Memoir Author Interview: Karen Fisher-Alaniz on Breaking the Code

by Matilda Butler on March 7, 2012

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #80 – Women’s Memoirs, Author Conversations – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Women’s Memoirs Welcomes Author Karen Fisher-Alaniz

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Hi Karen. We’re delighted to have you visit Women’s Memoirs today. Before asking you my first question, let me give our readers a little information about your new memoir and the incredibly special MEMOIR GIVEAWAY that you are offering our readers:

“My memoir is the true story of the secrets my father swore to keep during WWII and what happened when he finally began to talk about them. He kept his secrets locked away for more than 50-years. But secrets have a way of taking a toll on their keeper. That’s what happened to my father. Shortly after 9/11/2001, he began having terrible nightmares and vivid flashbacks. He was in his 80’s and I simply wanted to help him. So we set out on an unintended journey.” — Karen Fisher-Alaniz

Karen’s GIVEAWAY. Karen is offering an incredibly special copy of her memoir — autographed both by her and by her wonderful father. There are very few of these doubly autographed copies so this is quite a treat. Want a chance to win a free autographed copy? Leave Karen a note in the Comments section below. Tell her about your father — or about a tie to World War II — or what her article has meant to you. Then we’ll let Karen choose the best comment and that person will receive a copy of  Breaking the Code: A Father’s Secret, a Daughter’s Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything. We’ll contact you to get your address once the comment period ends.

Karen will be back next week discussing her experiences on marketing her book. Be sure to come back then and leave another comment to increase your chances of winning.

Now, on to our interview with Karen Fisher-Alaniz.

Women’s Memoirs Question #1. Karen, I know that in addition to teaching, you have long been writing. Prior to your current memoir – Breaking the Code: A Father’s Secret, a Daughter’s Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything — you wrote children’s books and women’s fiction. What caused you to turn to memoir?

memoir, memoir writing, memoir author interview, memoir author Karen Fisher-Alaniz, storytelling, World War II memoir, father-daughter memoirKaren Fisher-Alaniz: The story. Truly, that’s what happened. I had written on and off for years, but just for fun. Then after teaching special education for 14-years, health issues forced me out of the job I loved. I had to rethink my whole life. I was only in my early 40’s and had no plan for the rest of my life.

So, I started journaling. Then I wrote a few novels and children’s books. But none of this felt just right. So I began freelance writing. I researched it to pieces and began submitting things. I found that I was pretty good at it. I was published in teen magazines and regional magazines. My stories appeared in Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul: Second Dose: More Stories to Honor and Inspire Nurses (Chicken Soup for the Soul), and Voices of Multiple Sclerosis: The Healing Companion: Stories for Courage, Comfort and Strength (Voices Of series).

Even though I was finding some success, it still didn’t feel quite right. It just wasn’t that fulfilling for me. Well, a few years prior to losing my job, my father and I had started talking about his wartime experiences. It’s ironic that while I was trying to “find myself” and figure out what to do with the rest of my life, I was hearing my father’s story, which eventually would be the answer.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Question #2. What was it like talking with your father about stories that he had kept secret all these years? Were their emotional issues for you? What about the technical issues of how you recorded his answers. I am sure that some of our readers would like to get down the stories from their parents, but that isn’t always easy. For example, do you have to prompt your father or did he simply tell the stories?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: I grew up in a typical middle-class family. My father worked. My mother stayed home until I was in school. Mom cooked. Dad mowed the lawn.

So, when he began having nightmares and flashbacks in his 80’s, I had little to draw upon. I don’t think most of us have a particularly emotional relationship with our fathers and that was certainly true of mine. Don’t get me wrong, my father is a wonderful father and provider. But you just don’t talk to your dad the way you do your girlfriends or your sisters. Dad and I talked at each other. We didn’t talk to each other. And we barely listened.

