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How to Interview Your Dad

Kyle Thiermann  /  Jun 12, 2020  /  7 Min Read  /  Surfing

And why you should do it now.

This shot of my Dad and me was taken in 1999 at our home in Santa Cruz, CA. We were likely on our way to the local Flea Market to haggle for some second-hand outdoor gear. Photo: The Kyle Theirmann Collection

(Ed. Note: The author of this piece, Kyle Thiermann, is a Patagonia surf ambassador. How to Interview Your Dad ran on his blog home of a whole range of content: the hub of his weekly podcast The Kyle Thiermann Show; stories covering everything from surf localism and conserving surf spots to psychedelics and mental health, and his experiences in filmmaking and his films. Mr. Thiermann is a journalist, environmentalist and a damn fine surfer.)

For the past four years I’ve hosted a weekly podcast where I banter with surfers, comedians and environmental activists. Recently, I had my dad on the podcast. Shortly after, I started receiving messages from listeners who had decided to interview their own dads. Here’s one of them:

“I just listened to your podcast with your dad and became motivated enough to interview both [parents] individually. Wow. Afterward, I felt such a weight lifted from my chest! They told me old stories I’ve heard a hundred times before as well as tokens about them I’d never known. We connected and opened up to each other in ways we never had before. It was amazing. These recordings have become my most valuable possessions. If anything happens to my parents during these uncertain times, I know I would regret not having those interviews.”

In this post, I’m going to offer interview techniques for those of you who want to play journalist and conduct an interview with Pops—especially now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when a lot of people have extra time on their hands and are connecting with family via digital media apps. Make no mistake, this interview will require bravery. It forces you to face the white skull of death and to recognize that your dad isn’t going to be around forever. And unlike edited video interviews, which present humans in filtered soundbites, long-form audio reveals their contradictions, verbal tics and run-on sentences—all the stuff that makes us who we are.

Often during an interview a theme will emerge, and you should allow yourself to embrace that. As my dad told stories from various periods of his life, it became clear that many of his decisions were tied to his belief that if he approached situations with generosity, the benefits will come back to him in unique and inspiring ways. When you do it right, an interview can be a gift to your subject; it allows them to see the story of their life more clearly. Remember that every dad (and mom) has a great story. You just need to ask yours the right questions to unearth it.

The Art of the Question

First, write down every possible question you could ever think to ask him. What’s his favorite color, sport, gardening tool or Mexican restaurant? Have him describe the moment he arrived at college, hit a homerun or lost his virginity. Fill three notebook pages worth of questions, don’t worry about the shitty ones; just keep the pen moving. When you finish, circle the questions that most pique your curiosity. I’ve included a few sample questions at the bottom of this post to jump-start your imagination.

My relationship with a good question is almost sexual. I know that sounds weird, but I’m a weirdo, and like a perfect wave to a surfer or sharp knife to a chef, to me a good question is arousing. My favorites are short, clean and potent. They look so innocent on the page, ruffling in the spring breeze. What could one line of six words accomplish? Not much, unless I look you in the eyes and ask: Who are you pretending to be?

Answered with candor, that question leads to a world that few people know exists. Jim Carrey once said, “Everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about.” Which is to say that a good question is empathy in action. It makes your subject feel seen, and if they trust you enough to share their internal battle, together you will walk through a doorway that leads to a sacred place.

Asking a question like the one above at the beginning of the interview is like asking for clam stew, because your dad will most likely clam up and stew! (Dad joke.) Ease into those atomic bomb questions—or maybe don’t ask them at all. Your interview doesn’t need to be a therapy session. In fact, some of the best podcasts I’ve ever recorded have been with guests who told a few good stories with zero personal reflection, then walked away. Stories make for great audio, and it’s essential that the beginning of the interview puts your dad at ease.

I like to dive into interviews by asking my guest to tell a story about a specific positive moment in their life. When they recount the story, it puts a smile on their face and allows me to take the conversation deeper. The purpose of the first question is to get your dad talking, so ask about a subject that makes him comfortable. If your dad loves to fish, ask him to tell you the story of the biggest salmon he ever caught.

