SO19 talks with SANDRA DALLAS

Called “a quintessentially American voice” by Jane Smiley, Colorado author Sandra Dallas began her career as a journalist before adding fiction for both adults and younger readers to her repertoire. Her latest novel, Fallen Women (St. Martin’s Press, 2013), is a mystery that takes place in Denver in 1885. Some of the book’s scenes depict the wealthy Denver of the period, others the city’s seamy underbelly; wherever they are set, they are vividly dramatized, richly depicted, impeccably researched and filled with engaging characters. Society Nineteen was delighted to catch up with Sandra to discuss her writing about the 19th century, the American journey West and the lives of women. For more information on Sandra Dallas and her books—including her two Fall 2014 releases—visit  the author’s website and Facebook page. —Suzanne Fox

So19: While you write about a number of periods in the past, you have an incredible feel for the West and Colorado in the 19th century. What do you feel that it is that grips you about that time and place in particular?

SD: I wrote a lot of books on western history before I turned to fiction. They weren’t serious books. They were about ghost towns, or old architectural studies, and things like that. But I have always loved history. My daughter said the other day she wished that she had majored in history, and I wish I had too. I majored in journalism, and that’s how I got my job, but I’ve always loved history.

I was born in Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. Mother used to take us to Mount Vernon, and all the old plantations that had been around us. When we moved to Denver when I was six, she’d take us down to Larimer Street, which was then the slums, and show us the old hotels. I remember that we went into the Winter Hotel, which had been very elegant but was a kind of flophouse at that point. So I was brought up with this love of history and the past. And while I was born in—well, I guess you consider Virginia the South—I grew up in the West, and so I consider myself a Westerner.

So19: You seem so at one with that culture, and so knowledgeable about it.

SD: I worked for Business Week magazine for thirty-five years—I was the magazine’s first female Bureau Chief. I covered the mountain states, writing a lot about mining and issues that were important in the West: lack of water, land use, and so on. So I've done a lot of reporting on the region.

So19: Maybe it’s that journalism background—your background in factual research—that helps give Fallen Women, as well as your other books, their sense of authenticity?

SD: I’m not sure that my journalism background helps that much, but I did a lot of research when I wrote my earlier western history books, and I’ve read a great deal since. I write a column for the Denver Post on books of regional interest, and so for the past thirty years or so I've read most of the books that have come out on the West. I knew a lot of the background for what I was writing before I started writing books.

So19: Fallen Women vividly evokes prostitution in 19th-century Denver. How did you research that element of the book?

SD: I read everything I can on a subject before I write, and while I’m writing. I also tend to write about things I already know about. Oddly, I knew a lot about prostitutes before beginning Fallen Women. I have a good friend from college, Clark Secrest, who wrote what’s probably the definitive book on western prostitution—which is, also, just a very interesting book. Hell’s Belles is scholarly, but also a compelling narrative.

I did a book on Denver architecture once. In the process I discovered all those little gambling halls on Larimer Street and saw pictures of the whorehouses. By the time I saw the buildings themselves one was a warehouse and one was a VFW restaurant. I photographed those in the sixties when I was writing my nonfiction books, so I really was familiar with the look of earlier Denver.

Then I went online and got everything I could find on western prostitution. Clark Secrest gave me suggestions on books. One of the books that influenced me was the autobiography of Nell Kimball. She was a madam, not in the west, but in New York, at the turn of the century. A pretty raw book actually. There were a lot of books out there to use.

Clark read my manuscript and made a couple of corrections. For example, I had used the word hooker. He said that word wasn’t used in Colorado until the twentieth century. Also, when the prostitute finds her murdered friend I had her go and use a call box to call the police. Call boxes were not in use in the 1880s, so I had to revise there. There are always little things like that.

So19: I was moved by the fairness and depth of the depiction of prostitution in Fallen Women. Through the protagonist’s eyes, we see how different the life of a girl in an upscale brothel was from a “crib” prostitute. The book really evokes the different classes of women in the business.

SD: I ran across that when I wrote my Denver architecture book. It was probably 1966 or so. Now we all watch things like Law and Order, but back then, the average reader didn’t know a lot about the workings of prostitution. It wasn’t a subject commonly discussed or depicted. At that point, prostitution was mostly written about by the “old boys,” who typically depicted naughty girls, elegant clothes, diamonds, champagne, and of course the austere wives who drove their husbands to seek pleasure elsewhere.
When I started researching, I probably bought into that image a bit. Then I came across an article that described a “crib” where one of the prostitutes had actually committed suicide, and it really moved me. It spoke so grippingly about the filth in which they lived and the terrible situations they faced. Yes, there were the parlor house girls who did live comfortable lives, and sometimes actually married their johns. But mostly, women lucky enough to start out there went downhill. They were addicted to drugs, and to alcohol, and they were abused by so many men. It was a very short life. It lasted maybe seven years.

