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stressful and uncertain, and again she sought a way out of her employment and returned to writing, completing several unpublished novels, including Mills&Boon-like romances that were rejected for being too dark.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