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Interview: April 6, 2007

April 6, 2007

Author and journalist Sandra Dallas has written 10 nonfiction books and seven novels, including her latest work of fiction, TALLGRASS. In this interview with's Alexis Burling, Dallas describes the past and current events that inspired this story, which revolves around Japanese internment camps during World War II, and discusses the amount of research she conducted in preparation for the book. She also reveals some of her characters' real-life counterparts, explains how the elements of the plot have evolved during the writing process and shares what she hopes readers will take away from the novel. What inspired you to write TALLGRASS?

Sandra Dallas: I was moved by a book, AMACHE: The Story of Japanese Internment in Colorado During World War II, which I reviewed for the Denver Post. It tells how some 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast in 1942 were forced to leave their homes to live in 10 desolate inland relocation camps. One of them was Amache, in the southeast corner of Colorado. These people --- many born in the U.S. --- lost their homes, businesses and possessions; each was allowed to take only what could be put into a single suitcase. I had actually visited the site in the 1960s, when I was pheasant hunting with a friend who lived nearby. The camp was then just cement slabs and roads bladed into the prairie. Intrigued, I researched Amache and discovered that, after the war, some of its buildings were sold to the University of Denver to accommodate veterans attending college on the GI Bill. The buildings remained for years, and my DU journalism classes were held in one. At the same time I read the book, I was disturbed by news reports that in the wake of the Iraq war, men were being held in Guantanamo Bay without charges. I wondered if once again, in a time of national fear, we were denying civil rights to human beings. All that led me to write TALLGRASS.

BRC: Why did you choose to tell this story through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl?

SD: Since I'm not Japanese, I couldn't tell the story from a Japanese point of view. That would have been presumptuous. Besides, TALLGRASS is not so much about the Japanese experience as it is about the people living in the nearby town of Ellis, and how the camp affects them. So, the story is told from the viewpoint of a 13-year-old Caucasian girl. I wanted a narrator who was steeped in right and wrong, someone who did not yet understand that fear engenders prejudice and hatred, a young person with the courage to ask questions. My characters represent various points of view. Some are filled with hate. Others are compassionate. Most are somewhere in between, which I think is the way the majority of Americans were during the war. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt that taking away the civil liberties of a group of U.S. citizens was all right if it helped win the war. Eleanor, of course, didn't agree with him.

BRC: Toward the middle of the book, a group of drunk, rowdy men from town head out to the camp, threatening all sorts of trouble. Rennie's father and the sheriff head out to squelch the looming violence, but the one who stops it all is Rennie's mother --- by standing outside in her nightgown, calling each man by name and mentioning his wife. The power in this scene is subtle, yet so far-reaching. What can be learned by Rennie's mother's actions? By her character in general?

SD: That scene was added in the final draft of TALLGRASS, when I wanted to expand on Mary Stroud's reaction to the hatred around her. Mary is a woman with strong views, but still, she is concerned about what other people think. When she leaves the house, Mary plans to stay hidden. She goes into the field only to make sure that her daughter is safe. Mary doesn't want to get involved, but when faced with an incendiary event, she cannot stand by and see people get hurt. She diffuses the situation not by confronting the men, but by shaming them. Afterwards, instead of being proud that she has stopped a riot, she is embarrassed that she is standing out in a field in her nightgown.

BRC: Throughout everything, Rennie's parents treat her as a grown-up. Although they do shield her from a few things, they mostly treat her with love and respect, and share various truths with her, even if the reality is hard to deal with. The same can be said about their full-disclosure relationship with each other. Why did you portray the Strouds in this way? What can readers learn from their behavior?

SD: Renie's parents treat her like an adult because they expect her to act like one. With her brother and sister away, she has to shoulder more work on the farm. With increased responsibility comes increased respect --- and privileges; for the first time, Rennie's mother offers her a cup of coffee. The Strouds are decent people. Granny is loved and honored, although she suffers dementia. (Granny, by the way, is the sister of Mattie Spenser in THE DIARY OF MATTIE SPENSER, and Granny and Mattie's people, the McCauleys, are one strong family.) You have to realize that Lloyd Stroud, Rennie's father, is based on my dad, who grew up on a Kansas farm, and Mary Stroud, to a slight degree, is my mom. So the Stroud marriage is patterned after my parents' marriage, which was loving and supportive, and was filled with respect and humor. Like the Strouds, my folks had suffered hardship during the Depression, and surviving the hard times together strengthened their commitment to each other. Incidentally, my folks weren't perfect, and neither are the Strouds. Dad died in 1973, Mom in 2001.

