A few weeks ago, before the coronavirus shut down life in America, Biograph co-founder AJ Greenberg sat down with David, a new client. The two made an unlikely pair: AJ is a young entrepreneur, with a background in industrial engineering; David is an eighty-five-year-old grandfather, who made his name as a lawyer, businessman, and philanthropist. In his retirement, he enjoys tooling around his garden, playing with his grandchildren, and attending plays at the community theater he founded in Skokie, Illinois—where he still sometimes gets on stage himself, most recently as Friar Lawrence in a production of Romeo and Juliet.
David’s children bought him a Biograph book as a birthday gift. He was a bit taken aback by the gift, protesting that his life isn’t worthy of being documented. “I don’t have anything important to say,” he insisted. But his children convinced him to talk with AJ anyway. So AJ drove out to Skokie and sat down with David in his living room one afternoon, over a cup of coffee—for AJ—and a stiff glass of whiskey for David. At first, David was nervous, reticent to divulge family stories—or, for that matter, family secrets—to a stranger. Yet, forty-five minutes later, David was leaning back in his recliner, his glass of whiskey balanced precariously on his chest, gesticulating enthusiastically, as he told AJ about the darkest and most joyous chapters of his life: his cancer diagnosis in the 1990s; playing a Roman soldier in a production of Julius Caesar at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater; the birth of his first grandson.
Once David got started, it became clear that he did have important things to say—that his life was worthy of being recorded in a book. And in his conversation with AJ, he had taken the first steps toward producing a rich document of his own life: a book that will become a treasured family heirloom, testifying to his spirit and generosity for generations to come. At Biograph, we believe that everyone has a story to tell—and that everyone deserves a chance to tell their story. That’s our founding commitment: it’s what motivates us to do the work that we do.
In this series of articles, we’ll take you through our process, showing how we can help you tell your story: from the initial interviews to the design and publication of your book. At every stage of the process, we champion your voice; our writers and designers are committed to creating an enduring and beautiful masterpiece.
It’s a lofty goal, but it starts with a humble ritual: we sit down and talk with our clients, getting their stories in their own voices. Something magical happens in those conversations—as it did with AJ and David. Time and again, we find that our interviews unlock something special: people who weren’t sure how to tell their stories find themselves giving gripping accounts of their lives and experiences, rich with detail and emotion. How does that happen? Here, we talk through our interview philosophy in detail, showing how we approach these conversations, how we make our clients comfortable, and how we work quietly, but persistently, to make sure that their voices come through clearly and directly.
“Oh, you read all my stuff!”
A lot of work goes into preparing for an interview before we ever step foot in a room with a client. When AJ arrived at David’s door, he had already put in hours preparing—studying the family tree, reading articles in the local press about David’s philanthropy, talking with David’s children about their goals and expectations for the book. He not only had a list of topics to explore if the conversation lulled, but context for key names, places, and dates in David’s life. And he had created an “interview guide”—a list of questions and topics to cover—which he shared with David ahead of time. That gave David a chance to shape the interview, to provide a roadmap for the conversation. And it gave AJ important clues about which storylines would be most fruitful—and which might be too sensitive to delve into.
Often, the best questions—and the best answers—come from this preparation. In AJ’s preliminary conversations with David’s children, his daughter Laura mentioned, offhandedly, David’s grandparents’ old apartment on Clark Street. AJ thought there might be more there, so he asked David about it, simply and directly:
AJ: Tell me about your grandparents’ apartment on Clark Street.
David: I finally went to visit the apartment a few years ago. Who knows why it took so long? I drove by there all the time on my way to Cubs games. I guess I just didn’t know my grandfathers, unfortunately, so I didn’t feel connected with them. They died very young. My folks were born in Chicago. Their parents came from Poland, although I can’t tell you where. My father’s father, well, my father’s mother wound up in St. Louis, when she was two years old. They must have come around 1875. My parents were American and they didn’t want to speak Yiddish at home, although they could speak Yiddish a little bit. The sad thing for me is that I really don’t know the history of my grandparents. I know my father’s father was a jeweler, and his father was a jeweler.
AJ’s question is simple and direct. But it opens an important train of thought for David, provoking him to meditate on his family history—and his interrupted connection to his own past. The best interview questions do just that: they direct the interviewee to an important subject, then give him or her space to reflect on it in his or her own terms.
