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Interview: April 2, 2010

April 2, 2010

Sandra Dallas --- the bestselling author of nine works of fiction, including PRAYERS FOR SALE, TALLGRASS and NEW MERCIES --- tackles themes of loss, forgiveness and faith in her latest historical novel, WHITER THAN SNOW, which depicts a sleepy Colorado mining town as its residents cope with the effects of a natural disaster. In this interview with’s Bronwyn Miller, Dallas recounts a personal tragedy that helped her tap into similar feelings of bereavement experienced by her characters and discusses one particularly challenging aspect of writing about such harrowing circumstances. She also explains how she authentically captures the speech, behavior and attitudes of the time periods and settings during which her books take place, shares what she hopes readers will take away about ideas regarding fate (or luck) and tragedy, and offers details about the bear of a novel she’s currently working on. Your latest novel, WHITER THAN SNOW, chronicles the lives of residents in a small Colorado town following a devastating avalanche that forever affects the town and its people. What drew you to this storyline?

Sandra Dallas: Most ideas hit me out of nowhere, a sort of Aha! Moment. I don’t remember coming up with the idea for WHITER THAN SNOW. I had been to a Western Writers of America conference in Arizona a couple of years ago and heard someone say that a plot was when unrelated people came together to fight a common danger. I’m not sure how that led to a story about an avalanche. All I know is I found myself writing it.

BRC: Your characters are all so vibrant and real, each with their own strengths and flaws, but they all share one thing --- each might have lost someone in the avalanche. Can you relate to the theme of loss that they deal with?

SD: When I was nine, my sister Donna died of polio at the age of 13. The loss is still with me. Both my brother --- who is also a writer --- and I have written about her, perhaps in an attempt to make sense of the tragedy. To me, the most tragic loss is that of a child. My parents established a church library in her memory, and Mom came up with church library techniques that were picked up all over the country. But they never got over that loss. None of us did.

BRC: Particularly painful is the estrangement between sisters Lucy and Dolly Patch. Did you know from the novel’s earliest stages how you were going to handle their tricky relationship?

SD: I think I had that one figured out when I started. Other stories worked themselves out as I wrote them. Because my younger sister, Mary, is my best friend, I knew that a rift between the two sisters would be difficult for each.

BRC: Each character’s story brings something to WHITER THAN SNOW as a whole. Did any one section prove more difficult to write than the others? As a mother yourself, how tough was it writing about the loss of a child?

SD: The chapter on Essie Snowball was the most difficult because I was writing about a place and culture that aren’t familiar to me. I know the West. I know mining. I’ve written before about the black experience and the Civil War. But New York’s Lower East Side was new to me.

It was indeed tough to write about so many deaths, but even harder was deciding which child should die. I wasn’t sure when I started the book just who would live.

BRC: What would you like readers to take away from WHITER THAN SNOW?

SD: I want readers to understand that tragedy is random. God does not interfere with the laws of nature. Nor does He punish bad people by making their lives difficult, any more than he rewards them for their goodness. It was not God but luck, good and bad, that determined which children lived. Still, we make what we can out of tragedy. We try to bring some sense to it.

BRC: How does living in Colorado inform you as a writer? You’ve written on your blog that “writer friends are indispensable” and you couldn’t be a writer without them. How so?

SD: Although I was born in the South, I grew up in Colorado and consider myself a westerner. I could not write from any other viewpoint. I write about the mountain people I met years ago, about the love-hate relationship with the mountains, the hunt for gold and silver. There is an independence in the West that appeals to me, and yet the mountain towns I write about have a sense of community.

I couldn’t survive without my writer friends. They understand, as spouses and children and other friends can’t. Only another writer knows how to talk you through a plot problem, knows what to say when an unfavorable review appears, understands the frustration of dealing with the vagaries of publishing. Well, agents do, too, but writer friends are available for lunch.

BRC: Your novels are so authentic and rich with detail. How much research do you undertake for your books? Do you outline the plot before you start, or do you just follow where your characters take you?

SD: I’ve written 10 nonfiction books, most about Colorado history, so I know the territory. I read everything I can on a subject, consult books on regional English, read period newspapers, and interview people. I go to places I’m writing about to soak up the atmosphere. I spend as little time as possible in the library.

I never outline. I let the plot and characters dictate where the story goes. I have the ending in mind and write to it, but when I get there, I often change it.

BRC: You were a reporter before turning your talents to fiction. How hard was it to make the switch? Does your journalism background help or hinder your writing process?

SD: It was easy to move to fiction, and that surprised me. I’d thought journalism and fiction were two separate worlds and that I could no more write fiction than poetry. But I found the skills I developed as a journalist helped me as a novelist. I had worked for a magazine, so I learned to write tight. I learned discipline; I don’t have writer’s block, although I do have lousy days. Journalism teaches you to just do it. And it teaches you to be wary of adjectives and adverbs.

BRC: How difficult is it to write accurate historical fiction?

SD: Historical fiction, not so hard. Accurate historical fiction, harder. Research into time and place isn’t so difficult. The real challenge is making your characters true to that time period. Too many writers put 21st-century characters into long dresses and claim they’re Victorians.

BRC: Your website,, is a great resource for your fans and soon-to-be fans of your work. What is “Piecework?”

SD: Piecework is my newsletter, which I send out quarterly to anybody who wants to subscribe.

BRC: In your biography on your website, it says that you’ve often incorporated your experiences from your days as a reporter into your fiction. Can you tell us about one specific instance?

SD: I covered hard rock mining, and many of the mining town people work into my books. I used a story about a Butte waitress I interviewed in my novel BUSTER MIDNIGHT’S CAFÉ. I reused expressions from a story I wrote on Kansas quilting in THE PERSIAN PICKLE CLUB.

BRC: May we get a peek into your writing schedule? How long does it take you to complete a novel from start to finish? What’s your daily writing regime like?

SD: I write every day, even weekends, although I’m not zealous about it. I read and edit what I’ve already written of a chapter, then add a page. After that, I can quit. But I may go back 20 or 30 or 40 times a day to change a word, add a sentence, or make some change. It generally takes about six months to write a first draft.

BRC: What is your favorite part of the writing process? How do you feel about public readings?

SD: My favorite part is actually sitting at the computer writing. No, scratch that. My favorite part is writing “the end.” Writers are loners, at least I am, so I’m not really crazy about public appearances, although I’ve found the people who come out to hear me like my work, or they wouldn’t bother. So they are receptive and friendly.

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

SD: I’m working on another book set in Colorado. Two-thirds of it was easy. I’ve rewritten the third section five times, and it still isn’t right. I may be working on it on my deathbed. Don’t count on seeing it.

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