Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sandra Dallas at Back to the Beach

Back to the Beach is an annual Readers' Advisory workshop for librarians, sponsored by the Maricopa County Library Council. Librarians from the state of Arizona gather for a half day workshop to hear publishers' reps talk about forthcoming books, librarians booktalk genre books, and an author. This year, we were fortunate to have Sandra Dallas, author of Whiter Than Snow, as the guest speaker. And, I was very lucky to be able to take Sandra to dinner the night before. So, this is a recap of her appearance at Back to the Beach, along with a thank you. It was a pleasure to spend the evening, and part of an afternoon, with Sandra Dallas.

Dallas told us that she grew up using a branch of the Denver Public Library. When she was in fourth or fifth grade, she passed out at the circulation desk, to find all of the librarians standing around her. To this day, it's one of the highlights of her library experiences.

Sandra Dallas was the first female bureau chief for Business Week. That was back in the days when a meeting was started with, "Gentlemen, and Sandra." She wrote nonfiction books about land use and water policy, and a number of books about the West. When her first book about Western history came out when she was twenty-six, she was called an ingenue. At fifty, when her first novel was published, she was considered a poster girl for AARP.

Sandra said she did try to write fiction earlier. A friend who was a stringer for People met her for lunch, along with another writer for a ski magazine. It was the time when bodice rippers were popular, and they thought they could write one and make some big money. They knew they could do it because they were "real writers," who wrote nonfiction. So, they came up with a plot, and then Sandra created a hero. Since she worked for Business Week, the hero was an entrepreneur. The woman who worked for the ski magazine had a heroine who was skier. And, the woman from People had created a number of odd characters. They decided to include a French count and countess because they'd be able to go to France, and call it research. The three of them met a few times, but they never got around to writing sex scenes.

Laughter followed when Sandra said she remembered trying it once. Then she said, no, she meant trying to write a sex scene. (She is the mother of two.) She said she went into her office and closed the door, so no one could see. And, she typed, "He unbuttoned the top button of her blouse." Then, she stared at the screen, and finally wrote, "The next morning..."

She said she was amazed at how much she liked writing fiction. Her first book, Buster Midnight's Cafe, took only three months to write. But, the one she's working on now has taken her three years.

One question she gets asked frequently is, "Where do you get your ideas?" She said many come from a magical moment, what James Michener called, "An aha moment." With Buster Midnight's Cafe, she was walking between rooms, when the plot, characters, and the opening sentence came to her. And, she had the choice of continuing on to the kitchen to get something to eat, or go back and write. She went back and wrote the first chapter. Everything except that opening sentence was eventually changed.

Sometimes it isn't easy to put those ideas together. With Dallas' book, Alice's Tulips, includes quilting. It's set during the Civil War, and it's written in the form of letters. Dallas' friend, author Diane Mott Davidson suggested she use letters. But, she didn't know how to put it together. She thought she would have a woman come to Denver and write letters home, but Dallas didn't know why she had come to Denver, and what she was doing there. But, one night, she went to dinner with her husband, and said, I'm having trouble with this book, and as she talked, the entire plot spilled out. There's a moral to that story; "It pays to eat red meat."

Sandra had an idea for her current book, Whiter Than Snow, when she was here in Phoenix for the Western Writers of America convention. She said it was so hot here that she actually attended sessions during the convention. She heard someone say a plot brings together a disparate group of people to solve a common problem. And, that comment, in Arizona heat, led to Whiter Than Snow, a novel set in the Colorado high country.

Whiter Than Snow takes place in April 1920 when an avalanche hits a mining town. Nine kids were buried in the avalanche. Four lived. The book is the story of the families.

Dallas said she writes books about relationships. This one is about the relationship between sisters. It's also about place. Place is her favorite thing to write about. She can go there, and listen, and be in her setting.

There are two sisters in Whiter Than Snow. One loves the mountain town, and can't imagine living elsewhere. The other sister feels trapped, and wants out. There's a woman from Saginaw who becomes the wife of the mine manager. Her family lost their money, and, in 1910, women had no options but to marry. There's a Jewish girl from the lower East Side in New York. Dallas and her daughter visit the Tenement Museum when they go to New York. They have restored apartments there from 1840 and the turn of the century.

Dallas tends to write more about women in her books, but there are two men who are important characters in Whiter Than Snow. One is a black man, born after the Civil War, who does a horrible thing, and strikes a white man and has to flee. According to Dallas, conditions for blacks were often worse after slavery. There were economic reasons for slaveholders to keep their slaves alive. But, after, there was no reason for white men to help blacks. So, often, blacks were taken to court on trumped up charges, and charged with court costs they couldn't pay. Someone would pay the court costs, with the stipulation that the costs would have to be worked off, sometimes for five years.

