Articles

Behind the Medieval Historian a Speculative Fiction Novelist by Ian Irvine

This is the third part of Dr Ian Irvine’s wonderful introduction to Sara’s lectures. Hope you enjoy reading it as much I have. Karen

It was during the pre-tutorial meetings in the first half of 1994 that I first learnt Sara was also busy writing and submitting for publication numerous novels. Dr Sara Warneke, Historian was already on the way to becoming Sara Douglass, Novelist – specifically: Fantasy Novelist, though she preferred other terms, e.g. ‘Modern Romance’ i.e. story-telling derived from the Romance tradition of the Medieval era. I loved Medieval history and I was also a secret fiction writer, among other things, so we had lots to talk about.

I remember having a kind of epiphany one day in her office – it was soon after she’d told me she was also a novelist. Sipping coffee and laughing at one of her wry asides I looked around at her vast collection of books and realised for the first time that the Fantasy genre was bloody hard work. Although the common perception is that such fiction comes ‘straight out of the writer’s imagination’ in truth a quality Fantasy writer, and Sara was world class, needs to read and absorb much more material than just about any other kind of fiction writer. To illustrate the point I’d like to quote a section of narrative from The Nameless Day, one of my favourite novels by Sara:

 

And so Thomas rode on.the-nameless-day-us-1sted

This time of the year the road that wound north was busy with carts piled high with hay, or fruits, or broodily grumbling calves or pigs, heading for the markets and stomachs of Nuremberg. Pedlars jangled by, their carts packed with bright pots, cooking utensils, and ribbons and fripperies for goodwives to waste their hard-earned coin on. There were innumerable pilgrims, travelling in bands that were sometimes small, sometimes huge. Thomas counted four-score in one gaily chatting band that passed him late in the evening. And there were soldiers. Stragglers, rather than coherent units, and probably mercenaries moving to look for work. (…)

Among the carts of merchandise, pedlars, pilgrims and soldiers straggled the occasional peasant, perhaps wandering down to Nuremberg in the hope of picking up work somewhere. Since the pestilence, there were few people who could find no work, but there were always some: the sick or crippled, those lingering on the borderlands of insanity, and the sheer malingerers who preferred a life drifting from employment to employment …

Of all the travellers, Thomas hated the beggars the most. They were society’s pests – skulkers who had lost even the art of malingering – who no longer even wished to pretend an interest in work. Most had a missing limb, generally a foot, and they hobbled past on crutches, or rumbled by on ill-made, hand-propelled carts.’

 

I’ve quoted the passage almost in full because I want to emphasise the enormous amount of research behind such an apparently simple compressed time passage – working, ostensibly, to establish setting. Throughout Sara’s lectures on Medieval history and society we repeatedly come across lines that have been transferred, almost word for word, into passages like the one above. In perusing the various folders of overhead images she gave me I also note how key scenes and details from the overheads (often of original woodcuts by Medieval artists) ended up in her novels, e.g. scenes from bath houses, peasant banquets, torture dungeons, peasant revolts, knightly activities, hangings, weddings, relations between the sexes, work activities, etc. Many of the images are wonderfully domestic (ploughing, food preparation, sewing, etc.), others are deeply confronting (criminals in cages, beheaded war captives, realistic and fantastic images of the plague, etc.).[1] She tried to bring every lecture to life with images that illustrated the content.

In The Nameless Day, and the Crucible series generally, the ‘transfusion’ between her academic activities and her fiction is direct and obvious – given the book is set in the tumultuous 14th century. images-2However, the setting descriptions and authenticity of the fantastic worlds Sara constructed elsewhere also owed much to her ability to ‘inhabit’ European landscapes imaginatively at any point in time from the Dark Ages to the Ancient Regime of the 18th century.

As an historian Sara believed in the value of researching and teaching the history of the common people, this included the history of changes to their ways of raising children, their marriage and sexual customs, their work life, their popular superstitions, etc. – the subject matter of her Medieval World unit in particular. There was more to the past than the achievements, beliefs etc of the ‘rich and powerful’ and Sara was well-versed on key academic debates related to medieval social history. Some of the lectures reproduced here detail her interests in this area – lectures on Medieval understandings of time, childhood, sexuality, popular culture, popular magic, etc. to name but a few. Incidentally, this love of and belief in social history also fed inspirational historic ‘coal’ directly into the engine/furnace of her creative imagination

 

Magic is Most Evocative When Grounded in Reality

 

After 1999 Sara became a different kind of mentor/inspiration to me. Like her I’d felt the pull of other forms of writing outside of academic non-fiction. In my case I began publishing poetry in the late 1990s and in 1998 became a literary ezine editor. It was as co-editor of The Animist, that I interviewed her in 1999. During the interview it became clear that she had become preoccupied with the challenges of fiction writing – she was thinking a lot about the genre that had brought her so much success and understood what she wanted her own unique contribution to the genre to be. Interestingly, the historic realities of life in Medieval times provided the foundation for her efforts in this area.

