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Interview: April 17, 2009

April 17, 2009

Sandra Dallas's eighth and most recent novel, PRAYERS FOR SALE, chronicles the unlikely friendship between an 86-year-old woman and a 17-year-old girl in 1930s Colorado. In this interview with's Terry Miller Shannon, Dallas traces the book's origin from a collection of short stories and likens writing books to patching together quilts. She also recalls her earliest attempt at writing fiction, shares details about her creative process, and discusses her next book, WHITER THAN SNOW. In the acknowledgements, you mention that the seeds for the story of PRAYERS FOR SALE were first planted in the 1960s. In the 40-year gestation period before you began writing the book, did you make notes along the way, or was it a more subliminal process, simmering quietly away deep below the surface?

Sandra Dallas: For years, we had a Victorian cottage in Breckenridge, and when our girls were little, we took them out onto the one remaining Summit County dredge. Since then, the boat has deteriorated, and you can no longer access it. Although I read about the gold boats over the years and even talked to old timers about their experiences on them, I didn’t really do serious research on them until I started writing PRAYERS FOR SALE. That’s a pity, because by then, those old men were gone and couldn’t answer my questions.

BRC: What propelled you to finally sit down and begin writing the book? And once you started writing, how long did it take for you to complete the manuscript?

SD: I was moved by a story I read about the tragic death of a baby during the Civil War and wondered how that could fit into a book. Then I realized I could use the story as the departure point for a book set in the Colorado gold-dredging country. The book took a little longer to produce, maybe a year, than my others, because it started out as a series of connected short stories. I realized only after the first draft was completed that I really was working on a novel.

BRC: Was there any difference writing this book as opposed to others with shorter gestation periods?

SD: Every book has its own set of problems, but the experience of writing was about the same.

BRC: Speaking as a fan of all your work, it was a sweet delight to see Tom Earley again after meeting him in THE DIARY OF MATTIE SPENSER. What inspired you to continue his story in PRAYERS FOR SALE?

SD: Tom insisted on it. I wanted characters from some of my other books to participate in PRAYERS FOR SALE. So, Marion Street from BUSTER MIDNIGHT'S CAFÉ, Zepha from THE PERSIAN PICKLE CLUB, Ned and Emma from THE CHILI QUEEN and NEW MERCIES have walk-on roles. Tom Earley, too, was to have a minor role, but he insisted on staying around. Incidentally, the book is set in 1936 so that it’s possible for all these characters to participate in the story.

BRC: In your own life, can you pinpoint any one person who is the model for Hennie? How about the young bride Nit Spindle? Is there a relationship in your own life similar to the friendship between the two?

SD: I wish I had had a friend like Hennie or had taken a girl like Nit under my wing, but the characters are not based on anyone. They are entirely fiction and have no relationship with my own life. I rarely base characters on real people.

BRC: After reading PRAYERS FOR SALE, a reader is likely to assume you are a quilter. If that assumption is true, when did you become one? Do you usually carry some piecing along with you, as Hennie and Nit do?

SD: I quilted a little when my children were young, was considered pretty good, but that was only because nobody else quilted. I sometimes buy old quilt tops and quilt them, but I’m not very good at quilting and don’t do much of it. I’d rather quilt with words.

BRC: Nit says, "Quilts are like lives. They're made up of a lot of little pieces." How do patchworking and storytelling, so linked in Hennie's life, intertwine in yours? When you piece a patch, do stories come to you? Do you find it easy to tell a story when you're quilting?

SD: Since I don’t quilt, I don’t think up stories while quilting. But I do believe that books, like quilts, are made up of random scraps.

BRC: One of the great glories of reading your novels is being able to live, through your characters, in other times. Were you always interested in history? If not, what sparked your interest?

SD: When I was six, we moved from our farm in Virginia to Denver. Before we left, Mother took my sister, brother and me to visit all the historic sites in and around Washington, D.C. She had a wonderful sense of history. Once we were in Colorado, Mom introduced us to western history, and it has been a primary interest of mine ever since. I’ve written 10 nonfiction books, most of them about Colorado history. If I had not been a writer, I would have been an historian. I set my books in historic times so that I can immerse myself in those periods.

BRC: When I read your books, I am submerged in that other time. I almost have to go through a brief transition back to my own time and life when I close the book. During the writing of PRAYERS FOR SALE, did you at times experience a blurring between your existence and Hennie's?

SD: That’s a hard one to answer. My characters are my friends. They are with me all the time while I’m writing a book. I share their happiness and grieve with them during hard times. I had an old photograph of a woman in a cape and a blue bonnet, just like the one I describe in PRAYERS FOR SALE, propped up on my desk when I wrote the book. She was Hennie, and I found myself studying her and wondering what she thought. And above my computer was a picture of a 1930s young couple sitting on a quilt in a cabin; they are the models for Nit and her husband. Sometimes I talked to them. I didn’t quite cross over the line from reality to fantasy, but I did steep myself in their lives.

BRC: I'm curious about how you work. Do you strive to write a certain number of hours or produce a certain number of words a day? Do you write longhand or by computer?

SD: I use a computer and write 50 lines a day. The next day, I edit that 50 lines and add another 50. The following day, I edit the first 100 lines, then add 50. And so on. Fifty lines is about the limit of my creativity. After that, I start writing dialogue like, “How are you?” “Fine, how are you?”

BRC: You once worked for Business Week magazine. What was your path to becoming a novelist?

SD: Two writer friends and I decided to try a sex novel. We actually wrote some of it, but it turned out to be harder than we’d thought, and our styles didn’t mesh. Besides, we all had day jobs. We never got to the sex. But I realized after we dumped the book idea that I loved writing fiction. And to my surprise, the skills I’d learned in journalism turned out to be pretty helpful in fiction.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

SD: WHITER THAN SNOW, about an avalanche that sweeps up nine children in 1920, will come out in spring 2010. The avalanche occurs in Swandyke, a town just down the Swan River from Middle Swan, the setting of PRAYERS FOR SALE.

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