Q: You've been known to travel to specific archeological sites around the world to conduct research for your books. Where did you do research for THE SHELTERS OF STONE and how many of the caves in the book are based on actual sites?
A: About thirty thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age, the northern lands were buried under tons of ice a couple of miles thick, but France and other countries of the same latitude were south of the glaciers, which meant people could live there, and did. I have been researching THE SHELTERS OF STONE since my first trip to France in 1982, which was part of my first research trip, during which I also visited Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, and the Ukraine. I have returned to Europe several times for research.
SHELTERS takes place in and around the community of Les Eyzies and along the Vezere River in the Dordogne region of southwest France. I have visited most of the sites there to get a feel for the setting of the story. Some of the caves and rock shelters are relatively unchanged, but others have collapsed or have been irrevocably damaged. Even though conditions are different now, I wanted to see the painted caves and living sites, and how they related to each other and to such things as rivers and other natural formations. Then I had to work out the background details, such as the climate and the way the landscape looked back then.
It was important to get the physical details right because not only have most archaeological specialists of this period studied the French material, but many ordinary people from all over the world have visited the region. Every place mentioned in the book and noted on the end-papers map is a real location that still exists and can be visited today.
Q: While your novels focus on a civilization of the past, there is a very modern theme that runs throughout in Ayla struggling to achieve equality with her peers. When you first created this dynamic character, how much thought did you put into giving her modern sensibilities?
A: The reason there is a modern sensibility to my characters is that those Cro-Magnon "cavemen" were modern people, the first modern humans in Europe. I researched my characters as much as every other aspect of this early culture. My information is based on the knowledge of today's scientists, not the antiquarians of the 19th century, whose views, unfortunately, are still held by too many. I have traveled to many of the locations where those early humans lived and have become acquainted with many professionals in the field, some of whom have shown me some remarkable sites, including extraordinary painted and engraved caves.
Those early modern humans called Cro-Magnon were the first people who not only had skeletons like ours, but were like us in all other ways, which can be convincingly demonstrated by the archaeological record. They were our many-times-great-grandparents, therefore, whatever qualities we claim for ourselves, we must grant them. They had the same range of intelligence as we do, the same emotional responses and psychological reactions, the same ease and facility with language, the same talents, skills and abilities. And they had a remarkable creative impulse. I've seen it, and it certainly convinced me. Neanderthals are still unknowns, but they were far more advanced than most of us imagine; they were also human with brains larger than the average today. There were differences, but they were our close cousins. Once I learned this, I knew I could write the story of a young Cro-Magnon woman raised by a clan of Neanderthals who then finds her way back to her own kind of people. Ayla's struggle creates tension, the conflict, but it is not a modern theme. It is a universal theme. It's natural to want to be accepted, part of the human condition. People understand this and always have.
Q: Your research is praised throughout the world for its accuracy and detail. Can you tell us a bit about the research you do?
A: Most of the information comes from reading and library research, but I have learned a great deal from asking questions, taking classes, and traveling. For example, I took a class from an expert in arctic survival where we spent a night on the snowy slopes of a nearby mountain to learn how to live in cold conditions. From a class in "Aboriginal Life Skills," I learned how people can live off the land, and how to brain-tan a deer hide into wearable buckskin. I've taken plant identification classes, and classes on how to cook wild foods. Ayla's medicine woman skills are a combination of first aid books, books on herbal medicines, and asking questions of doctors and other skilled health practitioners, nurses, paramedics, etc. I have visited many of the sites I write about to get a feel for them, even though conditions may be different now. I even worked for a short time at a dig so I could understand where the information comes from and how the scientists find it.
Q: What about the research for THE SHELTERS OF STONE specifically?
A: With THE SHELTERS OF STONE it was especially important to get the physical details right because not only have most archeologists and other specialists of this period studied the French material, but many "ordinary" people from all over the world have visited the Dordogne region. Every place mentioned in the book and noted on the map is a real location that still exists and can be visited today. It took time to work out the background, such as climate and the way the landscape looked then, the sites and localities before some of them collapsed or were irrevocably changed, and the way the ones still largely unchanged related to such things as rivers and each other.
Q: How much of your book is based on fact, and how much is fiction? That is, do you fill in the gaps left by history?
A: My books are entirely fiction, based on as much factual information as I could find on the subject. They take place 30,000 years ago, and the only things left are hard objects, things that were made of stone and bone, such as stone tools, carved objects, animal and human skeletal remains, and, as it turns out, microscopic residues. Pollen from plants has been found in Neanderthal graves. Hair from various animals, and DNA traces of their blood from stones and knives adds information. Inference fills in a certain amount. For example, if the skeleton of an old Neanderthal man is found which shows that from a young age he had been blind in one eye, had an arm amputated, and walked with a limp, it is fair to surmise that he was not hunting woolly mammoths, which raises interesting questions. Who amputated his arm? Who stopped the bleeding? Who treated the shock? How did he live to be an old man? Obviously someone took care of him; the question is why? Could it have been because they loved him? Or that his culture took care of their weak and wounded? Perhaps "red of tooth and claw" is not an appropriate way to describe those enigmatic human cousins.
Q: The Earth's Children series in an epic adventure spanning many years. Have you always known where the story is going, or has each book been planned separately?
A: When I started, my question was, "I wonder if I could write a short story?" Then I got into the research, and got all fired up, and I realized I was writing a book. At the time, I was calling it Earth's Children, and as it grew, I though it would be one big saga that had easily fallen into six parts. I wrote about 450,000 words, and thought I would cut it when I rewrote it, but when I started to read it, I realized that I didn't know how to write fiction, so I read books about how to write a novel. When I went back and began re-writing, instead of cutting and editing down, putting in the dialogue and the scenes to make a story made it grow. It was with some surprise and trepidation that I came to realize that each of the separate parts was a complete story, and I knew that I had a six-book series. I have been working from that original rough draft as an outline for the series, so I have always known, more or less, where the story is going.
Q: Your own books have a great heroine in Ayla. Who is your favorite literary heroine?
A: I don't really have one. Earlier it may have been the princess in the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, which my favorite sixth-grade teacher read to the class. Though I didn't realize it at the time, I think the reason is that in this fairy tale, the man is captured, and the princess has to perform feats of skill to save him. That was the trouble with so many of the books I ready when I was young. The ones I liked were full of action and adventure, but it was always the men who were acting and adventuring. I never identified with the heroine that was sitting around waiting to be rescued. I was with the hero, snick-snicking with the sword, or whatever. I still identify with the one who is actively making the story happen, and enjoy both male and female protagonists. I don't think it was a conscious decision, but when I started writing, I wanted to write about a woman who did interesting things. I guess that's why she is a heroine.
Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
A: You learn to write by writing, and by reading and thinking about how writers have created their characters and invented their stories. If you are not a reader, don't even think about being a writer. If you want to write, don't say you want to do it some day, don't' wait until the spirit moves you, sit down and do it, every day, or at least on some kind of regular basis. But I would warn those who aspire to it that writing fiction is the hardest work I have ever done. Sometimes words don't want to come. For me, the way to get past writer's block, or whatever those periods are called, is to sit and put down one word after another. I may not even keep it, though often I do. It doesn't matter. I need to get something written. Inspiration happens when you are working at it. At other times I can be so completely immersed in the story that I don't know where the time has gone, but when I get up, I'm drained. I have poured everything I have into the work, and sometimes I find myself putting off, or finding ways to stall, before I sit down to work the next time. But for all the effort, it's what I want to do for the rest of my life.