Andre Norton: One Terrific Writer

“Andre Norton is a Wo-man!?!”  The young man’s voice broke on the final word in the sentence.

Books and Jaguars

Books and Jaguars

It was sometime in the late 1990’s, I’d guess about 1998.   The setting was Taylor Ranch Branch Library where (at that time) I’d spend a couple hours each week putting the book shelves in order.  (You know you’re a Virgo when you volunteer to organize other people’s book shelves.)

The staff knew that I write fiction for a living.  Every so often they would send someone interested in writing off to find me where I was lurking among in the shelves.  This time it was a young man of high school age.  He was nice enough but trying to hide his shyness with a bit of swagger.

“I’ve never read any of your stuff,” he said, nervously pulling random books off the shelf and putting them back again.  “But then I don’t usually read women writers.”

“That’s okay,” I replied.  “So do you read SF or Fantasy?  Who do you read?”

He paused.  “Andre Norton.  A.C. Crispin.”

I had to swallow a laugh.  Sensitive as I wanted to be to his feelings, I couldn’t resist.  We were in the “N” section.  I pulled out a newer release of one of Andre Norton’s novels.  Inside the jacket flap was a picture of her at her “grandmotherly” best.  I opened it and showed it to him without comment.

“Andre Norton is a Wo-man!?!”

I nodded.  “A.C. Crispin is, too.  The ‘A’ is for ‘Ann.’  She’s often called Annie.”

Relax.  This isn’t going to be a rant about how women writers still must battle against bias in the field.  I just thought it was a funny story.  Anyhow, is there a better way to illustrate the impact of Andre Norton on readership of SF and Fantasy?  I’d read Andre Norton when I was younger than this young man.  Here was someone discovering her as a favorite twenty or more years later.

What is it about Andre Norton’s work that makes it last when so many of her contemporaries have not?  For one, I think it’s her focus on characters, not just cool ideas (though she has a ton of those, too).  For another, she didn’t write just one type of story.  She wrote a whole bunch.

Both Jim and I love Andre Norton’s work, so this morning I went out to our personal library to review the offerings.  We had a good four feet of shelf space dedicated to  her works  – and that was just the paperbacks.  There was Witch World, that marvelous tale of Simon Tregarth and what happened when he fled from our world into an unknown world where everything was different.

There was The Beast Master – featuring Hosteen Storm, a Navajo refugee from a destroyed Terra.  “Hosteen” is a Navajo word, roughly meaning “old man” but also used to indicate any respected man in the community.  Seeing that book reminded me of an anecdote a friend told me.

She was interviewing Andre Norton as part of research for her dissertation.  She arrived soon after someone had sent Andre the “Navajo codetalker” GI Joe figure.  My friend seemed a bit puzzled by Andre’s excitement over this cheap, mass-produced bit of plastic.  I’m betting that Andre would have been remembering the days before Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels raised general awareness of the Navajo tribe, days when no one had heard of the code talkers.  But Andre had known.  She’d had the vision to imagine these adaptable people heading out to the stars.

Next, I picked up Shadow Hawk, a tale set in 1590 BC, when the Hyksos ruled Egypt…  There was The Jargoon Pard, the first novel I read where shapeshifters were depicted as something other than evil werewolves or some other monsters.  There was Star Gate, an adventure-packed tale on alternate worlds where you might find yourself fighting another version of yourself…

And that was just a handful.  I didn’t seem to have a copy of Fur Magic, the story of a young boy who finds himself transformed into – if I remember correctly – a beaver.  I remember being fascinated by how he had to adjust to all the changes in perspective and ability…  I’m sure reading that novel  impacted and continues to impact on my own writings about non-humans.

The one time I had a chance to meet Andre Norton, I was too shy to speak to her.  She’d been signing for a long line of people at – I believe – a World Fantasy convention.  Roger [Zelazny] finished his own lot and went over to say “hello” – they shared an Ohio bond, as well as that of being writers.  I just watched in polite awe as two of my writer heroes chatted just like “real” people.

However, later I did have contact with Andre Norton .  In the mid-1990’s I submitted a short story to Cat Fantastic IV.  It was a “cold” submission, as I recall, so I didn’t have a lot of hope of getting in.  Therefore, along with my manuscript, I sent a self-addressed envelope with the return postage clipped to the corner.