BRC: You capture the languid western drawl of 1940s Colorado perfectly. The words just seem to roll off your characters' tongues. How did you develop such a knack for dialogue? Are you native to Colorado?

SD: I made them sound like my Dad. I'd thought he was the only one who said "awful good." I found out everybody in Kansas and eastern Colorado says it.

I was born in Washington, D.C. but moved to Colorado when I was six and consider myself a westerner. I get dialogue by reading period books and newspapers, but mostly just by eavesdropping on people. I was a reporter for 35 years, and I trained myself to listen for quotes. That's dialogue.

BRC: Where did you get the idea for The Jolly Stitchers? They are a hoot!

SD: In 2004, I wrote a book about quilting in Colorado and the Mountain States, THE QUILT THAT WALKED TO GOLDEN. Researching it, I came across a quilt group called The Jolly Stitchers in eastern Colorado. One woman wrote that she wouldn't have made it through those difficult years of the dust bowl without the support and friendship of The Jolly Stitchers. So I swiped that name for Mary Stroud's quilt group.

BRC: How did you prepare for researching/writing this book?

SD: To research TALLGRASS, I read books about the internment camps and interviewed friends who were evacuees. And of course, I walked the dirt roads of Amache to get a sense of place. That's my favorite thing to do when writing a book --- visiting the setting to soak up atmosphere (which is why I want to set a book in Hawaii or the south of France.) But this book really is not about the internment camps; it is about hate and prejudice as well as human decency in a small town. I read about World War II and farming, including tracts on sugar beet farming. On the Internet, I came across a great book on how to raise chickens. I wished Mom had still been around so that I could ask her about raising chickens on our farm in Virginia, where I spent the first years of my life.

BRC: Did the story change at all from when you first started writing it to its final draft?

SD: The major change that occurred when I was writing the book was the emergence of the father as a pivotal character. I think I don't do men as well as women, so Loyal was to be a good person but a little vague; Mary was going to be the moral force in the book. But as I wrote, Loyal emerged as my own father, with Dad's mannerisms, language, humor and even his old pickup truck, Red Boy. He just took over the book.

BRC: Wow! What an ending! Without giving away all of the juicy details, what would you like your readers to take away from their experience with TALLGRASS?

SD: I'm hoping that TALLGRASS will make readers understand how precious our civil rights are, that they must be protected, even in fearful times --- especially in such times. One of the things that makes America a great country is that we protect the rights of people we despise. I want readers to believe that when people do what is right, good can triumph.

BRC: TALLGRASS is being touted as a modern-day TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. What do you make of this comparison? Do you agree?

SD: I think that's great! I wish Harper Lee did, too.

BRC: Given the current state of the world, TALLGRASS's content will surely resonate quite heavily with more than a few readers. Were you aware of this fact when writing the book? Did you draw intentional parallels to what's going on today in the Middle East, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere?

SD: I didn't intentionally draw parallels between World War II internment camps and Guantanamo, but I certainly hope readers get them. For all I knew, when I started the book, the situation at Guantanamo would be only a memory by the time TALLGRASS was published. Unfortunately, it's not.

BRC: You've written six other novels and two works of nonfiction --- all exploring aspects of history, from quilting (ALICE'S TULIPS; THE QUILT THAT WALKED TO GOLDEN) to Colorado mining towns (COLORADO GHOST TOWNS AND MINING CAMPS) to a murder in 1930s Mississippi (NEW MERCIES) to THE PERSIAN PICKLE CLUB and others. Why do you think you're drawn to history in your writing? Do you ever see yourself exploring another genre, like a memoir or contemporary fiction?

SD: Actually, I wrote nine nonfiction books before I turned to novels (and another nonfiction book a couple of years ago). All were about the West, and all but one were about history. My folks took my brother and sisters and me to historic places when we were growing up, even when those places were in the middle of the slums. I thought when I wrote my first novel, BUSTER MIDNIGHT'S CAFÉ, that I was writing an historical novel. My editor took out most of the research, however, saying that it got in the way of the story. And when the book was published, I discovered I hadn't written about history at all, but about loyalty and friendship. Those seem to be the themes of my writing. I don't know what I'm going to write next, because I never know what's going to pop into my mind. I don't plan books rationally. I wait for what James Michener called "the magical moment," when, Pow!, the idea hits me.

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

SD: I've just finished a novel set in the gold-dredging country of Summit County, Colorado, in 1936. It includes characters from almost all of my other novels. I've also completed a very personal narrative for SANDRA DALLAS SAMPLER, a book of quilt patterns from my novels. Neither has a publication date.