Writing

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.

 

 

 

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

The Silence of the Dying

sara-in-office-featuredMany years ago I did an hour long interview on Adelaide radio (with Jeremy Cordeaux, I think, but my memory may be wrong). The interview was supposed to promote one of my recent publications, but for some reason we quickly strayed onto the subject of death and dying, and there we stayed for the entire hour. I proposed that as a society we have lost all ability to die well. Unlike pre-industrial western society, modern western society is ill at ease with death, we are not taught how to die, and very few people are comfortable around death or the dying. There is a great silence about the subject, and a great silence imposed on the dying. During the programme a Catholic priest called in to agree with the premise (the first and last time a Catholic priest and I have ever agreed on anything) that modern society cannot deal with death. We just have no idea. We are terrified of it. We ignore it and we ignore the dying.

Today I’d like to take that conversation a little further, discuss modern discomfort with death, and discuss the silence that modern western society imposes on the dying. Recently I’ve had it hammered home on a couple of occasions how much the dying are supposed to keep silent, that ‘dying well’ in today’s society means keeping your mouth firmly closed and, preferably, behind closed doors.

Never shall a complaint pass your lips. How many times have we all heard that praise sung of the dying and recently departed, “They never complained”?

Death in pre-industrial society was a raucous and social event. There was much hair-tearing, shrieking and breast beating, and that was just among the onlookers. Who can forget the peripatetic late-medieval Margery Kempe who shrieked and wailed so exuberantly she was in demand at all the death beds she happened across? Suffering, if not quite celebrated, was at least something to which everyone could relate, and with which everyone was at ease. People were comfortable with death and with the dying. Death was not shunted away out of sight. Grief was not subdued. Emotions were not repressed. If someone was in pain or feeling a bit grim or was frightened, they were allowed to express those feelings. Unless they died suddenly, most people died amid familiar company and in their own homes amid familiar surroundings. Children were trained in the art and craft of dying well from an early age (by being present at community death beds). Death and dying was familiar, and its journey’s milestones well marked and recognizable. People prepared from an early age to die, they were always prepared, for none knew when death would strike.

Not any more. Now we ignore death. We shunt it away. Children are protected from it (and adults wish they could be protected from it). The dying are often not allowed to express what they are really feeling, but are expected (by many pressures) to be positive, bright and cheerful as ‘this will make them feel better’ (actually, it doesn’t make the dying feel better at all, it just makes them feel worse, but it does make their dying more bearable for those who have to be with them).

When it comes to death and dying, we impose a dreadful silence on the dying lest they discomfort the living too greatly.

I have done no study as to when the change took place, but it must have been about or just before the Industrial Revolution — perhaps with the mass movement into the cities and the subsequent destruction of traditional communities and community ties, perhaps with the rise of the modern medical profession who demanded to control every aspect of illness, perhaps with the loosening grip of religion on people’s lives during the Enlightenment.

Certainly by the nineteenth century silence and restraint had overtaken the dying. The Victorian ideal was of the dying suffering sweetly and stoically and silently (we’ve all read the novels, we’ve all seen the paintings). Those who didn’t die sweetly and stoically and silently but who bayed their distress to the moon generally ended badly by dropping their candle on their flammable nightgown, and then expiring nastily in the subsequent conflagration which took out the east tower of whatever gothic mansion they inhabited. The lingering commotion and the smouldering ruins always disturbed everyone’s breakfast the next morning. There was much tsk tsk tsk-ing over the marmalade.

By the mid-nineteenth century, if not earlier, the lesson was clearly implanted in our society’s collective subconscious.

Death should be silent. Confined. Stoic.

Sweet, stoic and silent was the way to go. (Again I remind you that a sweet, stoic and silent death is still praised innumerable times in today’s society; by the time we have reached early adulthood we have all heard it many, many times over.) The one exception is the terminally ill child. Terminally ill children are uncritizable saints. The terminally ill adult is simply tedious (particularly if they try to express their fears).

All this silence and stoicism scares the hell out of me.

In that radio interview many years ago I spoke as a historian. Today I speak as one among the dying. Two years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. Six months ago it came back. It is going to kill me at some stage. Now everyone wants a date, an expected life span, an answer to the ‘how long have you got?’ question. I don’t know. I’m sorry to be inconvenient. I am not in danger of imminent demise, but I will not live very long. So now I discuss this entire ‘how we treat the dying’ with uncomfortable personal experience.

Now, with death lurking somewhere in the house, I have begun to notice death all about me. 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, demoralizing, terrifying deterioration that is generally accomplished amid great isolation.

Let me discuss chronic illness for a moment. As a society we don’t tolerate it very well. Our collective attention span for someone who is ill lasts about two weeks. 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?

This is an all too often common experience. I described once it to a psychologist, thinking myself very witty, as having all the lights in the house turned off one by one until you were in one dark room all alone; she said everyone described it like that. People withdraw, emotionally and physically. You suddenly find a great and cold space about you where once there was support. For me there has been a single person who has made the effort to keep in daily contact with me, to see how I am, how I am feeling, and listen uncomplainingly to my whining. She has been my lifeline. She also suffers from terrible cancer and its aftermath, and has endured the same distancing of her friends.

