“To be a person is to have a story to tell.”
–Isak Dinesen

Some people are born great storytellers, but all people have great stories in them. Your job is to get them out. You can read whole books on this subject, but I’m going to pare it down to two keys to getting great answers: homework, and phrasing. This issue I’ll cover homework.

Homework pays off, really!

By “homework” I mean finding out ahead of time where the good stories are. Your father doesn’t have much to say about elementary school, nor the science high school he attended, but he becomes very animated and remembers lots of detail about vacationing in the Catskills, and especially about fishing. Oh my God, it’s like he caught those pickerel yesterday. You can see (and almost feel!) those fish wriggling on the stick as he walked back home.

Whether you use a list of pre-interview questions to give to your father, and see what areas seem richest, or talk ahead of time to people close to him – his spouse, his siblings or cousins, your siblings (we use both strategies for our memoirs) – you have the best chance of getting the good stuff. If there are classic stories you definitely want him to tell, or a part of his life that’s a bit of a mystery, make sure you put them on your question list and do a little sleuthing to see where a story might lie.

Some people worry that pre-interview strategies like these will kill the spontaneity of an answer. A greater probability is that you’ll miss the story altogether because you didn’t know it was there. Just because you asked about your uncle’s courtship with your aunt doesn’t mean he’s going to tell you what really happened, unless you gain some inside knowledge.

Try to know the answers ahead of time

Once I asked a husband who’d been married 49 years what his marriage proposal was like. He gave a short answer that revealed nothing unusual. Things had gone pretty much as planned. If I hadn’t heard a different story from his wife, I would never have known to press just a bit more with a follow-up question.

Well, it turns out he had to propose three times, because she just wasn’t ready, and the third time, in a little Swiss restaurant, lit by candlelight, with a violinist serenading them (he was taking no chances this time, he said!), he told her he wanted his class ring back. And then, at her crestfallen look, he handed her an engagement ring to replace it, and asked her to marry him, with the added imperative — “It’s now – or never.

“That clinched it,” he said.

There are a lot of great stories out there. Do your homework so you don’t miss them!