Today as a special treat I’m delighted to introduce my friend Sandra Dallas. Sandra and I met at the Houston International Quilt Show where both of us were signing books for a wonderful vendor, Linne Lindquist of Craftman’s Touch, who was always happy to have us back. Sandra and I spent several Novembers chatting and signing together, and I still feel that meeting her and becoming friends was one of the best parts of that marvelous experience.
Although I’ve yet to read True Sisters, I am especially looking forward to this one since I’ve always particularly enjoyed Mormon history. Besides, I just listened to and loved The Bride’s House, set in Georgetown, Colorado in a house Sandra has just–in real life–renovated. The fascinating story of the renovation is here, and definitely worth reading, along with the book itself. And after “hearing” The Bride’s House on Audible, I’m ready for another Sandra fix.
Without further introduction, here’s the interview Sandra graciously gave me for your enjoyment. I ought to add that she also gave me something else very precious, a quote for my upcoming novel One Mountain Away. You’ll find it on the back cover.
1–What led you to write a novel based on the Mormon handcart journey from Iowa City to Salt Lake? What was ‘special’ about this particular piece of history that called to you?
As a high school student in Salt Lake City, I was intrigued by the handcart expedition, especially the stories of the women who participated in what was the worst Overland Trail disaster in U.S. history. More than one in four of the 575 members of the Martin Handcart Company (one of five handcart companies that made the 1,300 mile trek in 1856) died from exposure or starvation. Several years ago I read David Roberts’ critical history of the handcart expedition, Devil’s Gate, and realized what a wonderful novel the women’s stories would make. The Mormon women, wrote Wallace Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of western history, “were incredible.” And so they were. Their faith and courage inspire me
2–I am always so impressed with your research. You have a way of setting your reader right into the middle of an era. I particularly love your use of language in vogue at the time, both slang and phrasing. Can you tell us a little about the research process for you?
Many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormons) kept journals or wrote narratives of their journeys to Utah. The LDS Church once restricted access to these sources but in recent years has not only made them available, but made them available online. In addition to researching the handcart expedition and the LDS church, I visited many of the sites in the book, including the Mormon encampment near Iowa City, Ft. Laramie, and Devil’s Gate, where so many emigrants died. I could feel the sacredness of that place. As for language, much of it comes from Mormon journals and accounts. I read Scottish books to get dialect and read Charles Dickens to capture language that would have been used by English converts. My characters don’t speak exactly the way people spoke in the mid-19th century. Readers couldn’t get through a book written that way. But I use enough of the language to give a feel of the period.
3–Mormonism is an important part of the Western historical experience, but writing about someone else’s faith can be a harrowing, humbling experience. Did you find ways to approach this peek into Mormon history that made the writing and plotting less stressful?
I wondered if, as a Presbyterian, I would be presumptuous writing about someone else’s religion. But the handcart story goes beyond religious history. It is western history, American history. These are the women who settled the west, and that’s my heritage. Moreover, as a nonMormon, I felt I would be less tempted to write a faith-promoting book, that I could be more objective.
4–Other novels you’ve written have followed the intertwined lives of women, including The Bride’s House, which was your last novel and followed three generations living in a wonderful Georgetown, Colorado Victorian home (which just happens to be based on a house you actually own.) What is it about relationships among women that makes a book come to life for you?
I wish I could answer that. Writing is lonely work, and I have a limited circle of women friends. A friend once said I write about relationships among women not because I have them but because I admire them.
5–You’re known as a quilt author, based for the most part on your second novel The Persian Pickle Club–one of my all time favorites. You’ve also done a fabulous non-fiction book, The Quilt that Walked to Golden, with your photographer daughter. What is it about quilts and quilters that has spoken to you through your writing career?
As you know yourself, Emilie, it’s the friendship that develops around the quilt frame that is so appealing. Quilting draws women together. As they work, they share their stories. In addition, quilting is women’s art. At a time when few women were encouraged to pursue the fine arts, they put their creativity into quilts. They could have made quilts of big patches of fabric. Such quilts would have kept the family warm. But instead, they chose to piece the quilt tops in intricate designs. I’m not much of a quilter myself—the quilt I made for my sister as a wedding present weighted 25 pounds. But I love to collect them.
6–And last, but never least, please tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. Did I hear something about a book for children?
My next book is The Quilt Walk, a children’s book about a young girl who pieces a quilt as she walks from Illinois to Colorado in 1864. It’s based on a story on my Colorado quilt history, The Quilt That Walked to Golden. The children’s book, which is scheduled for publication in September, is about women’s lives in the 19th century, their lack of options (something I’ve written about in my adult novels) and what happens when they take things into their own hands.
As Sandra’s friend and a reader, I urge you to give all her wonderful novels a try. Thank you, Sandra, for your insights and this interview.