By Meredith Allard
Jean M. Auel is the author of the beloved Earth’s Children series, which includes the prehistoric novels The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Valley of Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, The Plains of Passage, and The Shelters of Stone. You can visit the fan site for the Earth’s Children series.
Meredith Allard: What inspired you to write The Clan of the Cave Bear?
Jean M. Auel: I married at 18 and had five children rather quickly, and I didn’t start college until I was 28. I spent a great deal of time and energy working full time, going to school, and raising a family. When I was 40, my children were nearly grown, and since I had just received my MBA, I was no longer going to school or doing homework. Then I quit my job, I thought to find another in business. After years of a very busy life, I found myself with no commitments. It was a very free-floating state that was open, perhaps, to new ideas.
I got the idea for the story of a young woman living with people who were different, late one cold winter night in January 1977, but I don’t know where it came from. I had never written fiction, though I had been reading it all my life. I discovered when I sat down to try it that it was fun, except I didn’t know what I was writing about. I had never studied archaeology or anthropology. I knew how to find out, though. Libraries are wonderful. They started me on a remarkable odyssey that I’m still in the midst of. They opened my eyes to the fascinating story of our Ice Age ancestors that modern science has to tell…not of knuckle-dragging apes, but the human story; and they gave me the means to learn how to tell it with books on how to write fiction. I got excited by it, and all the determination and purpose I had been devoting to work, school, and children focused into writing.
M.A.: Did you always conceive the novels as part of a series, or did the idea for the Earth’s Children series come after The Clan of the Cave Bear?
J.M.A.: The first draft of the entire six book series was written at one time, in one single burst of creative energy, over a four month period of 12 to 16 hour days of sustained writing, during which I did almost nothing else except additional research. I thought at the time that it would be one novel, Earth’s Children, but it fell into six parts. It was only on rewriting that I realized that I had instead written an in-depth outline for a six book series.
M.A.: Your novels come to life through your meticulous use of historical facts. What is your research process? Do you have any research tips for writers of historical fiction?
J.M.A.: My research has been quite extensive. In addition to hands-on field research, which has included some stone tool making, processing of animal skins by natural means, making cordage and digging roots, a bibliography of published material I have read would approach four thousand entries. I have established working relationships with many professionals and have traveled to both western and eastern Europe to visit actual sites and caves.
The research I’ve done has been very interesting, a wonderful way to learn, and a great deal of fun—and without some of those first-hand experiences, I would never have been able to write the books the way I did. It was necessary and in the process I’ve met some fascinating people.
M.A.: What are the particular joys or difficulties you have found writing about prehistoric times?
J.M.A.: I love being able to learn whatever I want and earn a living at it. Research is fun; writing is hard work.
M.A.: Why do you think the Earth’s Children series has struck such a chord with so many readers around the world? Why do people relate so strongly to Ayla and her journeys?
J.M.A.: I don’t know why my books are so popular. I’m writing to please only myself, a book I would like to read.
M.A.: Do you have a schedule that you follow when you are writing a novel? Do you work a certain number of hours a day, write a certain number of pages a day, etc.?
J.M.A.: I try for a minimum of eight working hours a day, but often fall short.
M.A.: What is your advice to aspiring writers of historical fiction?
J.M.A.: Write what you love to learn about.
M.A.: Tell us as much as you can about the new novel. And here’s the question many devoted fans want the answer to: when can we expect to find it in bookstores?
J.M.A.: Book 5 in the Earth’s Children series is the first book in the series that is set in western Europe—prehistoric France.
As to when it will be available—I wish I had an answer. All I can say is that I am working on it. The writing and the research are going well, but it is not finished. Once I have submitted it to the publisher, it will be several months before it is in bookstores, so don’t expect to see it too soon.
M.A.: Is there another period in history you would like to write about? Do you see yourself writing another novel series set in another time or place?
J.M.A.: I don’t know what I’ll write next. Maybe not another series, but certainly other novels. I’m intrigued by the beginning of agriculture and why after millions of years as hunter/gatherers we decided to start farming and domesticating animals.
M.A.: What are you most proud about with the Earth’s Children series?
J.M.A.: I’m most proud of the fact that I’m still writing only to please myself and that the scientific specialists are so positive and enthusiastic about my books.
Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.