On a Saturday in February, a Mercedes-Benz station wagon bearing "AYLA" vanity plates pulls up at our Portland, Ore., hotel. Ray Auel, Jean M. Auel's soft-spoken, gray-haired husband of 48 years, is at the wheel. Driving into the surrounding hills, we can't help but think of Ayla, the blonde Cro-Magnon girl orphaned by an earthquake and adopted by a tribe of Neanderthals in Auel's 1980 bestseller, The Clan of the Cave Bear. Our thoughts of Ayla persist as we enter the hillside condo that the couple have called home for the past two years. But here it's neither the license plate nor the life-size bronze wolf standing opposite the front door that reminds us of her (Ayla has a pet wolf)--it is the big windows that look out over the city and the pine-covered hills to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We feel as if we are entering a very sleek, modern version of the huge limestone cliff dwelling that Ayla enters in the long-awaited new novel, The Shelters of Stone, the fifth novel in the series, to be launched worldwide by Crown on April 29.

On the novel's first page, Ayla and Jondalar sit astride their horses looking up at a crowd that has gathered on the lip of a vast cave in what is today the Dordogne Valley in France. These are Jondalar's people, the Zelandonii--among them are the artists who made the extraordinary cave paintings in Lascaux. Once exiled by the hostile leader of the Neanderthals who adopted her because she was too curious and driven to learn things for herself, Ayla is now about to enter the Ice Age version of the big city. She is about to take her place among the people who literally and figuratively have come to occupy the high ground.

Jean M. Auel herself is a resident of the publishing world's high ground. The Clan of the Cave Bear sold four million copies around the world. Each of the next three books in the series--Valley of Horses (1982), The Mammoth Hunters (1985), and Plains of Passage (1990)--has nailed down the number one slot on bestseller lists. Altogether these four of a proposed six book Earth's Children series have sold 34 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 29 languages.

Auel's books have ushered millions of readers into the mysterious world of our common ancestry. Ayla put a compellingly attractive and modern face on Cro-Magnon (man) at the same time that Auel enthralled people with accurate details about how people in the Ice Age cooked and hunted and carried water.

"The secret of her appeal is the same as it was 22 years ago," says Jean Naggar, Auel's agent. "I was tremendously moved by The Clan of the Cave Bear. At that time, we were seeing a lot of books about ethnic roots--Roots had just been published, and World of our Fathers--and my feeling was that Auel's book was powerful because it embraced the roots of our common humanity.

"Jean's take on the emotional issues that we all confront is incredibly resonant, cutting across perceived boundaries of gender, age, education, and socio-economics," adds Naggar. "And yet she also introduces people to a strange and wonderful new world."

PW meets Auel in her kitchen. Small and cherubic, with smooth, rosy skin and just a few threads of silver in her brown hair, she looks at least a decade younger than her 66 years. She greets us in a warm, easy manner with just the faintest whiff of the noblesse oblige that comes from often meeting interviewers and fans. Offering us a mug of strong coffee, she leads us into the vast, light-filled room that is her study and library.

"I love being able to look out my window and see the mountains," says Auel, as we stand by her desk and the computer she writes on. She tells PW that she often gazes at the distant snow-capped peaks and contemplates what an advancing glacier in the Ice Age might look like. Auel's practice is to write all night at her desk until dawn breaks.

Auel has lived in Oregon since 1956, but in a deeper sense she has lived foremost in her mind and in her research. "I don't really need that much--a desk, a place to work, my books." Auel looks around and laughs. "It doesn't have to be quite this big a space."

She steers us to a table near the desk that is lined with artifacts selected for an upcoming talk she is giving. She points out reproductions of the Venus of Willendorf and other pocket-sized neolithic statues of mothers with abundant bellies and breasts, talismans for abundance; there is an animal-shaped bone spear thrower, a reproduction of a Neanderthal skull that was a gift from her children, a cave lion skull. Auel touches each object lovingly. As she warms to her subject, the initial formality melts away and she radiates the happiness of a very bright kid at play. Dressed simply in a dark tunic sweater with her hair pulled back, Auel could be an anthropology professor. Except that the sparkle of what look like sapphire and diamond earrings suggest that she has achieved something more than tenure.

Settled on a sofa at the far end of the study, we scrutinize the floor-to-ceiling book cases that flank one wall and estimate that the books and scholarly journals that Auel uses for research number two or three thousand. Over a fireplace hangs a reproduction of the famous cave paintings of bison from Lascaux. Auel has visited the cave, and was so moved by the paintings that they came to play a role in The Shelters of Stone. Just over our heads hang the brilliantly colored paintings of the cover art for her four previous novels. Auel mentions that she has cover approval, which does not surprise us. After all, to put it in her own Ice Age lingo, Jean M. Auel is a very high status woman in the clan of publishing.

Prodigious Research

Auel created the now-popular genre of prehistoric fiction. Yet none of the other practitioners, including Kathleen O'Neal Gear, Michael Gear, Linda Lay Shuler and Stephen Baxter, have matched Auel's sales or, arguably, her breadth of vision or scientific passion. Most importantly, none of them have Ayla, the beloved character, the outsider and boundary-crosser, who epitomizes Auel's own intelligence and grit and sense of boundless possibility. Ayla has taught millions of readers what can happen when a courageous spirit and intelligence come together..

Indeed, the story of how The Clan of the Cave Bear came to be written has become legend, a literary Horatio Alger story. Auel was in her early 40s with five kids and a new MBA when the germ of the story flashed into her mind. She knew nothing about the Ice Age, yet she worked on the book 14-16 hours a day, fueled by her own insatiable curiosity, and by a deep confidence that she too could cross boundaries.

