Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Author Interview: Sandra Dallas

I recently interviewed Sandra Dallas, author of Whiter Than Snow, published in April, 2010. It's a captivating, touching story I highly recommend (my review). This is my first author interview and it's taken me a little time to get it posted. Re-write after re-write, several edits as well as some health problems delayed its posting. I want to apologize to Sandra for the delay.
I had a wonderful time talking with Sandra and found her to be friendly, very interesting, easy to talk to, witty and funny.

Sandra, I really enjoyed Whiter Than Snow and I was wondering how you came up with the title?
The working title was "The Snowslide", I desperately needed something better. My agent and I went through books of quotations and the Bible. One of the main themes in the story is redemption. My agent found Psalm 51: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Whiter Than Snow seemed appropriate, since there is a feeling of redemption to the quote. But I think it sounds a little like a jingle for a laundry detergent!

Have you ever experienced an avalanche or do you know anyone who has?
I have no first-hand experience with avalanches. My son-in-law works for an organization that deals with avalanches so he read over the scenes and helped me get them right. He told me something interesting: that people caught in an avalanche don't usually die from being suffocated but more often they die from trauma experienced in the course of being buried.

How did you come up with the idea of the avalanche?
I was at a Western Writers of America Convention and one of the speakers talked about plot as a group of people thrown together to face a common danger. I thought about what would be a perilous situation in Colorado and an avalanche came to mind.

Sandra, did you know which children were going to die right away or did that develop as you wrote?
I almost always know the ending to my story when I'm writing although when I finally get there I often change the ending. .I knew from the beginning which children were going to die. I didn't want Jane to die. The death of Jane affected me the most.

In Whiter Than Snow you told stories about the lives and experiences of several of your characters. How did their different stories come about?
I wrote about what interests me, what intrigues me: gold mining; family relationships, the Civil War; the black experience following the war, life in NYC tenement, all of these subjects I find interesting. Shortly before writing this book my daughter and I visited the Tenement Museum in NYC so I decided to make one of the characters a Jewish girl from NYC. I also included the explosion and sinking of the Mississippi River steamboat Sultana. The story of the Sultana has interested me for a long time. I was going to write a book about it but there were very few women on board and I write women characters. So I wrote about the Sultana here. More people died in the sinking of the Sultana than the Titanic: 2100 were on board and 1800 died.

I had no idea about the Sultana, Sandra, that's fascinating and very sad. I've also never been to the Tenement Museum her in NYC. I'll try to rectify that soon!
Do you have a favorite character in Whiter Than Snow?
When I'm writing every character is my favorite as I'm writing their story. I get into the specific character's head and see things from their point of view. Minder Evans character affected me the most. He had so much grief and he carried it with him for such a long time. He also let me write about the Sultana which I have wanted to do for years!

How long have you been writing, Sandra?
I've only been writing fiction since 1990, but I've been writing for most of my life.

In my research I read you were a journalist for many years?
I studied Journalism at the University of Denver and I worked for Business Week in the Denver Bureau for 25 years. I covered The Rocky Mountain Region , a large variety of subjects and topics. I was the first female Bureau Chief in the Denver Office. When that office closed I free-lanced with Business Week for 10 years.

That's fantastic, Sandra. Congratulations!
I also read you wrote several non-fiction books during this time?
Thank you. Yes, I wrote 9 books about different aspects of Colorado, mining, ghost towns, things like that. I currently write a column for The Denver Post.

Did you always want to write fiction?
No, not at all! A few years after college I wrote a book but I couldn't get it published and I put it away. Years later I was at lunch with 2 friends and we came up with the idea to write a potboiler. We had a plot and characters and wrote some of the book. But it was really too difficult to coordinate with day jobs and schedules so we stopped.
But I loved writing the book. I pulled out the novel I wrote a few years after college and reworked it and sent it out. That didn't work out right away but I kept writing and trying things. I finally wrote what became my first novel, Buster Midnight's Cafe. The book I wrote after college eventually became The Chili Queen.

How do you come up with the ideas for your books?
Very often ideas come to me in a complete thought. The idea for my first book just came to me one day. I had just walked into the house, I was in the front hall and the idea with the plot, characters and even the first line popped into my head!

Do you write for your readers, Sandra?
No, I don't, I think that's very limiting. I just write and write. Over the years I've discovered what my readers like and don't like. Many of them don't like sex and profanity, no bad language. They send me letters when they don't like something I've written in a book. A large number of my readers are quilters. I taught myself to quilt when my children were small. I collect old quilts. Quilts are women's art, they represent women and their lives.

Are there specific themes that occur in all of your fiction?
I don't purposely write specific themes into my books or pay much attention to the themes but most of my stories tend to revolve around the themes of loyalty, friendship and human dignity.

Sandra, can you tell us what you are working on now?
I don't like to do that because things change so easily or I might talk about something and then if that book doesn't come out readers will wonder what happened. But I have a book I just sold coming out next year. It's called The Bride's House. It's about 3 sisters and a restored home. The idea came from the house my husband and I are restoring now in Northern Colorado. It's taking forever!

Is there any possibility you will write a sequel to Whiter Than Snow?
I've never written a sequel yet. But occasionally, if there's a character I can't stop thinking about or I want to be sure she's okay, I may write a line or two about her in another novel to let readers know how she's doing. I've only done this once so far and I haven't heard that anyone noticed!

What would you like readers to take away from Whiter Than Snow when they finish reading it?
I hope they're happy they read the book, found it worthwhile. I want them to have laughed a little while reading it. The point of the book I guess is that there is redemption, you can always grow and change and find forgiveness from God and yourself. There is randomness in tragedy and death, it doesn't depend on or determine if you are a good or bad person. I also want readers to understand that there is a randomness in tragedy. God does not single you out for good or bad things; those tragic acts are not God punishing you or rewarding you. You can learn from them and become a better person.

Sandra, you've been great about answering my questions! I have one final question What do you like to read?
I read a lot. I recently finished (at the time of the interview) Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. I'm re-reading The Alienist by Caleb Carr. I love Truman Capote's writing and Anne Lamott, especially her non-fiction, Bird by Bird. I also enjoy supporting other Colorado writers.

Thank you so much for your time, Sandra, it's been wonderful talking with you!


  1. Great interview! Although I was hoping she might tell us why she didn't give us any follow up on the characters after the story ended...

  2. How exciting that you interviewed an author! Let me know when you get to talk to Richard Russo!

  3. Excellent interview, I am a Sandra Dallas fan!

  4. Wow, what a great interview! I love the idea of Sandra and 2 friends writing a potboiler!

  5. Love the story of how she came to write fiction!

  6. What an interesting interview. Thank you.