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Jean M. Auel is fascinated by how things work. This fascination is clearly evident in her three best-selling novels, ``The Clan of the Cave Bear'' (1980), ``The Valley of Horses'' (1982), and now ``The Mammoth Hunters,'' published this month by Crown Publishers with a record-breaking first printing of over 1 million copies. Also evident in these novels is Mrs. Auel's desire to tell a good story. Although it stands on its own, ``The Mammoth Hunters'' continues the story begun in ``The Clan of the Cave Bear.'' Ayla, a beautiful blond Cro-Magnon, is raised by the Clan of the Cave Bear, a tribe of Neanderthals, near the shores of the Black Sea during the prehistoric Ice Age. Ayla is trained as a medicine woman, and she teaches herself to hunt, which brings her into conflict with clan law. Eventually, Ayla is forced to leave t he clan.

``The Valley of Horses'' finds Ayla living in a lush valley with only a horse and a baby cave lion for companionship. She perfects her hunting, toolmaking, and food-gathering skills, and teaches herself to make fire, to ride, and to hunt large animals. Eventually Ayla is joined by Jondalar, a handsome, blond Cro-Magnon man, who becomes her lover and teaches her the language and customs of his people, the Zelandonii. At the end of the novel they leave the valley with Ayla's horse and ca ve lion and begin their journey to join the Zelandonii in western Europe.

In ``The Mammoth Hunters,'' Ayla and Jondalar spend a year with a tribe of Cro-Magnon people called the Mamutoi, or the Mammoth Hunters, who adopt Ayla. She finds herself torn between her love for Jondalar and her attraction to a dark-skinned Mamutoi ivory carver named Ranec. Ayla learns to hunt mammoth, invents the sewing needle, and domesticates a baby wolf. At the end of the novel Ayla must decide whether to marry Ranec and remain with the Mamutoi or travel westward with Jondalar. Because ``The Mammm oth Hunters'' is the third novel in what will eventually be a six-part series, it's not hard to figure out what her choice will be.

Recently I interviewed Jean M. Auel (pronounced ``owl'') in her elegant suite on the 53rd floor of New York's Helmsley Palace Hotel. Auel, a Chicago native transplanted to Oregon, is a 49-year-old grandmother. She married Ray Auel at the age of 18 and had five children in six years. At the age of 28, influenced by the burgeoning women's liberation movement, she went to work for Techtronics, an electronics company, and began taking college courses at night. She decided initially to study physics because,

as she says, ``Physics is the science of how things work, and I wanted to learn how things worked.'' In 1976, at the age of 40, she earned a master of business administration degree in a special program sponsored by Techtronics and the University of Portland. By this time, Auel was a credit manager and on her way to a successful career in business. But six months later, unhappy with her job and unsure what she would do next, she quit. By her 41st birthday she had embarked on what would be her second career

-- writing best sellers.

One day she got an idea for a story about a young woman living with people in prehistoric times who were less developed than she was. Before this, Auel, who has always been an avid reader, had written only a few poems for publication. She says she's not sure where the idea came from. ``I'm sure that in the course of my general reading I had read something about Cro-Magnon or Neanderthal man, and that may have triggered something,'' she says. Realizing that she knew nothing about early man, she went to h er local public library to do a little research. She read approximately 50 books, and the story grew. ``I discovered this fascinating world,'' Auel says, ``and I became totally obsessed.''

A year later she had an outline for a series of six novels and one finished novel -- ``The Clan of the Cave Bear.'' In 1977, at a writers' meeting in Portland, Auel met literary agent Jean Naggar, who eventually agreed to represent her. Naggar sold ``Clan'' at auction to Crown for a record $130,000 advance for a first novel by an unknown writer. ``That was the beginning,'' says Auel, ``and since then I feel like I've been on a roller coaster going straight up.''

Success has enabled Auel to build her oceanfront dream house in Arch Cape, Ore., and to extend her research to include visits to Cro-Magnon sites in Europe. Besides her extensive library research, Auel has taken courses in plant identification, wilderness survival, and aboriginal life skills. She has made stone tools, tanned a hide with deer brains, and spent the night with Ray in a snow cave on Mt. Hood.

Auel puts her research and firsthand knowledge into her complex and detailed descriptions of everything from making a stone tool to hunting with a slingshot. Auel says she ``imagined how people discovered things,'' and Ayla ``discovers,'' among other things, how to make fire, how to hunt on horseback, and with Jondalar's help, how to make love.

Auel's extensive descriptions include Ayla's sexual encounters with Jondalar and Ranec. Auel says that she included these scenes to show the difference between the Clan's more animalistic attitudes toward sex, which Ayla had first experienced, and the more gentle and enlightened attitudes of the Cro-Magnon tribes, who worship a deity called the Earth Mother. Cro-Magnon women enjoy a higher level of respect, equality, and independence than Clan women, a respect that includes a recognition of their sexual

needs and rights. Point taken. But where do you draw the line between information and titillation? Auel includes a half dozen explicit sexual encounters between Ayla and Jondalar and between Ayla and Ranec in ``The Mammoth Hunters,'' and most of them are gratuitous.

Aside from these lapses in taste, Auel's books are fascinating and sometimes moving depictions of a time and a people shrouded in mystery and speculation. Auel says that although there is an accepted body of information about early man, there are also varying viewpoints. She has chosen to use some theories to the exclusion of others, and she has had to invent some things as close as possible to the facts.

Auel receives letters from her readers telling her about babies named Ayla and about insights they have gained from her books into their own problems. Auel hopes that her readers come away from her books with a feeling that they have enjoyed reading a good story. She also hopes her books will help readers to realize that these early people, ``our ancestors, were human beings as we are human beings, with the same kinds of feelings and emotions,'' and that they faced the same challenges we face -- prejudi ce, new inventions, and changing social, cultural, and working conditions.

As for her success, Auel says, ``I don't care if people know who Jean Auel is, but I do love it if people know who the Mammoth Hunters are.''

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