When I was a baby science fiction fan, back when “girls don’t read this stuff” (but of course legions of us did), I read anything and everything I could find that had a spaceship or an alien on the cover. The scantily-clad (female) beauties I ignored; that wasn’t my demographic.
I never paid attention to the gender of the author, or noticed how heavily everything skewed toward male writers. That was just the way the world worked. I did learn that an author’s name usually meant I’d be getting a certain kind of book, and that if I liked one book by an author, I’d want to read more.
Andre Norton had a lot of those books. A lot. For the most part they were short, they were pithy, they had characters I could relate to and settings that captivated me.
I read my way around the shelves at the library, discovered the Witch World and read every volume of the series that I could get my hands on. I loved her space operas, especially my favorite of them all, Moon of Three Rings. Andre opened up worlds that combined science and magic, and gave me protagonists that we now would call diverse. Then, they were just protagonists who seemed vivid and alive to me.
She wasn’t a great prose stylist, I knew even as a baby reader/writer, but it didn’t matter. The stories made up for everything.
Somewhere in there, I learned that Andre was a woman. I was mildly surprised, but it didn’t make a difference one way or the other. “Alice Mary Norton,” I said. “Hmmp.” And went looking for the next book with her nom de plume on it, and then the next and the next.
I’d always been a writer, from the time I could write, and my voracious reading was as much about learning the craft as about soaking up the stories. Andre’s books gave me endless ideas and offered numerous springboards for my own worlds and characters. The idea that the future didn’t need to be white, or that aliens could be both truly alien and accessibly human, came to me in good part from her. So did the ferocious feminism of her Witches, though of course they had to be seen through the eyes of males, and especially an Earth male (white of course), because (cue chorus) That Was How The World Worked.
Then I was not just a writer but a published writer, and part of the job was to attend science-fiction conventions. At one of them, I was introduced to a tall, dignified, soft-spoken lady whose name was Andre. And I fangirled to pieces inside while I said appropriate adult things on the outside. I don’t think I embarrassed myself too much. Andre was gracious and kind, and in every way a role model for a young and callow author.
I was in my snotty-young-writer phase, when everything had to be really, really good or I couldn’t be bothered, and heaven help the writer whose prose wasn’t (in my estimation) perfect. But Andre was Andre. Her books had shaped my youth. They were still shaping me, snotty young writer or not.
One otherwise ordinary day not long after that first meeting, when I was in grad school in New Haven, the phone rang. I was used to getting calls from fans who had tracked me down despite my unlisted number, who wanted to talk about my books or ask me questions or even come and visit. I’d had enough of the last to be prickly, and that wasn’t even counting the calls from strangers who wanted to sell me things.
I was, at that point, able to cope with the phone despite a severe hearing loss, but I was starting to struggle. Eventually that would slip out of the range of what I could do, and then came the internet, and that was a whole new world, but on that particular day, when the phone rang, I would still answer it.
There was a nice lady on the other end, and as far as I could determine in my busy, rushed, struggling-to-hear-her way, she was trying to sell me something. I embarked on my canned spiel. “I don’t want to buy anything, no thank you, please go away.”
But she persisted. She said, “This is Andre. I’m not trying to sell you anything. I want to buy a story from you!”
After I finished dropping through the floor and apologizing all over the basement, Andre explained that she was opening the Witch World to fellow writers, and would I like to be one of them?
I didn’t have enough openings in the writing schedule to let me become one of her novel collaborators, but I wrote a novella for her, and was permitted to make actual Witch World canon. That was a highlight, a definite highlight.
It was also quite some while ago, and the world and the genre have changed in ways both good and bad. Andre died at a highly respectable age (and was and is much missed), leaving a legacy that continues even now in SFWA’s Norton Award; and of course while she was still alive, she had been named a Grand Master of the Genre—and very rightly so. Her books faded for a while, but with the ebook revolution have come back; in fact I just found a Kindle deal for one (and snapped it up).
Since it’s possible to find her books again en masse, either in print or in ebook editions, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate one of the founding mothers of our genre than to dive into a reread. I’ll start with my favorites, especially the Witch World books, and move on where fancy and the booksellers’ websites take me. In fact I just discovered that there are at least five Beast Master books—I only recall two. Joy!
I hope you’ll come along with me as I revisit Andre’s many worlds and characters, book by book. I’ll begin next time with my beloved Moon of Three Rings, which I’ve reread at intervals over the years. I’m very much looking forward to visiting with Krip and Maelen and the Thassa and the Free Traders again. And then Simon and the Witches, and Hosteen Storm, and Garan the Eternal, and the Time Traders, and…
Oh, the places we’ll go!
Original Witch World cover art by Jack Gaughan, 1963.
Judith Tarr forayed into the Witch World with a novella, “Falcon Law,” in Four from the Witch World. Her first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new short novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published last fall by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, many of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed spirit dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.