Interview: October 24, 2013
Sandra Dallas is the author of 13 novels, including TRUE SISTERS, THE BRIDE'S HOUSE, PRAYERS FOR SALE and TALLGRASS. Her latest, FALLEN WOMEN, is about New York socialite Beret Osmundsen, who gets word that her estranged sister Lillie has died suddenly in Denver. When Beret discovers the sordid truth of Lillie’s death, she makes her way to Denver, determined to locate the killer. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Alexis Burling, Dallas talks about her lifelong fascination with Colorado history, as well as how she went about researching the living conditions and culture of 19th-century prostitutes. She also discusses why it took her more than two decades to write FALLEN WOMEN --- her first mystery --- why she prefers to write fiction over nonfiction, and why we are more prone to deny fault when it comes to the people we love.
Bookreporter.com: FALLEN WOMEN is set in 1885 in Denver, Colorado, where you currently live. Many of your other books are set in Colorado as well. You touch on this in your Acknowledgements, but for those who haven’t read them, how did you go about researching the historical aspects of this particular book? Did any of your previous research come in handy, or did you have to start from scratch?
Sandra Dallas: I grew up with Colorado history. Mom used to take my brother and me to Denver’s skid row to see the old Victorian buildings there. Among those streets was Market (previously called Holladay St.), which had been Denver’s red-light district. My first books were nonfiction works on Colorado history. One was CHERRY CREEK GOTHIC, a history of Denver architecture, for which I photographed the old brothels and gambling halls of Holladay and other streets before urban renewal destroyed them. Back then, historians portrayed 19th-century prostitutes as glamorous parlor-house inmates, but I learned about the underside of Denver vice. Of course, FALLEN WOMEN took additional research, mostly into early-day crime. I had hoped to base the novel on a real murder but discovered Denver was relatively safe in the 19th century. There were a few murders of prostitutes back then, but the killer was usually another prostitute. I also learned the word “hooker” wasn’t used in Denver until the 20th century.
BRC: Much of FALLEN WOMEN takes place in the squalid parlors and sordid back rooms of Denver’s tenderloin district. What physical qualities (textures, smells, etc.) and personality quirks were most important to include in order to help these scenes --- and the prostitutes who made these environments their homes --- jump off the page?
SD: I discovered a 19th-century newspaper article about the suicide of a prostitute that described what her crib looked like --- the filth and the stench. In addition, I read books written by 19th- century madams and “working girls.” One, written by Nell Kimball, detailed the smells of a brothel that, despite cleaning and airing out, never went away. These books provided descriptions of whorehouses and cribs --- the furniture and paintings, the gaudy rooms decorated like Persian dens, as well as the dreary one-room hovels at the end of the line. HELL’S BELLES, written by my college buddy Clark Secrest, is a wonderfully detailed book about Colorado prostitution.
BRC: In addition to historical fiction, FALLEN WOMEN is also a high-stakes mystery. Are there writing tips and tricks that were especially useful to you when building tension throughout the book?
SD: I never took writing classes and don’t attend writing seminars or read how-to books. But I read an awful lot of mysteries, so I guess that’s where I picked up ideas for how to write one. I’m not sure the tension in a mystery is any different from that in a regular novel, except that you have to figure out whodunit.
BRC: I read on your website that it took 22 years for FALLEN WOMEN to come to fruition. Why was this novel more difficult to write than the others?
SD: I always wanted to write a mystery, but I never could come up with an idea for one. The plots for novels come out of nowhere, and I didn’t get an idea for a mystery for two decades.
BRC: The crux of the novel is about Beret’s attempts to solve the mystery of her sister Lillie’s murder. But early in the book, you reveal that Lillie and Beret’s husband had an affair, and as the pages turn, the truth about Lillie’s other sexual transgressions begins to seep out. Throughout all of it, Beret seems to be unwilling --- or unable --- to believe any of it. Why this incredulity in Beret? Is it because, like a character asks of Beret later, “who among us clearly sees the ones we love?”
SD: It’s not that we can’t see the faults of those we love; it’s that we don’t want to see them, and that was the case with Beret. Ask any parent about a child’s transgressions, and the first reaction is to deny them. I read in the paper today about a 12-year-old girl who committed suicide because she’d been bullied. When the father of one of the bullies was asked about the well-documented charges, he denied his daughter had done such a thing.
BRC: Beret is such an unusual name! Does it have any particular significance?
SD: Beret (it’s pronounced “BEAR-it,” not like the hat) is the name of a librarian I met a few years ago. I loved it, and since I won’t be having any more daughters to name, I gave it to a character.
BRC: After Lillie’s murder, there are two more murders that take place in a similar fashion. Did you research infamous serial killers? If so, are there any books you would recommend about this?
SD: Sorry, I just made it up.
BRC: Many of the men in FALLEN WOMEN --- Teddy, Evan Summers, even Jonas --- are vile and manipulative cheats. Did you find it a challenge to inhabit the minds of these characters?
SD: No, but I don’t like creating evil men. Perhaps that’s because the men in my life --- my husband, father, brother, son-in-law, grandson --- are such good people.
BRC: In creating Beret and Varina, which one was more fun for you to shape and develop? Were there any aspects of either of their personalities that were particularly challenging?
SD: Beret was the most interesting because she is the main character --- and because she has so many of my traits. In the first draft, she was too cold, too unfeeling, so the second time around, I had to warm her up. Varina was more difficult. Originally, she was to be a minor character with a kind of walk-on role, but as the book progressed, I decided to make her more complex.
BRC: Again, without spilling the beans, was your killer always the killer, or did you toy with having someone else commit the crime at other points during the writing process?
SD: I had the killer all figured out before I started the book. Then, while walking down the street to a breakfast one morning, I thought “what if?” and made a change. I’ve done that with other books --- written towards an ending, then changed it when I got there.
BRC: Chapter 25 is a bit of a wrap-up chapter. Why the choice to include this at the end?
SD: I usually have epilogues, because I like loose ends tied up. I thought that since the first chapter was from Mick McCauley’s point of view, I should end the book with his viewpoint. I also wanted to leave the book with the possibility of a sequel, not that I’ve ever written one. Still, I would like to continue Beret’s story, maybe in New York. I’ve been studying New York’s underworld, picking up books at one of my favorite places, the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.
BRC: You have now written 12 novels, one YA novel, and 10 works of nonfiction. How does your writing process differ when working on fiction versus nonfiction? Do you prefer one genre to the other, or do they complement each other?
SD: I prefer fiction because it’s more challenging and more fun. With nonfiction, you have a notebook full of information you have to get into your computer in some readable form. But with fiction, you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s a force at work in fiction that I don’t understand, but thank God for it.
BRC: What’s next for you?
SD: Next year’s book is A QUILT FOR CHRISTMAS, a book about love and loss (and quilting), set during the Civil War.