An Interview with Jean M Auel

Fax Interview September 2002

Q1: What are your influences, what makes you want to write?

Q2: Where did the idea of Ayla and her world come from?

Q3: You have quite a following of loyal fans, has this come as a surprise?

Q4: Why do you think all those that have enjoyed the Earth's Children ® series love the character of Ayla?

Q5: How much research goes into writing a book like THE SHELTERS OF STONE (or any of the books in the Earth's Children ® series)?

Q6: How has the response been to THE SHELTERS OF STONE?

Q7: Why a twelve-year break between stories?

Q8: You have a unique blend of the contemporary (eg. the relationship of the main characters), and historic fact (eg. the animal life and flora), how do you achieve this?

Q9: Do you see your work as Fantasy or something else?

Q10: Are there any other projects you are planning to do?

Q11: Will we see you in New Zealand on a promotional tour at some stage?

Q12: With the faithful film adaptations of the likes of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, would you consider THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR (or any in the series) being turned into a feature film again?

Q1: What are your influences, what makes you want to write?

A1: I can't tell you any more than any other writer can tell you why they write, and I don't know what my influences are. From the beginning, when I first got an idea for a story and wondered if I could write it, it has always been the story that has driven me. The idea led me into the research, which continues to give me more ideas for the story. While I try to make each book a complete novel, the series itself has an overarching story, which I want to finish. Perhaps, in a way, Ayla is sitting on my shoulder telling me to get on with it.

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Q2: Where did the idea of Ayla and her world come from?

A2: I had an idea for a story about a young woman who was living with people who were different, not just superficially different - such as hair colour, or eye colour, or skin colour - but different in some significant way. They, of course, thought she was different. That led me to start researching, and I discovered that two different kinds of humans did live in Europe during the last Ice Age. One of therm was us, the other was the one we call Neanderthal. There was so much more that was fascinating and that most of us don't know that if fired my imagination.

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Q3: You have quite a following of loyal fans, has this come as a surprise?

A3: Yes. Sometimes I still don't quite believe it. I started writing to please myself, a story I would like to read, and that is still true. I don't write for publishers, certainly not for critics, and not for readers, But I am delighted that so many people have found my books enjoyable and want to continue to read them.

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Q4: Why do you think all those that have enjoyed the Earth's Children ® series love the character of Ayla?

A4: Perhaps because Ayla is a strong, capable woman who was born with the intelligence that she would have needed to survive. Her life tested her: orphaned at five years old, raised by people who grew to care about her but were inherently different, then turned out and forced to make it on her own. And then she had to learn to live with people herself all over again. She also has an innate compassion which was strengthened by her association with Iza. The idea of compassionate Neanderthal came directly form the research, and was one of the intriguing aspects that made me want to write about the period.

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Q5: How much research goes into writing a book like THE SHELTERS OF STONE (or any of the books in the Earth's Children ® series)?

A5: Most of the information comes from reading, library research, but I have learned a great deal from asking questions, taking classes and travelling. For example, I took a class from an expert in Arctic survival, where we spent a night on the snowy slopes of a nearby mountain to learn how to live in cold conditions. From a class in "Aboriginal Life Skills" I learned how people can live off the land, and how to brain-tan a deer hide into wearable buckskin. I've taken wild plant identification classes, and classes on how to cook wild foods. Ayla's medicine woman skills are a combination of first aid, books on herbal medicines, and asking questions of doctors and other skilled health practitioners, nurses, paramedics, etc. I have visited may of the sites I write about to get a feel for them, even though conditions may be different now. I even worked for a short time at a dig so I could understand where the information comes from and how the scientists find it. I have attended archaeology conferences, and have become acquainted with may of the professionals, some of whom have shown me some remarkable sites, including extraordinary painted and engraved caves.

From the beginning, the series has been story driven - I began with a story idea - but research feeds it. Often, reading about some particular fossil or artefact makes me wonder how it came to be, and causes me to imagine an answer. For example, when I read about an assortment of objects, apparently unrelated except for their close association and their unusual character, I wondered if someone had collected them and why. Where they in a container of some sort that had long since disintegrated? Perhaps a leather sac? That became the impetus for Ayla's amulet, the pouch she wore around her neck that contained objects that she believed had been given to her by her totem and had special meaning to her.

As another example, if the skeleton of an old Neanderthal man is found which shows that from a young age he had been blind in one eye, had an arm amputated at the elbow, an walked with a limp, it is fair to surmise that he was not hunting woolly mammoths, which raises interesting questions. Who amputated his arm? Who stopped the bleeding? Who treated the shock? How did he live to be an old man? Obviously someone took care of him, the question is why? Could it have because they loved him? Or that his culture took care of their weak and wounded? Perhaps "red of tooth and claw" is not an appropriate way to describe those enigmatic human cousins.

In the series, I wanted to bring in some of the inventions that are attributed to the Upper Palaeolithic era, like the spear-thrower, a very effective new hunting weapon, and a faster method of starting fires using flint and iron pyrite, Ayla's "firestones". I also wanted to show people sewing since that is when eyed needles were first found. Even Ayla's wedding outfit, given to her by Nezzie in THE MAMMOTH HUNTERS, is based on skeletons, including those of children, dating to this period, found on the central Russian Plain that were each buried with more that 3,000 hand-carved beads that had been sewn onto their clothing. There are even hints that the first wolves and horses may have been tamed then.