Then suddenly he was suffering and I knew deep within me that talking would help him. So, I had to work at it very slowly. The whole story took more than five years to unfold. Talking to your loved ones about your family stories can be difficult. I always had more questions than he had answers. I’d often leave frustrated. His pace did not match mine. But I knew that I couldn’t push too hard either. So, I was careful, methodical. I knew what I wanted answered but if the timing wasn’t right, I had to let it go. The stories he told were out of sequence. So, I simply wrote down what I got and put the puzzle together when there were enough pieces.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Question #3.Thanks Karen. I can imagine that holding yourself, your curiosity, in check was difficult. You seem wise in the way that you allowed the story to unfold. It is possible to say that your father’s story was thrust upon you. But now that you are into the memoir genre, do you think you’ll write your own memoir? 

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Breaking the Code is my memoir. It’s a bit different within the genre because it is really based on my father’s story.

I am writing another memoir that is entirely different than this one. My son, who is a teenager now, was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder when he was young. I want to write the story of raising him, but from a humorous perspective. If you can’t laugh while raising a difficult child, you’ll do nothing but cry.

But that aside, I really want to stay within the military genre. There are amazing stories out there that haven’t been told. I’m looking for that story because I believe in the importance of sharing our hero’s stories before it’s too late.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Question #4.In what ways did writing this story change you, change your relationship with your father?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: I understand my father more now. Part of that is because of writing his story. Part of it is from understanding what Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is and how it affected the father I knew.

But the biggest reason I feel closer to my father is that I slowed down to listen. When I was young, I was too naïve to listen to my father. When I got older and had kids of my own, I was too busy. When I finally slowed down and listened, it was really about time. We gave each other a gift – the gift of time. It was simply breakfast at a local diner – one hour a week. But it changed both of our lives.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Question #5. What words of wisdom would you have for our readers who are currently working on their memoirs. 

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Tell the truth. What I mean by that is that we each have our own truth. Your friends and family may have shared experiences with you. But their story will be different from yours. Of course, when it’s possible, it’s great to get all perspectives. But if there are discrepancies, believe in your own truth.

Do not be afraid of asking for help. Go to a critique or writing group. Attend conferences. Whatever you want to learn to do, make yourself a student of it. Learn all you can.

You can’t tell it all. A memoir is a chunk of your life, not the whole thing. Figure out what is important within that chunk of time and write it. For example, while I was writing my memoir about my father, I was also going through the very difficult time of losing my job. I purposely did not include that. I certainly could have. It would have been very dramatic. But as an artist of words, I made the decision. Including my own struggles would distract from my father’s story and I didn’t want that. But that’s the beautiful thing about memoir – you can always write another one.

Write it down now – because it’s later than you think. We all have someone in our lives whose story is begging to be told; grandmother, father, neighbor. Don’t wait another day. Don’t wait until the kids are a little older or until things slow down at work. Don’t wait until life isn’t so crazy. The time will never be perfect – I promise you. None of us are promised tomorrow, and sadly, when our loved one is gone, so are their stories. So, write them now. Begin today. It doesn’t have to be fancy or written with eloquence. All that matters is that the story is told.

Thank you for inviting me to visit your blog. I’ll be happy to come back to answer any questions your readers might have. I look forward to continuing our conversation next week when I have a chance to share my experiences with book marketing.

storytelling, memoir, memoir writing

Karen has posted some of her interviews with her father on YouTube. These are stories not covered in the book. Here’s one:

storytelling, memoir, memoir writing

[If you are interested in the Kindle version, just click on the image to the left.]

storytelling, memoir, memoir writing
Be sure to leave Karen your comment below in order to entered for a chance to win an autographed copy of Breaking the Code: A Father’s Secret, a Daughter’s Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything.

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Memoir Author Shares Her Marketing Experiences — Memoir Writing Blog
March 16, 2012 at

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda Thomas March 7, 2012 at

Bravo, Karen! Bravo!

Linda, your old neighbor :)

Karen Fisher-Alaniz March 8, 2012 at

Hi, Linda! Linda and I discovered we’d lived in the same neighborhood for a time but never knew each other at that time.

