My guest today is Karen Fisher-Alaniz, author of Breaking the Code: A Father’s Secret, a Daughter’s Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything . I met Karen several years ago through her blog and have been interested in her book long before it was even accepted for publication. You can read my review of Breaking the Code in an earlier post.
Lillie: Welcome to A Writer’s Words, An Editor’s Eye, Karen. I’m delighted that your book is finally available. Your journey began on your father’s eighty-first birthday. Tell us what happened.
Karen: Thank you for having me, Lillie. More than 50 years after WWII, my father, a WWII veteran, had started watching graphic war movies and reading piles of WWII books. He also seemed depressed. I’d tried asking him questions about it, but to no avail. Then, on his 81st birthday, he put two old notebooks on my lap. They were full of more than 400 pages of letters he’d written during the war.
Lillie: What is “the question that changed everything”?
Karen: Oh boy. That’s a hard one. There are a lot of questions in the book. I was always asking my father questions. I wanted to know more. But he was experiencing nightmares and flashbacks, symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. So, I walked a fine line—wanting to know, but not wanting to push him too far. I don’t think I can choose one question that changed everything—it just depends on how you think about it. And I’m finding that people who are reading the book have great ideas about what the question is too—so, my own view is evolving.
Lillie: I’m glad to know I didn’t miss one specific question. There were so many important ones, I kept trying to figure out which was the one that changed everything. Breaking the Code is so much more than a memoir. As I said in my review, it is a story of relationships with a historical perspective of World War II that our generation never experienced, and it offers insight into PTSD. Yet it reads like a mystery novel. How did you incorporate all that into a book that can easily be read in a few hours?
Karen: The first fiction series I ever read was by James Patterson. The one thing I was in awe of was that with every chapter, something happened that made you want to read the next one. I’d find myself, past my bedtime, saying, “OK, just one more chapter.” I love books like that. I love books that when I am a few chapters from the end, I’m thinking, I don’t want this experience to end. So, it was quite consciously that I set out to create a memoir like that.
I also took a screenwriting class and applied some of those techniques to my book writing. In screenwriting, each scene has its own mini-story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. So, I tried to do that. I was very fortunate that my editor at Sourcebooks, Peter Lynch, thinks like that too. So, when I lost that focus in some chapters, he gently guided me back to it. A good editor is priceless!
Lillie: I certainly agree on you about the value of a good editor. An author does not produce a great book entirely on her own. Writers like to say that “everyone” should read their book, but we know that the more closely authors define their target audience, the more successful they are. Describe your ideal reader—the person who would benefit the most from reading your book.
Karen: You are so right. And when you’ve put all that you have into a book, it does seem that “everyone” will want to read it. The best way to avoid this thinking and really hone in on who your audience is, is to think about who will not read your book. For me, I thought about groups of people, like children, teens, and young adults. I have kids in those age groups and couldn’t imagine them just going into a store and picking up my book to buy. Those audiences are also not big buyers of books like mine.
When I visited my publisher in Chicago, one of the marketing people asked a really important question. He said, “Who are the first 1,000 people who will buy your book?” Of course, I started with my family and my friends. And then he asked, “And then who?” After that, he asked, “After the first 1,000 people, who will buy your book?” That really got it down to the people I really felt needed my book in their hands: baby-boomers like me followed by military families.
Of course, that is the main focus, but it can still branch out from there. For example, my own son, who is sixteen, really surprised me. He started reading Breaking the Code for his English and history classes. He came home raving about it; he said that it’s like reading a history book that reads like a really good novel.
Lillie: What is the most important thing you want readers to take away from Breaking the Code?
Karen: That everyone has a story and every story matters. Everyone has someone in their circle of family or friends who has stories to tell. Maybe you’ve heard portions of their stories all your life, or maybe you’ve just had a hint at them. Whatever the case, none of us are promised tomorrow. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me a bit about their loved one and then said, “They’re gone now. I wish I’d written those stories down.” And it’s so true. We’re waiting for the perfect time—when the kids are grown or when life isn’t so crazy. But time can run out and for some, their stories will be gone forever. I like to say of family history writing, “If not you, who? If not now, when?”
And for veterans, the message is that telling your story can be healing. When we share our stories, we honor each other. For veterans with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, the message is to create an Intentional Time of Remembrance—a time to remember. There are more details about it in the book and how we did it with Dad.
Lillie: I recognize my own family in the common lament you hear. My grandfather, who died when I was 12, was a cowboy and told marvelous stories of his experiences on the cattle trail. My parents and aunts and uncles thought they would always remember the stories they heard so often, yet just a few years after his death, all the stories were lost. That’s one reason I helped my mother and my mother-in-law write their own stories—not for publication, but for the family—and also wrote Preserving Memories: How to Write a Family History to help other families tell their own stories.
With Breaking the Code, you’ve really been on two journeys—the first to learn your father’s secrets and help him overcome his PTSD symptoms and the second to publish the book. Will you share a little about your publishing journey?
Karen: Ah, where do I start? I think I start with what every writer understands—rejection! I had plenty of rejections with Breaking the Code. It was a difficult sell for some, but I always believed in the story. I believed that when the timing was right, the perfect publisher would be there. And that’s what happened. I met my editor at a writer’s conference. If you want to be a published writer, you have to become a student of the whole process from the nitty-gritty of writing to the whole publishing industry. Education, persistence, and belief in your own abilities—those are the keys to success.
Lillie: Where can readers learn more about you and your books?
Karen: My website, http://www.storymatters2.com is the hub for my writing life. At the bottom of the welcome page, you’ll find a list of places you can purchase my book. When I developed my website, I did something that is not recommended—I always seem to be doing that (Ha!). I created a whole website around this particular book, not just around me as a writer.
Lillie: I know you have come to believe that everyone has a story to share, and you are encouraging others to write their own stories. Tell us about Story Matters.
Karen: StoryMatters2 is my website. A WWII veteran recently told me that he has a story too, but no one has ever asked. So, I added a forum for sharing your stories—but it’s not just for veterans. My ultimate goal is to begin a story-telling revolution! Wouldn’t that be fabulous? I mean, just imagine if everyone told someone just one story. What if each story was written down? It’s time for us to talk to each other, and this is particularly true of our elders. Don’t let them pass through your life without telling their story. So, my website is a place to begin. I want to hear veteran stories, of course. But I also want to hear your stories about almost anything—nostalgia, childhood memories, and life experiences. I want my website to be a gathering place where people can share their stories and others can join in the conversation.
Lillie: November is National Lifewriting Month, so your message is timely in two ways: Today is Veterans Day, and your book honors your father and other veterans, and we’re talking about writing memoirs and family histories during the month dedicated to doing just that. Is there anything I’ve failed to ask that you would like to share with my readers?
Karen: Don’t give up. Don’t give up on the book you’ve written. Don’t give up on your loved one who seems to want to tell their story but can’t seem to get the words out. Give yourself, give others—the gift of time.
Lillie: Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing about your journey and your book with my readers. They will probably have more questions for you. Will you check in during the day to respond to comments and answer questions?
Lillie: If you have questions for Karen, leave a comment below.
Karen Fisher-Alaniz is a writer and author. She has written freelance articles for regional and teen magazines. Her work has appeared in anthologies such as Chicken Soup for the Soul II and Voices of Multiple Sclerosis. She lives in her family in the Pacific Northwest.