ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT:

Home on the range, CSUB Alumni Hall of Famer pens new books – and tends to the buffalo

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New York Times best-selling author and CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame inductee Kathleen O’Neal Gear at her home in Wyoming.

BY CHRISTINE BEDELL
Alumni Engagement Specialist

The Great Recession was a tough time for book publishing. Publishers were cautious about what books to buy, distribution companies were going bankrupt.

So, many books submitted by authors sat on shelves. Now, with the economy stronger, they’re being published.

That’s what happened to CSUB Alumni Hall of Famer Kathleen O’Neal Gear and her husband, Michael, best-selling authors who have no fewer than four books coming out in the next few months.

“It looks like we wrote all these books last year,” Kathleen said from her home on a buffalo ranch in Wyoming, “but that’s not the case.”

Here’s what’s on tap:

  • This month Michael releases the frontier novel Flight of the Hawk. Set in 1812, it’s about a man involved in the Burr conspiracy who flees to the west to avoid prosecution. The Burr conspiracy was former Vice President Aaron Burr’s alleged treasonous plot to carve out part of North America for himself to lead.   
  • In February Michael releases Outpost, the first installment of a science-fiction trilogy set on an alien mining colony with interesting life forms. He used a lot of his anthropological background to explore “first-contact” issues, meaning how you deal with new species when you first meet them.
  • In April Michael releases the epic Civil War novel This Scorched Earth. Set in the Arkansas-Missouri region, it follows one family trying to survive the Civil War.
  • And in July Kathleen releases the apocalyptic thriller Maze Master, about a Neanderthal virus that devastates civilization. It’s about the human endogenous retrovirus-K, which for many years was thought to be extinct but “has shown signs of waking up, and no one knows exactly why,” she explained.

Her inspiration for the novel dates back 30 years, to when she was working on an archeological site on the Sea of Galilee. Israel is the site of several “spectacular” Neanderthal archeological sites, she said.

“When you’re out there digging up the bones and touching the bones, you start wondering what would happen if you could still trace viruses to the genetic material in the bones,” she said. “Of course, now we know we can and we’ve done it.”

Also playing a part in the story is the Marham-i-Isa, also known as the Jesus ointment or Apostles ointment, a healing ointment the Apostles used to bring Jesus back to life after the crucifixion, she said.

The Gears would rather not have all these books come out at once, but that can happen when you’re working with five different publishers, Kathleen said. It’s not good for readers, who can only afford a certain number of books at a time.

“But we don’t have a lot of say in that,” she said of release dates.

Maze Master cover

Kathleen’s novel Maze Master comes out in July.

The Gears have another four books out with publishers, books the couple hung onto in order to rewrite them. The thing about basing novels on science is that scientists are constantly making new discoveries, and the Gears like to stay current.

“We knew that there were studies being done and the results weren’t out yet,” she said. “And so we were waiting to see what information came out of those studies.”

Two are genetic thrillers, two are young-adult novels.

How does the couple stay up to date? They read a lot of scientific, archeological, anthropological and historical journals, and attend a lot of conferences.

Kathleen and Michael have combined published 57 books. Of those, Kathleen has authored or co-authored 47.  Each writes about one book a year.

While just one author is listed on many of their books, all are really the work of both Gears, Kathleen said, “because my best editor is Mike.”

There are roughly 19 million copies of Kathleen’s books in publication, in 29 languages. Outside the United States her stories sell well in Germany, Denmark, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, she said. People in those countries have an affinity for Native American spirituality, she explained.

ON THE RANCH

Red Canyon Ranch

Red Canyon Ranch, Thermopolis, Wyoming, where the Gears have lived since 1992.

When the Gears aren’t writing, they’re tending to their buffalo ranch in northern Wyoming. There are fences to be fixed and buffalo to be cared for – like a young calf who hurt her spine a month ago and was paralyzed for about six days.

“We have bears, mountain lions, coyotes, wolves, other things that could kill her,” Kathleen said. “So she took a lot of attention.”

The Gears have been raising buffalo for 25 years. They got interested in the animal after finding them during archeological excavations and while working with native peoples, who believe in the sacredness of the animal.

The couple has about 50 buffalo now. They raise them for breeding, part of a movement to bring buffalo numbers up.

At one point there were 30 million to 60 million buffalo in North America; by the turn of the 20th century the number was down to about 500 in the United States and 1,000 in Canada, Kathleen said.

In the 25 years that the Gears have been involved in the effort, the number of bison in North America has grown from about 100,000 to 500,000. Kathleen estimates there are 20,000 to 30,000 living buffalo that are offspring from her herd.

“We bought our first 10 bison in 1992 and never looked back. Love ‘em,” she said. “They’re absolutely wonderful animals.”

The Gears and Pia

The Gears and one of their beloved buffalo, Pia.

