Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Interview with The Gears authors of The Broken Land


Barnes & Noble interview—THE BROKEN LAND

Hello, Debbie!

Thanks for the invitation to join you today.  Over the years we’ve had great support from Barnes & Noble and want to express our appreciation to you and your great associates for your efforts on behalf of readers and book-lovers everywhere.

How is it writing with your spouse?  
Incredibly, after thirty years and around two hundred collaborations, both in the form of books and professional articles, we’re still married!  Mostly because we have a huge amount of trust in the other’s talent. In a real sense we get to live in each other’s heads.  It’s a rare privilege, not to mention a lot of fun. 
Our goal is to craft a story so seamlessly that the reader falls into that universe and doesn’t want to come out.   So if one of us has a problem with something the other has written, it gets rewritten. No ego.  No stamping around muttering oaths (okay, well, on occasion).  We both feel that if one of us is concerned about a passage, one of our readers will be, too, and it needs to be fixed.  For more details on the everyday experience of co-authoring, however, we invite all of your readers to investigate Kathleen’s blog entry last month on our website at gear-gear.com, entitled “The joys of co-authoring…or not.”
The fact is that we don’t argue much about the writing craft—we save that for the archaeological data. 
Interpreting what is occasionally scanty scientific information can get a little bloody.  For each culture that thrived in North America over the last 15,000 years, there are at least five or six theories that attempt to interpret the information.  We have to sift through and analyze each one. We’re trying to provide our readers with the best possible reconstruction of what might have happened in the past.  When we’ve narrowed the theoretical approaches down to what we think are the best two theories that explain what we see in the archaeological record, then we have to test them.  We do this by applying each theory in a fictional context to see if it works when “real” people have to live it. The theory-testing can get intense.  Brows lower, fangs drip, and the “Arkbark” gets thick.  Arkbark is a term used by archaeologists to refer to the arcane jargon of field archaeologists.  In short, the verbal knives can get sharp. Mike will gladly show you his scars.
In THE BROKEN LAND, and all four books in the PEOPLE OF THE LONGHOUSE quartet, we want New York, New England, and Ontario to be more real to the reader than this world.

Tell us about the PEOPLE OF THE LONGHOUSE series.   
PEOPLE OF THE LONGHOUSE, THE DAWN COUNTRY, THE BROKEN LAND, and THE BLACK SUN (Oct. 2012), chronicle a little known peace movement in fifteenth century North America that literally changed the world.  The Peacemaker, Dekanawida, along with his friend Hiyawento, and a very powerful clan matron named Jigonsaseh, brought five warring nations together to create the League of the Iroquois.   Why is that important? Because both American democracy and Marxist communism were intrinsically influenced by the League of the Iroquois.  One person, one vote?  Referendum and recall?   All came from the Iroquois, and heavily influenced people like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. In fact, the idea of a “united” states was suggested by an Iroquoian chief named Canassatego in 1744 when the League of the Iroquois met with American colonists at Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After hearing from the Colonial Commissioners about American difficulties with the British Crown, Canassatego told the commissioners that if they were wise the independent states would immediately establish a union like that of the Iroquois League.  In 1775, on the eve of the Revolution, the Colonial Commissioners thanked the Iroquois for their sage advice, saying, “Brothers, our forefathers rejoiced to hear Canassatego speak these words.  They sank deep into our hearts.  …We thank the great God that we are all united; that we have a strong confederacy, composed of twelve provinces…”
In the end, descriptions of the New World’s native peoples and philosophies would topple the “divine right of kings” hierarchy, precipitating the Protestant revolt, the Enlightenment, and revolutionizing European thought.   Meanwhile, here, our founders were soaking up native ideas about freedom, independence, individual rights, and pure democracy.  It is out of that rich aboriginal tradition that the political ideals of what would become known as the Free World emerged.  While the Creek Confederacy and the Cherokee Alliance had an impact, the most influential was the League of the Iroquois.  From 1600 to the 1850s they were literally the third wheel of American politics. What makes American democracy so unique is that it’s a melding of Iroquois ideas and English common law.
And communism?  In 1851 an early ethnographer named Lewis Henry Morgan published a book called League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois.  Morgan talked about how the Iroquois shared resources, clarifying that no one went hungry, and no one amassed wealth.  This in turn was read by a young Karl Marx, and coupled with his economic theory, became one of the pillars of his classic work, Das Kapital.
Given the staggering worldwide influence of the League of the Iroquois, we naturally wanted to write the story of how the League came about.  In essence, the PEOPLE OF THE LONGHOUSE series is a four-book miniseries within a series. And, after all, the number four is sacred to much of Native American storytelling.  We knew it would be complex because there is a huge body of oral history, archaeological information, and American historical resources to paw through.  The archaeological information is daunting enough, but the oral history of the Peacemaker changes through time, as well as between the Iroquois nations themselves, which required piecing the story elements together to create a coherent whole.
Without Dekanawida’s vision that five warring nations could come together to create a Peace Alliance, and Hiyawento and Jigonsaseh’s faith in that vision…there would have been no United States, no striving for democracy and freedom for all peoples regardless of race, religion, or country of origin, no Arab Spring. 
We think everyone who cherishes democracy, who believes in inalienable human rights and freedom for all, should know where those ideals came from. 