Comments welcome! Keep them coming! ~Karen

Jan Militello March 8, 2012 at

I just finished reading Breaking the Code today and was unprepared for the impact the entire memoir in general and one line in particular — “Mass casualties were expected” — had on me. This line brought me to tears while thinking of how eloquently the book spoke unvarnished truth about how each and every war casualty deeply effects not only those directly involved but also sends a far-reaching ripple that extends to future generations.

Edith March 9, 2012 at

Karen. Thanks for your interview. I lost my father 10 years ago and never got to hear his WWII stories. I always thought there would be more time. I’m so glad that you got this fascinating story from your father, piece by piece.

Janine March 10, 2012 at

I can relate, Karen. My father sometimes talked about his World War II experiences. We kids were young and didn’t pay much attention. When he was in the hospital years later, with lung cancer, I realized he had important stories to tell and there wasn’t much time. I told my 13 year old I wish he could be there so he could hear his grandfather’s stories one last time. In those years no children under 16 could visit patients. So, young Walter sneaked up the fire escape stairs of the hospital and found his way quietly into the room.

He sat there while his grandfather lay naked with tubes running in and out of his body. My father told the young boy that when his ship reached the shores of France, all the soldiers were ordered off the ship without any weapons. They were told to pick up the guns from any soldiers lying on the beach. He was hit by shrapnel that tore off most of his left lung. And then later he was sent to an English hospital where he stayed for months in recovery.

Later I wrote a letter for mom asking the VA for 100% disability for my father’s injury, that she and my father had no success in doing. The VA insisted that the cancer in his right lung had nothing to do with his left lung that was injured during the War. In a few words, I stated simply that had my father not given his left lung for the defense of his country, he would still have a lung to resort to when his right lung became diseased with cancer. With that, the VA finally granted their appeal.

I always thought that this was the most important few words that I ever wrote so that I was able to help my parents in their time of need.

Pauline Melvin Logan March 10, 2012 at

Your efforts to help your father through his troubling war memories by telling his story inspire me to begin again in telling my father’s story. When he was still living, I interviewed him several times about his childhood and years in the 10th Mountain Division Army ski troops in Italy during WWII. Due to my father’s failing health, we were unable to continue the interviews. The 10th Mountain Dvn. didn’t lose a single battle, and my dad was proud of his service as a sergeant. I plan to gather a group of family members to help write his story, which will likely evolve into our family’s story. I wish you every success in marketing your book, Karen.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz March 10, 2012 at

Jan – it’s fascinating to me that you chose that piece to quote, “Mass casualties were expected.” While writing the book, I really contemplated that particular section. I considered using statistics, but in the end, I chose to say it the way my father did. One of the things those four words relay to me, is the unimaginable fear that these very young men had to push aside, just to get through it. Thanks for the comment!

Edith – I do know how fortunate I am. My father was 81 when he first started talking and is 90 now. But please remember that one’s story is never truly lost. Your father may have kept some of his stories private, but I’m certain there are others that survived. Write down what you remember, or ask relatives to help you piece it together. But probably even more important, write down your own stories. I’ve begun to do this myself. I don’t think my own are that interesting, but I hope that some day, they will mean something to my children or their children. Story is a powerful thing! ~Karen

Karen Fisher-Alaniz March 10, 2012 at

Janine – Beautiful! I agree with you; your words were perfect and important.

If you haven’t written up the story of your son sneaking in to hear his grandfather’s stories, you really should. It is such a poignant story of three generations honoring each other through the power of story. You might want to write it down simply for your family, but I’d also think that it would make a great short story for publication, if you were interested in publishing it. In any case, thank you for sharing!

Pauline – I’m glad you were able to get at least a portion of your father’s stories. It sounds like you have a good plan for writing the rest of them! It’s amazing when you get a group of family together – everyone remembers a piece of the puzzle and that’s a good thing. Your father was a true hero. You might also be able to get information on/from reunion groups for his division. Best of luck and thank you for writing! ~Karen

Sally Speaker March 11, 2012 at

About 40 years ago, my siblings and I were playing around in the attic and uncovered a trunk with war things inside – a bayonet with foreign writing on it, a Japanese flag, some other things I don’t which recall. We were stunned by the bayonet and asked Mom, who said, “It was your dad’s but don’t ask him about it. Put it back.” We obeyed. This was the first inkling we had that Dad had been in WWII; Mom’s brother had told his war stories for years but his were all we knew. Years later, we couldn’t find this trunk or the items that had been inside. Their whereabouts and the story behind them remain a mystery.

