In Search of the Jaw-dropping Interviews


What do cows, jaw-dropping interviews, and personal history have in common? For me, a lot. It all began with my first personal history project. I had come out of the newspaper business where every sentence was a paragraph and stories were usually short.

I didn’t know how to write a book, but I did know how to interview people. My first book was the history of one of largest and groundbreaking group medical practices in the country, located in my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Early in the process, I interviewed the cardio surgeon who brought heart bypass surgery to the system, beginning in the 1960s.

The doctor explained to me that they created a complete surgical suite in the hospital basement so that the surgical team could practice on cows and dogs (who did very well, by the way). During that time, people often thought they heard mooing coming from the basement. But surely, they thought, they must be imagining it.

The surgeon remarked that the anesthesiologist hated doing surgery on cows. Like a good reporter, I asked for the anesthesiologist’s name.

He responded: “Dr. Guernsey.”

I laughed. And laughed. I tried to stop laughing but simply could not. Professionalism be damned: A doctor named Guernsey who hated to operate on cows. Only in America’s Dairyland: Wisconsin.

When I speak to groups, I say if my jaw doesn’t drop at least once in the  interview, I haven’t asked the right questions. The story about Dr. Guernsey was my first jaw-dropping interview in my personal history career.

When I plan an interview, I have a list of general topics, but I usually don’t have specific questions that I adhere to without deviation. I want to listen intently so I can go in any direction, always searching for that jaw-dropping moment.

I wrote a book about a business celebrating its 50th anniversary. Interviewing the father of the family that owned this huge company, I learned that he was an “ideas man” with file cabinets full of ideas from his decades in business. Of course I dove into that topic, and asked many questions that veered in all directions.

I learned that early in his career he worked in the mailroom for Kimberly Clark, which made, among things, the pads women use during their periods. He remembered seeing an idea sent by a man from Australia for a pad that attached by tape to the skin instead of using belts that were common then. My client took the idea to company leaders who experimented with it, but dropped it when women testing the product developed rashes from the adhesive. A number of years later, a competitor created a pad that had tape that attached to a woman’s underwear instead of to her skin. It was a idea that became highly successful. Fifty plus years later, my client told me he still regretted not turning that pad/idea over.

What do these stories have to do with jaw-dropping interviews? They came when I asked the next question and the one after that, well beyond what initially I thought we’d discuss. They taught me that you shouldn’t get bogged down with a list of questions. If you ask only the questions you planned in advance, you might miss the good stuff—about cows, doctors named Guernsey, and the advantage to turning ideas upside down.

To me, the little stories make up a life, whether it is a history of an individual, family, business, organization, or community. These surprising, jaw-dropping stories add joy, meaning, pathos, understanding, and laughs. Sometimes lots of laughs.

Now, what about your jaw-dropping moments? What questions did you ask that elicited answers that surprised or delighted you or took the interview in a whole different direction?

~APH: Life, Story, People~

About today’s contributor: Susan T. Hessel has been asking jaw-dropping questions in interviews for her personal history projects since 1991. She calls her business Lessons from Life, because she believes we can all learn from the stories we tell and save. Sue is At-Large Director for the Association of Personal Historians.

Photo credit: Young Guernsey cow. By Brian0918 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

This entry was posted in Editing/Writing, Interviewing, Life Stories as a Book, Personal Historians, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to In Search of the Jaw-dropping Interviews

  1. Leah Abrahams says:

    Great article, Susan! I had the best laugh when a 92-year-old Vietnamese woman, with the aid of her 60-year-old son was telling me about the first time she met her husband. She was about 14 and he was 17 and he became her protector on a boat on which they were both headed for an education in France. “They discovered they were in cabins next door to each other,” her son translated. “They sat in each other’s cabins and talked and talked about themselves, their hopes and dreams,” he continued. At that moment his mother interrupted and in her broken English exclaimed, “It was just platonic, just platonic!” We all laughed and I really believed her.

  2. Fran Morley says:

    Once in a workshop, my students were working on stories about family vacations and other car trips. I suggested that they ask the others on that trip (their siblings or their children) if they remembered the story the same way. Well… when students came back to the next class, they were amazed at how different those other memories were. As they told the stories, we all laughed so hard, I had to go find a box of tissues so we could mop up our tears. It was a great class – not to mention a lesson in how subjective memory can be!

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