My dad works in film, and when he was a kid, he made money doing magic shows. To this day, he still walks around with gag tricks in his pocket. Once, he filmed an interview with Mohammad Ali. Before he started shooting, my dad pulled a gag mirror from out of his pocket and asked Ali to check himself out to make sure he looked OK. When Ali held the mirror to his face, the gag mirror started to laugh at him. The room froze. Ali, who already had Parkinson’s disease, held the mirror in his shaking hand. Then he began to laugh. My dad ended up giving him the mirror, and Ali spent the rest of the day holding it up to other people’s faces and laughing. When I interviewed my dad, I began by asking him to tell me the story of Mohammad Ali and the mirror.

The follow up is just as important as the initial question. Often it can be as simple as asking, “What was that like?” or “What do you make of that?” One of my personal favorites is, “At that moment, what was the conversation like inside your head?” (I stole that from Alex Bloomberg.) A question like this will get your dad to talk about his decision-making process. Keep in mind that your dad’s life, like everyone’s life, is a series of choices, and if you can get him to expound on how he navigated forks in the road it will reveal deeper truths. Also, and this is no small thing, you’ll be able to listen back to his voice long after he’s gone as you traverse the difficulties you have yet to face.

You may want to ask your dad about his relationship with your mom (if they’re divorced, maybe not). You never want an interview to feel like an interrogation, so if things get uncomfortable or you feel the energy dip, have an array of topics written down that you can pivot to at any time.

Asking a series of questions can become exhausting. I like to have a few stories up my sleeve to give my guest time to breathe. When interviewing your dad, in addition to having questions ready, think of a couple of stories about adventures together, or a lesson that he taught you. You don’t always need to ask a question to get a great answer; sometimes you can tell your own story, and your dad will riff on it.

Don’t Interrupt

An interview can sound a lot like a conversation, but there are subtle differences. On the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Rogan often talks as much or more than his guests, but, miraculously, it doesn’t sound like he’s talking over them. This is because Rogan waits for his guest to finish speaking before he makes his next statement. But most of us are shitty listeners. We interrupt each other constantly. And often when the other person is speaking we are miles away, grasping for the next awesome thing to say, hoping to impress them or ourselves. Don’t do this. When your dad is speaking, shut up and pay attention. Then when you ask him a question, base it upon what you’ve just heard in order to advance the conversation, rather than show him how smart, funny or wise you are.

Have you ever tried to give a speech to an empty room? It’s nearly impossible. When we speak, we want to know that someone is listening. In daily conversation, we show people we’re listening by saying things like, “Wow, uh-huh, cool.” Don’t do this. If your dad is telling a story about the time he was deployed in Vietnam taking enemy fire, and he looked up at the smoky sky and saw a cloud in the shape of a ballerina, and that was the moment he realized that he wanted to be a dancer, don’t mess up his story with, “Uh-huhs.” During a video interview, look at your dad’s face on the computer screen, smile, nod and keep your mouth zipped.

Prep Your Tech

You can conduct the most fabulous interview in the multiverse, but if there’s a lawnmower in the background, it’s worthless. Ask your dad to find a quiet place with fast internet. It’s OK if he uses the built-in computer mic, but it is better if you have an external mic or Apple earbuds. If you’re new to video calls, record a test call with a friend so you can focus on the interview when it’s go-time. Make sure you’re in a room with light on your face so you don’t look like an extra from World War Z. Your computer should be about eye level—if it’s too low, prop it up on books.

On your call, have your questions written down next to you. Keep your questions on one page, so you’re not flipping back and forth between pages. Oh, and when it’s time to start, remember to press the big red button.

Make the Call

By the time the world fully opens back up, you will be drowning in an ocean of busyness and will likely have forgotten you read this story. So, if you really want to interview your dad (or your mom), do it now. It’s one hour you will remember for the rest of your life.

Below are a few sample questions to get you started. The rest is about following your own curiosity. I stole some of them from the entrepreneur and podcaster Tim Ferriss and the rest from my dad.

  • Tell me a story about when you met Mom.
  • If you could give your 30-year-old-self one piece of advice, what would you say?
  • What is the stupidest thing you’ve done for money?
  • What skill are you working to improve most right now?
  • What is the best lesson your father ever taught you?
  • What gets you out of bed in the morning?

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