With Book 5, THE SHELTERS OF STONE, it was especially important to get the physical details right because not only have most archaeologists and other specialists of this period studied the French material, but many place mentioned in the book and noted on the end-papers map is a real location that still exists and can be visited today. It took time to work out the background, such as the climate and the way the landscape looked then, the sites and localities before some of them collapsed or were irrevocably changed, and the way the ones still largely unchanged related to such tings a rivers and each other.

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Q6: How has the response been to THE SHELTERS OF STONE?

A6: Considering that for awhile in late spring 2002, "Shelters" was No. 1 in English in the US, Canada, The UK, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand (and later Ireland), and at the same time in translation it was No. 1 in France, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, No 2 in Germany and No. 4 in Italy, I think the response has been OK. Aside from sales, the letters from readers have been primarily positive. One person wrote who didn't like all the detail, but I don't know why she waited for the fifth book to decide that since the detail has been in all of them. One other person wanted more adventure, but this one happens to be a very character-driven story. Each book has been different and has been challenging in its own way to write.

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Q7: Why a twelve-year break between stories?

A7: I don't have a good excuse. It took some time to gather the research and develop it into the storyline, and to finally finish an origin myth poem that I had been working on for twenty years. It also took time to work out the background details: the climate and landscape, the sites and localities. But I also have a family. My children were in high school and college when I first started writing THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR; now I'm a grandmother. Life sometimes gets in the way of writing.

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Q8: You have a unique blend of the contemporary (eg. the relationship of the main characters), and historic fact (eg. the animal life and flora), how do you achieve this?

A8: First I think it's important for people to know that the characters, the people who liven than, were as carefully researched as everything else. They are written as contemporary people because they were. The Cro Magnon of France were the first appearance in Europe of people like ourselves. They were our direct ancestors, our many times great-grand parents. That's why I call the series Earth's Children ®, it was the childhood of the human race, of modern human people.

They were tall, healthy, robust people - Jondalar is a 6-foot-6-inch tall, blond, handsome man because he is based on one of the skeletons that was found at the site of Cro Magnon, who was that tall. I inferred his colouring from other research. Those early modern humans may have lived in a different world and made their living a different way, they were hunters and gatherers who lived off the land, but they had the same range of intelligence as anyone today, the same psychological reactions, the same emotional responses, the same ease and facility with language, and a remarkable creative impulse.

Once I understood this - and it took a while because my original biases ere as influenced by Hollywood as everyone else's - it became fun to develop characters who might have lived in that world. For example, since they were alive so long ago, I felt if was necessary to invent a different set of morals, customs, and religious conventions for tem, but their feelings abut them would not have been so different from our own.

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Q9: Do you see your work as Fantasy or something else?

A9: Though my books are written from a historical perspective, I have goon so far back that I am in the realm of prehistorical speculation rather than simple historical fact to weave my stories around. I think of my books as mainstream and that's were most people who read them look for them in book stores. I sometimes call them prehistoric fiction, but there is no category called "Prehistoric Fiction" in most stores. I have been a reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy for a long time, since I was 11 or 12 I think, so I understand it and I'm not at all surprised that readers of the genre might enjoy my books.

Of the two, I would think of my work as closer to Science Fiction than Fantasy. Science Fiction is not just about the future of space ships travelling to other planets, it is fiction based on science and I am using science as my basis for my fiction, but it's the science of prehistory - palaeontology and archaeology - rather than astronomy or physics. Science Fiction also involves logical speculation, wand since I have had to speculate a great deal to create my prehistoric world and the characters that inhabit it, that's another reason I would end to put it in SF if I had to pick one. I have heard Science Fiction and Fantasy referred to as the fiction of ideas, and I like that definition, but it's the mainstream public that chooses my books for the most part.

I got letters from a broad range of readers, from mend and women, from readers as young as 9, and as old as 99, from professionals - doctors, lawyers, clergymen, teachers, archaeologists, business people, military personnel - and from people who can barely put together a grammatical sentence. My fiction is reviewed by the mainstream press, by science fiction periodicals, romance magazines, small press publications and various other journals, including some usually devoted to archaeological and other science material.

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Q10: Are there any other projects you are planning to do?

A10: At the moment I am concentrating on finishing the Earth's Children® series, than I have about 150 ideas that might be interesting to pursue. I could write historical fiction, or science fiction, or a mystery but since I find it fascinating to research the clues of some little know period and develop a story based on that, I will probably continue to do it. The period when we first became farmers, it's called the Neolithic (or New Stone Age) as opposed to the Palaeolithic (or Old Stone Age when we were hunters and gatherers) could be interesting. Why did we suddenly decide to put seeds in the ground rather than harvesting what the earth provided, or domesticate animals rather than hunting them? There are other periods that would be fun to explore. I don't know yet.

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Q11: Will we see you in New Zealand on a promotional tour at some stage?

A11: I have been to New Zealand before doing promotion and took some extra time to travel around and learn something about the country. I enjoyed it very much. I wouldn't mind going back again sometime, but nothing is planned for the immediate future.

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Q12: With the faithful film adaptations of the likes of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, would you consider THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR (or any in the series) being turned into a feature film again?

A12: If someone like the director or producer of those two films were to make an offer, I would definitely listed.

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