Award-winning author and historian Diana Allen Kouris grew up a cowgirl along the famed Outlaw Trail in the region where Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah converge. Decades of research and writing have rendered Kouris an authority on the spellbinding history of the area. She’s authored three nonfiction books including “The Romantic and Notorious History of Brown’s Park,” “Riding the Edge of An Era: Growing Up Cowboy on the Outlaw Trail,” and “Nighthawk Rising: A Biography of Accused Cattle Rustler Queen Ann Bassett of Brown’s Park.” Kouris is the 2020 recipient of the Spur Award from Western Writers of America for Best Western Biography.
The following is an interview with Diana Allen Kouris.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
What inspired you to write this book?
Aspirations to research and write the life story of Queen Ann Bassett, and of those who wove the fabric of her life, likely began early in my childhood. I grew up absorbing the enchantment of the valley of Brown’s Park, while it and its history encircled me and my cattle ranching family. My mother’s voice swept me into the past, time and again, as she recounted stories about our legendary home. Those moments led to my commitment to be a nonfiction writer.
The actual inspiration for this book arrived the morning that Queen Ann’s whispers urged me to write her story. The moment in time had come for me to devote all I could muster to seek out and write her truth. I knew that much of what had been written about her was not based in fact, and that it did not mesh with the Queen Ann who became my grandmother’s friend when both women were in their 20s. The parodies of Ann didn’t resemble the gracious cattlewoman my elderly uncle said he loved and admired from the time he first saw her when he was 5-years-old. After doing years of research, I’m convinced that embellished accounts can’t compare to the real life story of Queen Ann Bassett.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?
Taken from Chapter Sixteen, “Becoming Queen Ann,” this excerpt portrays a detailed description of Ann, no longer a child but grown into a beautiful young woman, in love, and with a future innocently planned. She was, however, living in dangerous times. Eerily foreboding, the text reveals that the toxic brew of range war was upon her, and it foreshadows a shattering of her life.
Tell us about creating this book; any research and travel you might have done. Any other influences on which you drew?
This book required a tremendous amount of research and an exhaustive effort to gather, sort, organize, absorb, and write. Research came from a multitude of sources. Some of those include Ann’s writings, university collections, museum collections, old newspapers, census records, family records and write-ups, oral histories, letters, state and federal documents, legal papers, military records, interviews, court documents, and legal testimonies. I sought out new research and photos even as I was writing chapters. My husband Mike assisted me with every aspect of the research. Although we did a fair amount of travel, we were thankful that many documents and historical newspapers are accessible online.
I had a unique perspective while writing Queen Ann’s story, not only because of my family’s connection, but because she and I both received the rare providence of being the daughters of Brown’s Park cattle ranchers. My family’s ranch house sat just across the river from the meadow on Willow Creek where Ann was born. Although our ages were seven decades apart, Queen Ann and I rode the same trails and breathed the same ancient fragrances when we worked cattle on the range. At dusk, after long days in the saddle, we were both escorted home by the grace of nighthawks flying overhead as they fed upon the insects stirred into the twilight by the rhythmic beat of horse hooves. I wrote about Queen Ann’s surroundings with personal knowledge.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
The volume of research was beyond daunting, as was the challenge to transform it into a manuscript worthy of becoming a book of historical significance. One principal surprise was the discovery of extraordinary government documents concerning the Meeker Massacre. Direct testimony given by three white women soon after they had been held captive enabled me to share their harrowing accounts of the massacre and of their captivity, for the first time and with vivid and intimate detail.
I discovered and laid out new truths about the men Isam Dart and Mat Rash, long maligned as common cattle rustlers, and the terrorism stock detective and assassin Tom Horn inflicted on them both. These revelations are a major part of Queen Ann’s story.
The Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig provided a wealth of archived research and many rare photographs. Director Dan Davidson was enthusiastic and tireless with his assistance and knowledge. Incredibly, more than once, brand new and significant research, destined to be included in my manuscript found its way to the museum and then to me. I was astonished that these things, almost always, arrived at the precise time I needed them. It was, for me, a mystical and humbling experience.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet?
Writing the lives of those who came before is an awesome responsibility, and I take it most seriously. There is a factual history to be told, but there is also an emotional history to be revealed. I came to know Queen Ann and the other history-makers around her. Occasionally I smiled; other times I cried.
When I write, sometimes with the magical inspiration of music, I always feel an innermost connection with not only those I’m writing about, but also with those who will one day read the words that I write. Even when I’m overcome by the pursuit of perfecting a phrase, a page, a chapter, I never lose my sense of the reader.
What is your next project?
There is so much history waiting to be written. My next challenge is to update my first book, “The Romantic and Notorious History of Brown’s Park,” published in 1988. I have many new stories to add. Perhaps I will be moved to write a fourth book. I’m not sure. I will continue to give talks about Colorado history and the life journey of Queen Ann Bassett chronicled in “Nighthawk Rising.”
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— Read an excerpt from “Nighthawk Rising.”