How does it feel to have published over fifty novels? 
We never would have guessed.  In 1985 when Mike sold his archaeological company and Kathleen left her job as an archaeologist for the federal government to go write in a Colorado cabin, it was a “go for it” dream.  The cabin had a two-holer outhouse up the mountain, no running water, 520 square feet, and two wood stoves for heat and cooking.  The majority of our friends and family told us we were lunatics to give up good careers.  But dreams are like that.  They won’t let you go.  After two years, our savings account was almost non-existent.  Our good friends Bill and Debbie at Abajo Archaeology in Utah hired us to work on a project in the winter of 1987 that gave us enough income for a few more months of writing.  But on March 1st of 1988 we had $187.43 in the bank.  Things were looking a bit dim.  Then, on March 10th, we sold four books to two different publishers, Tor Books and DAW Books.  The Great Mystery has an odd sense of humor…
Publishing over fifty novels certainly wasn’t a goal in the beginning. The problem with being archaeologists is that someone is always excavating something brand new and absolutely fascinating.  It’s an exciting time to be involved with anthropology. Every conference and journal brings a new discovery. The simple answer is that one book just led to the next, and with each novel finished, three or four other new discoveries were floating out there, waiting to be written about.  As odd as this might sound, we got so caught up in the writing, the ideas, and the data, that we never paid attention to the book count.  When requests from fans finally forced us to give them a complete list for the gear-gear.com website, we were stunned.  Let’s hope no one ever forces us to total up all the articles we’ve written on buffalo history and conservation!  

Did you learn anything about humanity on your 50th book celebratory tour of Mediterranean archaeology?   
We could probably spin an entire encyclopedia from our month in the Mediterranean. Each day was filled with sensory overload. We were both trained in classical archaeology and ancient history, as well as comparative religions and Western Civilization, yet we still filled up three notebooks and two cameras.
Just take Tunisia: We prowled around Carthage, looked at the harbor, investigated Punic tombs, pottery, and artifacts, spent time in the Roman ruins, blew our minds in the Tunis museum gawking at the finest collection of Roman mosaics in the world, walked through the American WWII cemetery with tears in our eyes, and delighted ourselves in the local souk, the marketplace.  All that in the shadow of the revolution which sparked the Arab Spring.  Believe us, it’s nothing like the evening news portrays. We were nervous right up to the instant we set foot in Tunis and spied two young women.  One was dressed traditionally, with only her eyes visible, and she was walking with her tanned teenage friend in a tee-shirt, cutoffs, and flip flops.  No one cared. Free market capitalism was springing up everywhere and Tunisians were pleading with us to tell the world that Tunisia is open for business.  They need tourists and they have so many sites to see.  Book your flight now and go!  Tunisians are wonderful people.
The biggest single thing, if we had to pick, would be the contrasts we made walking through places like Ephesus and Rome, and comparing them to equivalent archaeological sites in North America. Trust us, in the 14th century you’d rather be living in Moundville, Alabama, than in downtown Rome. At 1500 BC, you’d rather be living in Poverty Point, Louisiana, than Athens, Greece.  The sanitation was better, the people were healthier, and there were no European rats in North America to carry the black plague.  That’s not to say that North America was a peaceful paradise, it wasn’t.  If you’ve read our books, you know that.  No matter the time or place, people are just people. 

