Andre Norton, now considered the "Grand Dame of Science Fiction and Fantasy," was born Alice Mary Norton on February 17, 1912, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her literary career started out with weekly family trips to the library under the influence of her mother, who recited poetry to Alice as she cleaned the house. Her mother started reading aloud to her when she was two, and Alice remembers being able to understand and follow Little Women two years later. "When I started to read by myself," she says, "it was Uncle Wiggley, the Old Mother West Wind stories, and all of the Oz books."
Seventeen years separated Alice from her sister, so it was easier for her to bond with her parents. Alice found them very supportive of her early writing; they were her first proofreaders and editors. At school, her good grades were rewarded with more books, and she edited a fiction page for the Collingwood High School newspaper. She used study hall to begin her first novel, Ralestone Luck; in 1938, it became her second published book.
In 1930, Alice started school at the Flora Stone Mather College of Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University). She spent her freshman year in study to become a history teacher, but was forced to quit when the Great Depression hit the country. She found work to support her family and took all the evening journalism and writing classes she could find. Her longest job was with the Cleveland Public Library system, where she started in 1932 as an assistant librarian at the Nottingham Branch's Children's section. In her eighteen years of work for the library, she spent time in thirty-eight of the forty branches, becoming a troubleshooter for the system. Unfortunately, her lack of a college degree prevented her from getting a promotion.
Despite long hours at the library, Alice continued writing and published her first novel, The Prince Commands, in 1934. She followed that with eight more novels and two short stories before she left her job in 1950. The Prince Commands marked the first time she used the name "Andre," and she had it legally changed that year. Contacts in the publishing world had taught her that her prime audience would be teenage boys, and, right or wrong, her books would sell better with a masculine name. Though "Andre" can be both a man and a woman's name, most people didn't question the identity of this new breakout author.
Literary ideas were very different in those years. Norton remembers having to hide her favorite science fiction and fantasy magazines, Thrilling Wonder Stories and Amazing Stories, "because they were considered by some to be so trashy that a person would not want to be seen in public with them." While working at the library, she fought for the approval of a book most people today consider a classic. She remembers, "Each month the librarians would receive a book to review. If there was some objection to the book, and we still wanted it, we would have an opportunity to defend it. I remember getting The Hobbit and nobody had heard of (J. R. R.) Tolkien, so I had to argue for it like mad."
In 1941, Norton moved to Maryland to operate Mystery House, a bookstore and lending library in Mount Rainier. Although it soon proved a business failure, Norton spent much of her time working with the Library of Congress on a new alien citizenship project in Washington, D.C. "There were many ethnic enclaves in the city, including Italian, Czechoslovakian, Russian, Polish, Ukranian, Jewish, and Chinese…. I was to select books on what it was like to be an American. This was for people who were learning the English language, so books had to be rewritten and simplified with a limited vocabulary." Norton learned many valuable research and writing skills on the project, but when World War II began, it was abruptly stopped.
Norton's next job, as a reader at Gnome Press, left her lots of time for her writing. In just one year of working there she published six novels and an edited anthology. Most importantly, she began her first science-fiction novel, Star Man's Son 2250 A.D. By 1958, Andre Norton had written twenty-three novels. Despite her large volume of work, Norton says that up until 1950, it was very difficult to get published in the science fiction genre. Even now, young writers have to rely on a "great deal" of luck to publish their first book. "You have to hit the right editor with the right type of book at the right time."
Through her masterful storytelling -- and with an element of luck -- Andre Norton has become one of science fiction's most famous female authors. She has won the Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy and the Nebula Grand Master Award, the first woman to receive each. In 1958, Norton left Gnome Press to write full time, and she concentrated on opening a writer's retreat near her home in Tennessee. "There are several writer's retreats in existence," she says, "but they won't admit genre writers." With the opening of "High Hallack," Science Fiction, Mystery, Fantasy, Romance, Horror, and Western writers had a working retreat and research library of their own. Though she laments, "most modern fiction -- at least in this country -- is violent, raw, and most pessimistic," she recognizes talent in the many upcoming writers. Her advice is to follow her path. "A good way to start these days is to write in the Young Adult field. It's not as crowded."