The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of the Earth’s Children series
Ten Terrifying Questions
1: To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself . Where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born on February 18, 1936 in Chicago, Illinois, the second of five children. My grandparents were Finnish immigrants and my parents were born on dairy farms in Northern Michigan, about 150 miles apart, and met in Chicago when they moved to the big city to find work. I grew up in Chicago, although the family used to drive to Michigan in the summer and spend time on both of my grandparents’ farms, so I knew that milk didn’t just come from a grocery store. My parents were intelligent, but they were working people. Advanced education was never stressed. My mother’s goal for me was the same as that of most mothers of teen-age daughters in the 1950’s: get married and have children. In truth, it disturbed her when I turned out to be bookworm who was always reading, and then learned typing and shorthand so I could have a career as a secretary. That was a bit too independent for the 50’s.
But, in 1954, shortly after graduation from high school, I married Ray Auel; he was 19, and in the Air Force. It was the Korean War then and Ray was training to maintain airplanes, particularly the hydraulic mechanism of the in-flight refueling system. Fortunately, by the time they were ready to send him overseas, the war was over. He was discharged in 1956. His father lived in Oregon, and we wanted to start our new life in a new place, so with one child and expecting a second, we moved to Oregon.
Ray went to college on the GI Bill—funds made available to veterans by the Government for education that was interrupted to serve in the military—and worked full-time to support a growing family. I worked at temporary and part-time clerical jobs to help out, and had more children: five before my 25th birthday. I now have 15 grand children and eight great grandchildren.
My world was rather limited in those days. I needed more than children and house to engage my mind. I always loved fiction, but I began reading more extensively, often my husband’s text books—psychology, history, philosophy, science—not following any class plan but out of interest and a desire to learn, and when I was 28, in the early 60’s, “the times, they were a-changing.”
I decided it was my turn for more education, and what I decided to study was physics. Why physics? I already knew that I could learn from reading. I decided that if I was going to go to school, I wanted to learn something I didn’t know, and I didn’t know how things worked, that wasn’t part of what women learned when I was growing up. I defined physics as the science of how things work, and to learn physics, I needed math.
But a large family has large expenses, so I got a full time job in the billing department at an electronics company, Tektronix, and began evening classes in algebra. That set a pattern for the next 12 years. Eventually, I came to realize, that one doesn’t become a physicist going to night school.
But after several years of algebra, trigonometry, analytical geometry, differential and integral calculus, differential equations, physics, electronics, I also learned that one can overcome a culturally established aversion to math and science and along the way gain enough confidence to begin applying for higher-paying technical jobs within the company.
I first transferred to marketing as a statistical typist, then to a beginning position in engineering: designing printed circuit boards. That was something everyone had to learn on the job, there were no schools to teach it, it was too new. After several years I wrote an instruction manual for trainees and my boss asked if I’d like to become a technical writer, translating schematics and engineering jargon into instruction manuals for customers.
Then I found out about a program the company had developed with the University of Portland—a Catholic university that often exchanged instructors with Notre Dame. The original intent was to give managers who had gained experience working their way up, the benefit of the knowledge of an advanced degree in business. People could be admitted directly into the MBA program if they secured various letters of recommendation, had a meeting with the dean of the of the college of business and, most importantly, if they passed the Admission Test for Graduate Study in Business. Though graduates with Bachelor degrees also had to pass the test, and some people with degrees were in the program, mostly engineers, to be admitted into the MBA program without an undergraduate degree, you had to score at least 50 points higher.
Neither my husband nor I had an undergraduate degree, though we had both taken college courses. We got the necessary letters and met with the dean, only after we took the test and passed it with the higher score. We were both accepted. Four years later, in May 1976, we both received MBA’s from U of Portland. I was 40 years old, and by then, after going through a management training program at the company, I was a credit manager.
So how did I go from a reasonably successful career in business to writing novels set in the Ice Age? It began with discontent. Circuit board design had been fun, it was puzzle-solving for pay, but though the company had paid for my business education, the MBA, I discovered there was no place for me to grow. I kept running into a brick wall when I wanted to move up— nowadays it’s called a “glass ceiling.” In November 1976, a few months after getting my MBA, after 12 years with the electronics company, I quit. I planned to look for some other wonderful, exciting job in business.
I spun wheels applying for jobs, trying to decide what I wanted to do. Then, one day in late January 1977 I got an idea for a story about a young woman, who was living with people who were different, not just superficially–color of hair, or eyes, or skin–but substantially different. Of course, they thought she was different and viewed her with suspicion, but they allowed her to stay because she was taking care of an old man with a crippled arm.
I don’t know where that thought came from, I can’t tell you any more than any other writer can where ideas come from. Most writers don’t know, though if pressed, they may think of something in hindsight to satisfy questions. I’d been writing poetry for about ten years, but not fiction. But I began to wonder, could I write a short story like that?
That’s how it began. I wonder if I can write a short story?
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
If I recall correctly, any strongly held beliefs I had at eighteen, I still have. People should be treated decently, if you live in a democracy, you should vote, things like that.
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
One – From a very young age, I have always loved to read.
Two – In 1976, I got angry at what I considered to be the unfairness of my boss, and quit my job.
Three – I got an idea for a short story and decided to try to write it.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc. – why have you chosen to write a book? Aren’t they obsolete?
When I started writing, more than thirty years ago, most of those electronic media were not available to me. Perhaps I’m a bit obsolete, but I don’t use most of them anyway. I still love to read stories, and while I like books, with pages, so long as there are stories to read that can capture my imagination and bring me inside them, I’ll read them in any form that has words telling stories. I don’t think words will become obsolete.
The Land of Painted Caves is the sixth book in my Earth’s Children® series. The setting is Ice Age Europe some 25,000 to 35,000 years ago when we, Cro Magnons, large-brained, anatomically modern humans, first appeared there. But we shared that cold ancient earth with another kind of human, the ones we call Neanderthals, with brains even larger than our own. Each book follows the life of a Cro Magnon girl, who at five years old loses her parents and the rest of her people in an earthquake. In the first book she is found and raised by a clan of Neanderthals. The story continues in the next books as she discovers her own kind of people again, travels across Europe with the man whose life she saves, and grows to love, until they reach his home in what is today southwestern France, and has a child of her own. Though the books are a close series, each can be read as an independent novel. In this last one, we not only continue to find out how people survived, but how they lived and died, loved and hated, dreamed, aspired, failed, hoped and succeeded in that harsh and beautiful prehistoric land.
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
I do not have one person that I admire most. I admire many people in many walks of life, usually people who are intelligent, thoughtful, daring, and caring.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
My most ambitious goal was to write a story that I loved and get it published. I never dreamed that the book I wrote for myself would find more than 45 million readers in more that 35 countries. How could I wish for a more ambitious goal?
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
The way to learn to write is to write. Write what you want to write, not what you think the market wants. Write the book you always wanted to read, and write it the very best you can.
Jean Auel, thank you for playing, and thank you for your most generous answers.
Filed under: Adventure, Contemporary Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, Literary Classic, Young Adult Tagged: | Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean Auel, Jean M. Auel, Mammoth Hunters, Plains of Passage, Shelters of Stone, Ten Terrifying Questions, The Land of Painted Caves: A Novel, Valley of Horses