Author Interview: Michael and Kathy Gear

There are many reasons to love Fridays, chief among them is the weekend that follows. And it is with that sense of celebration that I welcome Michael and Kathy Gear, co-authors of Dawn Country, to Reads, Reviews, Recommends. Let's get to know them:

Bestselling authors and award-winning archaeologists Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear are renowned for their novels on North American prehistory, a series that melds the latest archaeological findings with sweeping dramatic narratives and strong Native American tradition. The “North America’s Forgotten Past” series educates readers about our continent’s more than 15,000 years of prehistory and brings to life its natural and cultural heritage.

Beginning with People of the Wolf (Tor; July 1990), and continuing through to People of the Thunder (Forge Books; January 2010), the series provides a vital understanding of the history of North America in a way that is entertaining, full of cultural detail, and intelligent. One of the more recent novels, People of the Raven, won the Spur Award for Best Novel of the West in 2005.

Bringing more than 50 years of combined archaeological experience to their writing, Michael and Kathleen have written over thirty-three novels dealing with historical or anthropological themes. They have between fifteen and sixteen million copies of their books in print worldwide and their books have been translated into twenty-one different languages.

W. Michael Gear has a master’s degree in anthropology from Colorado State University, and has worked for twenty years as a professional archaeologist in the western United States. Kathleen O’Neal Gear has a master’s degree in history from California State University, and studied for her Ph.D. at UCLA. She received two special Achievement Awards from the Department of the Interior for work as an archaeologist in the Bureau of Land Management. Both Michael and Kathleen are principal investigators for Wind River Archaeological Consultants, a cultural resource firm in the Rocky Mountain region.

As archaeologists and novelists they have made appearances on CNN, NPR, and have been featured on “Greenroom” on PBS, as well as local network features. They currently live in Wyoming, bordered on two sides by the Wind River Reservation, and raise registered North American bison.

This is the first time I'm playing host to archaeologists and novelists. A sense of intimidation fills me. But I'm excited, too. Aren't you? Well, let's get this interview started, shall we?

Please state your name, your occupation, and your cocktail of choice for our dear readers.

We’re Michael and Kathleen Gear, archaeologists, buffalo ranchers, and, yes, writers. Mike’s cocktail of choice is the darkest beer that can be found on earth. The more it resembles crank case drippings, the better he likes it. Kathleen favors really hoppy India Pale Ales. If microbrews aren’t available, a reposado tequila will work in a pinch.

Here at Reads, Reviews, Recommends, we aim to please. Take your pick, dear readers. One dark and one light, enough for everyone. Barkeep, distribute the beers! While everyone is taking a sip, I'd like to know, what's the one thing you argue about the most and why?

We engage in vigorous discussions about buffalo nutrition. Bet you thought we were going to say something about our writing? Nope. If one of us doesn’t like something in a book, it gets rewritten until both of us are happy with it. But buffalo nutrition is a different thing. You see buffalo are still wild animals and need to be treated as such, which means you want to give them a high quality diet that matches the native grasses of the region in which they live. In drought-stricken regions like ours, however, you occasionally have to feed them hay to keep them healthy. So, here’s the question? The protein content of native grasses varies with the time of year. So, do you feed 7% protein hay, or 14% protein? After a few spirited debates, we generally compromise. As a result, we agree on native grass hay that ranges around 11-12% protein. (Was that more than you cared to know about buffalo nutrition?)

If I ever decide to write a book that features someone feeding Buffalo, you just gave me the kind of information I would need. I love to learn something new everyday, and Buffalo nutrition is certainly a welcome lesson. Now, for a little home invasion. If I walk into your kitchen (that's if you haven't called the cops yet) what would I find in your fridge?

Well, let’s take a look. Okay, two buffalo ribeyes defrosting, a half-empty can of green chilis, a bottle of kalamata olives from the last pizza Mike made (his specialty is buffalo pizza), and a variety of veggies: bok choy, green onions, broccoli, brussel sprouts, spinach, tomatoes, and, yes, (Mike strikes again) a really vile looking container with something so moldy you can’t see what’s in it, but from the fuzzy tips sticking out it’s probably burrito mix. There’s also, what? Let’s see, two squeeze bottles of mustard, one with horseradish (Katheen’s favorite condiment). Finally, in the side door, there’s a selection of ales: Sierra Nevada pale ale, Longhammer IPA, Black Butte Porter, Moose Drool…no, really, great stuff…and an almost empty bottle of our favorite wine, a Petite Sirah from McNab Ridge, which is made by Jim Lawson at J bar S buffalo ranch in Ukiah, California. If you’ve never had it, you should go down and find a bottle immediately. It’s excellent.