Later in Dad’s life, when his weak lungs became a problem, I heard snatches of stories about how “the war had done it to him” but could never get anyone to tell me more. He was 18-20 years old when he served as a medic in the Pacific; still there was so much secrecy (fear? shame? I couldn’t put my finger on it) about those years.

When I lived briefly in Hawaii, my parents came to visit. They were in their late 60s and Dad hadn’t been to Hawaii since his Army days. They had been stationed in tents in an old crater, awaiting their orders to ship out to Japan. He wanted to see the route they had run every day, practicing racing down from the crater to their ship to be sent off to war. Each day, for months, they walked back up to their crater, until their orders finally came and practice became real. This is all he would say about the experience. He was disoriented by Honolulu, which by now was a huge city, not the laid-back surfing town it had been in 1943. I could tell that the visit was unsettling for him but could not coax any conversation from him. As far as I know, he died without telling his stories – some of which must have been horrible for an 18-year-old to witness.

I’m glad your dad was willing to tell you his experience and I look forward to reading your book. Thanks for persevering.

joyce garofolo March 11, 2012 at

Dear Karen,
Your memoir is absolutely intriguing. I am looking forward to reading the book. As for my own experience, I was fortunate in having a father who shared all his life experiences with his children. Although he did not serve in the military he had a cousin who was killed in France only several months after arriving. He was only eighteen years old and was an only child, as was my dad. They were very close cousins since they had no siblings. Although my father could not bring himself to share those painful feelings, he did explain how his uncle insisted on going to France to bring his son home. He wanted to make sure that the fallen soldier was indeed his own son and if so, wanted him home to be buried in the family grave site.
My father told his children that his own father had tried to convince his brother not to go as he felt that it would destroy him to see his only child so mutilated. The Army had informed the family that the machine gun fire that killed him had mutilated his body. But he could not be talked out of doing what he felt he had to do and it did affect him for the rest of his life. He shared with his nieces and nephews that the sight of his son so destroyed was something that would never leave his mind.
Because of his courage the extended family have a home grave site dedicated to John, rather than a military site overseas. This has helped with the family history as we can visit and also have photos of his site to share with future generations.
To our family this is so important in light of the fact that my mothers’ brother was killed in the pacific during WW2 and was never found. We saw growing up how this affected my mothers’ parents. The not knowing was worse than the grusome reality.
Thank you so much, Karen, for writing this memoir as I am sure that it will bless many people and possibly encourage them to share their own stories, especially with their own families.

All the best,

Joyce Viti Garofolo

Karen Fisher-Alaniz March 13, 2012 at

Oh, Sally. Your story makes me so sad. I do believe that sometimes it is best not to talk about your experiences. It goes against everything I’ve experienced with my dad. But I’ve had veteran’s tell me that they believe that talking about their experiences would kill them. I don’t know, but perhaps your father was better off not remembering the details. Bless his heart. That said, I hope that you will write down your own story as it pertains to his. It’s an important part of your family history; finding the trunk, the items, putting them back and then the experience in Hawaii. You still have a story to tell.

Joyce – That’s the definition of love, isn’t it? Bringing your child home, even knowing it will haunt you for the rest of your life. What a testament to love. A parent’s love is just undefinable. There are so many mothers and fathers who never got to bring their child home, like in your family. I just can’t even imagine, can you?

I do hope that by telling my father’s story, others are encouraged to start those difficult conversations. In the end, there can be healing, whether it’s for you or for someone else.

