With Lightning Shell (hardcover, Kindle), writers W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear are concluding both their North America’s Forgotten Past series and their People Of Cahokia sub-series. In the following email interview, Kathleen and Michael discuss these historical fiction novels, as well as why Shell is the finale.
For people who haven’t read any of them, what is the North America’s Forgotten Past series about, and when and where does it take place?
Michael: This is an important book for us as it brings the People Of Cahokia series to a close. And will be our last novel in the People books, what the publisher called the North America’s Forgotten Past novels that began with the publication in 1990 of People Of The Wolf. Since then we’ve sold around 8 million copies, made the New York Times bestseller lists, and written 29 People books.
Kathleen: Overall, these are novels written about Native America prior to 1492. 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 the remarkable cultures, peoples, and civilizations that existed in North America over the last 15,000 years. 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.
Next, what is the People Of Cahokia sub-series about, and specifically, what is Lightning Shell about?
Kathleen: It’s a sad commentary, but more Americans are familiar with Angkor Wat in Cambodia than know of Cahokia in the U.S. Cahokia was a metroplex consisting of urban centers that spread across the Illinois American Bottom 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.
Michael: Lightning Shell is the epic conclusion of the story of Cahokia that began with People Of The Morning Star and was followed by Sun Born, Moon Hunt, and Star Path. The series revolves around the miracle of Morning Star. A mythical hero from the Beginning Times who archaeologists think was “reincarnated in physical form” at Cahokia around 1050 CE. 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, everyone’s favorite rascal, Seven Skull Shield — womanizer and thief — plays off the cynical old Four Winds Clan noble woman, Blue Heron. Expect murder, betrayal, intrigue, humor, Native American spirituality, and romance, all set against the grandeur that was Cahokia.
The previous books in the North America’s Forgotten Past series, and thus the People Of Cahokia sub-series, were all historical fiction stories. Is it safe to assume Lightning Shell is one as well?
Kathleen: You bet it is. Keep in mind that our goal is to make a period of North America’s archaeological past come alive. At the same time, our work has to withstand the critical scrutiny of other archaeologists. We still attend professional meetings and have to defend our interpretation of the archaeological data. That’s why so many books have a comprehensive bibliography in the back. We didn’t just make this stuff up.
As for other genres in Lightning Shell? Wow. The entire People Of Cahokia series is a combination of political thriller, psychological thriller, historical novel, suspense, romance, supernatural, mystical, and adventure. We write it from a Native American Mississippian perspective and take their cosmology and iconography seriously. Hence Piasa, Morning Star, the Thunderbirds, Tie snakes, and other Spirit beings.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that you each feel had a big influence on Lightning Shell but not on any of the previous North America’s Forgotten Past novels?
Michael: The biggest influence would be the stories about Red Horn, also known as Morning Star. How he played chunkey with the giants and brought his dead father back to life. In addition, the oral traditions of the descendants of the Cahokians were central to the Cahokia books. You can get a better idea of the scope and range of them by consulting the bibliographies in the back of People Of The Morning Star and Lightning Shell, the latter of which has updated resources listed. Not that this was the first time we’ve ventured into the Mississippian worldview and religion. We tackled it in the Contact: Battle For America novels [Coming Of The Storm, Fire The Sky, and A Searing Wind] about the Hernando de Soto entrada.
But we suspect that you mean modern sources and writers. We owe a great deal to archaeologists like Dr. Timothy Pauketat. For a thumbnail on Cahokia, see his Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City On The Mississippi. The list of sources and papers that were instrumental to the writing of the People Of Cahokia books would be too exhaustive to cite here. The best advice is the check the bibliographies in People Of The Morning Star and Lightning Shell.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Do you think any of those things had an influence on Lightning Shell?
Kathleen: Honestly, Paul, Cahokia is such a different environment, such a unique culture, and the setting so rich, there’s really not much in modern movies or TV that compares. And, truth be told, we’re about the most ignorant people you can find when it comes to games.
Michael: That said, so much of the series, starting with People Of The Morning Star is a political and psychological thriller that it has elements and tropes common to the thriller genre. Perhaps unique to the People series, Cahokia is about the only place we could use such complex political intrigue. For example, everyone’s favorite character seems to be Seven Skull Shield. The guy’s a scoundrel, womanizer, and thief who couldn’t exist — let alone thrive — anywhere in precontact America. He’d be too well known, and some cuckhold of a husband would have bashed his brains out.
As we’ve been discussing, Lightning Shell is the last book in both the People Of Cahokia series and the North America’s Forgotten Past series. Was that planned, or did it just seem like a good time to bring it all to an end?