Tell you about living on a bison ranch?  
 As we sit writing this, we’re looking out at the snow-covered meadow where fifteen buffalo are grazing in grass up to their bellies.  The animals are just marvelous.  They have a magical presence.  In many interviews people have heard us say, “When you look into the eyes of a buffalo you see God looking back,” and it’s true.  We’ve been raising bison for eighteen years now, and are fairly certain they think they are raising us.  Contrary to popular belief, they’re very intelligent, at least as smart as a very smart dog or mule.  They are wild animals; buffalo always put you in your proper place--at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy. You just have to admire them for that.
We’re much downsized from our maximum of 250-300 bison, but they are such a part of our lives we can’t imagine being without them. We’re just back from the Western Bison Association winter show and sale which is held in Ogden, Utah.  We picked up a bull and a yearling heifer from a New Mexico bison rancher and good friend, John Painter.  Because of the terrible drought in New Mexico, we’re taking care of Tiberius and Lady Bug. We have plenty of good grass to keep them happy and healthy.
Currently the national market for bison products is under-served by about 20%, so prices on meat and hides are way up.  Most of this is driven by the knowledgeable consumer who doesn’t want each forkful to contain growth hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified DNA.  Bison remains a healthy alternative to feedlot beef.  With 67% fewer calories, twice the iron, and less cholesterol than skinless chicken, buffalo is still pure and clean.  Our biggest problem now is finding new buffalo ranchers to expand the industry as older ones retire.  We want more buffalo in the world.
Living every day with buffalo keeps us tethered to reality. For most Americans, life is lived in a technological urban bubble with a cozy safety net no more than a text message away. Here at Red Canyon Ranch we don’t have phone service (not even cellular or satellite),  but we do have mountain lions, wolves, bears, rattlesnakes, violent weather, and seven miles of dirt road that can be, well, a challenge, especially when its muddy or icy. For the most part, we raise what we eat, animals as well as plants.

You have one YA book, are your others age specific? 
Only one of our books is age-specific, CHILDREN OF THE DAWNLAND; it was written specifically for young readers.  We’ve found that younger audiences are desperate to read about other times and cultures.  They like to compare their lives with those of children who experienced a radically different environment.  In the case of CHILDREN OF THE DAWNLAND that means living at the end of the last Ice Age, 13,000 years ago. For us, as archaeologists, just being able to educate young readers that there were people in North America thirteen thousand years before Europeans arrived is a major victory.

Your genre seems to be mostly historical fiction, along with your lessons in American culture do they include some fantasy as well?    
Well, there’s a good question.  Depends on what you mean by fantasy.  We wrote PEOPLE OF THE SEA specifically as a fantasy novel. Many of our readers, as well, think that the Native American mystical beliefs in our books give the stories a fantasy “feel.”  But here’s a question we have often pondered: If we set marketing aside, what is “fantasy?”
The religious aspects of our novels come from the comparative study of Native American religions.  Though religious cosmology is vastly different from region to region, shamanism, animism, totems, and visions of other worlds are important parts of the native religious experience.  So, if we’re writing about a Chickasaw Hopaye, or priest, who after four days of fasting, sweating, and purifying his body, is visited by a Piasa—a part panther, part bird, part snake supernatural creature—is it fantasy?  What if a Christian prays on his knees for four days and fasts, and is visited by the Virgin Mary? 
Our job as anthropologists and archaeologists is to recreate prehistoric and historic cultures as closely as we can. We’ll be wrong about a lot of things, of course. The record is fragmentary, and we accept that as time proceeds, many of the books will become obsolete because of new information.  But we have to start somewhere. As for Michael, the first time he stood in the opening of a Shoshoni Sundance Lodge, he could feel Power settling in the fork of the central pole. Was it fantasy or real?  Standing in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was one of the most sacred experiences in Kathleen’s life.  She says she felt God everywhere. Fantasy? 
That said, one day we’d like to write a full-blown Native American fantasy. Marvelous creatures and beings fill their sacred stories.  There are tie-snakes, horned serpents, Eagle Man, Tailed Man, Cannibal Turkey, Stone Man, Corn Woman, Buffalo Above, Spider Woman, and so many other heroes. To us they are far more interesting than trolls, elves, fairies, ogres, dragons, and vampires.

Will you have any B&N signings at the release of THE BROKEN LAND.   
At 2:00 P.M. on January 28, 2012, we will be giving a lecture on the Iroquois Peace League at the Billings, Montana, Barnes and Noble on 24th street.  Of course, we’ll be signing copies of THE BROKEN LAND, too.  Please join us!
Thank you, Debbie.  You asked fun questions.  We hope your readers enjoy our answers.

Best Wishes for a Joyous 2012.
W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear

And my thanks to Both of your for your generosity in taking the time to answer some questions.
Buy the book here visit the authors' website here