Finding Out What Makes W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear Tick: An Interview

W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear are the New York Times bestselling authors of over 85 novels. With nearly 18 million copies of their books in print, and having been translated into 29 languages, the Gears are best known for the 29 volume “People” series on North America’s archaeology. Kathleen is in the Women Who Write the West Hall of Fame, Michael is in the Colorado Authors’ Hall of Fame, and both are recipients of the Western Writers of America’s Wister Award for lifetime achievement in Western fiction and inductees to the Western Writers Hall of Fame.

Could you each give us a description of your latest book?

Lightning Shell is the fifth and final book in the “People of Cahokia” novels, a spin-off of the New York Times bestselling “First North Americans” series. When it comes to archaeology, there is a “lost continent” and it is our own. Beginning with People of the Wolf  the series tells the story of various cultures, peoples, and civilizations that existed in North America over the last 15,000 years.

Lightning Shell takes up the story of Cahokia that began with People of the Morning Star, was followed by Sun Born, Moon Hunt, and Star Path. The plots hinge around Morning Star, a mythical hero from the Beginning Times who archaeologists think was reincarnated in physical form at Cahokia around 1050 CE. (This is a complex hypothesis: See Dr. Timothy Pauketat’s  Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi.) In writing the books, we take Native stories and cosmology and weave them into political and psychological thrillers that take the reader into the awesome world that was Cahokia. 

It’s hard to distill the essence of such a complicated plot, especially with the twists and turns. Is Morning Star really a god, or just a man perpetrating a hoax? And through it all, lurks Walking Smoke–Morning Star’s twisted and psychopathic brother. He is hunted by Morning Star’s sister, the lady Night Shadow Star and her slave, the defeated war chief, Fire Cat. And through it all, the rascal, Seven Skull Shield–womanizer and thief–plays off the cynical old Four Winds Clan noble woman, Clan Keeper Blue Heron. Expect murder, betrayal, intrigue, humor, Native American spirituality, and romance, all set against the grandeur that was Cahokia.

What motivated you to write it?

Our first novel about Cahokia was People of the River, researched and written in 1991. At the time we went out on a limb and portrayed Cahokia as what archaeologists called a “state-level society.” Was that an understatement! Decades of intervening archaeological research have rewritten our understanding of Cahokia’s size and complexity. This wasn’t just a regional chiefdom, but an imperial civilization that spread its authority throughout the eastern United States and into Canada. Starting with People of the Morning Star we wanted to share in depth the complexity of a civilization that transformed ancient North America.

What motivated the choice of Cahokia? What do you think is important when choosing a setting?

It’s a sad commentary, but more Americans are familiar with Angkor Wat in Cambodia than know of Cahokia in the US. Cahokia was a metroplex consisting of urban centers that spread across the Illinois American Bottoms, and modern St Louis, Missouri. As many as 200,000 people may have lived in the area. To put the site in context, Cahokia was to eastern North America, as Rome was to western Europe. A mighty empire lost in the mists of antiquity.

The time is somewhere around 1180 CE in the American Bottoms of Illinois and on the bluffs where modern St Louis now stands. As many as 200,000 people have moved into the area to celebrate the earthly incarnation of Morning Star. In the process they have surveyed, used standard units of measure, and rebuilt an area of 8 square miles called the Great Plaza. They have laid out the city as a reflection of the sky world: a lunar-solar representation that acts as a giant calendar. And through it all runs the Mississippi River.

Had Cahokia been built of stone and plaster, it would be known worldwide as a great ancient metropolis. Instead Cahokians built their cities in earth, wood, and thatch, including the great Monks Mound–the largest earthen mound in the world prior to mechanization. It’s ten stories tall and covers 14 acres, and is only one of 160 mounds in the surrounding area. The city was a polyglot, since we know that people from the surrounding states as far away as eastern Kentucky and Arkansas packed up and moved entire towns to Cahokia. Such a huge set of houses, farmsteads, temples, palaces, and warehouses, makes the perfect place for intrigue, murder, and plotting.

