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Writing Phenomenon Auel Makes Prehistory

February 09, 1986|JULIA BRAUN KESSLER | Kessler lives in Santa Monica. and

The Jean M. Auel Phenomenon--it needs some explaining. Just how does a woman who'd never written a word before she turned 40 break all previous publishing records with a pre-publication sale of 1 million books? And how is this business-oriented, ex-credit manager, MBA holder, from Portland, Ore., with five grown children and a successful marriage, managing to nudge James Michener into second place with novels about the Ice Age?

In late 1985, Auel's newest book, "The Mammoth Hunters" (Crown Publishers Inc.: $19.95), was No. 1 on every best-seller list for hardcover fiction. At the same time her first novel in the "Earth's Children" cycle, "Clan of the Cave Bear," which came out in 1980, was back up there as 10th on the B. Dalton hardcover list, while her second, "The Valley of Horses" (1982) was in 15th place. And this, despite the fact that her first two books are available in paperback.

Scores of her fans lined up for her recent autograph session at Hunter's Books in Beverly Hills. Some clutched the hefty (645-page) novel lovingly, while still others, weighed down with as many as four copies, explained that they made perfect gifts.

Staying Up Late

Donna Stieghan, employed by an electronics firm in Long Beach, said she can't help staying up until 3 or 4 a.m. reading Auel's latest, even though "it plays havoc with my early work schedule."

Housewife Patricia Pollock credited Auel for her new-found enthusiasm for history: "I can barely wait to get at this one. There is a realness and good feeling about her version of the past. It's not like what I remember from school. . . . I actually found myself buying a copy of National Geographic the other day. Do you know why? Someone told me there was an article about prehistoric society in it and I thought, I can follow that now, I feel quite knowledgeable about Paleolithic people. That's Auel's books. They've done that for me."

For writer Shawn Derrik, Auel's Cro-Magnon heroine represented the very "core of woman," someone "inside every one of us" and one who gives her "the courage to get through life."

Joan Travis, a co-founder and trustee of the L. S. B. Leakey Foundation, said she seldom reads novels but makes an exception in Auel's case because, "She's done her homework. Never mind the soap-opera aspects that are, after all, part of telling a story. She makes it all live, and that's what's important. Think of all the people for whom she has invented this distant world of origins, with her exact and graphic details of its everyday life."

Expressing bewilderment about her popularity, Auel admits to "a little bit of the didactic in me," adding, "when I make some discoveries, I feel the need to share them." She cannot account for the growing adulation and those record-breaking sales but she does believe that people want to be educated.

"It's an evolutionary survival trait, a sense of wanting to know origins, comprehend their own relations with society, or the universe, a way to know better how to cope with it," said Auel.

Notion of a Short Story

Having begun with the notion of doing a short story about a prehistoric woman who finds herself "different" and "despised" for it, a person whose physical and mental capacities are more advanced than the Neanderthal society that adopted and shielded her from the elements, Auel soon found herself catapulted into another realm as well. A passing fancy, she calls it, which became an obsession.

Not only did her short story idea flower, and her characters take shape, but what emerged was the germ for not one novel but a series of them: her Paleolithic cycle of "Earth's Children." She'd already written 100,000 words before she understood what had happened. "I didn't have one book, I had six."

Now in her third volume, Auel's heroine, Ayla, the foundling of the Neanderthal Cave Bear Clan, emerges as a blonde beauty, an intelligent, humane being with extraordinary healing powers and the ability to tame wild beasts--something of a demigoddess. Along with her statuesque, redhaired lover, Jondalar, she wanders over the steppes of Eurasia. They join a band of Mammoth Hunters, Cro-Magnon people like herself. And before they are through, the two will have coped with almost every modern-day problem.

Tireless in her research, Auel's compulsion to write comes, she thinks, from the fact that she started so late. Married at 18, she was the mother of five children by the time she was 25.

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