Jean M. Auel | Interview by Nicholas O'Connell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of Jean M. Auel.
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Interview by Nicholas O'Connell

SOURCE: An interview with Jean Auel, in At the Field's End, Maronda Publishers, 1987, pp. 208-19.

In the following interview, Auel discusses the research and development behind her series.

Jean M. Auel is the author of some of the most popular books in the world today. Her titles The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980), The Valley of Horses (1982) and The Mammoth Hunters (1985) have set publishing records and won acclaim from critics for their accurate and imaginative portrayals of the lives of prehistoric peoples. Despite her phenomenal success, Auel did not begin writing with the intention of becoming a best-selling author. She first sat down at the typewriter because she had a story to tell, a story that she felt the world needed to hear.

The story concerned a young woman living in prehistoric times with people who were different from her. Auel wasn't sure who these other people might be, but subsequent research revealed that during the last Ice Age the earth was populated with two different kinds of human beings, Cro-Magnons, who were the first modern humans, and Neanderthals, who were also Homo sapiens and quite advanced, but different from Cro-Magnons. In Auel's story, Ayla, the young woman, a Cro-Magnon, was growing up among Neanderthals and was caught between the two cultures and two ways of thinking.

Extensive research enriched and enlarged the story; the original novel entitled Earth's Children became an outline for a series of six books. The first book in the series, The Clan of the Cave Bear, was followed by The Valley of Horses and The Mammoth Hunters. Auel plans to continue the saga of Ayla in three forthcoming volumes.

Auel is a longtime resident of Oregon, a firmly rooted transplant from Chicago, where she was born in 1936. She attended Portland State University, and received an M.B.A. from the University of Portland in 1976. She is married to Ray Auel, and they have five children and nine grandchildren.

The interview with Auel, a bright and engaging woman, took place over the telephone in the spring of 1986.

[O'Connell] When you started writing the Earth's Children series, did you have any idea how popular it would become?

[Auel] No. I hoped what every writer hopes: that the first book would find a market and an audience, and maybe the second one would do a little better. That certainly has happened; it just started at a much higher level. The first printing of The Clan of the Cave Bear was 75,000 books. And the first printing in hardcover for The Mammoth Hunters was a million books. It broke the record. Somebody figured out that that would be a stack of books twenty-nine miles high.

Did you have any model in mind when you wrote these books?

No. I was just trying to write these stories. I'm still writing for myself. I'm writing the story I always wanted to read. As it turns out a whole lot of others want to read it, too. I'm not writing for critics, or to please a teacher or to please the public, or anyone else; I'm writing stories to please myself.

The first rough draft has become an outline for the Earth's Children series. That's why I know I'm going to have six books. People think, "She wrote The Clan of the Cave Bear and since it was successful, she decided to do a sequel."

But this series is not like Clan II, and Rocky III and Jaws IV. It is a continuation, not a repetition. I won't be telling the same story over and over again. I really did know, before I finished The Clan of the Cave Bear, that I had six books in the series.

Do the other books go further into Ayla's life?

All of the books feature Ayla. They are the story of her life. It's not a generational saga, one of those things where you start with the first generation and you end up with the great-grandchildren. I'm trying to show the diversity, complexity and sophistication of the various cultures during the Pleistocene. Ayla's story is the thread that ties them together.

Did you base the cave dwelling described in The Clan of the Cave Bear on a particular archeological site?

Not expressly. It's more like a typical site. It was based in many ways on the cave at Shanidar in Iraq on the southern side of the Black Sea, but the setting is in the Crimea on the northern shore of the Black Sea, because there were Neanderthal caves all through that area. It typifies a Neanderthal setting.

How did you become interested in prehistoric people?

[Laughs] I wish I had a wonderful answer for that. Everyone asks, and I don't have an answer. I started out with an idea for a story. I thought it would be a short story. That was in January, 1977. I had quit my job as a credit manager. I had received an M.B.A. in 1976, so I wasn't going to school, and my kids were almost grown. I was in between, not sure what I wanted to do, in a floating state, which I hadn't been in before. I had had a very busy life.

It was eleven o'clock at night. My husband said, "C'mon, let's go to bed." I said, "Wait a minute. I want to see if I can do something."

An idea had been buzzing through my head of a girl or young woman who was living with people who were different. I was thinking prehistory, but I don't know why. I was thinking. "These people were different, but they think she's different." They were viewing her with suspicion, but she was taking care of an old man with a crippled arm, so they let her stay. This was the beginning. That night I started to write the story. I had never written fiction before. It got to be the wee hours of the morning, I was about ten or twelve pages into it and I decided, "This is kind of fun." Characters, theme and story were starting.

