Monday, February 17, 2014

Before There Was a J. K. Rowling There Was Andre Norton

Just what did you expect Andre Norton to look like?

In junior high school I waited eagerly every month for the appearance of the Scholastic Book Club flyer, four colorful pages on cheap newsprint featuring the gaudy covers of the paperback books we could order.  

There was a lot of crap, girly stuff that no self-respecting testosterone brimming boy would want.  But there were biographies, histories and adventure yarns that I liked.  I ordered war stories—We Die Alone, about a Norwegian resistance attack on a Nazi heavy water, and Red Alert, a novel about a close brush with nuclear war that eventually became the basis for Stanly Kubrik’s Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb  spring to mind.  That’s right—back   in the early1960’s that kind of stuff was considered suitable reading for 12 year olds.

Then one month, I found a blurb for a book called Huon of the Horn featuring a dude in a conical helmet and chain mail on the cover.  Not in my ordinary wheel house, but I took a chance on ordering it.  The price was right.  It turned out to be a historical fantasy based on a Medieval French epic poem.  In today’s parlance it would be classed as a Sword and Sorcery tale, but that genre had not earned its own literary niche yet.  The book was a hell of a good read, packed with historical detail but fast moving with a compelling young hero and very well written.  The author was someone named Andre Norton

I had never heard of him, but I kept my eye out for more books.  It didn’t take long.  Since this Norton character apparently specialized in juvenile fiction other stuff soon appeared in the Scholastic bulletin.  Soon I picked up a science fiction book by the author,  probably The Star Man’s Son, but I ended up reading so many of them it’s hard to remember what was first.

Previously my science fiction reading had been limited to the pot boilers of Edgar Rice Burroughs and some Jules Verne classics.  Andre Norton was my gateway to the world of modern science fiction. Science fiction and fantasy soon became my preferred form of recreational reading and remained so well into my 20’s—all because of Andre Norton.

At some point I became astonished to learn that Andre, who wrote so compellingly of young heroes overcoming isolation and self-doubt, was a woman.

She was born Alice Mary Norton on February 17, 1912 to a middle class Cleveland, Ohio couple.  She attended Collinwood High School where she fell under the influence of a gifted and inspiring teacher who encouraged her to seriously pursue writing.  Young Alice edited the literary page of the school newspaper in which she published her first short stories.  She even completed the manuscript of her first novel, Ralestone Luck before she graduated.  It was good enough, with revisions, to become her second published novel in 1938.

Graduating from high school in 1930, Norton went the teacher’s college of local Western Reserve University but had to drop out after two years because the Depression hit her father’s business hard.

Instead she went to work for the Cleveland Public Library.  It was the perfect home for a bibliophile and aspiring writer who was then interested in meticulously researched historical romances and adventures for young people.  She remained at the library, with brief interruptions, until 1950. In 1940 she briefly worked a as a library catalog specialist at the Library of Congress.  Then she tried her hand at owning and operating a Maryland bookstore specializing in mysteries.  The shop failed in 1941 and she returned to Cleveland.

While holding down the day job, Norton wrote furiously.  Her first novel, The Prince Commands was published in 1934 under the name Andre Norton, which she adopted because she was sure the young male audience for her adventure stories would not read a book by a woman.  The same year she changed her name legally to Andre.  In the ‘30’s and ‘40’s she turned out a steady stream of novels for a younger audience in various genres and contributed short stories to various magazines.

In 1951 she turned to science fiction for the first time with the novella The People of the Crater appeared in Fantasy Book under an alternative nom de plume, Andrew North.  The following year Huon of the Horn, her first fantasy novel, was published under her own name.  Both were successful.  Afterwards most of her output was concentrated in these two related genres.

1951 was also the year Norton went to work as a manuscript reader at Gnome Press in New York for Martin Greenberg.  The fledgling publishing house introduced Isaac Azimov’s Foundation Trilogy and published influential books by Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, Wilmar Shiras, Arthur C. Clarke, A. E. van Vogt, and others.  Working in such heady company undoubtedly led Norton to concentrate on science fiction.

The company, however prestigious, was under-capitalized and always teetering on insolvency.  It became notorious for not paying royalties due.  Azimov called Greenberg an “outright thief.”  The prestige writers decamped with their copyrights to more established publishers as soon as they could.

Norton remembered later staying at Gnome for “three or four years” while she continued to do her own writing on the side.  Her employer, however, only published two of her novels, Sargasso of Space and Plague Ship, both as Andrew North.  No word on if she got paid.

Norton could find other publishers.  After leaving Gnome Press before the ship sank, she became a full time writer at last.  In the late ‘50’s and ’60’s many of her books were published as paperback originals by Ace Books, a low rent publishing house specializing in science fiction and fantasy.  Some were printed in their fat Ace Double editions which included two complete novels in one volume.  Each novel got its own cover.  The reader would turn the book up-side down and read the second novel.  The publisher may have been un-prestigious, but it was beloved of sci-fi fans.

If Norton’s output had been impressive earlier, it now became astonishing.  In addition to short stories and novellas for magazines, she edited and contributed to anthologies, and wrote of standalone novels.  She also launched more than a dozen series of books.  The most famous was  the Witch World series that ran in six parts from 1963-68 and to which she later added well more than a score more volumes, some in collaboration. 

In 1964, after the appearance of the first volume in the Witch World series she was nominated for the first time for a Hugo.  She was nominated again three years for a novella.  Over the years Norton won many accolades from her peers including World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement, winning the award in 1998.

Norton’s health was fragile from the late ‘60’s on.  She moved first to Florida and later to Murfreesboro, Tennessee but continued writing for nearly 30 more years. 

On February 20, 2005, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, announced the creation of the Andre Norton Award, to be given each year for an outstanding work of fantasy or science fiction for the young adult literature market—a juvenile equivalent of their Nebula Award.

The next day Norton entered final hospice care. She died on March 17.  Her last complete novel, Three Hands for Scorpio was published days later.  A final uncompleted collaboration with Jean Rabe was finished by Rabe and published in 2006 as Return to Quag Keep.

Norton never married or had children.  Instead she had books.  In over 70 years as an author she wrote, co-wrote, or contributed to more than 300 books.  Now that’s a body of work.

Norton opened the door for many female genre authors.  As one critic said, “Without Andre Norton there would be no Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. LeGuin, or J. K. Rowling.”

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