Helle Sidelmann Norup (H.S. Norup) grew up on a golf course in Denmark and lived in the UK, the USA, Austria and Switzerland before moving to Singapore. Recently, she returned to Switzerland with her husband and two teenage sons. She has a Master’s degree in Economics and Business Administration and sixteen years’ experience in corporate marketing strategy and communications. When she’s not writing or reading, she spends her time outdoors either skiing, hiking, walking, golfing or taking photos. The Missing Barbegazi is her debut novel.
The Missing Barbegazi
Tessa discovers the healing power of wishes when she sets out to find a missing Barbegazi, said to live in the mountains near her village. Meeting one is only the beginning of an adventure that unites generations and teaches Tessa that trust is at the heart of the best relationships.
Helle, thanks for sharing a few insights about your debut novel The Missing Barbegazi with The Woolf. I understand the name ‘barbegazi’ comes from mythical Alpine elves and their barbe glacée (frozen beard). Were they the inspiration for your story?
Initially the barbegazi were not even part of the story! I would say that both place—the Alps in winter—and ski club kids inspired it. When I had the idea for the book, my two sons were on a ski racing team, and we spent every winter weekend on skis. I love snow and have always been fascinated by mountains, perhaps because I grew up by the sea in a flat country. From afar, the snow-covered mountains present this beautiful, serene panorama, but up close they are unforgiving and dangerous. I have a deep respect for these dangers—especially avalanches. At the same time, I find it amazing that something as small and insubstantial as snowflakes can become terrifying forces of nature. My admiration for the ski club kids, who show up for training in sub-zero temperatures and band together despite internal competition, was my starting point for the story about an eleven-year-old girl, Tessa, and her struggles to win a ski race. But I had not written more than one chapter before Tessa met a strange furry elf in the snow. After some research, I discovered that the creature Tessa had encountered was a barbegazi. When the barbegazi claimed a starring role, the story became a fantasy and the performance elements, a subplot.
You’ve taken the unusual step of a dual narrative, one human, one not. How much more difficult was the voice of the mythical creature?
It was an interesting challenge to write from the barbegazi’s perspective. As with any voice, the voice evolved from the character’s backstory and environment. The barbegazi family had been incarcerated in the imperial menagerie of Empress Maria Theresa, in Vienna, from 1752 until their escape in 1862, shortly before my barbegazi protagonist, Gawion, was born. The fear of being captured again led the barbegazi to avoid all contact with humans for the next 154 years. The direct implication of this backstory was that their language would be somewhat old-fashioned and that they wouldn’t know the terms for anything invented after the middle of the 19th century. And, obviously, all imagery had to be linked to snow and the wintry setting. Getting the language sufficiently archaic without sacrificing readability (for middle-grade readers) or pace was the key challenge.
There’s a powerful theme of family, belief and trust in both aspects of the novel. Is this a message you had in mind when you wrote the book?
I didn’t set out to convey a specific message. The fact that belief and trust played such important roles in the narrative was not clear to me until I was analysing the first draft. When I wrote the second draft, trust and trustworthiness became a kind of axis for the story. In the beginning of the book, Tessa is somewhat untrustworthy but she learns to trust herself and becomes trustworthy, and Gawion fears humans but learns to trust Tessa. At the emotional low point, Tessa realises that no one trusts her and Gawion swears he will never trust anyone. When they overcome their ‘flaws’, they succeed in their quest and at the same time expose the antagonist, someone who is perceived to be extremely trustworthy, as deceptive.
If there are messages around these themes in the book, then I think it is the suggestion that trusting your own judgment and believing in yourself is more important than what others think of you, and also that overcoming your fears and learning to trust someone who is from a different culture or background can be immensely rewarding.
As a well-travelled Dane, are you a cultural magpie in the sense that you collect imaginative jewels from every culture you’ve experienced? If so, how do you weave those gems into your writing?
I’m definitely a cultural magpie. When I travel, I love to explore off-the-beaten-track areas and I’ve always enjoyed reading fairytales and myths from different cultures. We recently returned to Switzerland after three and a half years in Singapore. For a cultural magpie, Singapore is an absolute dream. It’s a melting pot, unlike any other place I’ve visited, with a myriad of cultures and religions living in harmony. Staying there also gave me the opportunity to experience other countries in South East Asia. Naturally, I always carry a notebook to jot down sensory impressions and I take loads of photos.
I weave my impressions into my stories as lightly as possible in dialogue and description. Pace is a key factor in children’s books, so I never include long paragraphs of exposition. A sprinkle of one to maximum three sentences of description has to be enough to paint a picture and set the scene.
