Interview with Jean M. Auel

Posted by Goodreads on April 4, 2011
Jean M. Auel dared to reinvent her life in her forties. After a career in business, she became consumed by an idea for a story set 25,000 years ago. As she began researching Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon people (the first early modern humans), Auel zeroed in on the archaeological and anthropological study of Ice Age-era Europe. Her debut novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear, was published in 1980 and would become Earth's Children, an epic series that has spanned six books and approximately 4,000 pages and sold more than 45 million copies. Now the 75-year-old has finished the saga of her intrepid Cro-Magnon heroine, Ayla, with the heavily anticipated final book, The Land of Painted Caves. The Oregon-based writer chatted with Goodreads about her extensive travels to prehistoric sites around the world.

Goodreads: It's been more than 30 years since you started work on the Earth's Children series. How do you feel now that it is finished?

Jean Auel: It's a little like sending your kids off to college. You raise them up and you get them ready and you get them registered. But I just haven't really accepted it yet. When the time comes, when it's published, and there's nothing more I can do about it, then I can say, "OK, it's done." And then I can cry. I really want to go back and reread the first books, and then either be upset or be happy. I'm not sure.

GR: You were a first-time novelist with The Clan of the Cave Bear. How have you evolved as a writer?

JA: I hope I'm a better writer, but I have to tell you it never gets easier. Writing is the hardest work I've ever done. I'm a mother, I had five children, I was working full-time, I was going to university at night, I got a master's degree in business administration, and I did all those things at the same time—and writing is the hardest thing. I love it. It's what I want to do, and even though I'm getting old, I'd still like to continue writing. I could write a mystery, maybe a prehistoric mystery. I really don't know. I've got a file with about 150 ideas I've accumulated over the years, but I don't know if any of them would be what I'd really want to get into—it just depends.

GR: Your love of research is well documented. You've learned wilderness survival skills and traveled to many archaeological sites.

JA: Right now, if I were lost in the wilderness, I feel that I could probably make it out, find a way to get home. I've learned a lot, and it's been great fun. Every single one of the caves in this last book I've been in—except for one very small one—and they really are exceptional.

GR: Is there a favorite memory from one of those trips?

JA: Lascaux was the first one that I went into. I had been reading about that cave, and I thought I understood it. Then I went there with an archaeology teacher from California. It was built for tourists, but then people were harming the artwork, so they were allowing no more than six people a day for no more than 35 minutes. They were really trying to protect it.

You go down these big stairs that were made for a crowd, and you go in one metal door and you close it, and there's just the dim light—you're getting your eyes accustomed to the dark. Then you go through another metal door, and you close it behind you and wait a little bit. You dip your feet in a solution of, I think, formaldehyde and antibiotic so that you're not bringing in stuff from outside. Then you open another door and, of course, the light's very dark, and it's a downward slope so I was watching my footing. There was a railing at the bottom, and I held onto that railing and I looked up, and I just literally couldn't breathe. It was so overwhelming. So beautiful.

It's hard to believe that this long ago we—meaning Cro-Magnon modern humans—were the ones who invented art. Not every cave has gorgeous art, but the ones that do are spectacular. They utilize the bumps and the dips in the cave walls; it's not a flat surface like a painting. When you turn off the flashlight and strike a match instead, in that flickering light the shadows of these dips in the cave walls kind of move, and it almost makes you feel like those animals are alive. It's pretty spectacular.

GR: How long has the artwork endured?

JA: It's sometimes very hard to date the art on the wall. For a while they were trying to date the art by how crude or how finished it was. But by the time they found Chauvet cave [in 1994], they had a means of dating using only tiny bits of charcoal. The trouble with Lascaux is that the black is not charcoal; it's black manganese dioxide, which is a rock. With Chauvet cave they were able to date the charcoal: It's between 32,000 and 37,000 years old. It's just overwhelming. We've been doing art for a long time.

GR: In The Land of Painted Caves, your heroine Ayla is training to be a spiritual leader. How did you construct what these people's rituals and beliefs would have been like?

JA: I researched more contemporary hunter-gatherer societies and their spiritual beliefs, but a lot of it is my imagination. Very often people come up with spiritual beliefs to answer questions. Why did my child get sick? Why did the rain come and flood the river? People don't—and still don't—have those answers, so we try to come up with reasons. I think that's the case for the people I'm writing about. But it's largely my imagination: the counting words, the colors, the various kinds of things that [Ayla] learns. That was great fun to figure out and just play with.

