Magazine Feature / People

Author-alumna looks for the next plot twist

There are plot twists in the books of Denver-based author Sandra Dallas that surprise even her.

“The thing I’m writing now, I have various characters, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this couple dies. And they have this daughter,” says Dallas (BA journalism ’60).

“I thought, ‘OK, we have to do something with the daughter’ … then I realized she’s not really their daughter. She has her own story. And she’s become to me the most interesting character. She was this throwaway character that I didn’t even conceive of before I started writing her into it, and now she’s become very important in this book.”

On the List
Dallas, 70, is the author of eight historical novels, most of them set in the American West. Her latest book, Prayers for Sale (St. Martin’s), which came out in April 2009, was her first to reach the New York Times bestseller list. She celebrated the feat with her friend Arnie Grossman, a fellow author and DU alum (BA ’59).

“I thought it was spectacular but I wasn’t surprised,” Grossman says. “I knew it was one day coming because I have a great deal of faith in her writing skills and she has a growing audience. Each book seems to do a little bit better than the previous one. I’m very proud of what she’s done.”

Digging for Gold
Set in 1936 in a fictionalized version of Breckenridge, Colo., called Middle Swan, Prayers for Sale (St. Martin’s) takes place in the world of gold-dredging, an early 20th-century industry in which giant barges scooped rocks and gravel from the bottom of mountain streams in an effort to find gold. Dallas, who lived in Breckenridge in the early 1960s, saw first-hand the impact dredging had on the lives of citizens.

“People still lived under the aura of the gold dredges, even though skiing had just started. They had a love-hate relationship with them,” Dallas says. “The dredges provided jobs and these people were entrenched — they didn’t want to leave — so they were grateful for the jobs. But they hated what the dredges did to the landscape, and they particularly hated the noise that went on 24 hours a day.

“They would tell you that they got so used to what they called the groaning and the creaking and screaming of the dredges that if a dredge broke down in the middle of the night, they’d wake up because of the silence.”

Dallas says she had been kicking around the idea of a book on dredging for years but it wasn’t until she read a book about the tragic death of a baby during the Civil War that she figured out exactly how she would do it.

“That really moved me, and I thought, ‘I have to do something with this; I will include it in a book,’” she says. “Then I realized I could use this as a departure point for a book that would combine the harshness of dredging with the softness and the warmth and friendship represented by quilts.”

The protagonist in Prayers for Sale is 86-year-old Hennie Comfort, a quilter whose daughter has left the harshness of Middle Swan for a better life in the lowlands. When a young bride and her gold-dredging husband move to Middle Swan, Hennie and the young woman strike up a friendship. Hennie shares stories about her life inspired by the squares on her quilt.

“This was originally a series of short stories, and I had never written short stories before,” says Dallas, whose other novels include Tallgrass and New Mercies. “They were all connected, and the first and last stories went together. And my editor said, ‘No, this is a story about Hennie. It’s not about the stories themselves.’ And it took me three or four more drafts to get that.”

True West
Dallas has lived in Denver most of her life, residing for the past 40 years in a stately home near Eighth and Downing. A year after she graduated from DU she was hired on at the Denver bureau of Business Week, eventually becoming the magazine’s first female bureau chief. While at Business Week, she wrote several short books on local history, and when she turned to fiction writing in her late 40s, she continued to use the West as her primary setting. She says she strives for an authenticity her fellow Western authors don’t always achieve.

“I try to make my characters true to the time,” she says. “We have what I call the “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” syndrome today, where you have 21st-century women in long skirts, and they love Indians and they protect the environment and they stand up to men and they’re doctors and lawyers. They’re great role models but they’re not very accurate.”

The Art of Discipline
The winner of numerous Western writing awards, Dallas says her education at DU trained her well not just for her career as a journalist, but as a novelist as well.

“In journalism, you’re always looking for quotes. That’s dialogue. And you develop an ear for dialogue,” she says. “You look for storyline; that’s plot. And you develop the discipline as a reporter. I’m asked so many times, ‘How do you deal with writer’s block?’ Well, I don’t have writer’s block. I have days when I don’t want to write and the writing isn’t very good, but I do it every day.

“All those things you develop in journalism hold you in good stead. And I think the discipline is a big part of it. There isn’t a day I wouldn’t rather go sit in the backyard and read. There are always things we’d rather do than work. But you just do it. A physician goes to work every day and a secretary goes to work every day — this is my job.”

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