One facet of Sara’s ‘realism’ was her knowledge of the lives of women, children, peasants and marginalised people in pre-industrial societies. Paradoxically then, one of her great strengths as a speculative fiction writer – evident from the first pages of Battleaxe – was her commitment to merging historical realities with traditional fantasy tropes

When I began teaching in the writing program at Bendigo TAFE in 1999, Sara often visited as a guest speaker for our Myths and Symbols, Novel and Writing Industry Overview classes. In these talks she shared her vast knowledge of fiction writing and the Australian and international publishing industries. Yet again I was learning from her. One day, in response to a question by a student about plotting she answered, ‘I write with cards – 20-30 cards. I know I have a novel when I’ve found 20-30 key scenes that I can see vividly in my mind. Usually I write straight through the first draft once I’ve settled on those key ‘dramatic’ scenes … Sometimes I’ll shuffle the card/scenes around a bit – changing the order as I write. Usually each key scene forms the essence of a single chapter. After that it’s just filling in the dots – i.e. linking those key scenes together into a narrative.’

I’ve never forgotten this wonderful advice to writers.

 

 

 

BattleAxe, The Axis Trilogy and Sara’s Women: Re-reading Sara Douglass with Karen Brooks

The wonderful people at Voyager/Harper Collins asked me to blog about 20 years of Sara Douglass’ Battleaxe and our friendship. Here is what I wrote.


battleaxeIt’s hard to believe it’s been two decades since BattleAxe first hit Australian shelves and entered readers’ imaginations. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of this game-changing novel, other writers have meaningfully reflected upon how and why Sara and her work were both aspirational and inspirational in terms of their own craft and the Australian fantasy-writing scene. In honour of this occasion, Voyager/Harper Collins have asked me to share my experiences on first reading the Axis trilogy compared to reading it again recently.

Returning to the books after such a long spell and after devouring Sara’s other amazing novels in the interim, losing myself in the detailed and fabulous worlds and people she created, I was a bit anxious. My memories of my first encounter with the books are still very strong. I recall sleepless nights, the emails to Sara telling her where I was up to and how upset I was by something she’d done to a character (usually Faraday), or how deliciously apt she’d made someone’s comeuppance, or how damn gory a specific battle or scene was. She would write back in her usual way – wicked humour laced with irony – and tell me to hang on, worse was to come.

She was right.

That was the most wonderful thing about re-reading BattleAxe, and the rest of the series. It has more than held up in the intervening years; even improved as being a writer, I now understand the complexity and beauty of what Sara has done. BattleAxe is still astounding within the genre: populated by original and remarkable characters whose motivation, actions and reflections make them all too human, even when they are not. It’s thrilling, bloody, spiritual, sensual, sexual and with a centre that draws upon history in innovative ways, offering a profound commentary on religion, ideology and cultural conflict that’s compelling and quite extraordinary.

battleaxe-1steditioncover-ShaunTanI confess. Re-reading not just BattleAxe, but the trilogy, I was dumbstruck again. My dear friend, the woman with whom I drank too much, laughed till we cried, chatted with ghosts, discussed the ups and downs of academia and writing, confessed hopes and dreams for the future and our love of animals; whom shared her secrets with me including her greatest fears, wrote this bloody fantastic series.

I was both proud and humbled and if I’m completely honest, a little scared as well. I mean, how many of your friends can describe a birth-scene to the point some vomit? This made Sara, who always sought to challenge stereotypes and clichés as well as utilise them when appropriate, cackle like a hen.

While it’s tempting to try and “read” Sara through her books, make an attempt to understand her attitudes to say, the world, religion, men, friendship, families etc. via the words drawn from her vivid mind, it would be a mistake. Sara was not the characters she created or their stories; though, I might concede this (and she would very likely laugh her head off) in her portrayal of complex, compassionate, kind, clever and strong women you might come close.

I adored the range of female characters in this series (I loved the men too). Some of the most … how do I put it… interesting conversations Sara and I had about the Axis Trilogy revolved around two of the main female characters: Azhure and Faraday. Whereas I identified with both and found them stalwart and fascinating studies, I always felt Sara was a little harsh on Faraday, if not unfair.

Enchanter-rereleaseWhen reviewing Enchanter, the second book in the series in 1996, I wrote: “Azhure would have to be one of the most realistically and compassionately constructed fantasy heroes to date. She has a fabulous birthright, a shocking past, and a greater role in the prophecy … than anyone would have foreseen. Enchanter is as much her story as it is Axis’s.”

