Guiding a privileged journey
By ODT | Posted: Monday September 9, 2019
Knowing your family's stories can be profoundly grounding, says publisher Gareth St John Thomas. So he has set out to help you capture yours.
Publisher Gareth St John Thomas has written a book himself, for his Dunedin-based company Exisle publishing. But it's not so much his story as yours. The book Finding True Connections is a how-to for those setting out to record the life story of a family member.
In the introduction he writes that those undertaking the task "embark on a very privileged journey".
"Discovering a person's life story is a rare honour and must be treated with the utmost respect, dignity and confidentiality," he writes.
With that in mind, he was keen to provide a manual on how to do it well.
Q Why did you decide to take on this project?
Here at Exisle we have noticed a lot of people trying to write the biography of someone in their family and not finishing it. Sometimes they come to us, as we have a service that does it all for them from interviewing the family member right through to the final story published in book form, but it costs thousands of dollars. We also know that with the right guidance people can get this done themselves.
We think it's important for these kinds of stories to be recorded, as otherwise parts of a family's psychological DNA can be lost. Knowing how relatives thought about and did things is always useful; it's also often reassuring and can provide guidance for relatives. At the very least, it enables family members to explain something about themselves.
Today there is an explosion of interest in family ancestry. However, we need to be wary, as a simple collation of facts can mislead people into thinking they know everything about themselves. But discovering Nordic strains in your DNA doesn't really tell you anything about yourself, whereas learning what one of your grandparents cared about, their character traits, their dreams and goals, is more likely to be meaningful information that potentially impacts your own life. Also, the various generations often live far apart now, with whanau scattered across the country or indeed the globe. Some grandchildren will rarely, if ever, meet their grandparents but it's still important to know and understand your whanau wherever they may be.
Q Why after a lifetime in publishing did you decide to write this book as your first?
My job includes helping and sometimes persuading other people to write. The qualities I look for include unique expertise, passion and an ability to put things simply. Well, I certainly have the passion for this and a lot of experience! My grandfather's story was also instructive for me. As a 10-year-old I thought he was a rather strange man who made a lot of funny noises (you may have seen my children's book Grandpa's Noises!) and sat in a corner smoking. As I started exploring life from around the age of 14, I realised that Granddad, Gilbert Thomas, was an interesting person - a poet whose work was displayed on the London tube and a conscientious objector who spent World War 1 in jail. But then he died, and it was a long while before I was able to pick up the pieces and discover who he really was. Had someone gone through the process explained in Finding True Connections with him, the value of his views and experiences would have been much more accessible to me.
Q Why is it important that we have these stories?
Stories bring us closer to our families and ourselves. Now that we often live in separate communities, we need to capture these stories before they are gone forever. Knowing about our past obviously helps us to make sense of who we are today, and most people's stories add a unique and valuable perspective to the bigger picture of history. A 77-year-old alive today would have felt the impact of World War 2, revolutions in communication technology, the use of the computer, the invention of the internet, a total change in health care and transportation. Their story will at the very least tell you how to absorb and deal with change.
Q Who is it most important for?
As well as being interesting and instructive for living and future members of a family, the story of a family member can be very important to the person whose story is being told. Older people, in particular, want to have their voice heard and leave a legacy of the value of their experiences. I have found that just helping people tell their stories does them a power of good. Partly, of course, it helps them put their life into a coherent story. But even those who think they "haven't done much" realise that in fact they have when their story is pulled together. In some ways this validates their life and often provides a kind of psychological "bounce".
Q Are there wider society-level implications in people having this sort of access to the stories of their families?
I only see positives. We always used to know about our relatives, and I think that in our more isolated digital worlds, having the grounding of our family's experiences can profoundly help our sense of self and belonging. This applies to anyone who encounters the story of their grandfather/grandmother or parent. In fact, I have often been surprised by how little mature children - and I am talking of people in their 50s - understand of their own parents' experiences.
Q Is there a time in life that it becomes important to record these stories either for the interviewer or the interviewee?
Probably the best time is when the interviewee is well within what we call "The Wisdom Years" - the years after full-time conventional work and before very old age. So maybe from the mid-60s onwards. At this stage, grandchildren and nieces and nephews will probably be old enough to take an intelligent interest and find out things that may help them with their lives.
Q The book's introduction includes several cautions and underlines some important processes. Why is it necessary to be clear about these things?
Through our experience at Exisle we have learned what can go wrong when someone sets out to record and tell a family member's story. The book sets out the traps to be avoided. We know that starting to write a family member's history and then not completing it is a distressingly common occurrence and Finding True Connections is designed to make sure that doesn't happen. Simply following the process and questions in the book will make sure the job is done with the appropriate protocols.
Q Your book involves 100 questions. Was it difficult to arrive at these questions?
The hard process was getting the questions down to 100. Finding True Connections also has lots of supplementary questions and the book sets out the context for those questions. For example, one of my favourite questions from the "Early Years" section of the book is "What is the first room you remember?". The answer to this will tell you far more than the details of the room itself. Where it was matters and what the interviewee finds most memorable will reveal something about their lives at that time. Another favourite question is "What did you want to be when you grew up?". This reveals the child, as remembered by the adult, their sense of self-belief and, of course, the very different cultural and gender constraints under which people have grown up. This question can sometimes be particularly difficult for older women who may have had ambitions beyond home and family. A 16-year-old girl today would have no understanding, for example, of a world where only certain occupations were permissible for her and where she would have been expected to stop working when she got married. Knowing that, I suggest, might help someone value their career opportunities that much more, which is a small but good example of the living power of collecting these stories.