By Mike Collett-White
LONDON (Reuters) - Long before J.K. Rowling turned Harry Potter into a publishing phenomenon, another female author, Jean Auel, was launching her own bestselling series set in prehistory which concludes on Tuesday with the sixth book.
"The Land of Painted Caves," being released around the world, is the final chapter in the Earth's Children cycle and follows Ayla as she seeks to balance her role as mother with that of spiritual leader.
The cycle first appeared in 1980 with "The Clan of the Cave Bear," in which five-year-old Ayla, a Cro-Magnon girl, is left homeless by an earthquake and adopted by a group of Neanderthals called the "Clan."
Then came "The Valley of Horses" (1982), "The Mammoth Hunters" (1985), "The Plains of Passage" (1990) and "The Shelters of Stone" (2002).
With a combined print run of 45 million copies, the series has made Auel one of the book world's most bankable stars.
"Probably it's the last one of the Earth's Children series," the American told Reuters in a recent interview in London to discuss the book, published by Random House's Crown Publishing Group in the United States and Hodder & Stoughton in Britain.
"I think it has reached a good ending. I hope it will leave you thinking a little bit," added the 75-year-old, who is renowned for her obsessive research and heavy tomes rich in period detail and description.
Asked how she felt leaving Ayla's world, she added: "I haven't really had to think about it and so I'm kind of avoiding thinking about it, because yes, I'm sure I'm going to be sad."
But Auel, who was a 40-year-old mother of five when she first had the idea of writing a short story about a young woman growing up tens of thousands of years ago, was already thinking about what came next.
"I'm thinking that it might be fun to find a whole other era, something like the beginnings of agriculture," she said.
"Why did we go from millions of years of hunting and gathering to putting seeds in the ground to putting fences around animals and domesticating them?"
Auel recalled the early days of the Earth's Children when she would pour over dozens of books borrowed from the library and work through the nights as the story became an obsession.
"I was caught up, I was obsessed and my in-laws were really upset, because they thought may be something was wrong," she said. "Here I was up all night and sleeping all day and avoiding friends. May be she needs a little help?
"(That was) until I got a book published, and then it was all right because writers can be crazy."
She produced nearly 500,000 words before stopping and realizing that her writing was "terrible." So Auel went back to the library and took out more books on how to write fiction before plowing back through her original copy.
The material kept expanding, and soon she realized she had the outline not for one novel, but six. Even then the research for each book could take years, including visits to caves in France and Spain to study the prehistoric drawings.
Auel's first book was not published until she was 44, but the success of the series has turned her into a millionaire.
Not that everything has gone Auel's way.
The one Hollywood movie adaptation of the series, starring Daryl Hannah as Ayla, was a flop which made less than $2 million at the North American box office upon release in 1986.
"I got burned so badly with that film," said Auel. "To me it was such a terrible film."
The author said she was never allowed the input into the movie that she had been promised, and after the bitter experience Auel has washed her hands of Hollywood and asked her children to deal with any future film adaptations.
"I'll just say (to my children) 'Look, you don't know what's in my heart, and you never will ... so don't worry about if it's accurate or not, just take the money and run. It's not that I was able to do that but they can."
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)