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Interview with author Sandra Dallas

Published October 7, 2008 at 8:21 p.m.

Rocky books editor Patti Thorn talks to Sandra Dallas, award-winning author of many popular historical novels and nonfiction titles, about her contribution to A Dozen on Denver and her writing life.

I'm always wondering how much of everyone's story is based on truth. Was there a real Lennie's Tavern in the 1940s?

There wasn't a Lennie's Tavern, but most of the other places I mentioned - the Lighthouse, for instance - and some of the other bars were (around). I got the names out of an old business directory. I'd done some research in some of my history books about Larimer and upper Larimer Street and I knew some of the old places where people hung out.

I loved this line from your story: "It is said that any cat with a tail on Larimer Street was a stranger." Was Larimer in the '40s as seedy as you indicate?

Larimer was seedy, but it wasn't the dangerous skid row we think of today, with drug dealers and killings. It was mostly down-and-outers or old retired railroad men who lived in some of the flophouses. They'd cook on hot plates in their rooms and then at night they'd go down to the bars and have a couple beers, and that was their social life.

I was interested in the ending to your story. It was such a surprising twist. You told me the idea for Lennie's Tavern came to you full-blown, while you were driving in the mountains one day. Did the ending come to you then as well?

Ideas tend to come to me full-blown, and they just kind of come out of nowhere. (But) I usually write toward an ending, and very often when I get there, I do change it. When I got the idea for this story, I wanted to write a two-part story that would (focus on) the guy in the bar, and then he'd leave and come back the next day looking for this man he'd been talking to, and then he'd beat him up. The original ending was just that he would beat up the guy. But when I wrote the story the second time, it occurred to me that it would be a much better ending if the bartender had actually been the bad guy and that he had beaten up the wrong man.

You weren't always a novelist. You spent much of your career working for Business Week . . .

I was on the staff of Business Week for 25 years, and after they closed the Denver bureau, I freelanced for another 10 years. I was the magazine's first female bureau chief, back in the days when you hired a man as bureau chief and a girl as the assistant. I would go to press conferences and hear, "Gentlemen - and Sandra."

I covered the Rocky Mountain region, everything from copper mining in Butte, Mont., to polygamy in Utah, the penny stock market, energy development, alternative energy, just about anything you could think of . . . My first novel, Buster Midnight Cafe, came out of an article I wrote for Business Week. Other things that I wrote about for Business Week I incorporated in my novels.

So what made you turn to fiction?

It was a fluke. Two friends and I decided to write a potboiler. At lunch one day, we came up with a plot, divided up the characters, and we actually wrote some of the book. But it turned out to be a little harder than we'd anticipated, and we all had day jobs, so we gave it up. But I discovered that I loved writing fiction, which was a big surprise. I didn't even read fiction. I pulled out a novel I'd written after college, rewrote it and sent it off to my agent. She didn't accept it - it was later rewritten as The Chili Queen - but I kept on and finally wrote my first published novel, Buster Midnight's Cafe.

You've written novels set during World War II, 1933 Mississippi and the Civil War, among other time periods. What do you suppose has drawn you to the past?

It's probably because I can't cope with the present (laughs), although I've been around so long that I remember when the past in some of my work - Lennie's Tavern, for instance - was the present.

I grew up immersed in history, thanks to my mother. I was born on a farm in Virginia, where Mom took my brother, sister and me to see the historic homes near us, including Mount Vernon and the Robert E. Lee house. After we moved to Denver in 1945, Mom made sure we saw inside the seedy old Windsor Hotel on Larimer Street. She took me to a movie at the former Tabor Opera House on 16th, not because the film was any good but so that we could see the theater and she could tell me about Baby Doe Tabor . . . So I suppose it's not surprising that the past is more interesting to me than the present or the future.

People praise your stories for their authentic dialogue and period detail. How much research do you do? And how do you duplicate the dialogue so well?

I don't do much library research. Instead, I prowl antiques stores looking for period magazines, household items, clothing and so on. I consult old business directories; I read 19th century household medical guides and cookbooks and books contemporary with my time periods. To get the dialogue in my upcoming novel Prayers for Sale (set in a fictionalized Breckenridge), I read books about Appalachia - you know, those Foxfire books - writing down expressions. I also read notes taken by Helen Rich and Belle Turnbull, Breckenridge writers who kept track of expressions people used in Breckenridge in the 1930s and 1940s. And I've learned to listen. I always carry a pen and paper and write down words or comments I hear. Some of my dialogue, I have to admit, is just plain made up.

History is only part of your books' appeal. People love your characters, as well. I was wondering how fully fleshed they are in your mind before you begin writing. . .

Some writers know everything there is about their characters before they start writing. But my characters reveal themselves as I write. Sometimes I'm wrong about them and have to go back and change things after I know them better. Occasionally, after they've gotten to trust me, they tell me secrets. I know that sounds coy, but it's true.

Speaking of characters, can you tell us what you're working on now?

No, because I write a lot that doesn't work, and it's embarrassing to have people ask about something I've mentioned that will never see print. But I do have Prayers for Sale coming out in April. It's set in Middle Swan, Colorado - modeled after Breckenridge - during the 1930s. It's about gold dredging.

The main character is 86, and she's been told she can no longer live in the high country, so as she prepares to leave, she tells her stories, many based on Colorado history, to a younger woman. At the same time, she deals with unresolved issues in her own life. It's also about what we call third acts. Life constantly offers new opportunities and challenges, even at that age.

One final question: You have said you have the greatest job in the world. What about it should we all envy?

Probably that I can work at home and earn almost as much as minimum wage. (But seriously) anybody who can make a career out of doing what he or she loves to do has the greatest job in the world. I love writing fiction, and I'm grateful that I can earn my living doing it.

* Sandra Dallas, former Denver bureau chief for Business Week, is the author of seven novels and 10 nonfiction books. Her upcoming novel, Prayers for Sale, is scheduled for publication in 2009. She is the recipient of the Cowboy Hall of Fame Wrangler Award and the Women Writing the West Willa Award and is a two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award.

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