Wyoming writer Diana Allen Kouris’ new book, Riding the Edge of an Era: Growing Up Cowboy on the Outlaw Trail, starts out as an affectionate portrait of family and place:
“We were the youngest of the six Allen kids and we were best pals. Often given free rein to ride our cow horses on trails disappearing into sunrises and cedars, Nonie, Bobby, and I found the reflection of our heritage in enchanted places where shadows of history live.”
But this is no Hollywood western, and the portrait Kouris draws of her childhood in Browns Park is the real thing, a life that comes with more than its share of tragedy, including the loss of the family ranch, her mother’s death, and in the end, the death of her beloved brother, Bob, the last of the siblings to carry on the family ranching tradition. After reading Kouris’ story, I invited her to visit and talk about how she wrote a book that is deeply rooted in place and family, and in the authentic and often painful events that test our sense of who we are and what matters most to each of us.
SJT: Memoir is often called the narrative poetry of creative non-fiction because it depends very much on dramatic tension, characterization, and a strong storyline to carry it through, much like long-form poetry or fiction. In Riding the Edge of an Era, you open the story with a series of vignettes that essentially create a portrait of your relationship with your two closest siblings, Nonie and Bobbie, as young children. Why start there and not with, say, the history of your family’s ranch, or when your parents met, or how their families came to Browns Park, all of which you tell later in the memoir?
Kouris: In my previous book, The Romantic and Notorious History of Brown’s Park, I used the valley of Brown’s Park as the central character. Beginning with the valley’s creation, I wrote the valley’s history. Within that account I tell of the formation of the Brown’s Park Livestock Ranch, Taylor Ranch, and the stories of my grandparents and parents as each fit into the historical narrative. In Riding the Edge of an Era, it was my intent to make the three siblings the central characters of the book, and to only touch on those other histories when the siblings had some connection to them. In the first chapter of the book, I wanted to reveal the essence of three lovable, happy little kids living in a magical yet authentic place and time. It was my goal for readers to quickly begin to feel affection for the children and gladly be enticed through the doorway of time and into that cowboy world where adventure awaited.
SJT: I was struck by the rich storytelling tradition in your family, especially the stories your mother told on those long rides between Rock Springs and Browns Park–it must have been magical to hear her voice telling stories while cocooned in the car loaded with siblings and other kids and food–like a traveling show in the best sense of the word. How much do you think that tradition of oral storytelling shaped your writing voice, and your way of telling stories?
(Diana Kouris’ mother, Marie Allen)
Kouris: It was wonderful and felt so natural to be swept away into another time by my mother’s warm voice. Even when the stories were about outlaws, a lynching, or ambush, her words were filled with love and appreciation for the history of the land we called home. And, always, she told the stories with such honesty. That was vitally important to her. Most published accounts about historical events in Brown’s Park were filled with embellishments, and that was painful for her.
After my mother’s death, I inherited her unfulfilled dream of writing an accurate history of Brown’s Park. There is no question that her influence in my writing, as well as in how I choose to view life, is profound. It was the poetry I wrote when mourning the loss of her and in trying to keep her and the ranch close to me that brought forth the beginning notes of my writing voice. But it was the chapters of the Brown’s Park book that I rewrote countless times that finally gave my writing voice its melody. The voice arrived one particular period in time as I was continuing my struggle for the elusive words that I thought would do her, and the valley we both loved, justice. As I wrote, I felt as if a veil lifted and the descriptive words and phrases began to dance with rhythm and pattern. After that day I continued to work hard and the voice flowed onward, into my mother’s dream and, thankfully, far beyond.
SJT: The stories that you tell in Riding the Edge of an Era are not in chronological order–which is not surprising, as memoir is rarely told in a linear style–but they do form a kind of pattern, just as your childhood had a pattern, looping back over and over again to Browns Park and to the ranch where you grew up. Did you write the book that way deliberately, or did the pattern just form organically, as you worked with how best to tell the story?
Kouris: For the most part, I kept the stories concerning the three siblings in chronological order. However, when I told about historical figures, family members and others, I wasn’t concerned with time frames. It only mattered that those individuals and their stories were in some way relevant to the siblings.