When Starman, the third book in the trilogy was released, I said of Faraday that she returned “with a vengeance and, whilst not distorted by Axis’ shoddy treatment of her, she is appropriately bitter, and this makes her character all the more appealing and places an edge to her dedication… Faraday is an enigma, and while her final moments in the book are a sad if fitting tribute, I cannot help but think she deserved better.”

Perhaps her name should have been a clue to her destiny.

Keen to recuperate “lost” history wherever she could, uncover secrets, it was when passing through the sleepy township of Faraday outside Bendigo in Victoria, Sara knew she had the name for her naïve and “doomed” heroine. Faraday – the place – is renown for the kidnapping of six female school students (aged between five and ten) and one teacher in October 1972. A ransom of one million dollars was demanded. It was never paid and, due to the plucky actions of the teacher, they all escaped unscathed.

starman-1stedition-shauntanSara chuckled when I told her I loved Faraday and felt she endured so much. That gleam came into her eye. “I can’t stand her,” she said provocatively. “If I could, I’d kill her off,” she told another friend who felt the same way as me.

Of course, she didn’t and revelled in and respected the passion her fans showed for this remarkable character she put through the wringer in every conceivable way.

But Sara also pulled back from making Faraday more than the “victim” she could have been – just like the strong teacher and her resilient pupils. Sacrificing herself for the greater good, Faraday becomes a spiritual foil to the grand physical and emotional zeal of the beautiful and powerful Azhure and Axis and leaves the world a better place.

Perhaps that’s where Sara, without knowing it, has something very much in common with the least favourite of her characters. Like the Tree-Friend Faraday, Sara Douglass, through the words she crafted as well as the ideas she planted, which continue to thrive and grow, has indeed left this world a better place.

And we’re all the richer for that.

Karen Brooks


©2015 Karen Brooks / Voyager Online. You can read the original blog post on the Voyager Online website here.

20th Anniversary of BattleAxe

battleaxeI am absolutely thrilled to announce that Sara’s publishers, Voyager, are releasing a special 20th anniversary edition of Sara’s very first novel, Battleaxe, in March this year. Featuring quotes from wonderful writers such as Juliet Marillier and Fiona McIntosh and a foreword by me, Karen Brooks, and with a gorgeous new cover, readers can once more (or the first time) relish this tale of love, brutality, mystery, treachery and magic.

Battleaxe was the book that brought Sara and her fantastic stories into the literary sphere and reader’s lives the world over. I hope you will all enjoy re-reading and/or discovering Axis, Rivkah, Faraday, Gorgreal and the entire cast of complex, amazing characters  and places as much as I did. My only wish is that Sara was here to see the way in which her work lives on and continues to not simply capture, but grab readers over and over.

The cover is both simple and yet elegant and reflects the major themes of the book. These are exemplified in the tree cross-section, done a blood-shed red, and the axes, so neatly crossed and positioned in its centre. Here, in symbolic form, we have religions clashing, nature and culture and those who stand on these (in the world of Tencendor) diametrically opposed sides intersecting, and the threat of combat and destruction looming.

The parchment background and bold, Stygian black of the title and curlicues signify both the historical research underpinning the book and the power of the written word. In the world of Battleaxe, this is neatly juxtaposed against oral culture and the songs and magic that complete it.

Finally, there is Sara’s name embossed in gold – gold for the richness her work has brought to so many lives and in honour of the memory of a wonderful women, friend, and writer. Can you believe it’s been 20 years since Battleaxe first burst its way onto the fantasy novel scene? I know I cannot. It really does seem only yesterday when Sara found a tiny plastic axe, picked it up and took it home and allowed a story to unfold before her mind’s eye.

The axe that started it all.

That little axe is now glued to my computer (see my very poor picture on the right – that is the edge of my mac you can see). It is my muse; a reminder of Sara every time I write (like I need one – I don’t really, but it does provide comfort). It gives me inspiration, hope and, most importantly, a kick up the bum when I’m lost for words or feeling flat – something Sara did for me (and I for her) often.

I hope that you are as excited as I am by this beautiful new edition of a most beloved book.

Warmest wishes,

Karen

Karen Brooks: Loss, Grief and the Healing Power of Words

Editors note: This article was taken from Karen Brook’s personal blog.


