StoryCorps founder Dave Isay reflects on motherhood

May 11, 2012

Still thinking of what to do this Sunday for Mother’s Day? How about interviewing your mom? That’s a suggestion from veteran public radio producer and StoryCorps founder Dave Isay. Since 2003, the organization has collected over 40,000 interviews, some of which you may have heard on NPR’s Morning Edition. Some of those interviews have also been compiled into the book Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps. Now in paperback, it consists of interviews with and about–you guessed it–moms. KBIA’s Rehman Tungekar spoke with Dave Isay, and he started out by talking about what the book teaches us about mothers.

What has compiling these stories taught you about mothers or motherhood?

I think that the lessons you get from Mom are very similar to the lessons you get from the StoryCorps broadcasts, or the other StoryCorps books. And certainly in this case, what I think you have is the collected wisdom of great moms. I’m a dad with two young kids, so reading this stuff is very powerful and important to me. I think it all boils down to what you think it would: being a great mom or a great parent is all about acceptance, love and honesty. But I want to say that we’ve done 40,000 interviews for StoryCorps now, with about 80,000 people. And we look at every interview as being equally important, equally valuable, potentially a sacred moment in people’s lives. So no interview is any more important than any other interview. It’s just that some have this universal quality that demands to be heard by a wider audience.

And that’s what struck me about the book as well, because you have people from various backgrounds, and these discussions have this universal quality about them. Regardless of where you come from or who they are, you could always relate to them.

Well that’s kind of the StoryCorps thing. One of the things these facilitators – who serve a one year term of duty travelling the country capturing the wisdom of humanity – the great lesson that they always come back with is there’s way more we share in common as a country. No matter what your political background is, your political beliefs, where you live, there’s much more that binds us than divides us when you really get down to what’s important in people’s lives.

When [the facilitators] do these interviews, I ask them, “What’s it like when you have these very intense interviews, specifically about parents, about moms, about dads?” They say that at the end of the day, all they want to do is get on the phone and give their mom or dad a call to say, “I’m thinking of you,” or “I love you.” And that’s the feeling I hope folks get when they read this book.

Did making this book change your own relationship with your mother, or the way you viewed her?

Not making the book. I think that I did my own StoryCorps interview with my mom, at some point early on after StoryCorps started. And that was a pretty amazing experience for me, because I’m close to my mom. She’s the only person I’ll talk to on the telephone. I don’t know why. I can’t explain it, but I know her very well. And when I did this StoryCorps interview with her, when I got out of the booth, the only thing I knew coming out of the booth that I had known going into the booth was the date and her name. Everything else was new. As you know, that’s part of the power of a microphone. And the power of StoryCorps is that microphone gives you the opportunity to have these conversations that you normally don’t get to have.

My mom was a publisher for 40 years, and had a hand in a lot of really amazing books. And all of the StoryCorps books – except the last one, because her husband died and she wasn’t up for it – she’s been the key editorial person with me and the team that writes the books at StoryCorps. We work on the books together. We always have a session over at my mom’s house, where we take all the stories and lay them out together, and we figure out what order they might be. So she had a strong hand in this book, and in all the books, and of course in everything that I do.

If you had the chance to go back into the StoryCorps booth today with your mother, what would you say?

I don’t think I would say anything any differently than I did in the original interview. One of the great uses of a StoryCorps booth is giving you the chance to say verbally how you feel about someone that means a lot to you. Of course, I’d tell my mom – and I hope I did it in the interview – I would tell her how much I love her, and how grateful I am for everything she’s done for me.

For those interested in interviewing a loved one, sample questions can be found at the StoryCorps website.