Thank you both for sharing your stories. I am honored to read them. ~Karen

Cindy Wilber March 17, 2012 at

Hi Karen,
Reading through your interview with Women’s Memoirs took me back about 26 years. My Mother had died quite suddenly from a brain aneurysmm. My Father was devastated. He was suppose to die first. He could not handle that Mom had died first. He had graduated from the Naval Academy, been an officer in the Navy and been stationed on destroyers throughout his career. He was in the Pacific Theatre during WWII. When I grew up he was pretty much gone all the time aboard ship (at least that is how I remembered it). When he retired from the Navy, because of medical reasons, I was a sophmore in high school. He NEVER talked about his time in the military when it came to talking about his experiences during WW II. I mean never. I respected my Dad and obeyed him but I didn’t really know him. After my Mother passed away I got the opportunity to know my Dad. I spent one day a week with him until he too died 6 l/2 years after my Mother’s death. I look back and am so thankful for those 6 1/2 years where we got to know each other. My favorite time was when I would take Dad shopping, to appointments, etc. where we would be in a car. For in a car is where he would open up just a little bit about his true feelings. He never did really open up about his time “at war”. Only one time did he start to and then after a few minutes he said “that’s enough about me”. I so enjoyed reading how you worked with your Dad over 5 years to help him release his stories. I look forward to reading your Memoir “Breaking the Code”.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz March 17, 2012 at

Cindy – What a wonderful story you have to tell. Sounds like you could have written the book! We have a lot in common. You know, I hadn’t really thought about it, until reading what you wrote, but several times my dad did what yours did. In the car, he’d suddenly start talking about something with emotion. I think we women are more accustomed to and more comfortable with eye-to-eye talks. But for men, and especially for our veteran fathers, this is far too threatening. I’m so, so glad you had that time with your dad. I bet he loved every moment of it. Thank you for sharing your story! ~Karen

Amyah March 17, 2012 at

What a chance you had, dear you, to been there when your father needed to talk. My Papa had a secret. Something dramatic. Something that impregnated his life and his soul all his life. Something that tormented him every moment.

Sometimes, he would sit for hours, gazing at an invisible movie passing in front of his eyes. I was very young then and was already feeling his distress. I would sitting near him, trying to catch some of the images of what he was seeing… but to no avail!

He took his secret to his tomb and his secret haunts me as if he gave me the gene of his memory, the key to his souvenirs. But, I don’t know yet how to access it.

I might have an idea though, of what happened… no certitude, of course, just my writer-detective’s gut feeling and, if I am right, it is heartwrenching, destructive, a soul armaggedon.

He survived this horrible nightmare, in silence, in secret… my heart bleeds his pain and my eyes drip burning tears for him… in his memory.


Chris Wollam March 18, 2012 at

This is a classic “two-fer” The story (about your father) and the story about the story (your relationship).

Kathleen Pooler March 18, 2012 at

I am so happy you have written “Breaking the Code” as you are keeping the spirit of the greatest generation alive. My dear Dad was a WWII Navy veteran. He died in November of 2010 at the age of 88. Two months before he died, my family gathered to celebrate my parent’s 67th wedding anniversary. After dinner, we all sat in the living room while he regaled us with stories of his time as a young sailor during WWII. My Dad was usually quiet but that night he was animated and engaged as he talked about having to dock in London when his ship was docked due to storms in the North Atlantic. The memory of him telling those stories is a treasure. Thank you for all you and your Dad are doing to preserve the honor and pride of the Greatest Generation through their war stories.

Sally Speaker March 18, 2012 at

Karen, I wrote you a comment on March 11, to which you so kindly replied. Last night, out of the blue, my 28-year-old son called from out-of-state to ask about “Granddaddy’s Bill’s” WWII experiences, saying he was intrigued by recent History Channel programs he had seen about the Pacific theatre. Imagine my sadness about not being able to give him much information. My son had a soft place in his heart for my dad, even though they didn’t have much chance to know each other well. What an opportunity missed, never to come around again.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz March 22, 2012 at

Amyah – I think as adult children, we “just know”, as you so beautifully said. In fact, after our book went to print in November, new memories came to the forefront. Even with all we’d been through and the healing that had taken place, I still had “that feeling” that there was more that troubled my father. Turns out I was right. I’m certain that your father felt your concern and your empathy. Though his words remained unspoken, your presence no doubt gave him some moments of peace.