GR: Goodreads member Tara Lynn asks, "I'd like to ask Jean Auel about the way she clearly defines the feminist/matriarchy "Others" of her story vs. the patriarchy of the "Clan." What evidence does she have to support a belief that the Zelandonii, the S'Armunai, the Mamuti societies (and others described in the series) would have lived under a practicing matriarchy?"

JA: None. There's no way that anyone can come up with evidence for what people's beliefs were in those days. I will say that when it comes to the Cro-Magnon, the early modern humans, especially about 27,000 years ago (give or take a couple thousand years), they were [making] figures of big women. They're fat, and they're abundant. Some people say they're pregnant, and they're not. I've been pregnant, and I know what it looks like. These [figures represent] women who have been pregnant—mothers. Somehow that gave me a hint.

GR: How do you balance fictional storytelling with the archaeological evidence for these ancient societies?

JA: If it's bone or stone or pollen analysis, then I have a pretty good basis. If it's not hard, then you have to make some guesses, and sometimes you can get a lot of information even though it's just bones and stones. My original idea was this girl taking care of a man with a crippled arm. Dr. Ralph Solecki did a dig in Iraq called Shanidar Cave; they found a Neanderthal skeleton of an old man. The evidence indicated that he had been injured, was probably blind in one eye, and that his arm had been amputated—not broken off, purposefully cut. He was probably crippled from a young age. That became the basis for Creb [a character in The Clan of the Cave Bear]. When you look at that [evidence], I have to ask myself these questions: Who would take care of a crippled kid? Maybe someone who loved him. Who would take care of a young man who couldn't go off hunting woolly mammoths? Maybe his community cared for their weak and wounded. All of a sudden I'm looking at these stories of the Neanderthals being red of tooth and claw, and I'm saying, "That's not what that evidence shows me." Even though it's stone and bone, you can sometimes make these inferences.

GR: Ayla is always pushing the boundaries of whatever community she's in. Would you call her a feminist?

JA: Well, I'm a feminist. I'm not trying to make her a feminist in any sense of the word, but I am one. I'm 75 years old. I've been on the leading edge of that wedge that's been breaking in, and now more and more women are finding their way in the business world. But when I was beginning, it was a little more difficult.

I wouldn't call Ayla a feminist because I don't think feminism was an issue. What I've read of the hunter-gatherer societies is that the woman's role was very much respected. They knew that her contribution to the survival of their community was very much needed. Most anthropologists will tell you that hunter-gatherer societies tend to be equal. So I didn't feel I had to be feminist because they already were.

GR: Goodreads member Christopher H. writes, "I think readers might be interested in hearing how you've had to adapt your telling of Ayla's story, if at all, as new information has become available to you over the past 30 years, including new archaeological discoveries, advances in science (e.g., genetics, paleoclimatology, paleobotany, etc.), new theories of human evolution and expansion as well as the human/Neanderthal interactions you address so poignantly in your novels."

JA: It's interesting because I really haven't changed anything. But I'll tell you something that made me smile. Ayla had a mixed son (half Neanderthal) in the first story. What's lucky for me is that there are scientists with different points of view. A lot of times a scientist will tell me, "You used Dr. So-and-So's opinion, and he's wrong." But they knew I wasn't just pulling out of the blue sky. They knew I was coming from someplace that they understood. When I first started writing, many scientists had the opinion that the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnon were close. And then they separated them. In the past couple months they've looked at the DNA studies of modern humans, and they're saying that everyone who is of European extraction has between 1 and 4 percent Neanderthal DNA. I've always said, "I guess we all have a little bit of Neanderthal DNA in us," and guess what? Apparently that's what they're coming up with now!

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

JA: A typical night. I'm a night person. Generally what happens is that I get up about two in the afternoon, and I make what is my husband's lunch or dinner and my breakfast, and we spend some time together in the evening. Then he goes to bed and I go to work. I often catch the sun rising. Mornings are terrible for me, so I'd rather sleep mornings.

There's no such thing as a writer's block. I get inspiration from working. I just have to push through and finally it'll start to come together again. The brain is always going, you just don't realize it. I don't know how many pages I'll get done in any particular day, but I can determine how many hours I'll put in. When I first started I was obsessed—putting in 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and loving it. My in-laws told my husband that perhaps he should get some help for me. Once the book was published it was OK because writers can be a little crazy.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

JA: I'm a reader. I love fiction. I love nonfiction, too. I love science. Some people have sports or fashion magazines in the bathroom—I've got science magazines. Those are my favorite reading: New Scientist and Scientific American.

