After writing and publishing seven nonfiction books over 19 years, she wrote her first novel, Buster Midnight’s Cafe, in 1990. Now she’s got a total of 10 nonfiction books, including The Quilt That Walked to Golden, recipient of the Independent Book Publishers Association’s Benjamin Franklin Award, and 10 novels, including The New York Times Best Seller Prayers for Sale and her most recent novel, The Bride’s House, to her credit.
Sandra came to Lake Forest in May to talk with readers about The Bride’s House and her writing at a luncheon organized by Lake Forest Book Store. Forest & Bluff had the opportunity to chat with Sandra about her career, her creative process, and even how she overcame her fear of writing about sex.
Forest & Bluff: Tell us about your creative process, including where you get inspiration for your books.
Sandra Dallas: I don’t understand the creative process. You feed info into your brain, it goes into your subconscious, and then it bubbles out. Some times are more creative for me, such as after workouts while I’m lying on a foam roller.
Writers want readers to think that all of our stories come out of our imaginations, but we are very adaptive. We take stories we hear from families and people, and we rewrite them into our books.
My characters evolve as I write. They are real people. I get to know them the way I get to know real people. They tell me what they are like as I write.
F&B: You are known for your attention to period detail in your books. How do you find these rich nuances that add to the authenticity of your novels?
SD: I already know a lot about the west from writing my nonfiction books, and I do a lot of my research informally—like while I am shopping. I was once looking for a cigarette my characters might have smoked in the 1920s. A week later, I was at an antique show and saw a magazine from the 1920s that had an ad for Fatima Cigarettes.
I go online and often stumble upon period phrases and details. For Tallgrass, I was researching sugar beets and came upon a phrase that people might have used back in the day. I thought, “I’m gonna throw that in.”
I also get a lot of good information from period cookbooks, contemporary newspapers of the day, Works Projects Administration (WPA) for 1930s slang, and household medical guides. So if I want my characters to see a movie, I might look at The Denver Post from that period to see what movies were playing.
F&B: Why is feminist history a common thread in your books?
SD: I’m a feminist. I try to develop strong female characters that might have existed within their own time periods. When I was researching hard rock mining, some mines wouldn’t let me go underground. I deal with social issues in a broad way.
F&B: You’ve said that you are not good at writing about sex, but you did in The Bride’s House. Can you comment on this?
SD: Most of my books have a little bit of quilting and no sex. This book has a little bit of sex and no quilting. When I wanted to learn to write about sex, I bought the book The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict. It didn’t help. The first time I tried, I went into my home office and closed the door. I wrote: “He unbuttoned the top button of her blouse.” Then I sat for a long time. Then I wrote: “The next morning…” I consider writing about sex in The Bride’s House to be a major breakthrough in my writing.
F&B: You do book tours all around the country. What makes our community different and worth coming back to?
SD: This is my fourth visit here. Lake Forest Book Store always puts on a beautiful luncheon for me. I really look forward to coming to Lake Forest because the people are readers and like my books. They are more sophisticated and very involved in their community.
F&B: Your first novel was published when you were 50. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
SD: Two things. Just do it. Don’t wait for God to wake you in the night. Don’t go to India for three weeks. It’s a job. Think of it as a job and don’t get discouraged. Your first efforts will probably not be very good. Learn to write by writing and reading. Don’t give up. If you give up, you’re not a writer.
F&B: What are the perks of being a published author?
SD: I enjoy coming to lunches and book signings and meeting my readers. I like the sense of accomplishment when I finish a book—the feeling of getting it done. And, the best thing ever happened to me was when my novel Prayers for Sale made The New York Times Best Sellers list.
F&B: What are some of the downsides?
SD: Writing fiction is very different from nonfiction, because you just never know. I’m more confident than I was 20 years ago, but I still live and die on every book, waiting on pins and needles to hear what my agent will think. Bad reviews are hard—you feel just wounded!
F&B: What’s next? Do you have another novel in the works?
SD: My next book is due out next spring. It’s about the courage and faith of four women going west with the Martin Company during the Mormon handcart exhibition. Of the 575 immigrants who started the journey, more than 135 died.
To learn more about Sandra Dallas and her books, visit sandradallas.com.