Six Rules for Creating an Oral History
The Original Chroniclers of Punk on How They Did It
When Jean Stein and George Plimpton began compiling their book American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy, using the oral history format, little did they realize that they were inventing a revolutionary new literary genre that, ten years later, would land them on the best-seller list.
Stein and Plimpton’s masterpiece, Edie: American Girl, published in 1982 perfected, if not invented, the narrative oral history genre. In these times when the term “oral history” is used to define anything from a single, edited interview to a collection of interviews published as an anthology, we decided to clarify our definition of the “narrative oral history.” For the record, when we use this term, we mean a book of edited passages from a collection of interviews and additional texts that are tightly woven together into an accurate chronology, creating a carefully crafted narrative. Stein says it best in the introduction to The Times of Robert Kennedy, where she uses the term “oral narrative” to describe their book, adding that, “Oral history has been largely thought of as the collecting of interview transcripts for storage in archives in order to provide historians with research material. Somewhat less common is the use of interview transcripts as a literary form, in which the raw transcripts are edited, arranged, and allowed to stand for themselves, without the intervention by the historian.”
Stein and Plimpton chose their subject well. Not only was Edie Sedgwick a relatively forgotten celebrity when their book was first published, but Edie: American Girl shed new light on a chaotic period of American history with a radical new literary format that inspired Norman Mailer to declare, “This is the book of the Sixties that we have been waiting for.”
The narrative oral history format was generally ignored until Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk was published more than a decade later. Since publishing our book in 1996, the oral history genre has exploded. In this essay we attempt to clarify the intuitive rules that we adhered to, in order to explain why the narrative oral history format is such a delicate beast—and how the format is compromised when these rules are breached.
CHOOSING A SUBJECT
Without incredible characters who can recount compelling stories you won’t have a book. Not only do the characters have to be willing to talk, but they also have to know each other (or at least know of one another), the more intimately, the better. People like to portray themselves in the best light possible and leave out any embarrassing moments, so it’s important to have other characters to cut to in order to add a healthy dose of reality.
It’s also imperative that the lives of your cast of characters eventually collide, and when they do, it’s essential to relate how a past event in the narrative changes or influences future incidents. In other words, everything in the narrative has to lead to the next event, like a raging locomotive, until the eventual conclusion.
Many oral histories don’t consider how crucial it is for its characters to interact, or the need for a distinctive person from chapter three to reappear later in chapter 37, which lends a grand, sweeping flow to the book.
The narrative oral history seems to work best when the main subject is involved in multiple stories and “secret histories.” In Edie these threads included: Andy Warhol and the Factory; the denizens of the infamous Chelsea Hotel; the pathos of the “average” blue blood family, as well as a portrait of life at Harvard University in the early 1960s. The reader also gets a rare glimpse into the underground music, film, and art scenes in New York; the rock & roll and fashion industries, America’s preeminent mental hospitals; as well as peeks at such obscure sects as the “A Set,” a group of quasi-criminal amphetamine addicts who inhabited the Lower East Side.
If some of your characters are already public figures, it’s crucial to interview all the lesser-known associates. Or, as Jean Stein put it: “Indeed, the freshest, most informative material seemed to come less from the public figures than from those for whom being interviewed must have been a novelty… It is their contributions, rather than the public figures, who are more reserved, less personal, and tend to the general rather than explicit, that shows this oral history technique at its best.”
Of course, since people remember events in a nonlinear way, muddied by the waters of time, there are bound to be direct contradictions from one subject to the next. Jean Stein found these differences daunting, stating, “The voices are sometimes disparate and contradictory, or repetitious, and prove difficult to link. If there are differences of opinion or fact, these cannot be explained editorially.”
In Please Kill Me, we utilized these direct contradictions, often placing one description of a specific event after the contrary entry above it, often with humorous results. We trusted the readers to make up their own minds about what was “true.” Jean Stein was right; differences of opinion cannot be explained editorially, but they can be clarified by the integrity of the different voices. If the contradicting subject is prone to making sweeping generalities, gets his facts wrong, or is always painting himself in a heroic light, it’s easy to discern who has told the specific contradicting event inaccurately.
Also remember the “tragic flaw” aspect to your characters, as the people who fucked up, i.e. went to jail, became drug addicts, or experienced some other terrible turn of events, make for much better reading and creates authentic drama, than people who lived “happily ever after.” The more varied your character’s behavior, the better, for the narrative oral history format is one of the best ways to show human beings at their most vulnerable, or heroic, or tragic—prerequisites for a successful book.
BE AWARE OF PLOTS AND SUBPLOTS
The prologue of Please Kill Me ends with a question by Lou Reed: “Will you die for the music?”
