BookView Interview with Author Kat Karpenko

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed Kat Karpenko, who has recently released her second novel, a historical drama, The Photograph. The novel is a tribute to her paternal grandparents who left Ukraine in 1928.

Kat Karpenko was born in Canada of Ukrainian parents. A native of Windsor, Ontario where much of her family still resides, she has also lived in Edmonton, England, and Australia, but has spent most of her life in Nova Scotia where she worked in various administrative capacities at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Now retired, she divides her time between Mazatlán, Mexico and Canada.

While living in Nova Scotia she also taught the art of making pysanky, the ornate Easter eggs that are part of Ukrainian culture and took part in TV interviews during the Easter season.

She has had a varied writing career in technical writing, journalism, short stories. Her love of Nova Scotia and its history inspired her first novel, Emma’s Ghost. Her latest novel, The Photograph, was a tribute to her paternal grandparents who left Ukraine in 1928. More information can be viewed on her website https://www.katkarpenko.com

Tell us a little about how this story first came to be.

My first concept took the form of a short story about the photograph of my grandparents’ farewell get-together before leaving Ukraine in 1928. It’s a wonderful photo with faces full of character. Chapter two of my book is taken mainly from this short story through the eyes of my father who was nine years old at the time. I became very emotional while writing lingering through feelings of pain at the thought of saying goodbye to my family and friends forever, never knowing what happened to them.

My writers’ group encouraged me to expand the short story and eventually the family characters came alive. After much research I was able to understand the reasons for my grandparents’ departure and developed a strong appreciation for the fact that they had the courage to leave when they did.

Are any of your characters based on real people you know?

The only people I knew, and only as a child, were my grandmother, great uncle Luka and his wife Maria, my father and his two sisters. My grandfather Nicholai died before I was born. My father was killed in a trucking accident when I was fourteen and his sister, Tamara, became my fairy godmother. Not able to have children of her own, she was a caring, generous aunt for me and my two younger siblings. However, the characters in the book have taken on their own identity fitting in with a story line that was driven by historical facts. I knew nothing about the two brothers and four sisters left behind. I did not know enough information that could identify them even if the information were available.

How often do you base your characters on real people?

In my novels, the characters are fictional. In my first novel, Emma’s Ghost, the history of the times carved out the characters that I wanted. There was a parallel between Laura, a woman of the 1980’s with rights and freedoms opened up, and Emma in 1917 who was caught in a very restrictive time for women. Both struggled in abusive relationships.

In The Photograph the characters are victims of the time yet show a will to survive which I know to be strong in immigrant families. Once I establish an inner sense of who my characters are, they start speaking to me and drive the story line forward.

My short stories are often more personal and based on real-life observations of people and events.

What kind of research do you do and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

The research for Emma’s Ghost was mainly around the details of the Halifax Explosion of 1917. There were many factors during that period that impacted on Emma’s story from the explosion and its aftermath, to the existing WW1 circumstances in Halifax to the Spanish flu. Throughout the tale, I also included facts about the rich history of Nova Scotia. As the story progressed, I found myself turning to historic details to make them part of the plot.

In The Photograph the history of Stalin and the Bolshevik revolution was critical to the story. Although I knew about the Holodomor, I did not know why or how it happened. I also needed to hear first-hand experiences of the survivors to appreciate the horror of this genocide. I examined many sources to fully develop my plot line and characters. As the story moved forward, I sought more details of the time and place of events. Research was ongoing and I learned much about the history of that period in Europe. One of the most useful books in my research was Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum, a Nobel Prize winning author and journalist. I have used quotes from this book. She researched previously restricted Soviet documents and gave a very detailed picture of Stalin’s plan. Other very useful information from survivors is found on the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC) website. A list of the sources of my research is listed in my book.

Which Scene was the most difficult to write? Why?

The third section of The Photograph which goes into the details of the famine was challenging. What I had learned from the survivors’ stories was gut-wrenching in its horror, unbelievable in its lack of humanity. I knew that all of my characters could not survive. I had gotten to know them and appreciated their courage. Yet, somehow, I needed to end the tale with some hope for the future.

 What do you hope readers will take away from this story?

My hope is to inform the many who have never heard of the Holodomor (extinction by starvation) because the Soviets had suppressed information during the event and for decades after. Everyone knows about the evil rule of Hitler, but Stalin remained a hero in the eyes of many after WWII. I want to challenge the philosophy of dictators who profess that the ends justify the means. We need to be ever vigilant and learn from these tragic histories.

Also, the story of my grandparents’ escape and the agonies of leaving family behind is part of every immigrant’s departure. I know immigrant families will relate to this tale and hopefully others will be more sensitive to refugees from foreign disasters. We must remember the ancestors who arrived before us and acknowledge their efforts to bring us to a better place.

How often do you read?

Almost every night I read to clear my mind of daily realities until my eyes can no longer stay open. As a child I was a readaholic loving to be in a fictional world, engrossed in a good tale. As an adult I had less time but still love to learn my history through a good historical novel and pattern my novels after interesting characters and intriguing stories.

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