Interview with Chris Enss on her nonfiction book about a strong woman of the Old West and the untold side of her own story
Every reader has a favorite “go-to” genre, but after reading so many of the same type of book for an extended period of time, it is always nice to read a new book from a new genre. For me, my “go-to” genre has always been fantasy. While I absolutely love to escape to an imaginary world, there are times when it is nice to read a real story about a real event or person. I was given that opportunity with author Chris Enss’ most recent novel, According To Kate.
Synopsis of According To Kate: Kate Elder went by many names in her life, the more well-known ones including Big Nose Kate and Mary Kate Cummings. What is not as well-known is the life Kate led. During her many years, Kate would write letters, passages, notes, and so forth about her life and travels; however, her writings have never seen the light of day due to her being unable to find a publisher willing to pay her for her work. Now, readers can hear from Kate herself as her life has finally been published to the public. While some of her retellings may not seem accurate (such as her claim to having witnessed the gunfight at the OK Corral) and no one can truly discover what is real and what is embellished, there is still much to explore in history through Kate’s words.
Growing up, I was introduced to moments in history through classes in school, but hardly any of those lessons focused on the American Wild West. After reading According To Kate, not only was I introduced to a woman I had honestly never even heard of, but I was also introduced to the time period. Both I found fascinating and Chris did a wonderful job of giving her readers a lot of detail and information in a short span of pages.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Chris about the research she conducted while writing her book. So, without further ado, may I introduce Chris Enss, author of According To Kate.
Alicia: Please tell me about yourself.
Chris: I’m a New York Times Best Selling author who writes about women of the Old West. I’ve been writing about the American Frontier for more than 20 years.
Alicia: The Old West seems to be one of those times in history many don’t focus too much on, yet it is truly a fascinating time to read about. Where did the start of your passion for writing about the Old West come from?
Chris: I was working at a radio station in the Gold Country in Northern California and my job was to produce a program called Historical Minutes. One of the stories I researched was about a wagon train party headed by two men named Bidwell & Bartelson. The party consisted of more than 80 men and one woman. She made the five-month journey from Iowa to California barefoot and carrying a one-year-old baby on her hip. At first, all I could find out about her was that her name was Mrs. Benjamin Kelsey. I wanted to at least know her first name. I felt she deserved to be called by her first name. I found out her name was Nancy and she went on to have quite a life in the Old West. I was compelled to write about her and other women who blazed a trail in the untamed land.
Alicia: What did you know about Kate Elder before you started your research for According to Kate? When was the first time you ever heard about Kate Elder?
Chris: Kate Elder was always a name I knew about. She was Doc Holliday’s girlfriend. I grew up not far from Tombstone, Arizona, and was raised with the history of the Old West all around me. Kate’s name was mentioned in connection to the Earps and their travels to the Southwest. My knowledge of Kate was limited to her relationship with Doc. She was always in the background of his story.
Alicia: With Kate Elder being such a mysterious historical character, how difficult was it to research her and find the information that you did?
Chris: I am a licensed private investigator and I love the deep dive into a subject. In addition to being given all of Kate’s personal letters and journals, I spent a great time tracking Kate’s move from her time in Davenport, Iowa, where she lived as a young girl, all the way to Prescott, Arizona, where she died in a retirement home. I dug through arrest records, newspaper articles, and personal writings of those close to Kate at the time she was traveling through their part of the country. I pieced as much of her life together as I could and used all the information I found in the book.
Alicia: After what you shared from your research, it seems like Kate is seen as either a sort of heroine (maybe even an anti-heroine) or a vagabond. How do you view Kate: as a heroine/ anti-heroine, vagabond, or perhaps even a mixture of both? What traits about her make you think this way?
Chris: Kate was a working lady, a sporting gal, a soiled dove, a prostitute. She survived the rough and tumble world of the rugged, mostly lawless west, however she could. She made no apologies for who she was or the line of work she was involved. She was a woman in love with a dentist who gambled and struggled with tuberculosis. She would have done anything for him and did. In the end, though, she was her own woman. She made her own way and wasn’t afraid of the consequences. She held her own against the Earps and lived to tell the tale. She was a fighter. I don’t see her as anything other than a fighter who loved a man that was hard to love.
Alicia: You mentioned in your introduction that it took over two years to research Kate’s life. For such a mysterious historical figure, I can’t even imagine how difficult it must have been finding information about her. Which part do you believe was the most difficult when writing According to Kate: the research aspect or the actual writing of the book?
Chris: The research. I wanted to be true to Kate’s telling of the story, but always wanted to make sure her side of what happened wasn’t so far out there that no one would believe her. I didn’t muddy her story with arguments against what she claims. I merely sought to make sure she was actually in the places she says she was, that it was plausible she saw what she said she saw, that her story was based in reality. I came away from the process confident in the knowledge that Kate was telling the truth about where she’d been and who she met. She was someone I learned to care for a great deal while doing the research.
Alicia: What was your favorite part about researching Kate Elder? What facts stuck out to you more than others?
Chris: I enjoyed being in Tombstone in 1881 with Kate and seeing the gunfight from her perspective. She and Doc shared a room at Fly’s Photography Studio and Boarding House. She witnessed the famous gun battle and sat with Doc while he lamented what had occurred during that fight. I was most surprised at how honest she was about her relationship with Johnny Ringo. Ringo visited her a couple of times after Doc was arrested and taken into custody.
Alicia: If you had the chance to interview Kate herself, what kind of questions would you want to ask her?
Chris: I would ask her if she and Wyatt were ever intimate. She met Wyatt while she was working as a prostitute for his brother and sister-in-law. She never mentions the two were involved in any of her letters or journals, but I wonder.
Alicia: Can you share anything about some of your upcoming writing projects? Do you think after writing According to Kate that you will research and write about another mysterious historical figure from the Old West?
Chris: I have a new book coming out in March entitled No Place for a Woman: The Struggle for Woman Suffrage in the Wild West and another book set to be released in October entitled Iron Ladies: Women Who Influenced the American Railroad. Both books were fascinating to write and contain information about daring women who made their mark in the male dominated, rugged frontier. Beyond those titles, I am contracted to write another eight books about amazing, bold ladies from the Old West.
Alicia: Is there anything else you would like to add? Anything we talked about that you would rather not have mentioned in the article?
Chris: I think that about does it. I’m grateful for the opportunity. Thank you, kindly.