On a practical level, you can certainly send for your father’s records. That might give you a starting point in discovering what it is that troubled your father so. That said though, the majority of the traumatic stories I’ve heard from people who’ve responded to Breaking the Code, are often ones that wouldn’t necessarily be contained in official military records.

Chris: That, it is! The title also has a double meaning (or maybe more, I’m told).

Kathleen – It’s an amazing thing when we are a part of someone sharing their memories. I’m so glad your dad had a chance to share them, and that his family gathered ’round to hear. That’s what it’s all about. Beautiful!


Karen Fisher-Alaniz March 22, 2012 at

Sally – Hello, again. Your son’s timing is interesting, isn’t it? If I were you, I’d give him all the information and/or memorabilia you have. If he wants to pursue learning more about his grandfather, there are certainly avenues to do that. I would advise sending for his military records. Be sure to check the box that says you want replacement medals. This can give clues as to where exactly he was and what he did. I would also recommend having someone you know who was/is in the military look at them. That’s what I did, and it was immensely helpful.

Be sure that everyone in your family knows about your son’s quest (if he’s up for it, that is); it’s amazing that sometimes one person has clues or even items, but it just never came up before. There’s also a really great place to post questions and look for answers. It’s called simply WWII Forum. It can be found here, . The people on the forum are all WWII enthusiasts. They range from professors doing research for a book, to people who are simply intrigued with the war.

Anyway, it’s certainly sad when stories are lost. But your own stories of your father are important too. My best to you and your son! ~Karen

Rick Jones March 22, 2012 at

Hello, Karen;

My daddy was a Korean War veteran. He was a gentle, hard working man, a good father and dedicated husband. He was so strong…until later in years, when major depression overshadowed him. This was MY Dad! The strongest, most wonderful man I’ve ever known, dragged into the sorrow-filled pit of sadness and despair. It was hard to see him cry for months on end and be unable to speak for his unfathomable depression.

He is in Heaven now, but I wish I could have helped him. We all did what we could, but it wasn’t enough. He did have much joy in the hours before he left us. Of that, we can draw comfort.

Thank you for writing this memoir–it inspires me to write mine as well.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz March 23, 2012 at

Rick – I’m so, so sorry for your loss. It sounds like your dad was a wonderful man. In his younger years, he was able to put his pain away and enjoy life – that says something about his strength and his love for his family. But I believe that the human mind just isn’t meant to experience the many traumas and tragedies of war. Even those memories with the most secure of locks, will seep out over time. That happened to my father too. And when they surface, the mind is drawn right back into them. It’s a terrible thing to watch and I’m sorry you and your father had to experience that.

Your story is a powerful one and a cautionary tale. I hope you’ll write it down. People need to understand the true cost of war. My best to you, Karen

Louis Russo March 28, 2012 at

Karen, I read your book on an electronic device. It is a powerful story of what an ordinary man is capable of doing. Unfortunately, my father died more than 20 years ago, before I had much interest in what he did. I attended many reunions as a child and got to know some of the men in his outfit later on, but it was not like talking to them about their experiences. Unfortunately, I believe they are all dead now, so I am reduced to learning what I can of his service. I read your book and it reminded me of opportunities that I had missed. I do have his medals and ribbon as well as most of his paperwork, but that is a poor substitute for having the man to talk to.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz March 29, 2012 at

Louis – Although it’s been a long time, let me first offer my condolences. I am so fortunate that I’ve had my parents with me for so long. I am grateful every day. We live only about three blocks apart. I often think about that and how if my father had died even ten years ago, I would never have known his true story. Your story is a cautionary one and I hope you’ll share it with others. We all need to be reminded that none of us is promised tomorrow. We tend to put these things off. We think that we’ll sit down, listen to those stories, and maybe even get them written down, when things settle down for us. I’m glad you have his paperwork and his medals, and ribbons. That is something that many don’t have.

Thank you for the nice compliment. It’s just amazing to me that these young men who were simple farmers, or even high school students, did such tremendous things. Glad you enjoyed the book! ~Karen

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