I remember when I was very young, my sixth-grade teacher read a fairy tale to the class. It was called East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and I loved it. Looking back, I think the reason I loved it was that the man was captured by the witch, and the woman had to go save him. I didn't know it at the time but it was just easier for me to relate to. Even if it was an adventure story and there were guys battling with swords, that's what I'm doing—the action. I'm not sitting back there with the girl going, "Save me!"

GR: What are you reading now?

JA: Before Versailles by Karleen Koen. It's about Louis XIV just after he was king, and I'm finding it fascinating. I love historical fiction—it's like getting history in fun doses.

Comments Showing 1-50 of 52 (52 new)

message 1: by Julie (new)

 Julie Very interesting interview, thank you

message 2: by Mary (new)

Mary Interesting interview. I also spent many years in business, have 5 children, went to night school, and love science magazines. Maybe it is no wonder I was so fascinated by the series. Can't wait to start the new one. It is sitting on my counter waiting for me to finish "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake."

message 3: by Tara (new)

Tara Wonderful interview! Magnificent series! Can't wait to read this last book! Thank you!

message 4: by Christine (new)

Christine Ward Good interview! This made me want to pick up my battered paperback copy of "Clan of the Cave Bear" and re-read it!

message 5: by Gisela (new)

Gisela Linda entrevista, la serie es magnifica espero con ansias tener este ultimo libro. Sugerencia y disculpen el atrevimiento podría escribir un libro de Durc que fue de el desde que se fue Ayla si solo tiene los recuerdos del Clan o su mente va más alla. serie facinante.
Y Gracias Jean M Auel por este mundo maravilloso de los Hijos De La Tierra

message 6: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Thank you to Ms. Auel! Your series has been an enduring love of mine since I was in middle school.

message 7: by Nancy (new)

Nancy I am so Happy, I have read the entire series many a time, I just lose myself in Ayla's world, and am truly delighted that there is another chapter in the saga.

message 8: by Claire (new)

Claire What a great interview, wow I read these books many years ago and was enthralled. Have just written a short story about the Lascaux cave, Ms Auel one of the fortunate who got to see inside and how fortunate are we to receive the gift of her inspired writing.
Love the idea of being saved by a girl or woman, wish there was more of this type of story/film out there.
Looking forward to reading the new book and happy to know that Ms Auel continues to write and be inspired, love your imagination. Bonne continuation.

message 9: by Creature (new)

Creature Hello:
That was a great interview. I enjoyed it. Very informative and lively discussion. I saw the book the other day and it stood out against all the other new releases. Gonna have to read it for sure.
Have a Great Day!!!
The "Creature"

message 10: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Drake I just finished rereading your entire Earth Children series and it was just as fun as the first time around. Incidentally, I also remember East of the Sun and West of the Moon! I loved it and still remember some of the stories. I may read that again, too, just for the nostaligia! Also a book called After The Sunset. Do you remember that one? The Princess on the Glass Hill? Obviously, we are the same age! Thanks for the memories! Looking forward to the new book!!

message 11: by Mary (new)

Mary Nickum Very interesting,this series has inspired me to begin writing historical fiction for YA.

message 12: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Drake YA? I'm blank.

message 13: by Kriss (new)

Kriss Rose Bonnie wrote: "YA? I'm blank."

Have you received a dozen E mails saying Young Adult:) YA

message 14: by Kriss (new)

Kriss Rose I really appreciate this interview...I saw her first on morning TV 31 years ago.I have my copy of Painted Caves but haven't opened it yet...just savoring that it is on my shelf.Anyone out there read it yet?? There sure have been irate readers saying she didn't follow through with the characters...readers writing their own stories in their minds as they waited so many years. I have high expectations about reading her ending.
Jane M. Auel has made such an impact on her reader's lives these 31 years.Thank you for your dedication.

message 15: by Starla (new)

Starla I really enjoyed reading this interview. I want to go back and re-read Aylas story all over again!! Look forward to reading the last book too.

message 16: by Les (new)

Les Really well-written and researched books. I came to them via science fiction interests and enjoyed the fresh perspective.

message 17: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Drake To Kriss....No, you are the only one who took the time to answer. Thank you!!