(You did this because “disposable” manuscripts were only just coming in then.  You clipped the postage because if the story was taken, then the stamps weren’t wasted.)

Roger had died a short time before and I was not only stony-broke but relocating.   It’s a muddled time for my memory, but my memory remains sharp of  my surprise and excitement when a standard-sized envelope arrived with Andre Norton’s name in the return address spot.  It contained a short note accepting the story.

It also contained my postage.  I couldn’t believe it.  My hero had bought my story.  She liked it!  And she’d sent me back my postage.  I teared up.

As I said, I was stony-broke at the time, but I couldn’t bear to spend that money on anything routine.  I’d been admiring some Oaxacan jaguar heads at Jackalope, a local market specializing in folk art.  Impulsively, I decided to celebrate.  Not only did I buy one of the large heads, but a smaller, more detailed one that caught my eye.  They hang in my kitchen where I can admire them every day – and remember a lady of great talent and kindness.

When Cat Fantastic IV came out containing “Noh Cat Afternoon,” the publisher didn’t mentioned my story on the jacket or in the lead material, but Andre Norton’s own introduction singled it out for special mention, saying that among the cats readers would meet were: “…talented Japanese cats able to improvise a Noh play to interest a lordling.”   I melted all over again.

Thank you Andre Norton, wherever you may be.  Thank you for wonderful stories and kindness to strangers.  I’m sure I’m not the only person with tales to tell about how your stories added to the richness of their lives.


13 Responses to “Andre Norton: One Terrific Writer”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    Andre Norton was a large part of my teenage years. You didn’t see very many of her books in England, but the few that did appear were just wonderful. I particularly remember Galactic Derelict — I don’t know how she did it, but she wove a magic spell that held me entranced. Four explorers accidentally trigger the controls of a derelict star ship and set off on a voyage around the universe. It was indescribably wonderful and it sent authentic sense-of-wonder shivers down my spine.

    Later, in my twenties, I found bookshops that imported American books. To my delight I discovered that there were huge numbers of Andre Norton books that I’d never read. In theory I was probably too old for them by then. But theory and practice are quite dissimilar. I absolutely loved them.

    Andre Norton was a wonderful storyteller. There isn’t any higher praise.


  2. paulgenessesse Says:

    Hi Jane,

    Thanks for sharing that story about Andre Norton. I love her work as well, but had never read Shadow Hawk, the ancient Egyptian novel you mentioned in the post. When you suggested I read it a few months ago, I found it immediately on the Amazon used book market for cheap, and had to have it.

    Shadow Hawk (1965) is a brilliant novel, and it read so well, despite it being written in the 60’s. Some “older” novels are written in a style I don’t like. Even at the beginning of her career, Norton was a fantastic writer and her work is still readable 48 years later. I’m so impressed with her body of work and found my way in with Witch World as a middle school student.

    She deserved her Grand Master of Fantasy status for sure. My friend and editor Jean Rabe had the great fortune of getting to help Ms. Norton finish a few of her last novels, Return to Quag Keep (2006), Taste of Magic (2007), Dragon Mage (2009), and Dragon Magic (2009), and I know that Jean considered it one of the highlights of her writing career.

    Life is so much better with good books.


  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    Three Against the Witch World was probably the first book I bought my very own self. It may have been #2 – Men, Martians & Machines could have slipped in first. Doesn’t matter – I was already thoroughly addicted, and Miss Norton was the cause of it all. Defintely, she was the first writer I started looking for by name rather than series title.

    Not the first SF I read – that was a 1/2 volume of shorts in a set called The Children’s Hour. 1/2 because the SF shared volume 16 with the index 🙂 It had some very good stories in it, though, but none of the writers’ names stuck with me, and it doesn’t include any Norton. I was very surprised some years later when I read Green Hills of Earth and recognised The Black Pits of Luna [“That was Heinlein?!?”]

    I’d be interested in knowing who you think of as sadly neglected now, the way Eric Frank Russell is. [IMHO, of course, but Jay Score was contemporary with Liar!]