In other words, how far is the individual willing to take their anger, alienation and passion in creating his or her art? In the ensuing chapters, the question is answered by the individual character’s choices; some get sober and stop taking drugs—and lead ordinary lives—while others choose to drive the car off the cliff.
As important as it is for each chapter to have a tight narrative flow, the way the oral historian edits her chapters together is also crucial. Once the author or authors get their chapters completed, then they have the difficult task of editing the chapters together to complete the pastiche. Jean Stein describes the effect this way: “The technique used is occasionally almost the kaleidoscopic ‘flicker’ technique of films, in which a series of quick images of considerable variety provides an effect of wholeness. The success of such a technique obviously relies on the quality of the voices themselves . . .”
As always, it all comes down to the quality of voices.
Still, if you have a wealth of interviews to draw from that have been edited into complete chapters, weaving the plots and subplots together to read like a fast-paced novel can be a difficult, if not seemingly impossible task. It’s helpful to already have had some experience constructing a narrative flow, but not essential. The oral historian has to think, at times, of his book as a film, cutting in seemingly random events that will help move the narrative forward, but at the same time, these moments have to be as entertaining and informative as the most significant entries.
HISTORY IS ALWAYS CAUSE AND EFFECT
It helped that many of our main characters in Please Kill Me tested their show business talents first in the “underground theater” scene before forming rock & roll bands. So we had to incorporate different aspects of this theater scene to explain how their excesses influenced the glitter rock scene of the early 70s, which eventually led to the creation of glam, which eventually led to punk rock. There is nothing as comparable to the reader as “experiencing” a character’s choices, rather than being told of them, and the narrative oral history provides the ultimate way to “feel” multiple characters’ emotions when executed correctly.
As Jean Stein put it more succinctly, “Editorial intervention is restricted solely to the placement of the material, so that there are no voices other than those of the interviewees.”
Therefore, the oral historian has to be aware of several factors while editing their chapters together: the fast-paced narrative flow, the emotions of the characters, the chronology of events, as well as the themes that will emerge out of the entirety of the project.
One word of advice: short chapters. You’d be amazed how much influence a five-page chapter can have on the overall narrative flow.
IT’S NOT WRITING, IT’S CARVING
The narrative oral history is such an incredible format because it draws from every art form: the chapters have the rhythm of song, the cuts are cinematic, newspaper headlines can punctuate incidents, slang is celebrated, and first-hand accounts bring the poetry of the spoken word. There’s not a single art form we can think of that is not included, from painting, weaving, even pictographs, for great art tells a great story.
Which leads us to that ultimate skill: sculpting. It’s as if the rough draft of the oral history is a huge block of marble. With each edit, it becomes defined and shaped. Constant cutting and chipping away finally reveals a masterpiece for the editing process proves true the old adage “less is more.”
Once the oral historian has a rough of the entire book in order, and is ready to read through the complete story—now comes the most compelling part. It’s time to cut out everything that is not absolutely essential.
Gillian McCain, who is somewhat of an anecdote hoarder, hates this part of the process, while Legs McNeil receives sadistic pleasure annihilating the turgid.
For the narrative oral history to work successfully there cannot be any fat on the bone. The oral historians may have collected amazing anecdotes, but, if these incidents do not move the story forward, or connect well established threads, they should not be included, no matter how sexy or alluring they may seem. A good rule of thumb for excising all the fat is, if you don’t miss it once it’s been cut, it wasn’t necessary. To emphasize this point, in Please Kill Me, we only used five to ten percent of the hundreds of interviews we conducted.
Like most of our suggestions, what to leave in and what to take out, is left to the oral historian’s intuition. Which is why we said it helps to have one of the authors experienced in creating a narrative, because the same skills used in telling a story are utilized in the narrative oral history format. These techniques, such as how to begin or end a chapter, are essential to the narrative oral history format. One editing technique, that we like to call the “Möbius Strip Approach,” is when the section begins on one specific topic and ends on a completely different one.
Examples of the “Möbius Strip Approach” can often be seen in The Simpsons. For example, one episode begins with Homer complaining about taking out the garbage (which sets up the “emptying the garbage” theme) but ends with him tripping on peyote with a coyote spirit guide, who talks to him in the voice of Johnny Cash. Every chapter has to include an unexpected joy or tragedy, no matter how seemingly insignificant. These twists keep the reader’s interest piqued, and from bogging down the narrative.
It is important to state here that it is almost mandatory for a successful narrative oral history to have two authors. Two sets of eyes are needed to catch each other’s mistakes and to inspire one another to go beyond what they think they are capable of.