I have been absent a while, haven’t I? For that I’m so sorry and please, I ask that you read and accept this blog as a rather poor attempt to both apologise  and explain why before I beg your forgiveness and let you know that I’m back and invite you to return as well…

karen-sara-selfie-kitchenThe reason I’ve been gone is twofold: I’ve had several operations this year, related to post-cancer complications, and which mean I now have a pacemaker. It’s been hard to become accustomed to and I’ve had periods of terrible illness and pain. But all that pales by comparison with my second reason for deserting this cyberspace and puts what I’ve been through into perspective – the terrible illness and death of my beloved friend, Sara Warneke who most of you know as the writer Sara Douglass.

Ten and half months ago now, my partner, Stephen, and I shifted temporarily to Hobart, Tasmania, to care for Sara as she tried to deal with the last stages of ovarian cancer. I have written about this elsewhere, mainly in my obituary for Sara on the Voyager website a day after she died.  You can read it here or on the Voyager website.

(I should add that Lucy Sussex also wrote the most amazing obituary for Sara that’s appeared in many newspapers.) I also write about Sara – her life, influence and works as well as our relationship that spans twenty years – in the Introduction to the beautiful compilation of her short stories, The Hall of Lost Footsteps, which was published posthumously by Tinconderoga Publications.

HallofLostFootsteps-200x300Together, these, along with a brief piece I wrote about Sara in Australian Author, explain the months and weeks that led up to her death and give a glimpse into our long-term friendship. What none of these do, however, is elucidate the impact her death has had in other ways and on other people – not just me, but Stephen, her other very close and loving friend (and mine too), Dr Frances Thiele (who adored and was in turn, adored by Sara), or the grief felt by her family, other friends, and loyal fans.

While I always knew the day of Sara’s death would come and, as she became sicker, tried to prepare myself (as did Stephen), it wasn’t until almost a week after she died, that the reality of her absence hit me. She really wasn’t going to phone or text me again. When I went to her house, she wasn’t going to open the door and fold me in one those tight hugs I loved receiving. She was gone… for real. For good. When the realisation struck, I felt like the sun hadn’t gone behind a cloud so much as imploded; as if the lights had gone off in not only my house, but, for the time being, my life, and plunged me into a grey world of shadows and murkiness leaving me to stumble and misapprehend.

Sara had been my anchor for the last nine months, my life had been tied to hers in the most intimate and loving of ways and now, suddenly, I was cast adrift. I could no longer talk to her, hold her, share my thoughts and fears, and she couldn’t with me either. A part of my world that, despite the encroaching presence of death was remarkably light and love and hope-filled, had been swallowed by darkness and, worse, an enormous silence that I didn’t see, despite everything being there in front of me, coming. It was the strangest and scariest of sensations. There was not the silence associated with quietude or stillness, but an agitation that had no way of being expressed or relieved. As if the frequency we operated on and within could no longer be tuned. There was only static, no clear signal. Weighed by grief, I swam in circles, barely staying afloat, my ears pricked for a sound, a sign, for a signifier that this lostness was temporary. For Stephen it was the same. We lived and worked in a haze, thinking we were coping when in reality, we were sinking into this hungry silence.

And yet…

Every time we spoke of her, recalled something either with each other, or Fran, or someone else including the many and beautiful homage on FaceBook and other cyber-pages, the silence cracked and the load diminished slightly. Memories came in the most unexpected form and ways. The first time Sara’s cat, Luther, walked into my arms and curled into my neck like he’d always belonged, giving me the audible cuddle that we call a purr, an image of Sara with all her cats surrounding her filled my mind and put me strangely at peace.

sara-frannie-kitchenI laughed out loud, scaring the other cats and, most of all, myself – but not Luther. After that, each time one of the others came to us for attention, licking, purring, kneading our legs and arms in the way cats do, putting you on edge as you wait for the claws to stick, we found our pain eased and smiles bloomed where tears had once fallen.

Then there were the notes – to me, herself, to others – that we found and treasured. Simple things, like remembering to pay the ‘butcher lady,’ put the bins out, remind Karen about Cromwell (one of the Birmans); there were lists of ‘things to do’ which conjured both sadness and delight at her orderliness; or the folder of recipes that Sara used and which we all enjoyed at her table together, using produce she grew in her garden and which we harvested and cooked as a family. These little paper treasures rip a hole in you when you find them, but then they catapult you back to the moment and the unexpected recall has its own terrible beauty. I loved finding these things, how they would throw us off emotional balance, only to repair our hearts after all. Together, they amounted to a record of a person and life that was rich, complex, giving and simple at the same time – one that we were privileged to share.