argentinasoccerman Un serie acerca de Durc sera buenisimo. Thanks for this book. I loved the series and have been really bummed that the series might not ever be finished. I even tried writing my own version just so I could have some closure, ha ha. I am super excited to read the next book. P.s. I have actually used your books as field guides for survival, weaving my own baskets, and making my own stone tools. Thanks for taking the time to make it "real".

message 19: by Nelson (new)

Nelson O Clã do Urso das Cavernas faz-me recuar uns bons anos. Foi uma série de livros muito bons em que a adaptação a filme com a Daryl Hannah não lhe faz a devida honra. É bom ver alguém, com uma vida tão preenchida, a querer continuar a escrever. Uma longa vida, Jean M. Auel. De Portugal.

message 20: by Marcy (new)

Marcy Kriss wrote: "I really appreciate this interview...I saw her first on morning TV 31 years ago.I have my copy of Painted Caves but haven't opened it yet...just savoring that it is on my shelf.Anyone out there rea..."

She didn't follow through on the characters, the foreshadowing from the earlier books and the foreshadowing in this book. It was a major disappointment. It didn't even have an ending. Until I read this interview I thought she had changed her mind and decided to add a 7th book to the series, since this one didn't resolve anything or tie up any of the loose ends. In fact the only part I really enjoyed was (view spoiler)

message 21: by Kay (new)

Kay Travis My husband an I were both enthralled from Clan of the Cave Bear on. About the middle of the series, we were asking each other if we had ever considered suicide, and concluded that we are both too curious not to know how everything turns out. And then he said, "At least until we learn whether Jondalar's clan accepts Ayla!" Maybe we were too deep into the Neanderthal era?

message 22: by Victoria (new)

Victoria I just finished this book and am sad that it will be the last. I have enjoyed this series from the time I read the Clan of the Cave Bear when I was 17. It is my all time fav.

message 23: by Wes (new)

Wes Chowen Thanks for the interview. It prepares us for listening to Jean at the Tattered Cover tonight. I'm half way through and Dianne has finished The Painted Cave. I'm going to look for a copy of Before Versailles by Koen

message 24: by Jack (new)

Jack Chun This interview gave me a better understanding of how Jean Auel made Ayla come alive; of how she (Ayla) figured out how to resolve difficult situations confronting her the first time that we take for granted. I find that life has not changed that much since the Cro-Magnom in fact I think there are some Neanderthals still living amongst us. I could not put down all the books in the series after I turned the first page of Clan of the Cave Bear. I loved how Ayla strived for the attainment of food, shelter, love and friendship in its purest mode as we are still doing in an adulterated way. Now I will find out how she relates to her "in-laws" Thank you Jean Auel.

message 25: by Ahmad (new)

Ahmad Yasin awesome, it's give me inspiration to make a story. thank you.

message 26: by Linda (new)

Linda I bought and read the Clan of the Cave Bears when it first came out. I waited patiently for each one after that. I even believe I have bought a couple of them twice thinking it was the latest one. I recently bought The Shelters of Stone thinking another new one. I was wrong I had already read it. I guess I didn't check the release date close enough. Brings to mind another writer that I have read alot of her books. They don't even tell you what they are about anymore.

message 27: by Lilian (new)

Lilian Wara The book seam to be more interesting indeed,according the interview conducted and comment from ather reader.I personal have not read it but i wil look for acopy

message 28: by Seba (new)

Seba Nefer Interesting interview.
I loved the books (read them in French), and I wiil read the last one with a lot of pleasure.

message 29: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Drake To Nelson, I think a film would be great but it would have to be many hours long to capture all Ayla's adventures. Maybe a series? And Daryl Hannah? Perfect. Or maybe you said all this already. :) Sorry, I speak and read only English and only picked up a few words here and there!

message 30: by Jack (new)

Jack Chun To Nelson, indeed a good proposal to make a film of it. As Bonnie who speaks only English, Ayla speaks only Cro-Magnom but you two are already "friends". All we need is a voice-over application. WOW!

message 31: by Kriss (new)

Kriss Rose I remember "Clan of the Cave Bears"(I have a VHS copy) movie and I liked it, BUT I am afraid Jane Auel DID NOT!. She said there would be no more movies. But we all know what never say never means, so maybe she will allow it after all these years.

message 32: by Anne (new)

Anne absolutely brilliant books . and thank you so much for the interview. can,t wait to read The land of the painted cave.

message 33: by Hank (new)

