One Saturday in February, back in 2002, I flew out to Portland, Oregon, to interview Jean M. Auel, the bestselling author of The Clan of the Cave Bear, about Ayla, a blond Cro Magnon girl who was orphaned by an earthquake and adopted by Neanderthals. I agreed with most readers that Auel’s fifth novel, Shelters of Stone, the last in her Earth’s Children series, in which a willowy, beautiful, grown-up Ayla travels to an Ice Age version of the big city, was a big bloated disappointment compared to that first enthralling tale, which was full of details about how Ice Age people cooked and hunted and carried water–full of the feeling of what it might been like to be human and all alone. Still, I lept at the chance to leave my cubicle on lower Park Avene in Manhattan and jet to the great piney Northwest for the weekend. I lept at the chance to talk about what it might have been like to be one of the earliest members of our common humanity.
In those days, I worked for Publishers Weekly, the trade magazine of the publishing industry. I was just a tiny cog in what I’ve heard called the “Publicity Industrial Complex.” In addition to writing anonymous book reviews, I would sometimes interview bestselling authors in their usually beautiful homes. The face-t0-face interviews themselves never lasted more than a couple of hours and the whole situation was situation was always carefully contrived. I would work very hard to squeeze truth out the details of what an author was wearing or how he or she sat in this or that kind of chair and the quality of the light or the view from the window where we sat. Often, however, I’d leave these encounters feeling hollow….feeling as if I had been misguided. This certainly happened when I went out to Portland to interview Jean Auel. I realized that I had dreamed of moving to New York City and getting to do the kind of seemingly interesting work I did because I thought it was a way of drawing closer to the fire, to the magic, to the beating heart of reality. Only to discover that I had been closer to the mythic dimension or reality back home in Watertown, New York.
Jean Auel lived in a condo that overlooked the city and the snow-capped mountains beyond. It reminded me of a sleek modern version of the cliff dwelling that Ayla came to live in and Auel told me she liked to sit at her desk and look out at the mountains and imagine what an advancing glacier might look like. A bronze wolf (Ayla had a pet wolf) met me at the door. Auel showed me a bone spear thrower and a cave lion skull and we talked for hours about the earliest humans and about the intelligence and ingenuity it took just to survive. And years later, I remember that a fan had sent her a blond Barbie doll dressed in a fur bikini that looked a little like Daryl Hannah in the movie version of Clan of the Cave Bear. I left Portland think I had tofind a way to move from the shallows to the depths of life. Little did I know then that I was carrying a map of one of the longest and strangest trips our common ancestors took coiled in my very own DNA.
To be continued….