It’s my pleasure to have North American Prehistory authors, Kathleen and Michael Gear, as guests. I first fell in love with their writing and stories when I read the first book, People The Wolf, in the Peoples Series. While I’ve not read every book they've written, I have read majority of them and love their ability to reconstruct a segment of the distant past and put me there to experience it for myself.
I had a chance to chat at length with the both of them. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
They will also be around to answer questions about history, craft, research, and the story and their books.
How did the two of you meet?
The Wyoming Association of Professional Archaeologists held their 1981 fall meeting at the University of Wyoming. Michael arrived on Thursday night, partied until 3 am, and accompanied by his sheltie dog, Tedi, crashed on Papa John’s apartment floor. He made it to the meeting by 8 the next morning, desperate for coffee and donuts.
Kathleen who worked for the Bureau of Land Management was invited at the last minute to attend the meetings by her boss, Gene Herron. When she walked into the meetings she was introduced to Michael by the BLM State Archaeologist, Ray Leicht.
The moment was mesmerizing for both of us. For Michael the instant remains engraved in his soul with a crystalline clarity: He was staring at the most gorgeous female creature alive. Kathleen fixed first on Michael’s eyes, struck by the depth of soul and complexity in an otherwise rumpled “dirt archaeologist.” Only later did she discover the reason Michael’s sweater looked that way: It had been wadded in the war bag he’d used for a pillow on Papa John’s floor. (Tedi always objected to be used for a pillow, though he’d volunteer for foot-warmer duty.)
Michael’s single goal at the meetings was to get to the University bookstore during the noon break. But when Ray Leicht invited him to lunch with Kathleen, any such cravings popped like an old birthday balloon. Kathleen’s goal was to have lunch with Jerry Wiley in hopes she could con him out of a job with the Utah Forest Service. Unfortunately, since Ray was her supervisor, he got veto power.
So you both met in a professional setting. See, I heard that it wasn't just the fact that Kathleen is gorgeous that caused the unforgettable moment— ?
Back in the day, in the Western states, a man never wore his hat in a restaurant. When Michael was a kid, he’d get whacked alongside the head if he left a hat on inside. Therefore, upon arriving at the restaurant, and seeing no hat rack, he laid his Stetson on the floor beside his chair—which is where it stayed until Kathleen arrived. She stepped full on it with her dainty little foot. Mashed it flatter than I-80 semi road-kill.
Michael: “That’s my hat!”
Kathleen: “What’s it doing on the floor?”
Michael: “I’m a gentleman. Gentlemen don’t wear hats inside. It’s impolite.”
Kathleen: “You’re a dirt archaeologist. The concepts of gentleman and dirt archaeologist are mutually exclusive.”
Michael: “You’re a historian. What do you know about the influence of cultural behavior, norms, and social values when all you can see are recorded and sterile facts?”
Ahhh. I can see why it was an unforgettable meeting. J Congratulations to the both of you for living your Happy Ever After for 30 years.
You mentioned a furry companion you had, Mike, when you first met Kathy, Tedi. Tell me about the animals who live with you now.
We currently have two Shetland sheepdogs. Shannon is 6 and is a tri-factored sable, which means she’s dark brown, white, and tan. She’s a little angel of a dog who suffers each day from nonspecific canine polyarthritis--a joint disease that literally makes waging her tail a painful exercise. Our second sheltie is Worthington’s Red Canyon Jake, a male tri-color (black, white, and brown) from Al Harris’ line of champion shelties out in Oregon. While most of Jake’s kin are grand champions in the show ring, Jake has outstripped them all by becoming “Head of Red Canyon Ranch Security.” He rides perched on the 6-wheeler handlebars and surveys the bison, fences, corrals, and general range condition during the day. At night his usual location is in the middle of the bed, wedged between the two of us. Perhaps he thinks he needs to interfere with any potential hanky-panky? Jake is as smart as the legendary Tedi, but different: a character, his own dog, and fully capable of stepping on the passenger-side window control just in time to let muddy water splash inside the truck.
All of your stories have an element of romance between the main characters. In some the committed couple has been together for years and deal with the realistic problems that come of a long-term relationship. In others it’s fresh and new and in line with the culture you’re writing. How has your own romance played into what you write?
Jeez! Nothing like a tough and penetrating question, huh?
Oh, I've been known to ask some deceptively simple questions.
We were in our late 20s when we met. Previous to that, we each had been in love, had our hearts seriously broken, and came to the conclusion that we couldn’t compromise about “abrasive traits” in potential partners. No more than six months before we met-- almost to the day--we both had confided in our closest friends that we’d never be married since our personalities and occupations just weren’t suited to it. Further, neither of us knew many couples that were truly happy together. So, yeah, we draw on the same strengths that work in our relationship when it comes to our characters. Part of being a good novelist is “living experience.” Each of us has “been there, done that,” when it comes to love, attraction, betrayal, devotion, disappointment, and fulfillment.
That explains the realistic romance from first meetings to happily married couples in your stories (and I love that, by the way).
