SMH: There Be Dragons

threshold-1steditionMythical quests, moral certainties, happy endings … they’re the ingredients that keep the fans of fantasy fiction queuing for more. The genre answers Life’s Big Questions, its authors say. And Sales? They’re just fantastic, writes Nikki Barrowclough.

A shadow is looming over the great, hot southern land of Ashdod. It is the shadow of Threshold, the pyramid which the Magi of Ashdod are building to propel them into Infinity … Thousands of slaves have been drafted into the construction of Threshold. Among them is Tirzah, a young glass worker. Tirzah has a secret gift – and one that may kill her. She can communicate with glass, and what the glass of Threshold screams at Tirzah every time she touches it, drives her to despair.

(from Threshold, by Sara Douglass)

One weekend in 1992, Sara Douglas sat down in a mood of despair and plunged into the literary equivalent of ploughing up and down a swimming pool. For the next two years she wrote feverishly, hidden away in a room with a marble fireplace and ruby-coloured stained-glass windows, in her 115-year-old house in Bendigo.

Romance, thrillers, adventure, fantasy. Not for publication, purely for practice. Each work was about 60,000 words long and was completed sometimes in little more than a fortnight. “I’d finish one book and the next day I’d start another,” she recalls. “Most of them were absolutely awful. One was about the kidnapping of the premier of South Australia. I must have been pushed for a plot that week.”

Douglass, 42, is now Australia’s leading author of fantasy fiction (or “speculative” fiction, as the genre has been dubbed), earning more than $100,000 a year in the process. But, back in 1992, she was finding her new job as senior lecturer in medieval history at Melbourne’s La Trobe University increasingly unpleasant because of political tensions within her department. Losing herself in fiction was her way of blocking out the stress – although, ever since she was a girl growing up, first on a farm in South Australia and then in Adelaide, her dream had been to write.

Towards the end of that fevered period of literary laps, Douglass sent two of her attempts at romantic fiction to Mills and Boon. “They told me to go away and said they didn’t want to hear from me again,” she recalls.

It didn’t matter. She had noticed that her plots had begun concentrating solely on fantasy anyway. “I was having trouble with the rules, writing in the ‘real world’,” she says. “If a character had to travel a thousand miles overnight and there were no trains or plains around, how was he to do it? With fantasy, I could make up my own rules – make up my own world.”

As a child, Douglass had enjoying reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, and had continued reading fantasy in her twenties and thirties. But it no longer enthralled her as she felt it should. “So I decided to write the kind of book I couldn’t find,” she says.

battleaxe-1steditioncover-ShaunTanJust before moving in 1992 to Bendigo from Adelaide, where she had worked as a nurse while studying for her doctorate in early modem English history at Adelaide University, Douglass called into a travel agency to book her fare. As she got up to leave, she glanced down at her chair and noticed she had been sitting on a tiny steel axe. Too real to be a child’s toy, the axe seemed to have come from nowhere. Mystified, she put it in her purse – where it stayed for the next two years until one wet Saturday afternoon when she prepared to start work on the book that would eventually free her from academia, Douglass cleaned out her purse. Finding the axe again, she placed it on the table by her desk. Then, as the rain drummed against the stained-glass windows, she drew a map of Tencedor – the ancient name for the continent of Achar before the Wars of the Axe and the land where Prince Axis, son of Princess Rivkah and the Icarii Enchanter, lost all his powers after the invasion of the Timekeeper Demons. She sketched in the Murkle Mountains, the Lake of Life and the Island of Mist and Memory in the Sea of Tyrre, and borrowed the name Tailem Bend – it’s about two hours’ drive from Adelaide from her father’s memory of places of his youth.

From this mapping of Tencendor sprang BattleAxe, the extraordinary work of heroic fantasy that took the publishing world by surprise after Harper Collins published it in 1995. Its sequels, Enchanter and Starman, complete The Axis Trilogy, which has now sold more than 150,000 copies in Australia alone, and has just been published in the United Kingdom.

Today, the tiny axe is stuck to Douglass’s computer with a dab of Blu-Tack. It’s a talisman that no writer of mainstream literature would dare jeer at. As Sydney literary agent Rose Creswell points out, “If a literary novel sells more than 20,000 copies, we regard that as a huge bestseller.”

An oddity of fantasy fiction is that trilogies sell better than one-off novels. Douglass has written only one stand-alone novel, Threshold, which came out in 1997. It’s her favourite work and, to date, it has sold 40,000 copies.

crusader-1stedition-ausHer second trilogy, The Wayfarer Redemption, a sequel to The Axis Trilogy, is selling as well as its predecessor. The third book, Crusader, published earlier this year, sold out in its first week. She is now working on a third trilogy, The Crucible, assisted by a six-figure publisher’s advance. Her first non-fiction book, The Betrayal of Arthur, which explores the Arthurian legends and shows the trio of King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot in a whole new light, comes out next month.

“I don’t think fantasy fiction is taking off so much as coming out of the closet,” comments Douglass, who lives alone and has spent some of her book profits on 6,000 bulbs for her garden. “Most countries have a tradition of grand old heroic myths, with dragons and witches and strange and terrible creatures, and which always involved mystery and enchantment, and a quest of some kind. But white Australia, which is part of a European tradition, never had these stories.

“Before the 16th century, people believed in all these things. Then science arrived and said they didn’t exist. Science explains our world in the same way as a religious faith does, but it doesn’t provide any mystery, and people want their world to be a little mysterious. People are so tired of this material world and I think they feel as well that they’re leading bland, unspiritual lives.

“In fantasy, there’s lots of enchantment, lots of gods, and there’s always a hero of some kind who starts off as a fairly ordinary person. Those grand heroic myths are now treated as children’s stories, but I think the truth is that our souls still need them. I’ve lost count of the number of boys aged between 12 and 18 who have come up to me [at book signings] and said, ‘I was going to kill myself before I read your books.”‘

Originally written by Nikki Barrowclough and published on 21st August 1999 in the Good Weekend magazine of the Sydney Morning Herald.

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