Hank Drews Super interview! Thank you Goodreads. I'm revising my own book of historic fiction and Jane Auel has been an inspiration the whole way. I can't wait to read the new one. I wish I could get her to review my work about the Goths!

message 34: by Jack (new)

Jack Chun Jean Auel's decision to nix the movie is most unfortunate. Don't we have just one producer in this whole wide world who can creatively carry out this task?

message 35: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Tillotson Thank you for the interview. I was captivated by the stories from page one of Clan of the Cave Bear and the introduction of Ayla and her survival of the earthquake. I recently downsized my personal library to one bookcase with only my very favourite books and the Earth Series sit there proudly. I've reread all of them twice and still get caught up into the stories.
Jean Auel was an inspiration for my penning of my own book. I can't wait to read the final episode.

message 36: by Kaharuddin (new)

Kaharuddin look from the cover i think it is very interesting book. could you give an information how can i get free download?

message 37: by Maxine (new)

Maxine Kaharuddin wrote: "look from the cover i think it is very interesting book. could you give an information how can i get free download?"

free? are you serious? we have been waiting years for this book and may i assume , those of us who have waited will pay whatever the amount is GLADLY! i find your post annoying and offensive!

message 38: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Sherman Oh, my! I love the other books by Jean Auel and I don't know how many times I've read them through. It's been many. I have long waited another one book from her. I can't wait to read this newest book!

message 39: by Kriss (last edited Apr 15, 2011 10:46AM) (new)

Kriss Rose I just discovered (for myself:) That there is a doc-movie called, "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams". It is of a cave in the south of France not allowed to film very often. This could be one that Jane Auel visited, but for sure an example of the ones she did see. It is soon to be released.

message 40: by Maxine (new)

Maxine thanks for that info kriss. :) i will want to watch tis for sure.

message 41: by Carroll (new)

Carroll I am not up on this series, though I think I read part of the first book in the 70's. My question is: Would it be inadvisable to go straight to this new book, or should I begin at the beginning?

message 42: by Kriss (last edited Apr 21, 2011 11:24AM) (new)

Kriss Rose Dear Carroll,
Start at the beginning for the whole ride! Maybe even after you have read "Clan of the Cave Bear", then watch the movie,"Clan of the Cave Bear'. Its like watching the movie of a book you have read and you wonder how anyone understood what was going on if they hadn't gotten the rest of the story by reading the book before they saw the movie.Part of the love of the series is being taken back in to history/time ....good storytelling.

message 43: by Danna (new)

Danna I am looking forward to buy CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, but I can't afford it... This interview is the straw to break the camel's back! I will be running to the story tomorrow morning, wait for me at 8 am (:

message 44: by Kriss (new)

Kriss Rose How interesting...I went to the showing of" The Cave of Forgotten Dreams"....It is a documentary and the quality is 16mm. BUT it is the cave that is visited by Ayla in 'The Land of Painted Caves". I had just read that chapter and was driving by an old theater in Seal Rock,Ca. And there it was so I stayed in town and saw it.
Before, I had said to start at the beginning of the series, I am back-tracking now that I have read 2/3 of the last book. If you don't mind reading the ending first...I would read the Painted Caves first. The book stands by itself and ..there are many references (reminders of) the other books and they might be annoying if you had just read the first stories. You might consider the other books as prequels. I am enjoying The Land of The Painted Caves"...I really did live long enough to read it:)

message 45: by MaryC (new)

MaryC Clawsey I would love for Ms. Auel to write a book about how she wrote the Earth's Children series!

message 46: by Danna (new)

Danna Mary wrote: "I would love for Ms. Auel to write a book about how she wrote the Earth's Children series!"


message 47: by MaryC (new)

MaryC Clawsey Thank you, Danna! BTW, I'm not the Mary who posted messages 2 and 11 above. Maybe I should identify myself as "the other Mary"? :)

message 48: by Mary Beth (new)


message 49: by Mary Beth (new)


message 50: by Danna (new)

Danna Mary wrote: "Thank you, Danna! BTW, I'm not the Mary who posted messages 2 and 11 above. Maybe I should identify myself as "the other Mary"? :)"

I know you are not. And excuse me for saying so, for it has nothing to do with Jean M Auel - yet: never refer to urself as 'the other Mary'! You are Mary, don't mind the others :) You're yourself, so be proud of it, and never define yourself relating to others.
Wow, I didn't mean to sound like that, but I hope you've got the point :)

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