But I was also frustrated because I didn't know what I was writing about. I'd want to describe something and I wouldn't know how or where they lived or what they looked like, what they wore, or what they ate, or if they had fire. I didn't have any sense of the place or the setting. So I thought, "I'll do a little research."

I started out with the Encyclopedia Britannica, and that led to books at the library. I came home with two armloads, and started reading them. I learned that the people we call Cro-Magnon were modern humans. The stereotype of Neanderthal is of a knuckle-dragging ape, but they were Homo sapiens also, quite advanced human beings.

I felt as though I'd made a discovery. "Why don't we know this? Why aren't people writing about our ancestors the way these books are depicting them?" That became the story I wanted to tell: the scientifically valid, updated version.

So you wanted to clear up this misunderstanding?

Also tell a story. It's always been the story first. I discovered that I love being a storyteller. I wanted to write a good story, but also to characterize these people in a way that is much more acceptable currently by the anthropological and archeological community.

Was it difficult to turn this archeological material into a story?

Well, any kind of writing is difficult. Basically, as I was reading those first fifty books, I began to take notes of what might be useful to the story. Then I put together a page, or page-and-a-half outline for a novel. I sat down at my typewriter, and started to tell the story to myself.

Now, if I were to compile a bibliography of my reading for the series, it would approach a thousand entries. I've also traveled to Europe, and taken classes in wilderness survival and native life ways. In terms of the research, I probably read about ten or 100 times more than I needed, until I got so comfortable with the material that I could move my characters around in the story with ease.

I wasn't thinking of getting it published. I was just thinking of the story. As I started to write it, the story started to grow and develop, and the ideas I had picked up in the research were finding their way into it.

How long did it take you to write the rough draft?

It didn't take any more than six or seven months, from the time of the first idea to the time I finished a huge six-part manuscript that became the outline for the series. I had free time then. I didn't have any other demands on my time, except just to live and say hello and goodbye to my husband once in a while. He was really quite supportive. I became totally obsessed and involved and excited. I found myself putting in every waking moment. I'd get up and I'd almost resent taking a shower before sitting down at the typewriter. I was putting in twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day, seven days a week.

What happened to the rough draft?

I went back and started to read it, and it was awful. I was telling the story to myself but it wasn't coming through on the page. I thought, "My feeling and my passion are not there." So then I went back to the library to get books on how to write fiction.

After doing a lot of self-study, I started to rewrite this big mass of words. I thought I was going to cut it down. About halfway through the first of these six parts I discovered I had 100,000 words. In adding scene and dialogue and description and everything necessary to write a novel, the thing was growing. I thought, "I'm going something wrong. At this rate I'm going to end up with a million-and-a-half words." Talk about a writer's block.

I went back and really looked at the six different parts, and realized that I had too much to cram into one novel. What I had was six different books. I can still remember telling my husband, "I've got six books," He said, "You've never written a short story, and now you're going to write six books?"

Earth's Children became the series title, and the first book became The Clan of the Cave Bear.

The series seems to have a very modern sensibility. Is it as much about people today as it is about prehistoric people?

It's about the struggles of human society. My characters are fully human; they have as much facility with their language as we do, which is why I started to write it in perfectly normal English, even though it would have pleased some critics if I had invented some kind of a phony construct of a language.

I think it's more accurate to show them speaking with ease. So I said, "I'm going to write this as though I am translating it from whatever language they spoke into our language." And good translators don't translate word for word, they translate idiom. There were some words I was careful with. For example, you can say, "Just a moment," but you can't say, "Just a minute."

What made these people's lives different from our own?

The world they lived in. There are a lot of things that we take for granted that hadn't been invented yet. But when Ayla in The Clan of the Cave Bear is five years old, she could have been anyone's five-year-old daughter today.

Because we're talking about people like ourselves, it allows me to look at ourselves from a different perspective, through a long-distance lens. I try to see what makes us human. What is basic to being human?

For example, if you plunk somebody down in a hunting-and-gathering society rather than a society where you go into your supermarket and get your meat out of a nice clean plastic package, what will be different and what will be the same? And is one society more or less violent? In most hunting-gathering societies, people feel a great deal of reverence for the animals they hunt. And we who get our packaged, sterilized meat that doesn't even bleed any more really have very little sensitivity to animals.

So there are some definite changes. But there certainly had to be some things that we suffer from, that they also suffered from.

Did you find that you admired these people?

Well, I felt that they were as human as we are, and I admired them, the same way I admire us. Unlike some people, I don't think the world is necessarily going to hell in a handbasket. I think that the human race is a very young race, and I am hoping that we will have the sense to keep ourselves from the destruction that we are potentially capable of dealing to ourselves. For all the stereotype about the brutal savagery of our ancestors, you find almost no evidence of it in the research, not among the Neanderthals and not among the Cro-Magnon.