Many authors are still evaluating the best route to get their books in the hands of readers. You made an important decision, based on research and analysis, about which would be the best for your work. Tell us about that thinking process.
Before I wrote before The Missing Barbegazi, I spent four years writing and editing another middle-grade novel (which is tucked away in a drawer). My initial plan had been to self-publish that book if I didn’t find an agent and a publisher, but the more I learnt about the book market, the more I came to understand the difficulties of self-publishing children’s books. The key challenge is that it’s almost impossible to access the readers directly and they often are not the ones making the purchasing decision. Teachers, librarians, parents and grandparents are gatekeepers and often the buyers, and they are such a diverse group it’s difficult to reach the ones who might be interested online. Presence in bookshops is vital, and that is even more difficult to obtain for indie authors than for traditionally published authors, where the publishers have long-term business relationships with the booksellers.
I was lucky to meet my dream editor, Sarah Odedina, at a conference. Sarah read my first manuscript and loved the opening chapters and my writing style, but not how the plot unfolded. She gave me heaps of encouraging comments, while making it clear that she thought I should take a break from that story and write something else. I followed her advice and wrote The Missing Barbegazi, and two years after we met, she and Pushkin Press offered to publish the book.
I’m not sure what would have happened if I hadn’t received feedback from Sarah. I would probably have written a story about Tessa and the barbegazi, because I was already working on it when we met. Perhaps I would still be rewriting and querying that first novel. I also doubt I would have tried to self-publish.
Will we hear more from Tessa and Gawion, or are you starting something new?
I’m happy to leave Tessa and Gawion in the snow, and I don’t have plans to continue their story. My first published short story, ‘Mountain-Spring Sprite Wanderlust’ (Scoop, August 2018), is about a mountain-spring sprite who dreams of seeing the ocean and contains a passing reference to, the barbegazi. Other short stories from this ‘universe’ might eventually make their way into the world.
The novel I’m currently (re-)writing is set in Singapore, where much of the story takes place in my favourite graveyard. The protagonist is a twelve-year-old girl who has been forced to move from Denmark to Singapore to live with her father and his new family. In addition to her real-life concerns, she becomes embroiled in an adventure that explores otherworldly elements from Singaporean and Malay folklore, Taoist beliefs and some of the Chinese myths behind feng shui principles. Needless to say, all my magpie tendencies are paying off now.
Writing for young people is an important way to build a new generation of readers. What other genres attract you and why?
As a reader, I like a well-written book from any genre, and I often read crime, thrillers, historical, magical realism, fantasy and literary fiction. But I particularly enjoy low fantasy which, like my own book, takes place in the real world with fantastical elements. Books by David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern are some of my favourites for adults. There’s a rich tradition of these books in British children’s fiction from authors like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and Philip Pullman, and it’s a tradition that lives on in books by Piers Torday, Kathrine Rundell and many other contemporary writers.
I love reading middle-grade books and I love writing for this age group. It’s possible to tackle big themes inside a fast-paced action story, and genre-bending is, I think, allowed to a much greater extent than in adult fiction. So, I plan to continue to write stories with fantasy elements for young people.
You have attended writing workshops, teamed up with critique groups, visited writing festivals, and connected with publishers, agents and other authors at every opportunity. Why is a writers’ network so important?
There are several reasons. First of all, because I can only write in a quiet place, writing is pretty solitary. So, it’s important to have a support network of like-minded individuals to talk to, people who know the challenges and can empathise with the struggles of being a writer. This is both on a general and a specific level. If I have a plot problem or I’m stuck with a story, it can be useful to bounce ideas off another writer.
Secondly, I’m on a lifelong learning journey, and I really enjoy going to workshops and festivals to learn new aspects of the craft or hear another writer talk about their experiences.
Finally, from a business perspective, it’s crucial to make connections. As mentioned, I met my editor at a conference, and I have met other writers at conferences or talks who have later supported me and my book. I don’t think it can be stressed enough how important it is to support other writers, particularly in your own genre. Read and review their books, listen to their talks, have conversations in real life or online. Then they are much more likely to read your books and give you a quote or write a review.
And The Woolf special question: What is your favourite work of fiction and why?
The last couple of years, my answer to this question has been The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, which I absolutely love. It’s an enchanting coming-of-age story, loosely based on The Jungle Book, and it’s funny and sad and clever and wildly imaginative. There are stories within the main story and the narrative is multi-layered and “gripping for eight-year-olds, but with deeper shades and resonances for older people,” as Margaret Atwood wrote in her brilliant review of the tenth anniversary edition in The Guardian. The book is simply a masterpiece, not just of children’s books, but of fiction.
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