It helps to do a serious “oral edit” of the manuscript, wherein the book is read out loud by a third party, while the oral historians are both free to listen and take notes. This “oral edit” process is important in any piece of writing, but especially crucial in creating a narrative oral history in order to hear the parts that aren’t working since there are so many voices involved. While constructing Please Kill Me, Gillian McCain concentrated on the integrity of the voices and developing the themes of the book, while Legs McNeil focused on the structure. Without one element being executed correctly, the others wouldn’t have mattered—for the structure would have fallen like the proverbial house of cards. Great structure is useless if the reader doubts the credibility of the narrator. And strong voices don’t mean squat if not presented in the most readable form possible. One oral historian cannot do all the chores necessary for a top-quality work at the same time. As Jean Stein put it, “The historian, working in a more usual way, can mold his source material to suit his purpose; he can remove discrepancies; when there are any gaps, he can conjecture; he can supply his own narrative and descriptions. On the other hand, the editor or historian working in oral narrative must allow the voices to speak for themselves.” What Stein forgot to add was, that in the end, the final edit is the editorial voice of the narrative.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SLANG, GRAMMAR, PUNCTUATION, AND THE INTEGRITY OF THE VOICE
Many of the narrative oral histories that we have encountered clean up the speech patterns so that all of the voices sound alike. Our goal is exactly the opposite, to make each voice accurately reflect each unique speaker. As much as possible we strive to keep the interviewee’s speech pattern intact, not only because it makes the book more interesting and truthful, but because it tells so much about the person being interviewed, and in turn, gives us clues to how much we can count on them as reliable messengers of information.
Swearing is a necessity in the narrative oral history, as well as slang and incorrect grammar. The lack of swearing in the current oral histories we find not only shocking, but blasphemous to the genre. Even books that allow the ubiquitous “damn” are dishonest. One can tell from the emotion emanating behind the speakers words that “damn” just would not cut it. This is a prime example of how the narrative oral historian condescends to its reader and tells us more about the authors than the individual speaking in the book.
For example, in Please Kill Me, our most prolific cusser was Peter Jordan, a former substitute bass player for the New York Dolls. His swearing is so ubiquitous that it served as comic relief: “What happened to Johnny and Sable was that Johnny became a fucking totally fucking paranoid fucking speed freak.”
A sanitized version of this quote could never be as impactful as the original.
To construct narrative oral histories without profanity insults the readers’ intelligence. The oral historian’s job is to maintain the authenticity of the interviewee’s voice, not to judge the words being spoken. If the oral historians have any moral qualms about whether to censor the words in their transcripts, they should choose a new career.
The beauty of the oral history is that it captures the poetry of the spoken word, they way people actually speak—with all the slang and incorrect grammar intact. For without them, it is an inaccurate portrait of the person speaking. So many oral histories we have read are comprised of “clean text.” There is an absence of cussing, pausing, laughing, and modern day speech conventions. Most people use the words or phrases: “like,” “ya know,” or other idiosyncratic speech patterns that are unique to that individual. Without a fair representation of natural speech patterns, oral historians are doing themselves a great disservice and limiting the breadth of the work.
Sometimes an oral historian is given an amazing gift: a speaker who offers the rhythm of storytelling, detailed description, suspense, an arc, keen observations, perhaps a philosophical missive, poetry and very little editing. These are few and far between.
SUGGESTIONS FOR INTERVIEWING SUBJECTS
We have saved one of the most important aspects of creating a narrative oral history for last; the highly intuitive interviewing process, that has no set rules. It’s essential that the oral historian’s curiosity compel them to leave no question unanswered.
Suggestions for interviewing are the following: 1) don’t talk about yourself (unless asked) 2) maintain eye contact 3) begin with simple questions. The cost of audio recording is negligible and spending an hour to get the subject comfortable with the interviewer is sometimes essential before going on to ask the vital questions.
Usually, most interview subjects are happy to talk about their past, but sometimes, when dealing with indiscretions, the person being interviewed might not want to talk on the record. Tread lightly, but thoroughly. Approach all potential subjects with honesty and intelligence, and prove to them that you know the ins and outs of the story, and that their individual voices are essential in getting it right.
The oral historians must have as thorough an understanding of the events they are trying to chronicle as possible. Create a timeline of specific events in your story, so that you know those events backward and forward. This will help determine who you need to interview and what to ask.
In the end, though, it really comes down to intuition. Even though Edie and Please Kill Me made the narrative oral history popular for the next generation of writers, we still believe that the true value of this amazing genre has yet to be fully recognized.
The significance of the narrative oral history lies in that it takes documenting history out of the hands of the elite and places it in the voices of the people (and reach obsessive-compulsive writers). We believe that one day the narrative oral history will be a respected and accepted literary vehicle for chronicling histories that come alive in front of the reader’s eyes.
For that is the whole point.