by Jerry Waxler
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This is Part 3 of an interview with author Karen Fisher Alaniz about writing, publishing, and reflecting on her memoir Breaking the Code. In this part, she focuses on how she chose to organize the book. This is a crucial question every memoir writer faces. How do you go from a mountain of notes and memories to a memoir worth reading.
Jerry Waxler: There were a number of ways you could have structured this book. For example, like Linda Austin, in Cherry Blossoms in Autumn, you might have attempted to reconstruct your father’s early experience. You chose instead to use two timeframes, one in which you were the investigating daughter, and the other in which you reconstructed the original time of his war experience. I’m really curious about the thought process that led you to structure it the way you did. Did you model your book after any particular memoir or story structure? Did you try more than one structure before you settled on the final one?
Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Each chapter of Breaking the Code has two or three letters my father wrote during the war. But very early on, I tried writing the story without including the letters. But what I found myself doing was quoting the letters or saying that I’d read XYZ in his letter. It didn’t make for a cohesive, natural story. I’d only written a handful of chapters when I realized I was going to want to include the letters, and center the text around them. I was also getting encouragement from my critique group. Some of the ladies were little girls during the WWII years and they were a good barometer for how important the information in the letters was. Like everything with this book, the structure developed naturally. Once I’d written maybe 30-pages, I knew it was reading like I wanted it to read. But remember, I had 400-pages of letters to work with. So one of the hardest parts was deciding what to leave out.
Jerry Waxler: How long was it from the time you conceived the book to the time you published it?
Karen Fisher-Alaniz: The evolution of the book was such an organic process that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I started writing it. Originally, I was simply going to transcribe the letters. Then I decided to write in the story between the letters. The whole process took years. It was nine years from the time my father gave me the letters he wrote during the war, to the time the book was published. Not all of that time was spent writing it though. It was a slow and often halting process. You just can’t rush memories to the surface, and that was certainly true for my father. If I could condense the actual writing of the book, it probably took about two years.
Jerry Waxler: Like most memoir authors, you had to sort through the events in order to decide where to end it. Explain the thought process that led you to deciding where the story was finished.
Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Well, the funny thing is that I actually finished writing the book before I had any real resolution to the story. My father was still suffering terribly from flashbacks and nightmares. I’d written the book with a very unsatisfying ending. Basically, in the final chapters I wrote about the reality of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; there are no neatly tied up, happily-ever-after endings. PTSD can wax and wane, but it’s always there. Of course, when we went to Hawaii, my father came back a different man. And that changed the end of the story.
Jerry Waxler: You use photos in the book. That’s interesting. I have often thought while reading a memoir that I wish I could see the images, but then I tell myself these are two different media, and that the absence of images levels the playing field and gives the reader the chance to fill in the story with their own imagination. Tell us about the decision making process and internal debates that led to your inclusion of photos.
Karen Fisher-Alaniz: My father saved everything. He had photos and memorabilia. He did have a scrapbook for some of that. But a lot of it he would just put into a manila envelope with a word or two about the contents and hand it to me. It was usually after the subject contained in the envelope had been discussed. Or sometimes he even gave me an artifact before we talked about it. It was like finding treasure for me. Eventually, I took all those treasures and put them in a notebook, in archive safe sleeves.
I imagined the book with photos. But I also knew that that’s a publishing decision. I had heard that it is expensive to include photos, so I didn’t have many expectations. But my editor at Sourcebooks, Peter Lynch made a decision before I was even done with the edits. He wanted to include photos, perhaps somewhere in the middle of the book. But then I decided to visit the publishing company in Chicago. I hand carried my father’s scrapbook and a few of his original letters. Once Peter had a look at it, he decided that the photos had to have a bigger part than simply a section in the middle somewhere. I think that the decision to use a photo at the beginning of each chapter was brilliant. The art department did an excellent job.
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