Jane's Interview with Sandra Dallas

Bestselling and award-winning author Sandra Dallas is my guest interviewee this month. Gosh I like this woman! I like her books that are often set in historical Colorado though her WILLA Literary Award winner, New Mercies has a Mississippi link as well. One of her nonfiction titles, The Quilt that Walked to Golden was the model for my quilt book about Aurora and her Spur Award winner, Tallgrass set in the 1940s and telling the story of a Japanese detention camp in Colorado, made me celebrate one of Joyce Carol Oates' criteria for a good book: stories should give witness to voices seldom heard and Tallgrass does so beautifully. The Persian Pickle Club is a delight as is The Chili Queen whose mystery and ending will floor you, I bet. The Chili Queen also won the Spur Award from Western Writers of America. One of Sandra's nonfiction books, Sacred Paint, won the National Cowboy Hall of Fame Western Heritage Wrangler Award, an award that I was honored to receive for my first novel. I've yet to read a book by Sandra (I think I've read all of her fiction now) where I didn't close the last page, sigh and think, "Boy, I wish I could write like that."
I also cherish Sandra as a person who shares my love of writing and understands the necessary discipline and who has been a supportive colleague in my writing and personal life. I feel honored to call her a friend. Much of the interview that follows has to do with her latest book, Whiter than Snow that comes on the heel of her first New York Times Bestselling book Prayers for Sale (recently named a finalist for the WILLA Literary Award from Women Writing the West as well.) If you haven't been introduced to Sandra Dallas...then you are in for a major treat. Please visit Sandra's website http://www.sandradallas.com/ and her Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Sandra-Dallas/75196042946 to let her know you've read her interview then look for one of her titles. Just begin...you'll be glad you did.

JK: Whiter than Snow was for me an astonishing book. Can you tell us how you learned about the avalanche that inspired this story and what made you decide to write about it? Or was it all your wonderful imagination?

SD. There was no avalanche that inspired Whiter Than Snow. The idea came from a remark made at a Western Writers of America conference a couple of years ago in Scottsdale, Arizona, where someone said that a plot was where a writer brought together a disparate group of people to face a common danger. Somehow or other, that comment made on a brutally hot day worked its way into a story about an avalanche at 10,000 feet in Colorado. I read everything I could about avalanches in the Colorado mountains, talked to my son-in-law, a mountain climber who is head of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, who told me the greatest danger from an avalanche is not suffocation, but trauma. Unexpected help came from my grandson, Forrest, then six, who wrote an essay, “About Avalanches,” for me: “Avalanches start from ckoneses. The wend has to blow it hard and then it forms into a pelo and then it fols down a speshl way. Avalanches omle are on step mowtines. You can die esale. They go fast.” That was about all I needed to know.

JK You gave us the ending up-front in Whiter than Snow then drew us into the stories of the people related to those children. How did you decide on that kind of structure for this novel? Do you usually get the plot first or the characters or something else entirely?

SD The idea for the book came with that structure. I never considered anything else. Usually, the setting comes first, next the characters, then we all go looking for a plot.

JK One of my favorite relationships in this book was between the two sisters. Did you draw from your own siblings to create such vivid friends whose lives were later shattered even before the avalanche?

SD. My sister Mary is my closest friend (possibly excepting my two daughters, Dana and Kendal.) I’m sure I drew on that bond, although I did not do so consciously. It would be a tragedy to me if something came between us.

JK Have you ever been close to an avalanche as it was happening? I thought you must have been to create such a vivid account of the one outside of your fictionalized Swandyke in the mountains of Colorado.

SD I’ve never been in an avalanche, although I’ve lived in avalanche country and have heard the stories of those terrible snowslides that rush down mountainsides, sweeping up everything in their paths. Colorado history is filled with stories of miners caught in avalanches—as well as stories of their rescuers who were swept away in subsequent slides.

JK You also write award-winning nonfiction works too. The Award-winning The Quilt that Walked to Golden is a favorite of mine. Denver Post readers enjoy your columns and book reviews, too. What's the biggest difference between writing fiction and non-fiction? How easy is it for you to transition from nonfiction to fiction?

SD I wasn’t sure I could make the switch to fiction after so many years as a journalist. (My first novel was published when I was 50.) But I discovered that as a journalist, you’re always looking for quotes; that’s dialogue. You need a story line; that’s a plot. And you develop the discipline to just sit down and write. Journalists don’t have writer’s block. If they do, they find another job.

JK What is your all time favorite writing ‘How To’ book? One that you would like to recommend to other writers?

SD That’s easy: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. She tells you about the writer’s life, the rewards and joys, the disappointments, when not to give up—and when to consider suicide.

JK One of your skills as a writer is presenting the tensions between race and class and gender in both powerful and sensitive ways. Whiter than Snow is no exception. Did you know in advance that you would have characters who ended up in Swandyke from such diverse experiences who then have to find a way to live together in community? Or did the characters just evolve and let you know what they struggled with?