When the gardens of Nonsuch began to bloom a few weeks ago, our souls felt renewed. Here was the life that, together, Sara and, later when she became too sick, Stephen under her instructions, planted and nurtured. I felt Sara in every new bud, every blossom that burst into life and colour. Bees hummed, butterflies danced and birds sang while the supine cats, grooming themselves in the sunlight, pretended not to watch them. This was her creation, her gift to everyone, continuing, just like her stories will as well.

stephen-sara-mt-wellington-windyAfter weeks of not being able to conjure a word or creative thought and becoming despondent about that, a story, unbidden but so very welcome, took seed in my mind. I was in, of all places,  a Whisky Distillery when it happened, taking me by complete surprise. I was in no ordinary distillery mind. I was in Larks in Hobart with my sister and her friend who were visiting. This place, like so many others around Hobart, has also become a special part of our shared life with Sara. You see, not long after we arrived here, Stephen and I introduced Sara to the joys of a locally made Whisky liqueur – Slainte – that is made by Larks.

It’s like nothing I have ever tasted before – pure golden sweetness followed by a warm caramel heat that coats your throat before it delivers a small kick below the heart. It is magic. The first time Stephen and I tried it, we knew Sara would love it, and bought her some. We were right. Sara called the woman who made it a goddess and swore it was ambrosia. Stephen would ensure there was always some for Sara and Larks, in a spirit of generosity, not only discounted what we bought, but gave Sara a bottle for free with every order as well. That a simple drink could bring so much pleasure amidst so much pain….

slainteIt seems fitting somehow that the first time I returned to this place after Sara died, a place that though Sara had never graced its cosy rooms nonetheless brought her so much comfort and joy, I found a story – the basis for my next novel. It was there, waiting for me, and I accepted the gift of its presence gratefully.

Doing the research and starting the writing process has brought me a healing I never expected. It’s not quick and nor would I want it to be, but it is a sweet and tender ache that brings with it unexpected bouts of sadness followed by moments of sheer joy – joy in the power of words and imagined characters to transport you beyond your own life and propel you into times and places otherwise denied. This is something Sara knew as well and used after her initial diagnosis and towards the end. It might be escapism, but it’s also a blessing. I like to believe, perhaps indulgently, that Sara made sure that tale came to me on that day the way it did. Anyhow, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Every word I write now, I raise an imaginary glass to my darling friend: Slainte Sara.

So, there you have it.  That’s why I’ve been absent from my website and blog – I retreated for a time, firstly to begin my own process of recovery and then to care for a friend who needed me, needed Stephen too. That I needed her just as much was always apparent to me, but her death has made that awareness acute and hard to overcome. She didn’t choose to leave me, us, this life, her life, and that’s why I’ve struggled so hard with her absence: the unjustness of it. What I didn’t expect was that, just as she was in life, she’s there beside me in death and, in my writing, whether it be this blog or the stories I have yet to tell, she will be with me every syllable of the way.

There you are, my friends. I am back. I hope you forgive me. After all, we have a journey to take and I have many tales to tell…

Thank you.

Editors note: This post originally appeared on the website of Karen Brooks. Karen and her husband Stephen were Sara’s carers for the last nine months of her life until she passed away.

SMH: Writing was fantasy novelist’s own escape

sara-douglass-smh-obitSara Douglass, 1957 – 2011

Sara Douglass was the pre-eminent Australian author of epic fantasy and the first author to show that an Australian could have worldwide success from writing fantasy. Her books sold almost a million copies in Australia alone, and far more internationally, with many translations.

She was born Sara Warneke on July 2, 1957 in Penola, South Australia, to Robert Warneke, a health and weeds inspector, and his wife, Elinor (nee Lees). A notable ancestor was the 19th-century spiritualist Robert James Lees, who claimed to have identified Jack the Ripper.

The Warnekes moved from the family farm to Adelaide when Sara was seven and she was sent to Methodist Ladies College. She began writing at school and came second in a national essay competition. Despite showing academic promise, she followed in what she described as a ”female family tradition” of nursing.

She worked as a registered nurse in Adelaide for about 17 years and completed a BA, then a PhD in early modern English history, both part-time at the University of Adelaide. Many of the manuscripts of her best-selling fantasy novels are held in the Barr Smith Library at the university.

In 1992, her PhD completed, she left nursing for a lectureship in mediaeval history at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus, and published one book of history as Sara Warneke, Images of the Educational Traveller in Early Modern England (1995).

Later, under her pen name of Douglass, she also published a study of the King Arthur legend, The Betrayal of Arthur (1998).

Warneke found academia stressful and uncertain, and again she sought a way out of her employment and returned to writing, completing several unpublished novels, including Mills&Boon-like romances that were rejected for being too dark.

Then, in a move she would describe as ”almost by accident” she turned to writing fantasy, hitting her literary stride with Battleaxe (1995), set in the imaginary world of Tencendor. Like J. R. R. Tolkien, she found a background in mediaevalism the perfect training for writing in the epic fantasy genre.

Middle Ages history informed the imaginary sword and sorcery realms of her novels, and made them credible, lived-in worlds.

Once Battleaxe was accepted, her publisher, HarperCollins, requested a pseudonym because Warneke would mean relegation to the lower shelves of bookshops, She chose Douglas, the name she would have had if born a male, with the added ”s” to feminise it, mediaeval-style.

Now in her niche, she completed more than 20 novels. She was formidably prolific, especially since genre expectations for epic fantasy mean trilogies and books that can exceed 200,000 words.

Battleaxe was the first book of the Axis trilogy, followed the next year by Enchanter and StarMan.

The latter two books were joint winners of the 1996 Aurealis award for best fantasy novel, followed in 2001 with another Aurealis for The Wounded Hawk.

Two later series, The Wayfarer Redemption and Darkglass Mountain, revisited Tencendor. She also wrote several independent historical fantasy series, The Crucible trilogy and the Troy Game series.

Despite the pace and volume of her writing, she never compromised her authorial standards.

Advised to move to Ireland for tax reasons, Douglass preferred the cool climate of Hobart, where she restored a historic house and garden. Although she was an intensely private person, she maintained contact with her fans via email, bulletin boards and her website.

She stopped only when she was receiving hundreds of messages a day; she was generous with advice, and encouraging, to aspiring fantasy writers.

In 2008, Douglass was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the disease that had killed her mother. She produced some remarkable writing about her disease, including a blog entry, The Silence of the Dying. It drew a strong response, both online and when reprinted in newspapers.

Despite her illness, Douglass saw through the editing process of her final novel, The Devil’s Diadem, and although too weak to read, she saw advance proofs of her first short story collection, the recently published The Hall of Lost Footsteps.

Sara Douglass is survived by her siblings, Christine, Paul, and Judy, and her carers during her illness, Karen Brooks and her husband, Stephen.

©2011 Lucy Sussex / Sydney Morning Herald.

This obituary originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and was syndicated throughout the Fairfax Media network. 

SMH: Late author’s lasting legacy

sara-in-office-featuredSara Douglass was world-famous for her novels, but her blog about dying, featured in the Sunday Times, captured WA’s attention.

She sparked a flood of letters when her controversial blog entry, The Silence of the Dying, featured in the Sunday Times last year. And now she has found peace.

Award-winning fantasy author Sara Douglass had her ashes scattered over her gardens at her home in Tasmania on Friday after passing away from ovarian cancer, aged 54. (September 30th, 2011)

The former South Australian nurse turned medieval history lecturer shot to international fame with her Axis Trilogy.

A collection of short stories, The Hall of Lost Footsteps, was finished just before her death and will be published in November (2011).

Douglass, whose real name was Sara Warneke, gained unexpected attention mid last year when her blog was featured in Sunday Times , giving a raw, funny and honest account of dying.

It included how the well-meaning drown people in soft toys, cards and empty platitudes, while the seriously ill are forced to cheer up loved ones. Assuming loved ones still want to visit, that is.

“Our collective attention span for someone who is ill lasts about two weeks,” she wrote. “After that they’re on their own. From my own experience and talking to others with bad cancer or chronic illness, I’ve noticed a terrible trend.

“After a while, and only a relatively short while, people grow bored with you not getting any better and just drift off. Phone calls stop. Visits stop. Emails stop. People drop you off their Facebook news feed. Eyes glaze when you say you are still not feeling well. Who needs perpetual bad news?”

“I have begun to notice death all about me,” she also noted. “I resent every celebrity who ‘has lost their long battle with cancer’. Oh God, what a cliché. Can no one think of anything better? It isn’t anything so noble as a ‘battle’ gallantly lost, I am afraid. It is just a brutal, frustrating, grinding, painful, demoralising, terrifying deterioration that is generally accomplished amid great isolation.”

The response was enormous, and Douglass told The Sunday Times she was greatly warmed by the outpouring of emails and feedback.

“Incredible,” she emailed later about the huge response. “And such a shame. As a society we deal with death very badly. I am glad if I could help – and shed light on just what one person goes through.”

The author is survived by two sisters and a brother. They posted a tribute online recalling her as “possessively private” and someone “who could see a funny angle to most situations”.

Douglass’s close friend of 20 years, and carer for the past nine months, Karen Brooks, wrote this week: “She seemed to find inner peace. She died, as she lived  on her own terms, in her own time. Her death was quick.”

Brooks spread the author’s ashes “over her beloved garden with her cats and a bottle of bubbly as witnesses”.

She also shed some light on Douglass’s final days, which the author had always said she hoped would be spent at home.

“The final days were, by her choice, in a palliative care ward in Hobart,” Brooks wrote in a tribute. “Despite what she wrote in her forthright and amazing blog, ‘The Silence of the Dying’, Sara chose not to die at home.

