By Deborah Swift
Most of last year I was working on 'Past Encounters', a novel set in 1945 and ten years later in 1955. This meant the period is on the border of slipping into memory and on the border of historical fiction as a genre. As such it meant I was able to interview people who had first hand memories of the times, although those people were often housebound or elderly.
My novel is set during the filming of Brief Encounter, the classic Engish film, which features a railway station as one of its main locations. Quite a few people who worked in and around the station were drafted in as extras for the film, and it was these people I wanted to trace and interview in order to construct a fictional lead character who might have been an extra during the filming.
Here are my tips for interviewing.
Be polite, because the person is giving up their time to help you, so offer to buy them a coffee, or if you are meeting them at home, bring a small gift of cake or biscuits or a copy of one of your other books as a gesture of thanks. Make a note of their full name and how it is spelled as you may later want to credit them, and as the interview gets going you might get too excited to ask!
Have a list of very specific questions. The first time I did an interview, I found my interviewee had so many memories that before I knew it she had begun to tell me an anecdote that happened to her father in 1971, which was interesting and took about twenty minutes in the telling, but was of course completely useless to me as material for my book.
Which reminds me, allow lots and lots of time. This is because you want the interview to progress naturally, like a conversation; otherwise it might feel like an interrogation. So although you have particular questions, you might need to steer the conversation gently that way, and the more relaxed your interviewee is, the more likely it is that they will give you the nuggets of memory which really bring the story alive. I talked to one lady whose description of when her fiancee did not come back from the war meant we both had to have the box of tissues!
I took some of my other research along, eg newspapers from 1945 and books about WWII with good photographs, and this gave a natural start to the conversation whilst we looked at the pictures together. Sometimes it was a cue for their photo album to come out, and those were great insightful conversations. Expect to drink vast quantities of tea and coffee and eat lots of biscuits and cake.
The people I interviewed were fascinated by my process as a writer, and on occasions it felt more like I was the interviewee. They will want to know when to expect your book to come out, and when they can buy it. These can be difficult questions to answer when you haven't even written the book yet. After a few months you will begin to get phone calls asking how you are getting on. (Of course by then it is still just a disastrous soup in your head, but you reassure them nevertheless.)
So one of the things to remember is that once you have interviewed someone, you then have a relationship with that person, and you can't just drop them when you have got the information you need. Expect to make lots of new friends, and particularly with older people be prepared to go back and chat with them again about how things are going with the book. I was continually humbled by what I learnt about life for my grandparent's generation.
Offer a copy of the novel when it is ready. You will probably have to do a lot of apologizing because 'their bit' is not in it, having been cut when you realized the whole thing was much too long and you couldn't include everything!
I brought out the book under the pseudonym Davina Blake because it is a much more modern book than my other historicals and a different kind of read. In the same vein as the film 'Brief Encounter', there is plenty of relationship drama but no big frocks or swashbuckling in this one! As a writer it was refreshing to have a different research process and a different period to work in. 'Past Encounters' will probably appeal to a different reader, though I hope some of the people who enjoyed my other books do give it a try.