When David finishes his reflection, AJ switches tacks, using a different interview technique: instead of asking a direct question, he simply offers a prompt:
David: What else?
AJ: You mentioned your mom loved to entertain.
In discussing the interview guide, David mentioned how his childhood home was always a site of family gatherings, with uncles and cousins pouring in to celebrate Passover, Thanksgiving, birthdays. AJ returns to that prompt, giving David time to talk through his memories on his own terms. As they move through these topics, AJ actively listens, maintaining a mental roadmap of the conversation: where he and David have been, areas David mentions during the interview that might be worth exploring further.
“Make yourself at home. Can I get you a drink?”
When we sit down with a client, our goal is to explore as many facets of their lives as they wish to share, in order to begin rendering an entire life—adventures, accomplishments, adages—on the page. The first step is to ensure that the client feels comfortable. Whenever possible, we conduct our interviews in person in a client’s home or office—somewhere the client feels relaxed and in their element. We want our interviewees to be willing to feel vulnerable, to delve into memories that haven’t been visited in a while, or touch on subjects that may be tough to recall. Familiar settings—the comforts of home—make that possible.
At the time of this journal entry, we are in the midst of the covid-19 shutdown, so we’re improvising, using video calls to connect with our clients. We record the feelings behind what our clients say, not just their words—their facial expressions and body language. For instance, David winks whenever he laughs—a little detail that adds color to his character, and helps convey his warmth and generosity to his readers, present and future. Video calls help us document these intangible but key details—the ticks and gestures that express one’s personality.
In David’s case, this meant conducting the interview in his Skokie home, where he raised his children and where his grandchildren often come to play. The house itself serves as an interview prompt, each of its nooks and crannies full of memories. With other clients, we conduct interviews in their offices, their favorite restaurants, parks where they like to walk their dogs: the goal is to find the right space for the client to open up and tell stories that give their book its authentic vitality.
“Have you spoken to my sister? She has a funny story about that”
Once AJ concludes his interview with David, he turns to his family and friends—interviewing his wife, his children, and his siblings. These interviews offer an opportunity to gather funny family stories and touching anecdotes that enliven our writing. They also offer further insight into our clients’ character and accomplishments. For instance, David started a theater company 30 years ago that has grown into a prominent community organization focused on helping at-risk young people. But to talk to him, you’d think the company still put on plays in his backyard! Speaking to his sister revealed that the company’s success is due to David’s generosity. She told us a detail that he, being modest to a fault, would never admit to: he funded the company out of his own pocket for years.
In David’s case, the vision for his book emerged gradually, naturally, from our conversations with him, his children, and his siblings. Some clients ask us to help develop the ideas and guiding intention behind their books. Others have a strong sense of what they want to say: they ask us to help realize those ideas—in which case, our job is to study their intentions and execute them faithfully. In either case, assembling a Biograph book is a collaborative process. Our goal is to help you realize your vision: to give you the tools and support you need to do so.
“To this day, when I smell sandalwood, I think of my father”
As AJ wraps up his interview and prepares to drive back to the city with a recorder full of precious memories and stories, David pays him a profound compliment: “We needed people like you back when I was a kid to find out what my parents’ and grandparents’ stories were,” he says. For our team, this is the ultimate reward. It distills the sense of responsibility we feel toward our clients: our job is to preserve family history, in all its detail and specificity, so that future generations can access the lives of their forebears and have an immediate, intimate sense of their worlds and lives.
Biograph’s writers are accomplished professionals—many with advanced degrees from distinguished writing programs like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. We use our skills to help paint a rich portrait of your life for your readers. Our books are more than resumes—they convey the way your world looks, smells, tastes, and feels. In his conversation with David, AJ captures those details:
AJ: You mentioned that playing Hamlet was an all-time personal high. Could you describe the feeling of being onstage?
Asking a client to describe their experience not only evokes sensory details, it also invites the client to ease deeper into their memories, feel as though they are back on stage making their debut, or with their father by his woodworking table, listening to the soothing sound of sandpaper on sandalwood. These details help us take the next step in telling your story: to translate your interview into a cohesive and evocative narrative. In the next article in this series on our process, we tackle that step—explaining the alchemical process of translating a raw interview transcript into lucid prose that tells your story in your voice. Read Alchemy of the Transcript →