Karen Autio grew up in Nipigon, Ontario. She began writing and illustrating stories as a child. Her love of words continued as she grew up; along with being an author, she is also an editor and calligrapher. Karen likes to collect objects with stories; it is this love that inspired Karen to write her historical trilogy which began with Second Watch. You can come and meet Karen at the Waverley Library on October 9th; she will be sharing the final book of her trilogy, Sabotage, with us there.
Shauna Kosoris: Second Watch, the first book in your trilogy, was inspired by your grandmother giving you a silver spoon. Her friend claimed that spoon had been on the Titanic. How did that story lead to a trilogy of books?
Karen Autio: I wrote Second Watch thinking it was a standalone book. Shortly before it was released, my publisher asked me what other book ideas I had. That’s when I first realized I wasn’t ready to stop writing my characters’ stories. My grandmother, while quarantined in a tuberculosis sanatorium, wrote letters to her baby, my mother. This personal family story inspired the continuation of the Mäki family’s journey in my second book, Saara’s Passage. Then in my research for writing Saara’s Passage, I discovered that what I thought was a tall tale I’d heard growing up in Nipigon was actually true. There really were German spies at work in my hometown in 1915 plotting to destroy the Canadian Pacific Railway bridge. This was irresistible fodder for more research and then writing the third book in the trilogy, Sabotage.
SK: Have you found out the spoon’s actual history?
KA: Yes—and it’s completely different from what I expected! Come to one of my presentations and I’ll explain.
SK: I’ll have to stop by when you’re at Waverley this October! Second Watch deals with the Empress of Ireland tragedy. What was the most interesting fact you discovered about the ship while researching for the book?
KA: The first passengers I learned about who were on the final voyage of the Empress of Ireland were Hilma Kivistö and her two children, from Port Arthur (now part of Thunder Bay). They were relatives of my grandmother’s friend from whom she’d received the silver spoon. Hilma was Finnish, and as I researched the Empress, I learned of several other Finnish passengers from Port Arthur and Fort William. Eventually I discovered a website listing 91 passengers involved in the shipwreck who were destined for Finland—all of whom were travelling in Third Class.
What amazed me was their survival rate. Of the 91, 21 were rescued—23%. This was a higher percentage than all of Third Class, and even all of Second Class (both were 19%). I attribute this to their Finnish sisu— strength, drive, and perseverance.
SK: Wow, that’s quite amazing. So the second book in the trilogy, Saara’s Passage, deals with growing up during difficult times: Saara must deal with tuberculosis in her family, the growing threat of WW1, and her Post-Traumatic Stress from the Empress of Ireland. Was it difficult to weave all three of these issues together into your narrative?
KA: Yes, there was definitely a lot to hold in my mind and consistently apply in the writing. As I researched, I immersed myself in the time period and imagined myself as Saara dealing with all of these challenges. The most difficult part of writing Saara’s Passage was the personal connection, thinking about my grandmother experiencing being quarantined in the Toronto sanatorium for months on end, and then in a separate building at home in Nipigon. To imagine the reality of her being able to see her infant (my mother) from a distance, but have no contact with her, was heart wrenching.
SK: What can you tell me about the third book, Sabotage, which came out last fall?
KA: Sabotage deals with spies, sabotage, enemy aliens, and internment in Canada during the First World War. My trilogy tells the adventures and mishaps of the Finnish-immigrant Mäki family living in Port Arthur in 1914-15. Readers discover both how much has changed since the early 1900s and what remains timeless, such as fickle friends, new-immigrant experiences, the struggle to do the right thing, and family dynamics.
Finding out that the plot to destroy the Nipigon River railway bridge was actually true inspired me to hunt for more information about wartime sabotage in Canada. What I learned astounded me. I turned my research into this adventure novel in which the courage and wits of siblings Saara and John Mäki are put to the test. Sabotage is suitable for any age of reader from grade 4 up and is of equal interest to boys and girls. Partly that’s due to the story being told by both Saara and her younger brother John, in alternating chapters.
- a 2014 Arthur Ellis Award finalist for Best Juvenile/YA Crime Book Finalist
- shortlisted for the 2015 Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice Award
- listed by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre as a “Best Book for Children”
SK: How much time did you spend researching the books of your trilogy?
KA: Years! Several years! I never have the freedom to research solidly, so it’s piecemeal and therefore difficult to tally the time.
SK: What are you working on now that your trilogy is finished?
KA: When I’m not busy copy editing fiction or non-fiction manuscripts for other writers as a freelance editor, I’m working on my next books. I’m excited that my first picture book, called Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon, has been accepted for publication by Sono Nis Press. It explores the history of where I live in the Okanagan Valley, B.C., in a unique way. I have the incredible opportunity to collaborate on this project with the illustrator, Loraine Kemp, of Kelowna. I’m also in the process of researching local history for a novel set in early Kelowna.
SK: Congratulations, that’s very exciting! Thinking of history, you’ve said that you like collecting objects with stories. What’s your favourite object that you’ve collected so far?
KA: One of my favourites is the Finnish-style wooden rocking chair that my great-grandfather built in 1939. He made it as a gift for his daughter, my grandmother who gave me the silver spoon. The rocking chair then belonged to my mother for several years before she passed it on to me. Its extra-long runners make for an exciting ride! As a child, I loved to rock it to its limits at Mummu’s house (which always made her nervous, despite trusting her father’s craftsmanship).
SK: How did growing up in Nipigon affect you?
KA: In Nipigon, I was surrounded by Finlanders! My grandparents shared their Finnish heritage with me by teaching me to bake coffee bread (pulla) and making sure we had plenty of pickerel and a hot sauna during summers at the lake. Growing up on the northern shore of Lake Superior instilled in me a love of water and now my favourite activities are walking or cycling along Mission Creek and getting out on Okanagan Lake in our canoe.
SK: I’d like to finish up by asking you some questions about what you read. Is there a book or author that inspired you to write?
KA: I can’t pick only one! Going way back, I have fond memories of the Dr. Seuss Beginner’s Dictionary that played an important role in turning me into a lover of words. Julie Lawson’s historical novel Goldstone about Swedish immigrants in the early 1900s in British Columbia was an inspirational model for me as I was writing Second Watch.
SK: Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?
KA: I’ve given this a lot of thought, but haven’t come up with a single book or author. Everyone is so diverse, with unique interests. The important thing is to read regularly and read widely. A book I would highly recommend for writers—one that I frequently reread—is Take Joy: A Book for Writers by Jane Yolen.
SK: Finally, what are you currently reading?
KA: In a recent online author interview, I was asked to think back to my childhood to recall a particular author who was a favourite. My answer was Rosemary Sutcliff. Her historical novels drew me into their time periods and brought history to life. As a result, I’m currently reading her book The Mark of the Horse Lord.