Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Author Karen Fisher-Alaniz: A Father/Daughter Journey

With each passing day a bit of history slowly vanishes as we lose the brave men and women who served in World War II. Many of those who lived through the events of that war have never spoken about it or only shared brief glimpses of what happened for various reasons. 

Author Karen Fisher-Alaniz recently came to understand much more about what her father did during the war and who he is. Karen joins us today as part of her WOW! Women On Writing Blog Tour for her book, BREAKING THE CODE: A Father's Secret, A Daughter's Journey and the Question That Changed Everything.

On his 81st birthday, Karen’s father presented her with two weathered notebooks containing more than 400 pages of letters he’d written to his parents during World War II. He asked her to uncover a truth for him, was he involved in espionage during the war or not. He had been forbidden to keep any written records and it was so many years ago. Thus began Karen’s journey that lead to her incredible book which is a double memoir: the story of her father's memories of his World War II service and the story of Karen, searching through history for clues to her father's part in winning World War II.

Thanks to Karen and Jodi at WOW!, I have a copy of BREAKING THE CODE to giveaway. Please see the end of the post for the guidelines and also an additional giveaway.
Here’s Karen to answer some questions about her journey to writing this book.

Mason - Why did your father believe he had been involved in espionage all those years ago and why his long wait to find out the truth? 

Karen - He believed he was, because he was. Before being sent to Iwo Jima an28d Okinawa to copy the top secret code based in the Japanese, Katakana, there were classes that his team was required to take. There were five in the team. They were told that if they revealed anything about what they did during the war, that they would be put in solitary for the remainder of the war. If anything they revealed got into enemy hands, they would be shot, without court martial. I think that fear, coupled with the great loss he experienced, locked the memories up. He was able to come home from the war, get married to my mother, have three daughters and work for the railroad for many years. I believe his mind protected him from the things he experienced – the things he saw. 9/11/2001 seems to have been a trigger for him – after that, he was quite down, and eventually nightmares and flashbacks were so common that he was afraid to even take a nap in the afternoon. He changed dramatically.

Mason - How does one even begin to uncover such secrets? Was it a difficult path to follow?
Karen - It was a long and very slow process. I would read some letters and then have a list of questions. Sometimes he’d answer the questions and often he wouldn’t, or couldn’t. My only goal at the time was to find a way to help him. I struggled many times with whether I was helping him or hurting him. I felt guilty when a memory came to the surface that was painful. But at the same time, I had a sense that in the long term, it would help him. 

Mason - What was one of the most surprising things yo
u discovered in your journey either about your father's activities, your father himself, your father/daughter relationship, or about yourself?
Karen - Well, I was sitting across from my father every week at a local diner. My father was now in his 80’s, walked with a cane, and his body was slowing down. His mind remains sharp as a tack. His memory is better than mine. But I’m sitting across from him, and trying to reconcile what I’m seeing with the young man he had been. 

My father had transferred from ship to submarine, to raft, to ship again, in the middle of the ocean. He’d scaled the side of a ship with radio equipment strapped to his back. He had copied a top secret code while Kamikazes filled the sky and comrades were dying around him. Before this, my father had just been Daddy. He was the one who taught me to ride a bike and who made campfires and roasted marshmallows. Seeing my father with new eyes was the most amazing experience of my life.

Mason - Before the request to uncover the truth, did your father talk much about the war and his part in it?
Karen - When I was little, my father had a handful of stories that he told over and over. But those stories made the war sound like Boy Scout camp. They were fun or interesting stories. There was nothing intriguing or dangerous sounding. When anyone asked him if he was in the war he would answer with an emphatic “no!” He believed that designation was reserved for those who were in hand-to-hand combat. 

My father often said that he had simply worked behind a desk during the war. That’s why, when he began having symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, at the age of 81, I was so baffled. If he was so safe during the war, then what could have happened to bring on nightmares and flashbacks?

Mason - How long did your journey to discover the truth take you?
Karen - Dad started having flashbacks and nightmares at the age of 81, shortly after tragedy struck our nation on 9/11. I knew something was terribly wrong, but couldn’t figure out just what. So, we started having breakfast together once a week. Eventually, he gave me 400 pages of letters he wrote during the war. Those letters became the foundation for the story and the focus of our weekly conversations. I started asking him questions. I had a feeling that I would uncover something, and hopefully that would enable me to help him through this. I just never could have dreamed that my father was a top secret code breaker!

