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Jean Auel
Jean Auel

Jean M. Auel was the keynote at Portland State University's 2012 June Commencement ceremony.

International best-selling author, Jean M. Auel, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the second of five children. Soon after she graduated from high school she married Ray Auel. They moved to Roswell, New Mexico -- Walker Air Force Base -- where her 19-year-old husband was stationed during the Korean War. After he was discharged in 1956, with their first daughter, they moved to Oregon.

While her husband went to Portland State on the GI Bill, Auel worked at temporary and part-time clerical jobs, and had more children -- five by her 25th birthday.  When she was 28, she decided it was her turn for more education, but a large family has large expenses.  She started working full time in the invoicing department of an electronics firm and took an evening class in beginning algebra at Portland State .  Why algebra?  She wanted to learn how things worked, and the science for that is physics, but that would require math.  She went on -- trigonometry, calculus, differential equations, some physics, and electronics -- an evening class or two every term, and, on her own, she started writing poetry.

Auel didn’t become a physicist by taking night school classes, but she did learn to understand a mathematics explanation and overcome any reluctance she had of math and science.  She applied for a higher paying job in the engineering department designing circuit boards, and then translating engineering jargon into English well enough to write instruction manuals for customers.  She gained enough confidence to take the Admission Test for Graduate Study in Business, even without a BS degree.  With a more than adequate score, and after meeting with the dean, she was accepted into the MBA program at the University of Portland.

Auel received her master’s degree in 1976 when she was 40 years old.  By then she was a credit manager, but wanting to find something more fulfilling, in November 1976 she quit her job.  Three of her children were in college, and two more in high school, and she had cut the family income in half.  With her MBA she thought she would find a position in business.

Through the years she had many interests, and took other non-accredited night classes such as art, wine-tasting, and yoga.  She loved cooking.  Primarily, though, along with her deep  seated interest in science, Auel always had a love affair with words.  She is a compulsive reader, but didn’t have any plans to write a book, until one night when an idea for a story occurred to her; a short story, she thought, of a young woman living with people who were different, but they thought she was different -- an interesting twist.  That was the germ of an idea that ultimately grew into an in-depth story about a woman who lived in the Ice Age, a Cro Magnon woman who was raised by Neanderthals.  Subsequent research inspired her further, but she never dreamed it would capture the imagination of so many other people.

That first evening, when Auel tried to put down on paper the short story that was whirling through her head, she discovered that writing fiction was fun, except she didn’t know what she was writing about, so many questions came up.  She thought she was thinking prehistory, early humans, but how early?  How did they look? How did they dress?  How did they get food?  Did they have fire?  She had never studied archaeology or anthropology; her only notion of it came from general reading.  She didn’t even know where the idea came from in the first place.

Auel knew how to find the answers though.  One doesn’t get a master’s degree in anything without learning how to use a library for research.  First she checked the Encyclopedia Britannica, which gave her a place to start, and then went to the library.  She came home with two armloads of books -- and discovered a world that she didn’t know existed.  It fired her imagination.  The Ice Age world of our immediate ancestors was so much richer and more diverse than she had ever realized.  There was so much to tell that her short story became a novel.  Later, she realized that her first rough draft was really an outline for a series of novels, the Earth’s Children® series.  More writing and research followed, which eventually included building and spending a night in a snow cave, digging roots, brain-tanning leather, pressure-flaking stone points, and visiting sites in Europe.

Reading the first draft taught Auel something else.  She didn’t know how to write a story!  Back to the library, this time for books on how to write fiction.  She studied them, analyzed books by good authors, and then went back to re-write . . . and re-write, and re-write.  It took at least four complete drafts before the first book began to feel right, some sections even more.  She started in January 1977, usually working 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.  Finally, by the end of 1978, she had finished a 200,000 word, final typed draft.  All she needed was a publisher.

That had already sent Auel back to the library for books on how to get published.  But, like the research for the background, she went a step further.  She joined a writers club to associate with people who could teach her something, and she went to writers conferences.  There was a literary agent who impressed her at the first conference she attended in August 1977.  Auel got her business card, and put it away.  When her book was finished she tried to interest a publisher herself.  After queries had been rejected several times, she decided to try the agent whose card she had. The agent liked The Clan of the Cave Bear and found the right publisher. Over the next 30 plus years she wrote the rest of the series; The Valley of Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, The Plains of Passage, The Shelters of Stone, and The Land of Painted Caves.

Auel was 40 before she knew what she wanted to do when she “grew up,” but, without knowing it, she had been edging in that direction all along.  Her background in technical writing  taught her to write clearly and logically.  Term papers required good research, and poetry gave her a sense of the emotional content and rhythm of words.  But, most important, she learned that writing is best learned, first by reading, and then by writing.