Why did you choose the medium of fiction to write about Cahokia?

Why fiction? In a novel, we can bring America’s cultural heritage alive. We can breathe life into the land, the people, and the culture in a way no archaeological textbook can. It works. To date we’ve sold about 8 million print copies of the “People” books with additional millions of downloads and audios in the US and Canada, and the novels have been translated into 29 languages worldwide.

Does the book have a central theme? What motivated you to explore this?

Lightning Shell ties the series together, bringing all the disparate plot lines that began in People of the Morning Star, were augmented in Sun Born, Moon Hunt, and Star Path are brought to a crashing climax. Justice? Spirit Power? Reconciliation of opposites? Love? Sacrifice for the good of others? The themes filter through the entire series. And, for the fans, Seven Skull Shield’s dog, Farts, makes a rousing come back after Star Path.

How does collaborating on a book differ from writing individually?

The truth is that we don’t write individually. It doesn’t matter if a novel has Michael’s or Kathleen’s name on it, everything we do has both of our fingerprints throughout. Sometimes, for marketing or business reasons, we use only one name on a book. In the case of Lightning Shell the publisher insisted that Michael’s name be listed first.

Here’s an anecdote the fans will appreciate: The only books that come close to being individually written were Kathleen’s “In Me” series consisting of It Sleeps in Me, It Dreams in Me, and It Wakes in Me. She insisted that Michael wait until she finished the first drafts to see if she could surprise him with the endings on each book. And, you know what? She did!

Can you take us through the process of writing a book? What do you do first?

That depends on the book. Sometimes we know the ending, as we did with People of the Moon. Glen Rabi, the Forest Service archaeologist at Chimney Rock Pueblo in Colorado pointed down the mountain and said, “That’s where Jeancon found the burned bodies.” Bingo! All we had to do was get the characters to that final burning of the pueblo in 1150 CE. With Lightning Shell, we were bringing a five-book series to an end. Character arcs that started with People of the Morning Star had to find resolution.

The takeaway for beginning writers is that everything hinges on structure. To determine that, you must first ask: “What do my characters want, and what are they willing to do to get it?” For example: In the “People of Cahokia” series, Morning Star wants to escape being the “the living god.” Fire Cat and Night Shadow Star want to leave all the intrigue behind and escape to pursue their forbidden love. Blue Heron wants to keep the city of Cahokia from imploding. And Seven Skull Shield? He’s always out for a good time and challenge. Even if it means he might end up tortured to death in a square! For the psychopathic Walking Smoke? He wants to take his brother’s place in the high chair, no matter how many lives he has to destroy in the process.

What was the most challenging part of writing Lightning Shell?

The hardest part was waiting two years for a contract. Once we had the go-ahead–and filled the other contracts ahead of Lightning Shell–the book just flowed. A lot of effort went into making sure that all the plot threads were tied up, and that ending wasn’t telegraphed. That the last chapters caught the editor by complete surprise and brought tears to her eyes means we succeeded.

How did you come up with the title?

Every book in the People of Cahokia series after People of the Morning Star has a sky reference: Sun Born, Moon Hunt, Star Path. In the previous book, Walking Smoke adopts a welk-shell mask to hide his burn scar, and lightning is his personal Power. Lightning is a celestial phenomenon. Problem solved.

What other books and authors have inspired you?

It’s a huge list: Margaret Mitchell, Kenneth Robson, James Michener, Robert Heinlein, Elmer Kelton, CJ Cherryh, Richard Wheeler, Frank Herbert, Lucia St Clair Robson, Isaac Asimov, Zane Grey, Barbara Kingsolver, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Norman Zollinger, James S. A. Corey, Frank Herbert, May Sarton, David Morrell, Kim Harrison, and the list goes on.

Which of your books are you most proud of?

For Michael, it would be his Pulitzer-campaigned Civil War novel This Scorched Earth. For Kathleen, her profoundly philosophical The Ice Orphan (coming in November from DAW Books). For both of us: The Betrayal.

Discover Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s writing here