I have to put that wine on my wish list. Although, I must confess, I'm not much of a drinker, but I do like to taste something new now and again. Take note of the wine too, dear readers. Let's move on to writing. This is the first time Reads, Reviews, Recommends has had a husband and wife co-author a book. What made you decide to team up?

Kathleen read Mike’s first book and said, “Your female characters should all be murdered in the first chapter. You don’t really think women act like this, do you?” Since he wanted a third date, he opted to let her rewrite them.

Any men in the audience tonight? Michael's got it right. So, please describe for our dear readers what your writing dynamic is like.

We wake up, walk the dogs, toss the buffalo some hay, then over breakfast we discuss the plot of our current book, and talk about what the characters are going to do that day. At night we read what the other has written and discover that the characters didn’t want to do any of the things we’d decided, and took the story in an entirely different direction. That’s the true joy of writing--finding out you are not god, your characters are.

I totally agree! Sometimes you start thinking of a certain scene but the character then takes it into a whole different direction. It's quite liberating. Speaking of characters, tell us a little bit about The Dawn Country and the character of Young Wrass.

The Dawn Country is set at around 1440 A.D. in the northeastern United States, and follows the story of several children who’ve been captured in a war raid and sold into slavery. Young Wrass, who has seen eleven summers, decides that he and the other children can’t wait to be rescued. They must rescue themselves from Gannajero, the evil old woman who trades in child slaves. It’s not going to be easy. Gannajero surrounds herself with a group of outcast warriors who profit enormously from the sale of children. No child has ever escaped their clutches. Wrass must organize the children and pick the right time to escape. Even if it costs his own life, he will make certain the other children get away.

One of the most interesting things about Wrass is his real identity, which readers won’t discover until the third book, THE BROKEN LAND, which comes out in January of 2012. For now, let’s just say that he will become one of the greatest heroes in the history of America.

See, now, I want to know more! You can't tease me like that and not expect me to want to know more. Do you agree, dear readers? I want to see what happens to Young Wrass. It's certainly such an interesting story. In terms of writing, what's the best advice you can give authors who are thinking of teaming up to write a novel together?

Check your egos at the front door. Your goal should be to create the best story possible, even if your partner has to rewrite it fifty times to get there.

That's a good one. I think having an ego can hinder the process since writing is so creative. Can I hear pencils scribbling down that nugget of wisdom? I sure am. For the last part of this interview, let's get metaphysical. What country would you like to visit and why?

Turkey. The archaeology is fabulous, and we’ve never been there. Actually, we’re going to Turkey in May! Can’t wait to see Ephesus.

Can you feel my envy? One of my young adult novels actually feature a character who came from Turkey because his parents are archaeologists on a dig there. Have a safe trip and take lots of pictures. So, what's the one event in your life that inspired you to be who you are today?

Michael: At the age of eight, I watched a National Geographic special where they reconstructed the face of a 3.2 million year old Australopithecine. When they turned the face around and I got to stare into the eyes of Lucy, I shrieked and crawled under the couch. It left an indelible impression of the mystery of the past. That TV special is the reason I became an archaeologist.

Kathleen: In the summer, my family always visited archaeological sites around America, and my mother had a unique way of teaching. She would find an artifact, like a potsherd, hold it to our ears, and say, “Can you hear the people talking?” I swear, when you’re four years old, those voices are crystal clear. I never forgot them. That’s what led me to study Native American religions, and archaeology.

Sometimes, it's the smallest events that really shape us, whether it's an episode of National Geographic or visiting an archaeological site. For me, it was a compliment from my sophomore high school English teacher. Last question: If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be and why?

There would be more buffalo peacefully grazing across North America. Why? Well, mostly because they deserve it. They’re amazing, intelligent animals who were almost hunted to extinction. But also because Americans deserve a healthy, hormone-free meat that’s low in calories, and high in Omega 3s. Having more buffalo in the world would make the world a better, healthier place for all of us, buffalo and human.

Thanks, Kate! It’s been a pleasure talking with you today.

The pleasure is all mine, Michael and Kathleen! I've learned so much about your lives as writers and as buffalo ranchers. Before today, I never knew there were ranches just for buffalo. Thank you so much for visiting Reads, Reviews, Recommends.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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