This year I had the pleasure of meeting author H. S. Norup (Helle) at an SCBWI conference and it was really interesting to talk to her about her debut novel, The Missing Barbegazi. The story weaves together the themes of grief, family, friendship and the experiences and history of the Barbegazis who are rumoured to live in the Austrian mountains. An esteemed professor, frozen berries and family support all play an important role in this action packed story which had us turning the pages until the very end.
The Story: Tessa has grown up hearing the story of how a Barbegazi rescued her grandfather, Opa. Opa has just died and grief stricken Tessa is determined to find the creatures that so many people are sceptical about.
The Barbegazi family live in a cave in the mountains and one day Maeg, goes missing. Her brother, Gawion, and Papa are convinced that she’s been captured by humans but despite searching the valley they don’t find her. An accident leads Tessa to be rescued by Gawion. But can Tessa help Gawion find Maeg? And who is the mysterious skier dressed in white? Does he hold the key to the mystery of The Missing Barbegazi?
Whilst trying to help Gawion, Tessa is training for a ski race, dealing with friendships in her ski team and trying to come to terms with her family’s grief. Mum is preoccupied with Oma’s health and Tessa feels isolated by her friends so it is her cousin Felix who she turns to for help.
The chapters switch between Tessa’s story and the experiences of the Barbegazi family, these experiences merge as Tessa and Gawion join forces. Gawion has broken Barbegazi rules by speaking to a human but his trust is rewarded by a developing friendship with Tessa who gradually realises that the Barbegazi family are also profoundly affected by the death of ‘the berry man’.
Thank you for visiting Story Snug Helle and congratulations on the publication of The Missing Barbegazi. We really enjoyed the story and couldn’t stop turning the pages to find out if Tessa and Gawion could solve the mystery of Maeg’s disappearance.
We find it fascinating talking to writers about their writing process and the inspirations behind their ideas. How did you become a writer?
I’m first and foremost a reader. As a child I was always reading or thinking up stories. I dreamt of writing a book one day, but since I disliked writing school essays and assignments, I thought writing wasn’t for me. So, I studied business management and had a corporate career, and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I began to write. At the time, I was reading children’s books again (starting with Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling), and I think these books sparked my imagination in a way ‘grown-up’ books didn’t.
Then after years of starting and abandoning several novels, I finally finished the first draft of manuscript. Over the next four years, I learnt the craft of writing, through books, workshops and writing groups, while I rewrote and edited that novel. It will never be published, but it was a vehicle for my writing education, and it helped me connect with my editor Sarah Odedina. The next novel I wrote was The Missing Barbegazi, which Sarah and Pushkin Press offered to publish.
What was your inspiration for The Missing Barbegazi?
When I had the idea for the book, my two sons were on a ski racing team in Sankt Anton am Arlberg where the story takes place, 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. 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 Tessa and her struggles to win a ski race. It was supposed to be a story set entirely in the real world without any magic or mythical creatures. 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.
Is there an existing legend about Barbegazi or are they completely fantastical?
There are legends about barbegazi from the high alps in France and the French-speaking part of Switzerland. But apart from the fact that their name comes from ‘barbe glacées’ and means frozen beard, it’s impossible to find much information about them. So, most of the specific attributes of the barbegazi in my novel are plugged from my imagination.
Could you tell us a bit more about Barbegazi? What do they eat? Where do they live? Is there anything that they’re afraid of?
They live in caves in the snow during winter and deep under the glaciers in summer. Here, they aestivate, which means that they sleep from May to November. They are fearful of humans and all modern human machinery, because humans have often tried to capture them in the past. I’m not going to tell you what they eat, because that is a well-kept secret you will only discover if you read the book.
Interspersed between the chapters you have included some fascinating information from Professor Bahne’s book, ‘Habits & Habitats: A Historic Account of Alpine Elves’. Is this a real book or have you created these texts yourself?
Professor Bahne’s book is written by me. Book excerpts were included in the manuscript from the very beginning, but they changed as the book took form. In early drafts, they were purely a way of giving the reader information about the barbegazi. In the finished novel, they also reveal something about the author, professor Bahne, and it was quite a puzzle to insert them at the moments the information they provide would be most useful to the reader.
We found these excerpts really fascinating, they gave us a really interesting insight into Barbegazi traits and customs.
How and where did you do your research for the book?
I knew the setting well from countless skiing days, but we were actually living in Singapore, while I wrote the book, so I had to rely on memory and photos for a large part of the writing itself. Then, when we went to the Alps during the Christmas holidays, I followed in Tessa’s footsteps. I skied where she skis and hiked up into a gorge with snowshoes and a headlamp at night like Tessa does. Alone on the mountain at night, I was definitely more scared than Tessa is in the book.
I think I would be terrified in that situation!
We absolutely love the way that even the female Barbegazi have beards! Did you have an image of a Barbegazi in your head as you wrote? Does the Barbegazi on the book’s cover represent the Barbegazi that you imagined?
Thank you! And, yes, I had a clear picture of the barbegazi from the beginning. That first image of the barbegazi mum swinging her beard over her shoulder to avoid stumbling over it just popped up in my head, and that’s the reason the females also have beards.
Luckily, I was asked to give feedback while the book covers were developed, and both the UK and the US cover come close to my original vision of a barbegazi. Anna Morrison, the Pushkin Press cover designer, already had a pretty good idea after she read the book. In addition, SCBWI Singapore illustrator Dave Liew helped me get my vision onto paper, after I sat with him and he pretended to be a police-sketch-artist. We sent those sketches to the publisher and afterwards only tiny adjustments were needed.
We found it really interesting to read about how the Pushkin Press cover was developed.
The Missing Barbegazi is published in the US today and the covers of each edition are very different. Is there a reason for this?
The differences in the two covers reflect the tastes and traditions in the two markets. It’s not something I have had any influence on. But as with the UK cover, the US publisher took my comments on their barbegazi into account. I think they did a brilliant job!
We think they’re both really eye-catching.
Do you have a favourite location or environment to write in?
I prefer a quiet room without any distractions. Unfortunately, I’m very unproductive if I try to write in cafés or trains or even libraries. Perhaps I’m simply too curious about the people around me. So, I usually work in my office at home.
Are there any authors who have influenced your writing. Authors that you may have read as a child as well as current authors?
Many! My favourite books when I was around 9-12 years old were Astrid Lindgreen’s The Brothers Lionheart, Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I’m sure these stories have influenced me. Contemporary children’s books authors who inspire me include: Frances Hardinge, Neil Gaiman, Sharon Creech and Philip Pullman.
As a picture book blog we are always fascinated to hear about any favourite picture books that our guests have. Do you have a favourite picture book?
I read fewer picture books now that my kids are teenagers, and I mainly read Danish picture books to them when they were younger. My favourite was a rhyming book about Nessie, and how she escaped through a hole in the bottom of Loch Ness to avoid being hunted by tourists. (Nessie by Lotte Salling.) I also love Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch.
Are you able to tell us about any future titles or projects that you’re working on?
I have just sent my next book to Pushkin Press and it will be published mid 2020. That book is set in Singapore, and 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 Chinese myths.
Wow! It sounds very different to The Missing Barbegazi. We look forward to reading it.
Thank you for visiting Story Snug Helle and congratulations on the publication of The Missing Barbegazi. We really enjoyed the story and the development of Gawion and Tessa’s relationship – we couldn’t wait to see if they could solve the mystery of Maeg’s disappearance and bring her safely home to her family.
If you want to know more about The Missing Barbegazi, the book trailer is absolutely magical to watch...
About H. S. Norup
H.S. Norup grew up on a golf course in Denmark and has since lived in the UK, the US, Austria, Singapore and Switzerland, where she resides 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 first novel.
Thank you to Pushkin Press for sending a copy of this fabulous story. We couldn’t put it down!