The other important male character in Whiter Than Snow is a Civil War veteran. She once heard the folk group, Back Porch Majority, sing a song about The Great Sultana. At the end of the Civil War, riverboats were commandeered to carry Union soldiers back up the Mississippi. The Great Sultana was carrying prisoners released from Andersonville. The boat was supposed to carry 376 crew and passengers. There were 2100 on board when the boat blew up. Eighteen hundred died. It was the worst ship disaster in U.S. history. In comparison, 1500 died on the Titanic.

Sandra read us a charming piece her six-year-old grandson wrote to help her with her research on avalanches. She said the title, Whiter Than Snow, comes from Psalm 51, "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow." And, then she told us it reminded her of a jingle for detergent, but she didn't have a better title.

With this book, her husband said, "You have sex in it." Sandra said it's sex that your maiden aunt wouldn't object to, but she considered it a major breakthrough.

Dallas is frequently asked if she uses real people in her books. In Tallgrass, she started out by making the mother the voice of conscience, but the father turned into her own father, with his beliefs and behavior. It's the only time she's used a real person. Mattie Spencer, in The Diary of Mattie Spencer, has Dallas' own height, politics, and sense of humor, but she's a nicer person, and has better hair.

Sandra often includes quilting in her novels. When she wrote The Persian Pickle Club, she discovered there are 27 million quilters in the U.S., and they spend $3.3 billion a year. Their second favorite hobby is reading about quilts. Quilting died out during WWII, and skipped a generation. When it was reborn, quilters were often self-taught.

She said writing dialogue is her favorite part of writing. She made the New York Times Best Seller list, and turned seventy this year. So, she's finally making it at the age of seventy. She hopes she knows where to stop. She also received her first hate mail, which she considered another breakthrough. A man wrote and called her queer, a transvestite, and liberal. Dallas commented that one out of three isn't bad.

When you're a friend of a writer, you never know when you'll be involved in a book. Dallas gathers incidents. There's the Seven Wives Inn in St. George, Utah, owned by the great-grandfather of the current owner. When polygamy ended, Benjamin Johnson told his seven wives he could only have one, and he wasn't going to choose; they would have to do that. The wives got together, and all seven turned him down.

Dallas went for a walk, and was sitting on a bench in Las Vegas, New Mexico, one day when a drunk wandered over, and, skipping all of the other benches, sat down by her. After a while, he said, "Nobody's going to mess with you when you're with me."

And, one day, she sat outside at a table in Santa FE, reading the paper when a bum came along. He asked for money, and she ignored him. He asked again, and she ignored him. Finally he said, "Jesus loves you, Snooty Lady." She used that in one of her books.

Dallas ended her Back to the Beach program saying fiction doesn't get any easier. And, now, she spends as much time promoting her books as writing them, through her newsletter, writing guest blogs. It's no longer enough to write the book. Now, the author has to promote them as well.

And, Sandra Dallas did an excellent job promoting her books to a receptive audience of librarians.

Sandra Dallas' website is

Whiter Than Snow by Sandra Dallas. St. Martin's Press, ©2010. ISBN 9780312600150 (hardcover), 304p.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Another great event!

"Whiter than Snow" sounds interesting...I'm a sister and we're both very different. So this sounds right up my alley!

And I love the way she "gathers incidents." I do something similar, but I never thought of it that way. :)

Lesa said...

I'm afraid that term, "gathers incidents," was mine, Elizabeth. I needed a summary to tie in the last three stories Sandra told.

I love her books. If you haven't read any of her books, my favorites are The Persian Pickle Club, Tallgrass and Prayers for Sale. I have the feeling that one of Sandra's favorites is The Chili Queen. And, because of your sister, yours might be Whiter Than Snow. I'd love to hear what you think if you read it.

Mary (Bookfan) said...

I really need to read one of her books. I liked your post, Lesa. I see that she writes love scenes like I would, lol. :D

Lesa said...

Thanks, Mary. I hope you do read her books. My mother and sisters are all fans as well. And, they make great books for book discussions.

Molly said...

Another wonderful summary of a fantastic author event, Lesa!

I obtained the Persian Pickle Club last year when you mentioned in another post, but I have not yet taken the time to read it. I hope to make the time this summer, because after this post, I want to read all the books this talented author has written.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Molly! I'm glad you have a copy of The Persian Pickle Club. It's a great introduction to Sandra Dallas' work.