High on a cliff above the rocky Oregon coast sits a dramatic modern house, built, its owner might say, by Neanderthals. This is the abode that Portland author Jean Auel, 49, constructed with some of the proceeds from her 1980 best-seller, The Clan of the Cave Bear and its 1982 sequel, The Valley of Horses. Both are doorstop-size sagas about the slings, flings and fortunes of hot-blooded cavemen. Appropriately, Auel’s living room is adorned with a collection of ancient flint arrowheads, aboriginal spears and a five-by-seven-foot painting of a prehistoric horse copied from a cave drawing. In the midst of this minimuseum is a display case filled with some 15 translations of Auel’s works, including the Finnish, Israeli and Japanese editions.
With the release last month of her third Ice Age opus, The Mammoth Hunters (Crown, $19.95), Auel (pronounced “owl”) and her husband, Ray, 50, a retired operations manager for an electronics firm, may need a new wing on the house to accommodate all the editions and accompanying artifacts. Advance orders were so huge that the publisher rushed more than one million copies into the stores—a record hardcover first printing that topped the million for James Michener’s Texas. The book shot to No. 1 on the best-seller lists before its official publication date.
Readers are apparently clamoring for the further adventures of Ayla, the leggy blond Cro-Magnon who was rejected by the Neanderthals and now goes hunting for mammoth (an extinct elephant) with a new tribe, the Mamutoi. Her faithful lover, Jondalar, a big blond hunk who seems to lack Ayla’s Pleistocene pizzazz and ingenuity, gets some competition from a more intellectual newcomer, Ranec…and so the Ice Age world continues to turn.
Just as slower readers are getting to the end of Auel’s 645-page opus, moviegoers will get their chance to see Daryl (Splash) Hannah bedecked in skins as Ayla. Clan of the Cave Bear will be released early next year, and the author is none too pleased. Last spring she filed a lawsuit against the production company, claiming that they owe her $42,155 for the movie rights, and that the filmmakers did not honor her prerogative to approve the final product. Insisting that certain inaccuracies will sully her reputation for thorough research, Auel is asking more than $14 million in damages. (Neither she nor the movie company will elaborate while the suit is pending.)
A little steep, perhaps, but not to a commercial novelist who has suddenly become a recognized authority on early man—a reputation she relishes. Auel has received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Portland and has been invited to speak at the Smithsonian and other prestigious institutions. In September she was a guest lecturer at the Center for Early Man Studies at the University of Maine. “I want people to understand that our ancestors were not a bunch of savage, groping animals,” she explains. “I’m trying to show the diversity and complexity of Ice Age man. These men aren’t that different from your sons or your college roommates.”
Obsessed with her discovery, Auel has become a jack of all Ice Age trades. She can make flint arrowheads and trap animals almost as well as Ayla. She has happily spent the night in a snow shelter and once headed off into the Oregon woods for a week with nothing more than a blanket and a knife. Three years ago Auel took a six-week tour of Cro-Magnon caves through three European countries and the Soviet Union. The most memorable were in Niaux, France, where she waded hip-deep in dank water through darkness. “About an hour and a half into the cave,” she recalls, “we looked up and saw these two beautiful shaggy horses painted on the wall. I thought, ‘Someone had to come all this way with a torch just to paint these.’ I felt an overwhelming sense of magic’ ”
The same response got Auel, daughter of a Chicago housepainter, into this strange new world in the first place. In 1977, when Ayla first came into her life and mind, she had just quit her job as a credit manager for an electronics firm. The five children she had with husband Ray, her childhood sweetheart, were all grown. Though she had worked her way up from a keypunch operator, Auel had felt little professional satisfaction. Then, one night around 11, she got an idea for a story about a prehistoric girl. “I quickly figured out that I didn’t know a thing about my subject, not even when man first used fire,” she says. So Auel visited her county library and eventually read hundreds of books on her subject. A chance meeting with a New York agent at an Oregon writers’ conference led to the submission of her manuscript to Crown, which anted up a $130,000 advance—then considered a record for a first novel.
The rest is prehistory. Auel has become a weary veteran of the book tour. (In preparation for the current two-month, 18-city blitz she has lost weight and spruced up her wardrobe). Her publishing proceeds have gone not only to her dream house, but also to her collection of primitive art and plane tickets for her kids. Husband Ray even left his job three years ago to become her full-time business manager.
He may have to work overtime in the years to come; Auel plans three more books about Ayla and notes that after that she has “about 259” ideas in her file. “When you start as far back as I did,” she says, “there’s a whole world to go.”