You both have written other genres, science fiction, historicals, romances, mysteries, and thrillers. What drew you to writing prehistory novels?
Dearest Sia, it’s what we do! The best archaeologists are the ones who excavate a seven-thousand-year-old living floor and see the fire actually burning in the hearth. We picture the old women at the grinding stones, see the old man knapping out a stone tool while the kids are crawling on his lap and getting in the way. Way back in the beginning Michael had an agent who told us that even if we wrote North American prehistory, she wouldn’t sell it. Then, after working on an archaeological project for Abajo Archaeology in Utah, one of our editors—upon hearing the stories of what we found—asked us to write PEOPLE OF THE WOLF. Finally, someone got it! The “PEOPLE” books have sold over seven million copies just in the US.
Are you still active professionally as anthropologists and archaeologists?
We are. Last year we participated in a two-hour forum at the Society for American Archaeology on fiction and archaeology. This year we are presenting a poster at the SAA meetings in Memphis on the marketing of archaeology. For the last couple of years we’ve given lectures in the Great Kiva at Aztec National Monument. We’re hosting the University of Indiana summer field schools at the multi-component Nostrum Spring Site here at the ranch. Dr. Laura Scheiber brings her field schools here to record rock art, excavate, map, and analyze artifacts. We do a couple of lectures and bring in outstanding professionals for guest lectures. We also fund research on on-going projects related to the novels we’re writing.
What’s the hardest part of writing stories about ancient peoples?
That has to be deciding which information to include and what to leave out. We’re not writing textbooks. We probably only include 20% of what we know about the culture. If we added more data it would clutter the story, slow the action, and drown the characters. Meanwhile, we’ve gotten canny in how we include the cultural data, weaving it into the story in seamless ways: The grinding stones gave off a hollow grating sound as Two Petals said, “Why would Brave Man say something so terrible?”
I've noticed you do include quite of information while tying it to the now between your characters.
While all your stories are fiction, the FIRST CONTACT series is a bit different from your PEOPLE series, isn't it?
Yes...and no. The biggest difference for us was writing the series in first person from Black Shell’s POV. Writing in first person is like tying one arm behind your back. Everything has to come through the filter of Black Shell’s perception. Even then we couldn’t help but add the italicized scenes from Pearl Hand’s POV on occasion—but just enough for spice.
First person POV isn't easy, in my opinion, for that reason. But you weave your fictitious characters so well in the history of the time, with de Soto. I like the way you weave in Spain's, especially de Soto's, mentality and motivations in this series. I can feel the fear (also loathing) in Black Shell when he finally meets de Soto, and the Spaniard's attitude with having to accommodate with this native as an equal.
Having the historical journals from the de Soto expedition laid out the plot, of course, but we’ve been there before in MORNING RIVER, COYOTE SUMMER, SAND IN THE WIND, THIS WIDOWED LAND, THIN MOON COLD MIST, and so many other historical novels.Like most of our other prehistory novels, COMING OF THE STORM, FIRE THE SKY, and A SEARING WIND are about kicking the myths square in the teeth! Europeans didn’t just steamroll and victimize the poor defenseless bucolic Native peoples! Our indigenous peoples did what the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca couldn't—they destroyed what should have been an invincible Spanish army. This should be part of our national education--what it means to be an American.
The contact period is a murky mess of triumphs and defeats, of alliances and treachery, of advances and retreats for both sides. If we have the opportunity to continue writing these books, we’ll be able to communicate how chaotic and uncertain contact was for both sides. And people will learn that everyone used everyone else for their own gains. Native nations exploited the Europeans just as often as the reverse. “Hey! If you Georgians wipe out these pesky Yamassee who are bothering us, we’ll give you all of our Cherokee buckskin trade! And as a sweetener we’ll guarantee safe passage to the headwaters of the Tennessee for 15% of what you bring back in trade.”
Mike, what do you like or admire about Pearl Hand or Black Shell?
Short answer: Everything.
Kathy, what do you see as the toughest thing Pearl Hand has to face as a woman and a warrior?
Sia, She’s lived her entire life without anyone or anything. She hasn’t even considered herself a full person. After years of nothing and no future, suddenly she has Black Shell who loves her completely, the dogs, who adore her, and freedom to travel in safety under the Power of trade. Being a trader’s wife grants her status and security she never had as a slave. And just as quickly, she has to choose: She can save her man, her love, and her life, or save her world. If she and Black Shell run away together, and live happily ever after, the Kristianos win. If they fight him, it’s almost a bone-dried certainty that she’ll lose everything. But, as Horned Serpent knows, heroes aren’t heroes unless they’re prepared to sacrifice themselves and their dreams.
At a time in Europe when women were considered brainless chattel, American tribes had women as part of their elite warriors. How common was this and was it only in a time of war?
