Deb: Writing a Book You Love

Having published a dozen books, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t love them all equally.
Don’t get me wrong. I worked hard on each of my books, and I’m not ashamed of any of them. But some are real labors of love, including a book I just finished drafting, a nonfiction narrative book called Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold.

I used to envy my friends who wrote nonfiction. It had to be easier than writing a novel. You knew what happened. You didn’t have to make anything up. You couldn’t take one of the millions of wrong turns you can take when writing fiction.

Um, wrong.

Writing good narrative nonfiction is every bit as tricky as writing a good novel. But my reward for this particular journey is setting Kate’s story straight. It’s been a long time coming – not just for me, but for her.
Kate Carmack, first called Shaaw Tláa, was once known as the richest Indian woman in America. She claimed to have made the discovery of a lifetime, Klondike gold. But when she’s mentioned at all in writing about the Klondike, it’s as a difficult woman, a drunkard who gave her husband nothing but trouble. “After reading about her, who could blame a man for shedding her!” wrote an editor to George Carmack’s biographer.
As it turns out, nothing could be further than the truth. Though cheated out of her wealth, Kate defied convention and proved that defeat need not follow loss. The more I learned of her, the more passionate I became about her story, and the more I knew it had to be told.
The more I learned, the more I also realized the overwhelming extent to which the prevailing Klondike narratives glorify individualism and colonialism. As it turns out, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold will be the first authentic rendering of the gold rush from the perspective of those who were there first, the Natives of Alaska and the First Nations of Canada.

Sourcing was difficult. Kate didn’t read or write, so I had to piece her story together from multiple firsthand accounts, plus some stellar ethnographic work done by Catharine McClellan and Julie Cruikshank, and the documents from a nasty series of lawsuits involving the Carmack estate. By the time I finished this draft, I felt like I was on a first-name basis with nearly everyone who was knocking around in the Yukon during the decade prior to the Klondike discovery.

Make sure you get it right, one of Kate’s descendants admonished at the end of my interview with her. I feel the weight of this every time I sit down at the keyboard. Too many falsehoods have been spread about Kate and her people.

My passion for Kate’s story comes from thirty-four years of living and traveling in Alaska and the Yukon, including villages where I was the outsider. I want silenced voices to be heard. I want fresh perspectives on familiar history. Though not yet fully birthed as a book, Kate’s is already a story I love.

You can read a chapter from Wealth Woman in draft here.

An earlier version of this post appeared at

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