One of the skeletons found at that Shanidar cave was of an old man. If you read about an old man with one arm amputated at the elbow and one eye that was blind, then you'd have to start asking, "How did he live to be an old man?" Paleopathologists believe that he had probably been paralyzed from an early age, because there was extensive bone atrophy and he was lame on that side. The paralysis may have been the reason his arm was amputated. So he was probably a paralyzed boy and at some time in his life became blind in one eye.

How does that fit in with survival of the fittest? These were Neanderthals taking care of a crippled boy and a blind and crippled old man. Evidence indicates he died in a rock fall as an old man. When I read about him I said, "Oh, my God, there's my old man with the crippled arm. There's the character in my story." That made me feel I was heading in the right direction. He became Creb.

And as you researched this book, did you find that your story grew in a lot of ways?

Exactly. And it was so much more interesting and fun to write within the modern scientific interpretation. I thought, "There's so much to write about, and I'm going to be the one to write it."

Did you do research in fields other than archeology?

Oh, yes. Many others. I would wonder, "How did they carry water? What kinds of things will carry water?" And by reading the reports of field anthropologists into more modern societies—the aborigines, the Bushmen, or the American Indians—you find out that watertight baskets will carry water, or carved wooden bowls, or water-tight stomachs.

I drew from all over the world. If it was appropriate and came together, then that's what I would use. I tried to give the sensitivity, the feeling of the hunting-gathering society.

For example, the idea of ancestor worship: when I was reading about the Australian aborigines, I learned that at one time they didn't really have a full understanding of procreation, particularly the male role in procreation. They knew a woman gave birth, but they weren't sure how she got pregnant. That led to speculation for my story. I thought, "What if this was a time so long ago, that the male role wasn't understood by most people. What would be the result?" Well, the only parent they would know for certain would be their mother, and her mother before that, and the mother before that, and maybe somebody would think, "Who was the first mother?"

You could see how a whole mythology based on the miracle of birth could evolve. Then I remembered about all these little figurines dating back to the early Cro-Magnon period, these round, motherly women carvings. I thought, "I wonder if they aren't meant to represent a great mother sense." That's how I derived some of the culture ideas.

When you were telling a story, did you have to pick and choose among the evidence to decide what pieces to use?

Of course. For instance, did Neanderthals talk? There are two schools of thought on that. Professor Lieberman at Brown University is the proponent of the idea that there probably was some limitation in Neanderthals' ability to communicate, to talk, verbalize, and Lewis Binford finds little in the archeological record to show that they were able to make the necessary abstractions for full speech. But their cranial capacity, the size of their brains, was, on the average, larger than ours. And other scientists say that the evidence of their culture suggests that they were able to understand some abstractions. They were the first people to bury their dead with ritual and purpose. Somebody must have been thinking, "Where are we coming from and where are we going?" That gives us a clue that the way they thought might not be so different from the way we think, or at least feel. Emotions such as compassion, love and caring come through most strongly.

So they must have had, if not language, at least….

At least a very strong ability to communicate, which is why I came up with the sign language idea. I said, "Okay, I'll take both of these ideas and combine them. I will say, 'Yes, there was a limitation in their language, but not in their ability to communicate.'" Sign languages are very complex. I did some research into that.

So if there's a gap between pieces of evidence, you can bridge the gap with your imagination?

Yes. And sometimes I can push things out. I can go a little farther than a scientist can go, because I am writing a novel. I might stretch the barrier, but I don't want to break through it. I don't want to write anything that would do a disservice to the latest findings of science. I want the background to be as accurate as I can make it. If the basis is factual, then I have something for my imagination to build on.

The character of Jondalar is based on an actual skeleton found at the site called Cro-Magnon, the site that gives the name to the early race. They found five skeletons at this particular site. One of them was of a man who was 6 feet, 5 3/4 inches tall. As soon as I read that, I said, "That's got to be Ayla's man."

Does this attention to detail make the story more believable?

People say, "You're writing fiction. What do you do research for? Why don't you just make it up?" Well, in a work of fiction, even if it's a modern novel set in Washington, D.C., if you're going to mention the address of the White House, you'd better have that address right. Because if all the basic facts that you put down are as accurate as you can get them, it aids readers in suspending their sense of disbelief. As a novelist you want to have readers believe, at least while they're reading the story, that all this could be true.

Where did the information about the herbs and medicines that the people used come from?

I have a research library now of books I've purchased, and I got some of the information from public libraries. We know that they were hunting-gathering people and we know that modern hunter-gatherers are very, very familiar with their environment. Some groups can name 350 plants, know all of their stages and all of their uses. While we don't know precisely what plants Neanderthals or Cro-Magnons used, from pollen analysis and from the way we're able to tell climate, we know what plants were probably growing there because the same plants are around today. Except domestic plants were in their wild form.