Mason - What advice would you give to others who would like to research their own families' involvement in the war?
Karen - Many of us have heard bits and pieces about our parent’s or grandparent’s wartime experiences. Or we’ve seen the proverbial wall come up when we ask about it. I think the important thing to do is to keep asking. Your loved one has a story to tell. Maybe they weren’t ready to tell it 30-years ago, or three weeks ago, but today could be the day. Give your loved one (and yourself) the gift of time. 

My father and I began having breakfast together once a week. That’s just one hour, every week, for ten years now. It adds up. Be willing to build a new relationship, one
that is different than when you were a child, or a teen, or young adult. I didn’t have time for my father’s stories during that time. It pains me to admit that. But it’s true. We all think we have more time; sadly, time runs out for some. And those stories are lost forever. I’m very thankful that Dad finally shared his stories with me.

Mason - Does your father have a favorite memory of the war.
Karen - He was stationed on Oahu, so he often went exploring by himself or with comrades. There was a little hole-in-the-wall steakhouse that he went to with his best friend, Mal. It was called, Mary’s Steakhouse. He got to be a regular, so one day, Mary asked him if there was something special she could make them that would remind them of home. Dad didn’t even have to think about it. Strawberry Shortcake. The next time he went in, Mary had made them homemade strawberry shortcake. He says it was the best he’s ever had. It’s a bittersweet memory because his comrade and friend didn’t survive the war much longer. But a beautiful memory none-the-less.

Karen, thank you for joining us today and sharing this insight information with us. You are so right saying we believe we have time to find out information from our loved ones, but we don’t. 

Karen was born and raised in Washington state. She taught special education for fourteen years before embarking on a new path as a writer. Although she'd been writing for fun since first grade, she'd never considered writing a book until her father handed her his collection of letters. Since then, she's toured bookstores and other events signing her book, inspired audiences with her public speaking, and was even interviewed by NPR's Audie Cornish for the Weekend Edition. 

Currently Karen has two new books in the works. The first is a humorous look at raising a child who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The second and longer term book is a narrative nonfiction about another veteran's story. It is about Michael G. Reagan, an extremely talented portrait artist who gave up his career and has dedicated his life to drawing the portraits of fallen soldiers of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other wars. He donates the portraits, framed and free of charge, to the families. For more information about the Fallen Heroes Project, visit

Karen lives in Walla Walla, WA. For more on Karen and her writing, visit her website at and find her on Twitter at @karenlalaniz.

Now for the giveaway guidelines. To enter, send me an e-mail ( with the subject line, “Win BREAKING THE CODE.” Your message should include your name and mailing address. And, just so you know, I don’t share this information with anyone other than the publisher nor use it for any other purpose. The deadline to enter this giveaway for a chance to win a copy of BREAKING THE CODE is be 8 p.m. (EST) on Thursday, Dec. 6.

You can also try your luck for one of three books Karen is giving away on Dec. 7. For more information and to enter, visit

For those on Twitter, the hash tag for this tour is #BreakingTheCode.

Thanks everyone for stopping by today. Have you taken the time to listen to a family member’s wartime experience?


  1. Karen, thanks again for joining us today. You and your father have made an amazing journey together. Wishing you much success with this and your other writings.

  2. Mason - Thanks for hosting Karen.

    Karen - What an absolutely fascinating story! I'm sure that it must have been quite a journey as you slowly looked into the past. What an intriguing mystery. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  3. What a fascinating story. I've always loved listening to stories of my grandparents and parents, for that matter. I'm one of those people who always loved to sit and talk with elderly people as a kid because they had such great stories to tell. :-)

    Glad you got to see a fuller picture of who your dad was, Karen.

  4. Mason, thank you for having me!

    Margot - Intriguing is a great word.Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the story my father had to tell!

    Sia - I'm sorry to say that, unlike you, I looked for the nearest exit when Dad started to tell one of his stories (we'd heard them many times). But hey, that's what kids do, I guess. I hope I made up for that by sharing his story with the world. Live and learn...LOL.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.