While I had specific goals in mind and purposely looped the story, the deliberate became meshed with the organic as the pattern formed. At times, things like forgotten memories or new ideas lit up and demanded to be given a proper place within the book. I think such elements helped the pattern evolve. I found myself guided by the whispers of the stories. It was my challenge to listen, and to make sure the book stayed true to the central theme while the pattern revealed the strength of, and the reasons for, the bond that kept the three children’s hearts attached to Brown’s Park, the ranch, and each other.
(Diana Allen Kouris)
SJT: Your writing is full of detail–the color of the sky, the bite of the wind, the weight and gooeyness of the wet clay soil, the sound of a horse’s hooves running, the feel of wet snow, the smell of carrion or newly-mown hay. Those details conjure up the world you inhabited so vividly that the land itself almost becomes a character. Did you ever find yourself thinking like the land as you wrote? Are those details clear in your memory, or did you have to revisit the places you wrote about as you were writing?
Kouris: Even when I was a small girl, my senses absorbed the ranch’s endless detail. The ranch was as alive to me as the family members I lived among and loved. It surrounded me with a soothing and beautiful energy that gave me the constant feeling it was a part of me, and I was a part of it. I knew I belonged there. Because summers always ended and Sunday nights arrived on schedule, I was keenly aware that my time at the ranch was a fleeting privilege. Perhaps that reality gave me the strong desire I possessed to put detailed moments in a corner of my mind for safekeeping. I’m certain the loving environment my mother provided gave me the freedom and ability to savor our world the way I did. Of course, through the loss of the ranch and the loss of her, I came to know that life and all we have is temporary, but it is a beautiful privilege, if we choose to make it so.
When Nonie, Bob, and I were riding together at the Red Creek Ranch, I kept a journal. However, when I wrote Riding the Edge of an Era, I rarely had to refer to it. Most of the memories were clear and merely a thought away. Just the fact that I spent those evenings after long days in the saddle writing down the day’s events probably helped instill them in my heart and mind. But, more importantly, when I was riding I often reminded myself to be fully present and to breathe it all in, so that, for the rest of my life, I could see, feel, hear, smell, and taste it all. Although it saddened me to face it, I knew they were days that were not going to last.
SJT: Riding the Edge of Era opens with lighthearted–if quite rough-and-tumble–childhood play and ranch work, but it’s not by any means a light book. The story you tell has more than its fair share of tragedy, from the loss of the family ranch and your mother’s death to the hint of a serious split between your elder siblings and your gang of three younger ones, to your brother’s death. Often the most powerful parts of memoir are the hardest to write. Did you find it cathartic to write about your losses? Or just difficult? And recognizing how much of a good story is in the editing–the omission–how did you decide what to include in the story and what to leave out?
Kouris: When I was writing the book, I always had an awareness of the reader, with whom I felt an intimate connection. Even when I was overcome with emotion or lost within the richness and texture of words, I never forgot the presence of the reader. I think that awareness helped me to have a sense of what to tell and what would not be appealing or intriguing.
It was very difficult to write about the saddest moments of my life. It was necessary for me to relive the experiences many times in search of the words to describe the cavernous depths while at the same time edging the tragedies with life’s intricate, soft, and beautiful lace. The lace that holds the promise that life’s elegance is there for us, no matter the sadness, to hold close to our hearts, become stronger, and go on. Writing this book was an extremely emotional challenge for me. But, once I came to believe that I had completed a graceful and truthful portrait of our story, it became wonderfully cathartic. I’m so grateful.
SJT: Clearly, Browns Park is a part of who you are. Would you move back if you could, or have the place and you changed too much?
Kouris: Oh, yes, I would move back, if I could return to the embrace of what was the Brown’s Park Livestock Ranch. So much of that exquisite place is now covered in weeds and it appears to be nearly lifeless. I would, gladly, with my husband at my side, spend the rest of my life taking care of her, my beloved old friend. We would plant an heirloom apple orchard, coax her pastures back to life, and plant three apricot trees around our new log home. Once the wildlife began to return, we would welcome visitors, young and old, so that they could learn her history, smell sweet delicacies carried on moonlight, and be given the gift of feeling her tender magic deep within their hearts.
On a personal note: Richard and I are home, soaking up the peace and quiet, eating tomatoes and greens harvested from the garden before last night’s killing frost, and gathering up energy for whatever this messy journey we call life brings next. We send out our love and blessings, and our wishes for your days to yield whatever you need and take you wherever you need to go to feed your hearts and spirits.