Did it give the people any advantage to be closely tied to the natural world?

It would give them the advantage of being able to live in their world. They needed it to survive. That is survival in the natural world. There's also survival in New York City. If you were to take an aborigine, or a Cro-Magnon moved up in time and set him in the middle of the modern world, and if he were an adult, how would he make a living? He wouldn't have grown up in our society, or gone to school. He might have all kinds of knowledge and background but it would not be useful to him any more, and would not have the same value.

That happened in this country to native cultures when the white Europeans invaded and began to settle. For example, the Northwest Coast Indian society was a very rich culture and they built houses out of cedar planks. It is very difficult to split a log and make it into planks by hand with wedges and mauls; it takes knowledge, skill and effort, so each one of those planks had a high value.

Now, if a white settler puts in a sawmill, and suddenly they're whipping out planks at many many times the number per day than a person can do by hand, the plank no longer has the same value; it has lost its meaning within Indian society. Culturally and economically the Native American people were deprived. And that's part of the problem today, the displacement that many of them feel.

What our early ancestors knew enabled them to live and survive in their world. We wouldn't know how to follow the tracks of an animal or when they migrate, but we have to know airline schedules and how to cross a street without getting hit by a car.

Do you use elements of the Northwest landscape in your work?

Oh, absolutely. It was really kind of fun when I discovered, particularly in The Clan of the Cave Bear, that there's a little mountain range at the south end of the Crimea, which is a peninsula in the Black Sea, and a strip of coastland which is Russia's Riviera today. During the Ice Age that was a temperate climate. There were cold steppes to the north, but the mountain range protected the southern end. This small coastal area was a well-watered, temperate, mountainous region subject to maritime influences, not so different from the Northwest. I even discovered that azaleas grow wild there, as they do here.

Did setting the story in that particular kind of landscape create certain constraints?

Well, you can't have a story, you can't have anything, if you don't have limits, boundaries. You can't have one setting that is arctic and equatorial all at the same time. So yes, it puts limits, constraints, but those are usually fairly welcome limits. It gives you a frame to write within.

Was there an abundance of food during that period?

Most scientists and most researchers think that the last Ice Age period was probably richer than it was later during more temperate times. The glaciers caused a certain kind of environment that made for open steppes, or grasslands. Those vast grasslands fed grazing animals in hundreds of thousands of millions. It was also rich in terms of the produce that was available, so there were both animal and vegetable resources.

As the glaciers retreated, the forest started to move in, and forests aren't as rich. They don't support great herds of animals. Instead, animals stay either in small family groups or alone. The deer that run through the forest don't congregate in huge herds like the bison on the plains, and they're also harder to hunt because the animals can find trees and brush to hide among. It's much easier to hunt an animal on an open plain than when it's hidden in the woods.

In forests, there's more tree-growth, but not necessarily as much variety of plant-growth. So when the glacier melted, it reduced the abundance and variety of plant species. In the late Pleistocene, after the Ice Age, evidence of much more use of fishing and shell food was found. Such climatic changes may have caused pressures toward agriculture. The great variety and abundance was gone. Some way had to be found to feed the population.

Do you get a lot of mail back from your readers?

I do get a lot of letters from readers, and I'm very grateful for them. People become quite ardent; there are readers who feel very, very strongly about these books. It's a surprise to me. I'm delighted, but I'm a little overwhelmed. I don't really know what I'm doing right.

I get letters from men and women of all ages, twelve to ninety-two, and all walks of life—engineers, scientists, marines, lawyers, teachers, and people who barely can put together a grammatical sentence.

I even get letters from prisoners in jail. The one that I didn't know quite know how to handle was a letter from a man who said he was on death row, and would I hurry up and finish The Mammoth Hunters so he could read it before he died? I didn't know what to say.

What do you plan to write in the future?

I intend to write all six books in the series. That's an internal pressure. I have to finish telling Ayla's story. She won't let me alone.

And after that?

I may do anything. I may write about other prehistoric people. I may change to a different part of the world. I may write about later prehistoric periods. I may write something historical. I may write something modern. I might write science fiction. I might write a horror story, or a mystery. Who knows? I've got many things that I'd like to try. What I do know now is that I want to keep on writing, but I was forty before I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Why was that?

I don't know. I suspect part of it is that I couldn't have done it any earlier. There are many young people who are fine writers, but I could not have been one. I needed to live some life and gain some experiences. I couldn't have written what I did without having gone through having a family, raising children, accepting responsibility, being out there in the world, working, coming across many different kinds of people and learning how to live with them.

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