My father passed when I was very young. I hope to know him through individual q&a's I will have with his friends associates, collegues and register it as a bio. What type of questions should I ask. Most of the people I'm to interview are business and political leaders who knew my father in somewhat great detail personally and professionally. Thank you in advance for any extended courtesies.

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    Welcome! Are you the only audience or are you going to try to market it? Was he a public figure?
    – Stu W
    Jan 10 '16 at 20:48

I'm sorry about your father. I can tell that you're very devoted to him even now. He would probably be honored to know this.

I'm a student journalist; I interview a lot of people. I always walk in with a mental list of questions, so you're already on the right track! Let me help you break down an interview:

  • Icebreaker questions. Simple questions like "How are you?" Can break in an interview and hopefully make the interviewee more comfortable around you. Don't spend too long on pleasantries though.

  • Easy, one-word reply questions. Anything that can be answered in a few sentences or less are good here. "How long had you known my father?" or "How close were the two of you?" can be a good starting place. This might be a sensitive topic for many people, so opening up slowly might be important. This also creates a sense of friendliness.

  • Open-ended questions. This is when you ask for anecdotes or other stories. "How did you two meet?" or "What was his most important quality and how did he show that?" can lead to new stories or opinions that can't be given to you by anyone else. Allow for time to think or to process, especially if your interviewees are becoming emotional. Feel free to converse more with the interviewee and discuss what you think about a particular story, or maybe share a short one of your own if it's an appropriate time.

  • Finalizers. End the interview by asking "Is there anyone else you think I should contact?" Always thank them for their time, and maybe mention how you're glad that you were able to learn more about your father with them.

That's about it! If you care for them, here are some more tips for an interview:

  • Embrace awkward silences. Sometimes this is when real emotion can come out.

  • Express empathy. You and your interviewee both miss the same person. Show them that you care about how they're feeling and don't let them worry.

  • Let them lead. If they want to talk about something, let them. Don't stay stuck on asking all of your questions.

I wish you luck in your writing endeavors!


It sounds like your father was a public person. In that case, you have to ask yourself what you're really prepared to find out about him. If all you want is to get boilerplate encomiums, then it doesn't matter much what you ask beyond "What was he like? What did you like about him? What were his strengths?"

If you want a picture of the whole man, warts and all, you will have to be braver and more resolute in pursuit of your task. Still ask softball questions like those above, but add negative questions. "What didn't you like about him? What were his weaknesses? What bothered you about him the most?" However dear you hold your father's memory, you have to understand that he was human and unlikely to be perfect. JFK was lauded to the skies and many, many breathless eulogies have been written about him. But he also had extra-marital affairs while in the White House. Again, what are you prepared to find out?

This does not mean I think you should go muck-raking, or putting too much stress on the negative. But a provocative question is likely to get you a more interesting answer. Ask each person to describe their first meeting with your father, and ask about the impression he made. Work them for striking details, things that stand out. You will have failed if your notebook is filled only with generic comments like "He was a good man. A great guy." Great how? Good how? Don't take "good" for answer, keep asking what he did that was so good for you personally (meaning the interviewee). Dig deep and get that story.

As a side note, I disagree with M Lizz, who says you should try to ask questions that elicit short answers. If you do that, you'll wind up doing the talking. Listen to a master interviewer like Teri Gross or Marc Maron, or even Marc Maron interviewing Teri Gross. You will find that an interview succeeds when the interviewer gets the subject talking. Have targeted questions, but let the conversation flow once a question turns on the tap.

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