Interview: April 29, 2011
A proud Coloradoan and self-proclaimed western writer, Sandra Dallas is the award-winning author of such bestsellers as WHITER THAN SNOW, PRAYERS FOR SALE, TALLGRASS and NEW MERCIES. Her 10th novel, THE BRIDE'S HOUSE, tackles the secrets and passions of three generations of women who have all lived in the same Victorian home called the Bride's House. In this interview, conducted by Bookreporter.com's Jamie Layton, Dallas discusses the real house that served as inspiration for her latest title. She also lists her favorite places in Colorado and explains how her journalism background --- covering events in her beloved Rocky Mountains --- served as a foray into fiction.
Bookreporter.com: Your latest novel, THE BRIDE'S HOUSE, was inspired by an actual Victorian house in Colorado. Where exactly is it located, and can you tell us more about it? What was it about the house that intrigued you to the point of incorporating it into a novel that revolves around it?
Sandra Dallas: The Bullock House, which my husband and I named for its 1881 builder, is in Georgetown, Colorado, a national historic district in the mountains 45 miles west of Denver. I had loved the Bullock House for years --- among other things, it has a hand-grained front door --- and told my husband if it ever went on the market, we should buy it. Although I knew the Victorian house was in poor shape, with water damage and weathered siding, junked cars in the yard, I wasn't prepared for the inside, and after going through it, we decided it was too much for us. Nonetheless, we toured it again with Georgetown's preservation architect, who was undaunted by the avocado carpeting, fake wood paneling, 1950s remodeling, and the raccoons living in the tower. He saw the staircase, one of the few Victorian touches left, threw up his hands, and announced it was a "bride's house." I thought, "What a great title for a book." So against our better judgment, we bought the house and spent three years restoring it. At one point, we discovered burned timbers upstairs, and I wished the fire had done its job. But now that the work is done, we love the house, I can't imagine anyone else living in it.
By the way, we discovered a strong box hidden in a wall and wallpapered over. We took it to a locksmith and found inside one burnt match. But the strong box worked its way into THE BRIDE'S HOUSE. The title, of course, came before the story. I didn't incorporate the house into a novel so much as I incorporated a novel into the house.
BRC: Your character development and descriptions are consistently wonderful. You create the type of character that a reader continues to think about even after setting the book down. How are you able to accomplish this? Are any of your characters here based on people you know?
SD: If I'm going to live with a character for the two years or so that it takes to write and publish a book, I want her, at the very least, to be interesting. She has to be someone I like and want to spend time with. My characters are rarely based on real people, with a couple of exceptions. (Fictionalizing real people is such a wonderful way to get revenge.) Mattie Spenser in THE DIARY OF MATTIE SPENSER is based somewhat on me, although I have to admit Mattie is thinner and has better hair. None of the characters in THE BRIDE'S HOUSE are real, but I've taken their traits from people I know.
BRC: A key architect of the entire novel is wealthy engineer Will Spaulding, yet he appears in barely a third of the book. Too often the outcome of a book is predictable early on because the author drops little clues or suggestions along the way. How did you resist tossing in hints about him throughout the 200-plus pages in which he is absent?
SD: There were hints about Will in the first draft. In fact, I gave away Will's secret a third of the way through the book. But then I decided THE BRIDE'S HOUSE would be better if all the secrets were kept until the end. Frankly, I thought people would figure out Will's secret before I told it.
BRC: It is unusual in women's fiction to find many male characters who want to do, and then do, the right thing. In your book, there are multiple men who do just that --- Charlie, Frank, Joe and, in some respects, Will. How did you decide that each bride should and would have their shining knight? How many drafts did it take until each story had its happy ending without seeming trite or too neat?
SD: Okay, so I admit I like happy endings. Readers have told me they like my male characters because they are decent men. I suppose that's because the men in my life --- my husband, my father, my brother, my male friends --- are good men. They are moral and do the right thing.
My villains are as often women as men.
As to number of drafts, the first two sections went quickly. But I must have written Susan's story, changing plot, time frame, even the character's name, a dozen times before I was satisfied with it.
BRC: I found your Colorado setting to be a refreshing change of place. When one thinks of writing set in western states (with the exception of California), typically male authors spring to mind. Why do you think this is? And why do you think it was male writers who, from early on, predominantly wrote about this region of the United States?
SD: There's an old cliché: Easterners write literature, Southerners write literature, Westerners write westerns. And men tend to write westerns. Readers expect big western novels to come out of this region --- CENTENNIAL, LONESOME DOVE, for instance. Would THE CATCHER IN THE RYE have been as well received if it had been set in Denver?
BRC: You attended the University of Denver and have lived in Colorado most of your life. Your love for the state shines through your novels. Were you born and raised there? Where are your five favorite places in the Centennial State? What is your favorite Colorado-specific dish?
SD: I was born in Washington, D.C., and came within seven minutes of being delivered in a car in front of the White House, and was approached recently by someone compiling a book of the work of southern writers. She wanted to include me. I declined. I moved to Denver when I was six, and except for my high school years in Salt Lake City, I've lived in Colorado ever since. I've always considered myself a westerner and, hence, a western writer.
My favorite places:
- The Georgetown-Silver Plume National Historic District, with the Georgetown Loop Railroad (especially on the Fourth of July)
- Cheesman Park in Denver
- The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs
- Boreas Pass
My favorite local food is green chiles stuffed with goat cheese and deep fried, which is really a New Mexico dish, but they're served at Julia Blackbird's in Denver. With the exception of Rocky Mountain oysters (which are what you think they are), there aren't many foods unique to Colorado.
BRC: Your career began in journalism and you spent 25 years with Business Week. I would imagine a successful reporter would have to develop keen observational skills. Do you find this to be true? And, if so, do you think such experience takes some fiction writers to a higher writing level? Do you think it contributed to your success as a writer?
SD: Journalists don't always make good novelists; they can be too factual. But you're right about journalism developing skills of observation --- and irony, I might add. Journalism gave me the skills I use in writing fiction. Reporters write concisely with few adjectives and adverbs; that's my style. A journalist is always looking for quotes; that's dialogue. Storyline is plot. And reporters develop the discipline to sit down everyday and write, because journalists who have writer's block get fired.
BRC: Of all the stories you covered as a journalist, what was your favorite? What type of story did you find most interesting?
SD: I covered the Rocky Mountain states, so I wrote about a variety of subjects. I loved writing about hard-rock mining and Indian issues, about the early environmental movement and human rights and the penny stock market. And I wrote a number of pieces about the feminist movement; I wrote the first national newsmagazine story about sexual harassment, for instance, because it involved a Denver company. The story I was working on at the moment was always my favorite.
BRC: What is your next project? Can you tell us something about it?
SD: My upcoming novel, as yet untitled, is about an 1856 Mormon handcart company. This episode, little known outside of Utah, was the worst Overland Trail disaster in western history.
• Click here now to buy this book from Amazon.