So19: This novel, like virtually all of your books, speaks so powerfully about women’s lives.

SD: In this novel, as in a lot of my books, I write about the lack of options that women had in the 19th century. If you knew how to read and write, you might be a schoolteacher. If you had a little money, you could open a boarding house. But the vast majority of women who were widowed, or thrown out of their homes, or just found themselves in poor circumstances, would be domestics. That was a horrible job: twelve- to fourteen-hour days for virtually no pay. Or if they were pretty, women could become prostitutes. There just weren’t options.

So19: One of the things you depict so well is female relationships in extreme circumstances—the depth of the bonds women formed to survive.

SD: I’m fascinated that you say that, because I don't think about things like that, and I don't write message books. People take messages from them, which is fine, but I don't always know what they are. I just write what I want to write.

So19: I think that's a good thing! In True Sisters, The Quilt Walk and The Diary of Mattie Spenceramong other books, you write about the pioneer journey toward the West. We all learned about this in school, but from a different perspective than your narratives—that is, mostly as a male journey.  

SD: I think that’s the story of America, constantly moving West for opportunity. I did a story once on Route 66. It was pointed out to me that all the motels on Route 66 are on the east side of town, because everybody went West on Route 66—nobody went East.

In The Quilt Walk, Pa wants to go west. It’s a way for him to start over, to have an adventure, to be out from under the thumb of society and all of its restrictions. But for Ma, it means leaving behind everything she cares about: her parents, her home, her friends, the grave of a child who died. Going West wasn’t a simple thing for women. Do you remember that line about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards in high heels? Women did everything the men did on the trail. But they also did the cooking, and the laundry, and gave birth on the way. It was a hard thing for a lot of them, and most of them didn’t have a choice about going. At that time, if a man said we’re going, what do you say? “I’m staying behind?” How do you support yourself? What do you do?

So19: Yes—they really didn’t have alternatives. Fallen Women is a different kind of story about going West. Both of the story’s sisters travel to Colorado from New York, though at different times; Beret Osmundsen goes as a pilgrimage of sorts to discover the truth about her sister. Let’s talk about Beret, your protagonist in Fallen Women. Am I pronouncing her name right? Rhyming with “it”?

SD: Yes. I never thought anybody would have a problem with that, but a lot of people are saying Ber-ay. It’s the name of a librarian in Western Colorado. When I heard it, I thought, Oh, what a great name. I would love to name my daughter Beret, but I'm a little old for that. I'll give it to a character.

So19: I loved her character. With her vulnerability, her strength, her mission work—she’s a great woman. Did her character arise from a specific person, or place, or idea?

SD: I think there’s more of me in her than any character since Mattie Spencer. A friend of mine said that our characters are not who we are, they're what we wish we were. Beret and I are the same height, and we’re both socially awkward, and we tend to intellectualize things rather than be very sympathetic. But she’s nicer, and she has better hair.

Seriously, she’s not based on anybody in particular. I’ve never really based a character on any real person, though occasionally I’ve given a character some traits of people I don't like. It’s a great way to get even.

Originally Beret was a lot tougher. My agent and editor said I needed to soften her a little. She was a little too stern. I wasn’t aware of that. I can’t judge my writing. When I went back to write I made her slightly more sympathetic.

So19: So the process is intuitive.

SD: Yes. I don’t know where a character comes from. I don’t outline the book or my characters. I get to know them as I write. They just kind of evolve. I’m working on a book now that I’m not even sure there's a plot in it. It’s just sort of meandering around, and I’m halfway through, and I thought I better think of something here, and I don’t know if it works or not. But things just happen when you’re at your computer, and I would not want to be locked into some kind of plot.

I know where my books are going. I know where they’re going to end. Though when I get to the end, I very often change it. In fact, in Fallen Women, I originally had somebody else be the killer, and then I thought, “What if.”

So19: I will say the mystery works out in a very satisfying way; it feels at once inevitable and surprising. At the end of the book, there’s also a bit of a teaser—a hint that the relationship developed in Fallen Women between Beret Osmundsen and Michael “Mick” McCauley might continue in another story.

SD: It might. I don’t like sequels, because I can never come up with a plot for one. But I would like to do something set in New York. I’m really intrigued with the Lower East Side. I always go to the Tenement Museum when I’m in New York. I think about the plight of immigrant women, which was really horrible.

So19: Can you tell us what you’re working on now? A book for young people, a book for the adult market…?

SD: Both. A Quilt for Christmas, which actually evolved out of Fallen Women, comes out this October. Then I have a young readers’ book appearing September 2014 that's similar to Tallgrass. It's about a twelve year old girl who is sent with her family to the internment camp in Tallgrass. (Before it was titled, my daughter thought that because it was a children's book, I should call it Shortgrass!) In fact, it’s called Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky.

So19: Thank you so much for talking to me. All of us fans look forward to the new books, and of course to all of those that follow!