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Oh! Oh! Eric Frank Russell! I love his stuff — well, I love the funny stories anyway. He wrote some “serious” SF, but that hasn’t really stood the test of time very well. But his funny stuff is timeless and rib-tickling. Wasp, Next of Kin (you may know that one under its American title of The Space Willies), The Great Explosion, Men Martians and Machines. And so many, many hilarious short stories. He even won a Hugo for one of his short stories. It’s called Allamagoosa, and it’s a perfect little gem of a tale.


  4. Laura Leist Says:

    Andre Norton was my gateway to SF, when I was a kid. I remember borrowing copies of her books from my brothers, (without their knowledge) and gulping them down like cold water on a hot day.

    But what I also remember is finding a pirate story she had written while poring over the selections at my local public library one summer vacation. It was called Scarface, and is about a young orphan, and pirates and colonial Caribbean culture. It was just as captivating as her SF and even made me cry a bit, if I remember correctly.

    She had a gift as an author, no matter her subject matter, of capturing my imagination, and I remember researching in encyclopedias, to see if Folsom Points were real.

    I was thrilled to find ebook copies and collections of her works, on Baen, and I plan to spend several hours, wandering through her works, again and again. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. Dominique Says:

    This was a really moving story. It made me tear up at the part where your story was accepted. Thank you so much for sharing it with your readers 🙂

  6. Emily Says:

    I picked up a book of Andre Norton’s when I was only eleven. I didn’t finish it because of lost interest. I’d nearly forgotten her name until this moment. I might have to go find that book and see if an older more mature me will see the wonders everyone else here has.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      If it was the wrong book, that could well happen. Miss Norton was famed as one of the great juvenile writers, back in the days when you didn’t sneak into the ‘Teen’ section for angst and ‘personal discovery’. However, that didn’t stop her from producing some pretty dark stories from time to time. I was 14 when Dark Piper came out. Didn’t read it again for over 2 decades; when I did pick it up, I had a hard time figuring out why I’d disliked it so. It was just as good as any of her other books, but it’s one on the few that is essentially tragedy. Eye of the Monster is another one that would probably repel an 11-year old.

      OTOH, remember ‘Your mileage _will_ vary’. My daughters aren’t fond of Norton either. AFAICT, it’s because she isn’t literate enough for their taste.

  7. janelindskold Says:

    Louis’ query about forgotten writers is a hard one for me to answer because, of course, if they are important to me I don’t consider them forgotten. This would be an area of compare and contrast.

    Still, I remember my shock the first time I mentioned Roger Zelazny in a group of younger (twenty-something) readers and none of them had ever read anything by and many hadn’t even heard of him.

    When I was starting out reading SF/F, he was omnipresent. That the SF book club gave away the first five Amber novels as a sign-up incentive certainly didn’t hurt… But he had the critical respect, too, the awards, conventions dedicated only to his work…

    And now his work is sliding into invisibility with new readers. Unavailable or a culture shift? Hard to know,

    • Other Jane Says:

      I still have the Amber novels from the SF/F Book Club signup. I used to love that book club and have a lot of those books still on my shelves. I’ve never read Andre Norton, though Scot loves her work. I’m pretty sure he’s already loaded it on to the Kindle. I’ll have to check that out.

  8. Paul Says:

    That’s a shame, so many writers sliding into invisibility as far as younger readers go. I don’t see Andre (Mary Alice) Norton’s work in bookstores nowadays — only Asimov, Bradbury and Heinlein are still there from the days of my early SF reading. My first Norton was “Star Man’s Son,” in an ACE double retitled “Daybreak: 2250 A.D.,” just as I was getting to high school. I always enjoyed the color she got into her work, sometimes approaching poetry.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Where are you? Baen has been steadily reprinting Norton’s SF, and I know they don’t have all the rights, so there must be more from another house. They’re also doing, or have done, Anderson, Chandler, Laumer, Anvil, Schmitz and others. Most are available as e-books; paper copies should be available from the usual suspects. All are contemporary with the 3 you mention.

      Still, there are many others as good or better who have fallen by the wayside.

      • janelindskold Says:

        It’s good to know that these reprints are there, but “where are you” is a more serious question than you might realize…

        Many towns no longer have bookstores and if they do they are chain stores that might not give space to a reprint. How to find what you don’t know exists is a huge problem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: