She began to write, at first tentatively, then in furious 16-hour stretches at her kitchen table. Some 800 pages later, Auel (pronounced owl) had made publishing history. Actually, it was prehistory. Her first book, The Clan of the Cave Bear, is a sprawling saga of a woman's fight for survival in the Ice Age Crimea 35,000 years ago—a sort of Annie Get Your Slingshot whose heroine is a spunky cave dweller named Ayla. Auel's publisher, Crown, anted up $130,000—perhaps the largest advance ever paid for a first novel. Paperback, book club and foreign sales have pushed that figure even higher. The Cave Bear crept onto the New York Times best-seller list four weeks after publication. It is the first of six novels Auel plans to write under the overall rubric of Earth's Children.
Such success may be due less to Auel's literary technique than to her exhaustive research. Not since Alex Haley crossed the Atlantic in the cargo hold of a ship to relive the slave experience has an author so ardently sought historical verisimilitude. At first, "I was so dumb I didn't know what I was getting into," Jean admits. "I didn't even know when man started using fire! So after a couple of days I ran for the encyclopedia." Eventually, she read hundreds of books about everything from woolly mammoths to prehistoric plants. Then she became expert in caveman crafts: chipping arrowheads, trapping animals, building snow caves and foraging for edible roots and medicinal tubers. This summer Auel took a seven-day course in aboriginal life skills at Oregon's Malheur Field Station. There she wove baskets from bulrushes and fashioned tools from shards of volcanic stone.
Auel's more immediate roots are Finnish Midwestern. She is the second of five children born to a Chicago house painter and his wife. Though a lover of literature ("I used to walk to the grocery store with my head in a book"), Jean took secretarial courses in high school. The month after graduation she married her childhood sweetheart, Ray Auel. By the time she was 25, they were living in Portland and were the parents of five children: Rae Ann, now 26, Karen, 24, Lenore, 23, Kendall, 21, and Marshall, 19. At 28 Jean joined her husband's firm, Tektronix Inc., an electronics manufacturer. (Ray is now senior corporate operations planner for the company.)
Over the years Jean worked her way up from keypunch operator, all the while taking night courses in physics, calculus and business administration. In 1976 she received an MBA from the University of Portland. (She is also a member of Mensa, a society of persons with exceptionally high IQs.) Her achievements, however, did not satisfy Auel. "I was quietly exploding inside," she recalls. "I started to write. It just happened."
Since the publication of The Clan of the Cave Bear, Auel has been slogging through a relentless two-month book tour. She prepared for it by losing 40 pounds, on a 500-calorie-a-day diet, buying a new wardrobe and learning how to apply makeup. When she returns to her one-story frame home in Portland later this month, Auel hopes to pick up on some old hobbies: palm reading, poetry writing and cooking seven-course meals. Her family's life at home remains surprisingly unchanged. "When you have a lot of kids you learn to be careful with money," she says. "You don't just up and buy a yacht." Instead, she has invested in a second car (a Volkswagen Dasher), a microwave oven and the perfect accessory for a writer about to research another massive book: a four-drawer filing cabinet.
Three years ago Jean Auel of Portland, Oreg. had hit 40. Her five children were grown, her job as a credit manager was not fulfilling, and she was plagued by both midline bulges and midlife blahs. "I'd been working, going to school, raising kids," she remembers. "I was on my way to the top of my field. Then I quit. I didn't know what I wanted to do."