The majority of North American cultures were matrilineal and matrilocal prior to European contact. That means the women’s lineage ran everything, owned the wealth, buildings, fields, everything. Men had no claim on children they sired. The chiefs were predominantly male, but they ascended to their position based on their mother’s authority. Even so, as you will read in A SEARING WIND, genders were often kept strictly separate. Nevertheless, accommodation was made for women who aspired to male roles, and for males who aspired for female roles. This included what’s called “the berdache” generally accepted as a male born with a female soul inside of him. The berdache generally married another man, the husband remaining a categorical “full male” without any stigma, just as if he’d married a woman.
Women who sought to participate in male activities were accepted on their own merits: If they could cut it, they made it. Generally they married women who were considered “just another wife” among their female colleagues. The one glaring omission in the ethnographic records that intrigues anthropologists is what happened during a woman’s period. Most of these cultures had strict taboos isolating women during menstruation. What happened when a woman warrior was on the war trail, when adherence to ritual was extreme? We just don’t know.
You both are very successful authors. What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to face as a writer? How did you overcome it?
The biggest single obstacle we face is getting the time to write. With success come demands. Back in the good old days before the collapse of the book industry, it used to be promotional tours. Some years we spend as much as six months total on the road doing signings, media, meeting buyers, schmoozing with reviewers, having supper with bookstore owners. We also had our professional obligations as anthropologists, and of course, then we were running close to 300 bison on the ranch and fully immersed in the buffalo industry. Now, after the collapse, we’re still in demand as speakers, for book signings, as archaeologists, to host the summer field school, we have two required trips to New York a year to keep up with our publishers, and there’s two hours a day that go to social media. Now, just as we’ve released many of our backlist titles on Amazon Kindle, we learn that they’re full of conversion errors. Things like th were translated as m. The word “the” becomes “me.” The proper name “Adom” becomes “Adorn.” How long will it take to copyedit 13 novels? Amazon can’t do it. And we don’t want to leave slip-shod, crummy product out for our readers!
But, oh, Sia, what we’d give for six months of uninterrupted writing! We’ve got a string of novels we’d love to write, but no time to write them!
If I were to sit in your favorite chair or look at your nightstand, what fiction would I see?
The first thing is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A PRINCESS OF MARS, which we’re reading aloud to each other each night before we fall asleep. We just replaced our 1st edition Ballantine paperback with a new copy that we can read without treating it like an illuminated manuscript. With the John Carter movie coming, we haven’t read this for forty years! Next comes Kim Harrison’s A PERFECT BLOOD, Shane Gericke’s CUT TO THE BONE, C.J. Cherry’s REGENESIS, C.J.Box’s BACK OF BEYOND, Richard Wheeler’s THE RICHEST HILL ON EARTH, Patrick Rothfuss’ THE NAME OF THE WIND, and finally, David Weber’s Honor Harrington series (the first, BASILICK STATION was so wonderful, we’re doing the rest with QUEEN’S HONOR next.
Burroughs has always been a favorite of mine and I like the Honor Harrington series.
Are you currently working on a new series? Can you tell me about it?
We’re just back from New York and our annual February publisher meetings. Tor/Forge has committed to at least four new books including a Native American fantasy based on the recent discovery of native mitochondrial DNA in Iceland. Just after 1000 CE a native woman was carried back from North America and her descendents have been in Iceland since. The novel will be about a couple of sisters taken by Vikings, and the religious/fantasy elements of native vs. Christian and Norse beliefs.
It’s been 22 years since we wrote the Cahokia book, PEOPLE OF THE RIVER. Since then archaeological research has completely redefined Cahokia. We went out on a limb to call it a state back in '92. Today archaeologists talk about “Imperial Cahokia” and we’re finding out that it is to North America as Rome was to Europe. So the next PEOPLE book will be a political novel about Cahokia with a possible spin-off with the characters in their own series of adventures.
Simon & Schuster has decided not to publish our two anthropological thrillers, so we’ll be putting COMES A GREEN SKY and FRACTURE EVENT on Kindle by the end of April. These books continue the story of Dusty Stewart and Maureen Cole from the Anasazi mysteries.
In the next couple of months we will pitch the next CONTACT series according to our option clause with Simon & Schuster. We’re not sure exactly which contact episode to propose. There are so many!
I'm looking forward to what's coming up next. I have a fascination with Cahokia so I'm really looking forward to seeing how develop that and everything I've read, indicates Cahokia society was much more complex than what was first thought when Europeans, especially in their politics.
Kathy and Mike, I want to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I know you're on the way to Oregon and truly appreciate making yourselves available to answer questions.
Sia, as always, it’s a delight! We hope that you enjoy the conclusion to the story we started with COMING OF THE STORM and FIRE THE SKY. We think that A SEARING WIND is a remarkable and stunning conclusion to the story of Black Shell and Pearl Hand. As you read, you’ll find it’s nip and tuck as to whether Hernando de Soto or Black Shell’s own family will kill him first!
You can read the blurb and excerpt HERE.
BUY: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books a Million
My review of the A Searing Wind should be live on Amazon later today (Wednesday). I'll post a link when it is.
My review of the A Searing Wind should be live on Amazon later today (Wednesday). I'll post a link when it is.