Michael: Paul, we could have written novels about North American archaeology for the rest of our lives and a couple of generations on beyond that. We’ve barely scratched the surface. The ugly fact is that markets and the book business change, as do tastes; and publishing is a business. Interest in history and archaeology has been waning for the last twenty years, and we took a major hit when the wholesale distribution industry collapsed in 2009. Those were the people who put our books in grocery stores, airports, truck stops, drug stores, you name it. Mass market paperbacks made up 90% of our market, and most of our readers bought off the racks. Then came the collapse of Borders and Hastings, and what has developed is a whole new world. When Forge Books told us they wanted to end the series with Lightning Shell, we agreed it was a perfect place, as well as an opportunity to bring it all to a crescendo and slam-bang conclusion. (Yeah, expect a lot of tissues to be consumed in those final chapters of Lightning Shell.)
Meanwhile, we’re off to new adventures with our science fiction, and the remarkable reception that both Dissolution and Fourth Quadrant have received. [Dissolution and Fourth Quadrant are the first two books in Michael’s Wyoming Chronicles].
Now, as you both know, some people love reading every book in a series back-to-back. And while reading all of the People books in a row might be a bit much, some people might consider reading the People Of Cahokia series in rapid succession. Do you think they should, or is there some reason they should spread them out?
Kathleen: We have fans who’ve read the entire series four and even five times, some based on the order of publication, others reading chronologically and following the timeline published in the front of Lightning Shell. And, to our amazement, some have done both.
Michael: What people unfamiliar with the series will find is that most of the People novels are independent and free standing. Hey, we’re dealing with 15,000 years and an entire continent, right? Sometimes there are gaps of several thousand years between books. And, let’s face it, not everyone is into, say, the paleoIndian period and mammoth hunting. Some folks want to know about Anasazi, or Iroquoisan periods like we wrote about in the Longhouse quartet.
With the People Of Cahokia books, it’s more like a traditional series. So, yeah, binge away. Our take is that the reader is going to devour the five books like candy.
Now, along with Lightning Shell, Kathleen, your novel The Ice Ghost, the second book of your Rewilding Reports trilogy, came out May 17th [and which you can read more about here], while the third, The Ice Orphan, will be out November 8. And Michael, you released Fourth Quadrant this past January; Implacable Alpha, the second in your Team Psi series, on June 18; and will release your sixth Donovan novel, Reckoning, on October 11th. And that’s not even counting the recent reprints of your novels Raising Able, Dark Inheritance, Sand In The Wind and Thin Moon Cold Mist. Did you not get the note that everyone during the pandemic was required to bake sourdough bread and watch tons of Netflix?
Kathleen: Guess we missed the note, Paul. But then, hey, we’re just the authors. Like the old joke about being mushrooms in the dark? That’s us, and nobody tells us nothing.
Michael: And there will be even more of our old titles coming out, so it’s going to be one really crazy year. And yes, we’ve been working our tushes off for the last ten years, producing about 500,000 finished words a year — which is a lot of writing. But, hey, you have to be thankful for every contract you sign. And, if the critics are any measure, we’re writing some of the best books in our lives. Kathleen, just this morning, got a fantastic review for The Ice Ghost from PW. She thinks her final book in the Rewilding Reports is one of the most profound she’s ever written.
Earlier I asked if Lightning Shell had been influenced by any movies, TV, or games. But to flip things around, do you think any of the books in the North America’s Forgotten Past series, or Lightning Shell could work as a movie, TV series, or game?
Kathleen: That brings chuckles on this end, Paul. We’ve had chronic interest in film rights for years. And after the usual initial boundless enthusiasm, we always hear the same reasons offered for why whichever People book didn’t go to production: “There are no white characters.” Yeah, that’s the excuse that comes out of socially active, progressive, “we’re in tune” Hollywood. They never made a film for want of a white central character. Another problem we constantly ran headlong into was they concept or “prehistoric” that fills the flighty heads in Hollywood. Hint, prehistoric doesn’t mean “primitive.” It means “before written records.” But with the occasional exception, most Hollywood producers thought it meant grunting savages instead of complicated human beings.
Now, our fans, the people who have bought all those millions of copies, keep pleading for a film. Several of the books would work well for an adaptation, some would work as miniseries, and a bunch of them would make superb games. Recently an up-and-coming screen writer tried to pitch a miniseries based on People Of The Morning Star. Didn’t matter that she was native, she got the same answer: “There’s not white character to center the film around.”
Think the world will ever change?
We can hope. Anyway, is there anything else you think people need to know about Lightning Shell?
Kathleen: We’re immensely proud of the entire series. Our first responsibility has always been to tell an engrossing tale, and to educate in the process. We have dedicated most of our careers to making North American archaeology come vividly alive in the novels. To give Americans and Canadians an appreciation for the sophistication of the human beings who lived on this continent for 15,000 years before that Columbus guy made it popular with Europeans. It’s a wonder-filled and rich story, full of drama, color, and spirit. With Lightning Shell we hope that we’ve fulfilled our readers expectations.
Finally, if someone enjoys Lightning Shell and the People Of Cahokia series, what historical novel by another author would you recommend?
Michael: I’d go for Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo. Her portrayal of the contact Shoshoni and the Upper Missouri region are wonderful. When it comes to great prehistory novels, I second Kathleen’s choices.