"One thing that has impressed me tremendously about Auel's work from the start is the reliance she has placed on books and research," says Betty Prashker, Auel's long-time editor at Crown (The Clan of the Cave Bear was acquired and edited by Carole Baron, now president of Putnam and Dutton).

"Auel began The Clan of the Cave Bear with the story of a little girl who faced an unknown world," continues Prashker. "But when she decided that she wanted to set it in the Ice Age she had to confront the fact that she had no real knowledge of it. Her husband told me that the first night [after Auel decided to write the book] he came home from work and found her reading the encyclopedia. The second night she had 45 books out of the library. She taught herself about this prehistoric time--and she's learned enough to be respected by experts. It's remarkable that this whole saga derived from her belief that she could rely on books and her own intelligence, and the belief that she could find things out for herself. She learned by doing."

After the success of Clan, Auel was able to leave the library for the field. She has taken aboriginal life skills courses in Oregon, and traveled to prehistoric sites in France, Austria, Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine, the Soviet Union, Hungary and Germany. These days, archeologists and anthropologists seek her out.

"I was with Jean in Spain last summer," says Naggar. "The head of a new museum in Altimira was very excited to meet her. He told her about something that he had excavated and suggested that maybe she would like to include this finding in a future book. He also told us that he insists that anybody who works for him read Jean's books."

Crossing Boundaries

Jean Auel was born Jean Marie Untinen on February 18, 1936, in Chicago. She was the second of five children. Her father was a painter and decorator who took pride in his work the way Auel's Ice Age flint-knappers and other master craftsmen take pride in theirs.

"He was very proud of the fact that he could hang wallpaper so that you couldn't see the seams because it was so well-matched, and that he could mix paint to match any color," remembers Auel.

Both Auel's parents were the children of Finnish immigrants who became farmers in America, and it's not much of a stretch to see that Auel's seminal story idea about a girl who was born in one culture and raised by another must have been inflected by her knowledge of what it was like to be intelligent but not able to speak the language, of being an outsider in a new world.

Ultimately, however, Auel drew on her own experience to create Ayla, the irrepressible crosser of boundaries. She remembers always having an insatiable curiosity about how things worked. "I still remember being in kindergarten and wanting to play with the blocks and the trains, and the saying, 'No, you go in the playhouse and play with the dolls.'

"I remember thinking, 'What do you mean I can't? Of course I can!'" she exclaims.

After graduating from high school, Jean married Ray Auel and began having children. She tells PW that she didn't even consider going to college. In 1964, with five kids and a full-time job at an electronics firm in Portland, Auel became a member of Mensa (the international society of people with high IQs). This helped give Auel the confidence she needed to tackle an MFA program (without a college degree). But Auel had already been given a priceless gift of confidence, a sort of tacit permission to dare to play with the blocks and the trains.

"I was the one who would sit up at night and talk to my Dad," remembers Auel. "He would listen to a news program, and we'd discuss the news and current events and other things. I think that sometimes if a father pays attention to you as a girl, that can help you develop the idea that you can do what you want to do."

For a time Auel's father worked as a telegrapher on the railroad. He used to leave for work for the swing shift around the time Auel got home from school, and sometimes he would take her along. "He was basically a switchman," remembers Auel. "He would hear a signal in Morse code and that would say a train is coming and he would translate it. Then he would physically pull the switches to change the tracks."

Indeed, one of the most compelling features in all of Auel's books is the way she describes how discovery and creativity and intelligence arise in the midst of practical work. In Cro-Magnon times, she teaches us, people had to be observant and intelligent just to stay alive.

"I've always felt that I could support myself," says Auel. "When I was 14 I got a job at the local. When they found out I was 14 I got a job at another five-and-dime. I also worked in a theater selling popcorn, and I was the only girl paper carrier around."

From the early days Auel's fans have been very diverse. Naggar remembers going through fan mail and finding a touching letter from a semi-literate man in his 70s who announced that he had been so moved by Clan that he was going to go to the library to read more about the Ice Age; and then there were the formal letters on engraved stationary from law firms mixed in with letters from 12-year-old girls. Auel's fans have also proven to be doggedly loyal. Today, although it has been 12 years since the publication of Plains of Passage, Web sites abound (and so do various rumors about Auel having died, which get advanced periodically to explain the long silence after Plains).

Although Auel's fans are pretty evenly divided between genders, women have always tended to respond particularly strongly to Ayla, finding her ongoing story enormously empowering, even initiatory. Jenny Frost, president and publisher of Crown, claims to have been a "major league Jean Auel fan since the publication of The Clan of the Cave Bear. Her new book is everything we could have wished for," she tells PW.

The most poignant sign of the impact that Ayla is making on females (even those too young to read) is "The Great Search for Ayla" sweepstakes.

Currently, Crown is collecting the birth certificates and photos of around 50 girls and young women from all around the country named Ayla. The one judged to be the most Ayla-like will receive a hand-tooled, artisan-crafted, leather-bound, signed edition of The Shelters of Stone, a signed copy of each of Auel's previous books and a framed, personal letter from Auel. The winner is to be selected in May.

At the end of our conversation Auel walks us toward the door. She stops in the middle of her study and stretches her arms out wide to take in the view of the mountains and the city of Portland and her thousands of books and artifacts. "I'm lucky," she says, beaming. "I'm very, very lucky."