Let's dispense with the gossip straight away: Jean Auel lives. Speculation concerning her demise by various, even nefarious, means has dogged the 66-year-old Portland, Oregon, novelist throughout the 11 years it has taken her to complete The Shelters of Stone, book five in the projected six-book Earth's Children series that began with The Clan of the Cave Bear in 1980.

"None of the rumors are true," Auel sighs good-naturedly over the phone. "I have not been killed by farm equipment. I have not been assassinated. I have not had every disease known to man. I have not had a fight with my publisher. I have not divorced my husband; as a matter of fact, we're coming up on 48 years." She well appreciates the concern of fans who have waited what seems like an Ice Age for the next generous helping of the prehistoric adventures of Ayla, a tall, blond Cro-Magnon medicine woman, and her dashing soul mate, Jondalar. Every time a tentative publication date would lapse, another round of dire rumors would circulate on fan Web sites around the world.

The Shelters of Stone, all 700-plus pages of it, will land like Stone Age tablets in bookstores worldwide on April 30. What's more, fans will be delighted to learn they won't have to wait another 12 years for book six.

"One of the things that took some extra time was that I actually did a rough draft to the end of the series so I could see where I was going," she says. "Some of it is fairly finished, none of it is absolutely finished, some of it is just suggestive, but I have actually now realized that the ending of the series is going to be different than I originally thought."

In Shelters, weary travelers Ayla and Jondalar finally arrive at the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, Jondalar's home, after making their way through The Valley of Horses (1982), spending a season among The Mammoth Hunters (1985) and completing the perilous journey across The Plains of Passage (1990). Having reached the Cro-Magnon version of the Big Apple, Ayla finally meets the in-laws and prepares for her formal mating with Jondalar at the Summer Meeting. Ayla faces intense scrutiny by his people; her ability to domesticate her horse and pet wolf intrigue them but her upbringing as an orphan among Neanderthals scares them. Likewise, she finds their language, customs and stone cave condos equally exotic. Together, Ayla and Jondalar must work to find their place among the Zelandonii and prepare for the birth of their first child.

It has been 22 years since Auel (pronounced owl) first hit the bestseller lists with The Clan of the Cave Bear. At the time, no one was looking for fiction set in the Stone Age, much less 200,000 words on the subject by a first-timer.

Is Auel surprised to find herself with a cult following today? "Wouldn't you be?" she laughs. "Actually, if I had planned to write a bestseller back in 1980, would I have picked a Paleolithic caveman? No, I would have done some Hollywood glitz or some mysteries. Nobody expected it. They said yes, we think it's a good story, but we just don't think anybody short of [James] Michener should write books that long. They just didn't think it would sell enough." She certainly proved them wrong. The series has sold 34 million copies worldwide.

Auel clearly tapped into a post-feminist appetite for strong, independent female role models. Forget equality; Ayla's got the power throughout these books, a fact best reflected by the growing list of babies named after her.

Self-determination, will and perseverance are all qualities Auel shares with her prehistoric heroine. Married at age 18 to her high school sweetheart Ray, Auel had five children before she was 25 years old. She wanted more from life than housework, but wasn't sure she had what it took. After a chance reading of an article in Life magazine, she took a home IQ test. One year later, she was accepted into Mensa, whose membership represents the smartest two percent of the population.

Back when she had the time, Auel liked attending Mensa gatherings. "I used to love it because this was one place where you could just talk to anybody about anything," she says. "Sometimes there'd be a whole bunch of people in the kitchen telling dirty jokes, but using plays on words and puns, not gross ones." She worked her way up in a Portland electronics plant from keypunch operator to circuit board designer, technical writer and credit manager. She took night school classes in physics and math at Portland State and earned her MBA from the University of Portland in 1976 at age 40.

That's when the idea for a short story about a prehistoric orphan girl changed her life. As Auel steeped herself in the Pleistocene epoch (roughly 25,000-35,000 years ago), the story grew into a 450,000-word "outline" for six books based on Ayla's adventures.

"I've always had this over-arcing story to the series; it's never been gee, Clan was successful, so let's write Clan 2 and Clan 3 and Rocky 4. I always realized I had more than one book," she says.

Through the years, Auel has maintained an upside-down work regimen one might expect from, say, Stephen King or Anne Rice. Her typical day? "For one thing, it's a typical night. I am, by nature, a night person. I have always been a night person, even when I had to get up and go to work on a regular basis, even when I had to send children off to school. I am worthless in the morning. The sun goes down and the brain turns on. It's not anything that I try to do; in fact, I fight to maintain a day schedule; I have to set alarms, I have to really do without sleep in order to stay on a day schedule.

"I often see the sun come up, at 7 or 8 in the morning, and then sleep until 2 or 3 or 4 in the afternoon, then get up and make what is my breakfast and my husband's dinner and we have evenings together and then about the time he goes to bed, I go to work. It works for us. And actually, that's when I can get the most work done."

Fans may not like the one surprise in the final book that Auel is willing to share: Ayla will not be reunited with Durc, her son from a Neanderthal rape. "Ayla is going to find out something about him, but I can tell you straight out, frankly no, she will never see her son again," she says. "That's her tragedy. I know people want her to, and it's the sadness that she always has in her life, but people have those kinds of tragedies."

Fortunately, Auel isn't one of those people. Her five grown children and 15 grandchildren, most living in the Portland area, keep her plenty busy. Which is not to say she plans on drawing Earth's Children out another dozen years. She has other books she'd like to write, perhaps a contemporary mystery. "[Book six] shouldn't take as long. I don't want it to take as long," Auel admits. "I'm not getting any younger; I need to finish this. I've got Ayla sitting on my shoulder saying let's get on with this. Besides, yeah, there are some other stories I would like to write."

Jay Lee MacDonald is a writer based in Naples, Florida.

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