“After two weeks in hospital and then just over two in palliative care, she made the decision, despite everything being set in place (care teams organised, doctor ready, and I was to move in with her), not to return.

“I think it was emotionally too hard for her – the distancing from her old life had begun. The palliative care ward was comfortable, the ambience was warm, the staff caring, frank and compassionate: just like Sara.”

Douglass’s five adored cats, featured regularly in her blogs, will be adopted by Brooks and her husband, Stephen.

Read The Silence of the Dying blog post here.

This article was written by Sheryl-Lee Kerr and originally appeared in The Sunday Times, the Sunday edition of perthnow.com.au.

Adelaide News: South Australian-born fantasy writer Sara Douglass dies of ovarian cancer

Best-selling Australian fantasy writer Sara Douglass has died, aged 54, from ovarian cancer.

HarperCollins publishing director Shona Martyn believed Douglass led the way for female fantasy writers.

“At the time that she was signed most fantasy writers around the world were men but Australian women particularly have become very significant fantasy writers and I think she gave confidence not only to a lot of female writers – she was very supportive of female writers – but also to a lot of readers …” Ms Martyn said.

Douglass, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, was the first Australian author signed to HarperCollins’ Voyager Fantasy list in 1995.

Her book, BattleAxe, sold almost one million copies in Australia alone, Ms Martyn said.

Penola-born Douglass published a number of fantasy series, including The Axis Trilogy, as well as stand-alone fiction, non-fiction and a collection of short stories.

On the Harper Voyager Facebook site today, Voyager publisher Stephanie Smith wrote: “Sara Douglass was an extraordinary woman and one of the world’s greatest storytellers.

“I cannot express the personal sorrow I feel at the loss of Sara from our lives. It was an honour and a joy to receive her new manuscripts and to work as her editor.

“Although an intensely private person, she was always generous with advice and encouragement to other writers and in her communication with everyone who visited her websites.”

Douglass’s fans have sent their condolences to her family and friends via the Facebook Sara Douglass Official Fan Page.

One fan wrote: “You gave me so many hours of enjoyment while I flew through your books to find out what happened next … you will be forever missed, but never forgotten.”

While another described Douglass as an amazing woman and author.

Douglass, whose birth name was Sara Warneke, moved to Adelaide when she was seven. She worked as a nurse then studied at Adelaide University, where she received a PhD in Early Modern English history.

She later moved to Cornelian Bay, Tasmania. Her mother also died from ovarian cancer and Douglass wrote about her own diagnosis on her blog.

©2011 Jennifer Chapman, AAP.

Herald Sun: Australian fantasy writer Sara Douglass dies of ovarian cancer

BEST-selling Australian fantasy writer Sara Douglass has died. Douglass, 54, died from ovarian cancer at 5am (AEST) today.

HarperCollins publishing director Shona Martyn believed Douglass led the way for female fantasy writers.

“At the time that she was signed most fantasy writers around the world were men but Australian women particularly have become very significant fantasy writers and I think she gave confidence not only to a lot of female writers – she was very supportive of female writers – but also to a lot of readers…” Ms Martyn said.

Douglass, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, was the first Australian author signed to HarperCollins’ Voyager Fantasy list in 1995.

Her book, BattleAxe, sold almost one million copies in Australia alone, Ms Martyn said.

South-Australian born Douglass published a number of fantasy series, including The Axis Trilogy, as well as stand-alone fiction, non-fiction and a collection of short stories.

On the Harper Voyager Facebook site today, Voyager publisher Stephanie Smith wrote: “Sara Douglass was an extraordinary woman and one of the world’s greatest storytellers.

“I cannot express the personal sorrow I feel at the loss of Sara from our lives. It was an honour and a joy to receive her new manuscripts and to work as her editor.

“Although an intensely private person, she was always generous with advice and encouragement to other writers and in her communication with everyone who visited her websites.”

Douglass’s fans have sent their condolences to her family and friends via the Facebook Sara Douglass Official Fan Page.

One fan wrote: “You gave me so many hours of enjoyment while I flew through your books to find out what happened next … you will be forever missed, but never forgotten.”

While another described Douglass as an amazing woman and author.

Douglass, whose birth name was Sara Warneke, lived in Cornelian Bay, Tasmania. Her mother also died from ovarian cancer and Douglass wrote about her own diagnosis on her blog.

Written by Jennifer Chapman for AAP, appearing in the Herald Sun.

Karen Brooks: Obituary

Sara-2011The outpouring of grief that has followed the death of Sara Douglass (Sara Mary Warneke), who died on Tuesday morning has surprised no-one – except, had she lived to see the effect of her passing, Sara herself.