SD I knew I wanted diverse stories. Those stories came from interests of mine. I’ve always wanted to write about the sinking of the Sultana, but I couldn’t write a novel about it because there were only a handful of women aboard and I write primarily about women. I’ve read extensively about the plight of African-Americans following the Civil War, men and women and children whose lives were often worse than during slavery. As a feminist, I’m interested in the lack of choices women historically have had. And after a visit to the Tenement Museum in New York a couple of years ago, I was caught up in the lives of immigrant women at the turn-of-the-century. I wrote each section as a sort of short story, then brought the characters together in the end. Incidentally, I did not know in the beginning which children would live, and choosing the ones who would live and the ones who would die was the hardest part of writing the book.

JK When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Were there barriers that got in your way? What kept you persevering?

SD I never wanted to be anything but a writer. Well, I was sidetracked in high school when I wanted to be a movie star, but after trying out for the high school play, I realized that was not an option, so I went back to the original plan. The barrier was being female. The Wall Street Journal came to my university and interviewed male journalism graduates but not the females. Women, even on the major women’s magazines, were hired as secretaries, not editors. Newspapers wouldn’t hire women as reporters. I was the assistant in the Denver bureau of Business Week, where I eventually was promoted to the magazine’s first female bureau chief. I never encountered sexual harassment as a reporter, but I did in book publishing.

JK Prayers for Sale was a New York Times Bestseller (and another favorite of mine!) Has your life changed with NY Times bestseller status? Do you still have to wait in line at your favorite restaurant?

SD Are you kidding! I can’t even cut in the line at Starbuck’s where the barista is a would-be writer. And I’m still listed in the phone book. My life has changed only in that I get asked to donate more books and to write more endorsements for other writers.

JK Can you share a little of your writing routine? Is it 9-5 day, late into the night, early morning? Year round? What would a day with Sandra Dallas look like?

SD Last year, when I was on the New York Times best-seller list, a sorority sister at a reunion asked me, “Is your life glamorous?” Ha! I get up at 5 a.m., work out at the University of Denver, stop at Starbuck’s, and am at my desk by 8. I write in the mornings, when I’m fresher, generally write a page a day. The next day, I edit that page and write another page, and so on. I may go back to my computer 10 or 20 or 30 times a day to change a word or phrase, rename a character, or make other changes and additions. But essentially, I can stop after a page and not feel guilty. I write almost every day of the week, although I’m not religious about that. It’s okay to skip a day if something comes up. After writing my page, I generally spend the rest of the day on promotion—my newsletter, my Facebook author page, answering emails, preparing speeches, meeting with book groups, writing book reviews or my column for the Denver Post (a monthly column on nonfiction books of regional interest.) I suspect you and I are not all that different in how we write, Jane, since we both look at writing as a profession, not some sort of ethereal creative experience. In fact, you’re probably more professional than I am, because you’re more productive. Since my office is at home, I mix the writing chores with laundry, cooking, gardening, and other responsibilities. I sometimes get emails asking if “a member of Miss Dallas’s staff” would do something. Who’s that, the cleaning lady?

JK A friend of mine said that at the end of a book where is says "about the author" that what she doesn't want to read are the number of books written or awards won. She wants to know "stuff" like where the author lives (not the address!) how many dogs she might have, what movies she's seen more than once, what books are stacked beside her bed, etc. So could you tell us some "stuff" about you?

SD Actually, Jane, I like the mystique of not revealing too much. Readers are disappointed when they find out how ordinary I am. My husband and I are restoring a Victorian house in Georgetown, Colorado, a national historic landmark district, and for the past three years, I’ve spent a great deal of time on that. I love to go antiquing. I’m an undisciplined collector of old quilt photos, folk art, western art, and anything else that strikes my fancy. I read a great deal; my sister said once that for us, hell is being somewhere without a book. I’m interested in western history, wrote 10 nonfiction books about western subjects before I turned to novels. I visit my daughter in New Orleans several times a year, and the two of us are going to Turkey this fall. And I’ve been involved in political issues, particularly those affecting women. Years ago, I integrated the Ship Tavern Bar at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver. And I have this incredible grandson, Forrest, but you don’t have room enough for me to tell you about him.

JK What are you working on currently?

SD The Bride’s House, which is set in our house in Georgetown and will be published in June, 2011. It’s the story of three generations of women who live in a Victorian mansion in Colorado and takes place from 1880 to 1950. Essentially, it’s a love story—three of them, in fact.

JK Thank you so much, Sandra, for being my second interviewee! What a privilege to interview you and for your gracious comments to me that you feel honored to follow Francine Rivers' interview. The quality of your work and the compassion of your heart are models for any writer or anyone who loves a good story. Thanks for sharing your insights.

Bio: Widely heralded for her sharp historian’s eye, her ear for authentic dialogue, and her knack for creating endearing characters, Sandra and her fiction have received international acclaim.
Turning to fiction in 1990, Sandra has published nine novels, including Whiter than Snow. Sandra is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Literary Award for New Mercies, and two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award, for The Chili Queen and Tallgrass. In addition, she was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award, the Mountain and Plains Booksellers Assn. Award, and a five-time finalist for the Women Writing the West Willa Award.
The mother of two daughters—Dana is an attorney in New Orleans and Povy is a photographer in Golden, Colorado—Sandra lives in Denver with her husband, Bob.