Remembering Andre Norton


The year was 1974. At age eleven, I was already a confirmed bookworm and my school had just gotten a library of its own — bliss! As I sat there on that day, breathing in the new-building smell of carpet and paint, my eyes kept being drawn to a particular book on display. The cover depicted a human and a reptilian-looking alien on the bridge of a spaceship and was done in a combination of lurid pink and blue. I was fascinated and grabbed it at the first opportunity.

I can no longer recall exactly which title it was, but that book was my first experience of Andre Norton. I had already read War of the Worlds, but it was through reading Ms. Norton that my love affair with science fiction really began. Her work opened up wonderful vistas of new worlds and races that I had never imagined before. Brilliant stuff for a young, inquiring mind! Over the next few years I read everything of hers that I could lay my hands on. Today I can still happily settle down to read one of her classic works that was actually targeted at a younger audience.

Sadly, this giant of the literary world passed away in March this year at age 93. However, her impact on the world of literature over seven decades, especially on science fiction and fantasy, will surely live on much longer.

Alice Mary Norton was born in 1912, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her family was book-minded, so there were always books in the house, and the family even made weekly trips to the public library together. She recalled in interview with John L. Coker III, "Mother started reading to me when I was two years old. By the time I was four, she was reading Little Women, and I could follow." As a teenager she read widely, enjoying Verne and Wells, and the adventure stories of other authors. Ms. Norton also admitted to buying pulp fiction titles of the day such as Thrilling Wonder Stories, Planet Stories, and Amazing Stories — which was not exactly the 'done' thing for a young lady of her generation.

While attending Collingwood High School, Ms. Norton began writing her first novel, which eventually became her second published novel, Ralestone Luck.

Following secondary school, university beckoned and Ms. Norton enrolled to study history teaching. Unfortunately, the pressures of the Great Depression forced her to leave after her freshman year in order to work and help to support her family. Despite this drawback, she still managed to take courses at night in English and journalism, and of course she continued to write.

One of the most important jobs that Ms. Norton had over the years was in the children's section of the Cleveland Public Library. Being in that role for more than twenty years exposed her to much other fiction as well as helping her to put her own stamp on children's reading within the library. She later recalled the library receiving a copy of The Hobbit to review but "nobody had heard of Tolkien so I had to argue for it like mad." It's hard to imagine a public library without Tolkien these days!

Alice changed her name to Andre in 1934 after her first novel, The Prince Commands, was published. Her publisher prompted this change, as a masculine name would help to sell to the target market: boys. Her early books included adventure, mystery, spy, and historical works as science fiction and fantasy were not selling in book form until the early 1950s. Her first published science fiction story, "People of the Crater," was included in the first issue of Fantasy Book in 1947.

After leaving the library service in 1951, she worked for Gnome Press as a manuscript reader. She was unable to work properly at the time due to problems with vertigo, and read the manuscripts at home in bed. At this time she started writing The Solar Queen [Sargasso of Space] for Gnome although they preferred that she write under another name for them. She selected the nom de plume Andrew North as it sounded close to her own adopted name.

In 1958, with more than twenty novels already to her credit, Ms. Norton commenced working as a full-time writer. Ever prolific, she finished her career with more than 130 novels and many short stories published, and edited many anthologies across different genres.

Ms. Norton also had a well deserved reputation for offering advice to new authors and being prepared to collaborate with other writers. Ursula K. Le Guin recalled in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) obituary how proud she was, after her first novel was published, to receive a letter from Ms. Norton that praised her work and encouraged her to do more. "[It] seemed miraculous to me that she had taken the time from her own work to write a newcomer at all — let alone telling them hey, it's good, write more." The SFWA-published obituary includes other remembrances of how Ms. Norton touched the lives of notables figures.

While she helped launch a lot of new writers, Ms. Norton modestly said that she had just "spoken up for people I thought talented but sometimes — most times — no one listened." Yet many writers received a significant break by being included in one of the many anthologies that she edited or by having her collaborate with them.

Her advice to writers on getting published was that it depended a great deal on luck — getting the right type of book to the right editor at the right time. Compare this with her own first book publishing deal where she sent her manuscript to the first publisher on an alphabetical listing, and they bought it. However, the publishing game has changed greatly since 1934. "Today some books that are really well written are being turned down, while others that are trashy are getting published." She believed the trouble stemmed from the buying and selling of companies so that writers don't know whom they're dealing with any longer. With the focus on how well a book will sell, editors won't take a chance on a new writer.

Very highly regarded herself in the speculative fiction community, Ms. Norton still held others in high esteem. On recalling her meeting Arthur C. Clarke in 1994, she commented on feeling overawed by him due to his standing in the field. Her standing wasn't too bad, either!

Ms. Norton earned her share of well-deserved awards and recognition over the years. Among these were lifetime achievement awards from both the World Science Fiction and World Fantasy Fiction Conventions, and the Jules Verne award; she was the first woman to be awarded the title of SFWA Grand Master and was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, as well as being the first female winner of the Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy award.

In recognition of her contributions to the genre, the SFWA has created the Andre Norton Award for young adult novels. Ms. Norton approved this award and even suggested some titles for consideration prior to her passing. The first of these will be awarded in 2006 along with the Nebula Awards.

When asked what one thing she would like to be remembered for, Ms. Norton replied that it would be the Witch World series of novels. That series, stretching to over thirty titles, was noted for attracting a large female audience at a time when speculative fiction was largely targeted towards males.

From your legions of fans, thank you, Ms. Norton. You will long be remembered for bringing us many hours of enjoyment, inspiration and stimulation. And as for myself, thank you for starting my love affair with science fiction over thirty years ago. Long may it continue.



Open menu