This note-taking is extremely important for the finished interview!) Then main thing for both of you to do is respond to what the person is saying. React a lot! Make them feel interesting and appreciated--act like you are fascinated! You will probably want to make a little small talk first, to put them at their ease. Thank them profusely when you are done. Be sure to get their mailing address, too.
    Now comes the hard part. Play back the interview slowly and transcribe it. You may divide up this task if you want. Write down their actual words: never summarize! This is the whole point of oral history--we want to have a person's own story, in their own words. Spell and punctuate the best you can, but don't worry about that. (Later editing will take care of any problems.) You just write it down, exactly as they said it. Don't worry about being grammatical or about making complete sentences, either. Nobody speaks in complete sentences, and we're trying to capture the sound and flavor of real speech! Sometimes you will have to use your own judgement: if a person repeats himself, you just write it down once. If a person wanders way off track, don't write that part down. But we do want complete answers to all the questions you ask. You are making a written transcript of your recorded interview. Later, this transcript will be edited; not all of it will appear in the final book. Put a date on the interview, too. **Finally--write a thank-you note to your person.
    We want to know about you, too. Please make a sheet of information about yourself which includes the following:
    Your name
    Phone number
    Year in School
    Who your parents are---What they do
    Interests, hobbies, activities
    Ambitions: What do you hope to do in the future?
    Who did you interview?
    Tape or attach your photograph to this sheet.


This tape (or tapes) and the accompanying transcript are the result of one or more recorded, voluntary interviews with me. 

Any reader should bear in mind that he is reading a transcript of my spoken, not my written word and that the tape, not the transcript, is the primary document.

It is understood that the Buchanan County Public Library may allow scholars or interested persons to listen to the tapes and read the transcript for educational purposes.  

It is further understood that material from these tapes and transcripts may be used in book form documenting the history of Grundy, for non-profit / charitable purposes only.

Signed:	 _______________________

Date:	 _______________________

Understood and agreed to:

Interviewer(s):	__________________________,	__________________________

Date:	_____________________

Director:	_________________________

Here are some general questions which might begin the interview; be sure to take written questions with you, focusing upon your particular project and interview subject.

  1. What is your full name?
  2. When were you born?
  3. Where were you born?
  4. What was your mother's name?
  5. What was your father's name?
  6. What kind of work did your father do?
  7. What did your mother do? Did she work outside the home?
  8. How many brothers and sisters did you have?
  9. Where did you go to school?
  10. What was it like going to school there?
  11. As a child or young person, what did you do for fun?
  12. How would you describe your childhood as a whole? Was it happy, hard....what?
  13. Where do you live now?
  14. Who lives with you?
  15. What kind of work do you do now?
  16. How long have you worked at your present occupation?
  17. Have you always done this kind of work? If not,tell me briefly what other jobs you've held over the years.
  18. Do you have any hobbies or special interests?
  19. Describe a typical day in your life.
ETC! The rest of the questions related specifically to our subjects' lives and experiences in Grundy over the years. Make up 30-40 questions to ask in all.

Further Suggestions from Debbie

  1. Always take two recorders so if one should fail right in the middle of the interview (and believe me that happens!), the students will have a backup. This is also a good idea if you are interviewing a group. You can place them in different positions so that if it doesn't record clearly on one, it might just do so on the other.
  2. If at all possible, students should be requested to transcribe the interview on the computer using Microsoft Word or a similar word processing program. (Word is definitely the best because it can convert other documents done with other processing programs.) Students should give the disk as well as the interview to the teacher so he or she can put all the interviews on one computer. How I wish I had done this. Not only does it help you to keep up with the interviews, it makes it so easy to edit.
  3. The teacher should definitely review all questions with each team before they go for the interview. Students should know as much as they possibly can about the person they are interviewing before they go, so they will be able to make small talk as well as to ask the proper questions. They do need to simply talk (especially with the elderly) before they jump into the questions. This seems like a no-brainer, but many of the kids don't have a clue.
  4. Teachers should be sure they have a system worked out as far as keeping up with all the pictures and all the documents. Again, I recommend doing all of this on the computer. It's so easy to get in a rush and lose a piece of information.