One of the things she admires most about buffalo is their intelligence. She told the story of Pia, who was orphaned after her mother was fatally struck by lightning and had to be raised on bottled milk. By the time Pia was 6 months old, Kathleen said, she knew 600 English words and could understand full sentences.

Michael and Kathleen would test Pia’s skills by buying stuffed toys, teaching her what they were, hiding them and encouraging her to find them.

“We’d hide a stuffed elephant behind a tree so it wouldn’t be easy to find and we’d say, ‘Pia, go find the elephant,’” Kathleen recalled. “And she would walk around the yard until she found the elephant then she would bleat and kick her heels and toss her head and start knocking it around.”

Kathleen wanted to add a word of warning: Never approach bison. They may be affectionate when you raise them from a calf, she said, but they’re wild animals and unpredictable.

A LIFETIME OF WRITING

Kathleen has been writing since she was a little girl growing up on a small farm near Tipton, about 50 miles north of Bakersfield. Her parents also were writers. She won her first writing contest at about age 12, with an essay on patriotism she submitted to the American Legion Essay Contest at Tipton Elementary School.

She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from CSUB in 1977 then studied archaeology and the history of religions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She received her master’s degree from California State University, Chico, and conducted Ph.D. studies in American Indian History at UCLA.

Kathleen moved to Wyoming in 1980, became that state’s historian in 1981, and later became an archaeologist for the U.S. Department of the Interior. The federal government awarded her two “Special Achievement Awards” for outstanding management of America’s cultural heritage.

Gear’s work has appeared in more than 100 nonfiction publications in the fields of archaeology, history and publishing as well as the history, health and conservation of the North American bison.

She was named the “2000 Outstanding Alumna” from the CSUB School of Arts and Sciences and in 2005. People of the Raven, which she co-authored with Michael, won the Western Writers of America “Golden Spur Award” for the “Best Novel of the West.” She was the 2005 inductee into the Women Who Write the West Hall of Fame. In 2008, she and Michael received the "Literary Contributor of the Year Award" from the Mountain Plains Library Association.

The CSUB Alumni Association inducted Gear into its Hall of Fame in 2015.

In recent years, Kathleen has also taken to social media -- to educate, to learn and to promote her books. She’s found that each platform has its own advantages and disadvantages. Facebook is good for keeping up with friends, she said, Twitter is good for quick scientific banter.

Over the last month she’s been talking to archeologists and paleontologists on Twitter about the lack of bison bones east of the Mississippi River. It’s a conundrum, Kathleen said, because there are numerous historical reports dating back to the 1500s of people seeing bison there.

“We finally decided as a community on Twitter that we needed to have a panel at the next Society for Archeology (meeting) to start an internet database on bison remains to coordinate findings,” she said. “So there are really productive things you can get done on social media from a scientific perspective.”



Never read a Kathleen O’Neal Gear book? Here are her recommendations.

Kathleen and Michael Gear’s books always contain an anthropological or archeological theme but may be classified by a publisher as historical fiction, science fiction or thriller.

Interested? Here are the books Kathleen recommends you start with, and their description on GoodReads.com:

People of the Lakes

Clan fighting over a powerful totemic mask has brought the Mound Builder people of the Great Lakes region to the edge of destruction. It is up to Star Shell, daughter of a Hopewell chief, to rid her people of this curse. Along with her companions: Otter, a trader; Pearl, a runaway; and Green Spider, either prophet or madman, she braves the stormy waters of the lakes to reach the majestic waterfall known as Roaring Water. She is determined to banish the mask forever to a watery grave.

But vengeful clan members are close on her heels, and they have a similar fate planned for her.

People of the Black Sun

Dekanawida has become known as “The Sky Messenger,” a prophet of immense power, and Hiawento is his Speaker. Thousands now believe in the Great Law of Peace and have joined the League. But they are still being harassed by marauding warriors from the People of the Mountain who steadfastly refuse to adopt the Great Law.

Dekanawida has prophesied destruction if the warfare continues. As one by one, portents start coming true, Dekanawida has one last chance to convince the People of the Mountain to join the League and save their world from utter destruction.

Moon Hunt

Whispering Dawn has come to Cahokia as the bride of the living god Morning Star. She brings with her dark secrets. Political intrigue. And deadly magic.

When Morning Star drinks her poisoned nectar, the Night Moth carries his souls off to the Underworld to be slowly sucked into oblivion.

Cahokia is shaken to the roots by Whispering Dawn's betrayal, and as the empire teeters on the verge of civil war, the immortal god's human sister Night Shadow Star realizes that only she--intimately tied to the Underworld--can make the journey into the dark realms to retrieve Morning Star's captured souls. To do so, she and Fire Cat must descend into the Sacred Cave's terrifying depths where, beset by soul-devouring monsters, it may come down to Fire Cat to save the man, city, and people he once despised.