How do I know? Having been Sara’s close friend and confidant for twenty years – and having followed in her career-footsteps (from academic to author; as she did for many others, she both inspired and encouraged me) and being in the process of recovering from cancer myself – I’ve spent the last nine months caring for Sara, along with my husband, Stephen. We shifted to Tasmania at the beginning of the year and have been privileged to share the best and worst of times with the woman who called me her soul-sister.

Though Sara was an intensely private person, when Stephanie Smith, Sara’s editor and good friend at Harper Collins, asked me if I could write an obituary, revealing something of Sara’s last weeks, I agreed. Sara had a deep affection for her readers and fans and loved connecting with them through cyberspace – through the early years of her message board and its various discussions, to her blog and websites (her homepage and the Nonsuch garden) and FaceBook. So, without disrespecting her privacy and with a heavy heart, let me briefly invite you into Sara’s, Stephen’s and my world – a world that with her death, for us at least, has been cast adrift and irrevocably shattered.

Her final weeks were not easy; even the seemingly simple act of showering tired her for an entire day. Nonetheless, Sara maintained her wonderful sense of humour and acerbic wit, and her curiousity and concern for others. She managed to edit and see the publication of what is now her final novel, the magnificent The Devil’s Diadem and even saw (though didn’t read) the advance readers’ copies of her collection of short stories, The Hall of Lost Footsteps, which is being published in November by Ticonderoga Publications.

karen-sara-stephen-selfieAccompanying her to every medical appointment, ensuring she had meals, clean clothes and well-fed cats, Stephen and I spent as much time as we could with Sara and did what we could for Sara. And typically of her, she was incredibly undemanding and often apologised (for what, we still don’t know!). I don’t know how many times she thanked us. We didn’t feel (and still don’t) that we deserved her thanks … we loved her and still do love her and it was a joy to see and be with her, as others who know her can attest.

While she sometimes appeared aloof, it was often because she didn’t hear what was said – Sara was quite deaf and relied on hearing aids – but distant she was not. On the contrary, she was one of the most loving and affectionate people I know who would embrace you in the warmest of hugs and squeeze you tight. I will miss those hugs more than I can say.

Visited by a few dear girlfriends (she was selective about who she let into her life) who travelled to Tasmania to see her, she very much enjoyed their company, but was also glad to be by herself again. She was a very solitary person who lived in her imagination as much as she did in the real world. I think she would be overwhelmed by what people are expressing on various forums now; she would be laughing in her unrestrained and contagious way and shaking her head in bewilderment.

Her final days were, by her choice, in a palliative care ward in Hobart. Despite what she wrote in her forthright and amazing blog, ‘The Silence of the Dying’, Sara chose not to die at home. After two weeks in hospital and then just over two in palliative care, she made the decision, despite everything being set in place (care teams organised, doctor ready, and I was to move in with her), not to return. I think it was emotionally too hard for her – the distancing from her old life had begun. The palliative care ward was comfortable, the ambience was warm, the staff caring, frank and compassionate: just like Sara. There was a garden on the balcony outside her window.

At first she felt guilty that she experienced relief at her decision not to go back home, but we quickly assuaged that and told her it was both normal and perfectly all right to feel such things.

After that, she seemed to find inner peace.

Then, she died.

She died as she lived – on her own terms, in her own time. Her death was quick.

She looked peaceful, serene even, her alabaster skin glowing, her hair softly framing her face. It’s an image that will live in my mind forever.
In accordance with Sara’s wishes, there’s no funeral or formal celebration of her life. She wanted ‘no fuss’. That is so Sara! As I promised, I’m following these wishes – it’s the least I can do.

Sara will be cremated on the 29 September at 10 a.m. There will be three people present. I will read from both BattleAxe (the part where StarDrifter sings the Star Song) and from page 511 of The Devil’s Diadem to the end. I will also read selections from the various tributes that family, friends and fans have left. I will make sure you’re all there with Stephen and me as we say another goodbye.

Then, as the sun sets on Friday the 30th of September, I will spread her ashes over her beloved garden with her cats and a bottle of bubbly as witnesses. I ask that, wherever you are in the world – real and virtual – you raise a glass or pause, and for just a moment, help us send Sara on the first steps in the eternal dance of stars.

I know she’s poised to soar and once she departs, she’ll twinkle brightly forever – in our hearts, minds and every time someone picks up her books and reads her astounding and beautiful words.

Vale Sara.


Editors Note: Karen Brooks had been Sara’s friend for over 20 years and with her husband Stephen was her carer for the 9 months before she passed away.

This obituary was posted on the VoyagerOnline blog, the original post can be read here.