The end result is, of course, that the sick simply stop telling people how bad they feel. They repress all their physical and emotional pain, because they’ve got the message loud and clear.

People also don’t know how to help the sick and dying. I remember a year or so ago, on a popular Australian forum, there was a huge thread generated on how to help a member who was undergoing massive and life-changing surgery that would incapacitate her for months. People asked what they could do. I suggested that if one among them, or many taking it in turns, could promise this woman two hours of their time every week or fortnight for the next few months then that would help tremendously. In this two hours they could clean, run errands, hang out the washing, whatever. And they had to do all this while not once complaining about how busy their own lives were, or how bad their back was, or how many problems they had to cope with in life. Just two hours a fortnight, with no emotional-guilt strings attached. Whatever she wanted or needed. Freely given.

Bliss for the incapacitated or chronically ill.

But that was too difficult. Instead the poor woman was buried under a mountain of soft toys, dressing gowns, bath salts and bombs, daintily embroidered hankies, a forest’s worth of Hallmark cards, chocolates and flowers and exhortations that everyone was ‘thinking of her’.

None of which helped her in any way, of course, but all of which assuaged the guilt of the gift-givers who mostly promptly forgot her and her daily horrific struggle through life.

Modern attention spans for the chronically ill are horribly short, probably because chronic or terminal illness in today’s society is horribly tedious. Tedious, because we are all so uncomfortable with it.

Instead, too often, it is up to the sick and the dying to comfort the well and the un-dying.

Just take a moment to think about this, take a moment to see if you have ever experienced it yourself. The dying — sweet, stoic, silent — comforting those who are to be left behind. I know I experienced it when first I was diagnosed with cancer. I found myself in the completely unreal situation of having, over and over, to comfort people when I told them I had cancer. In the end I just stopped telling people, because almost invariably I was placed into the bizarre situation of comforting the well by saying everything would be all right (which, of course, it won’t, but that’s what people needed to hear to make them comfortable about me again).

The dying have been indoctrinated from a very young age into this sweet, stoic and silent state. They earn praise for always being ‘positive’ and ‘bright’ and ‘never complaining’. Perhaps they are bright and positive and uncomplaining, but I am certain they lay in their beds with their fear and anger and grief and pain and frustration completely repressed while modern expectation forces them, the dying, to comfort the living.

I am sick of this tawdry game. I am sick to death of comforting people when all I want is to be comforted. I am sick of being abandoned by people for months on end only to be told eventually that ‘I knew they were thinking of me, right?’ I am sick of being exhorted to be silent and sweet and stoic. I know I face a long and lonely death and no, I don’t think I should just accept that.

I don’t think I should keep silent about it.

I have witnessed many people die. As a child I watched my mother die a terrible death from the same cancer that is going to kill me. As a registered nurse for seventeen years I have seen scores of people die. I have watched the dying keep cheerful and reassuring while their family were there (forced by modern expectation of how people should die), only to break down and scream their terror when the family have gone. The one thing they all said, desperately, was “Don’t let me die alone.” But mostly they did die alone, doors closed on them by staff who were too frantically busy to sit with them, and relatives who have gone home and not thought to sit with their parent or sibling. People do die alone, and often not even with the slight comfort of a stranger nurse holding their hand. If you put your relative into a hospital or a hospice or a nursing home, then their chances of dying alone and uncomforted increase tremendously. I want to die at home, but I am realistic enough to know that my chances of that are almost nil as impersonal ‘carers’ force me into a system that will remove me from any comfort I might have gained by dying in familiar, loved and comforting surroundings.

My mother, who died of the same cancer which will kill me, kept mostly stoic through three years of tremendous suffering. But I do remember one time, close to her death, when my father and I went to visit her in hospital. She was close to breaking point that evening. She wept, she complained, she expressed her fears in vivid, terrifying words. I recall how uncomfortable I was, and how relieved I was when she dried her tears and once more became cheerful and comforting herself. I was twelve at the time, and maybe I should feel no guilt about it, but I do now, for I know all too well how she felt, and how much she needed comforting far more than me.

She died in her cold impersonal hospital room in the early hours of the morning, likely not even with the comfort of a stranger nurse with her, certainly with none of her family there.

The great irony is that now I face the same death, from the same cancer.

That is the death that awaits many of us, me likely a little sooner than you, but in the great scheme of things that’s neither here nor there. Not everyone dies alone, but many do.

Not everyone suffers alone, but most do it to some extent.

It is the way we have set up the modern art of death.

I am tired of the discomfort that surrounds the chronically and terminally ill. I am tired of the abandonment. I am tired of having to lie to people about how I am feeling just so I keep them around. I am tired of having to feel a failure when I need to confess to the doctor or nurse that the pain is too great and I need something stronger.

I am tired of being made to feel guilty when I want to express my fear and anguish and grief.

I am tired of keeping silent.

******************

Thank you for reading this far, and being my companion this far. I promise to be more stoic in future. But just for one day I needed to break that silence.

©2010 Sara Douglass Enterprises


Editors note: This article was originally a blog post on Sara’s nonsuchkitchengardens.com website.

The Guilt of Cancer

This article is a post from the NonsuchKitchenGardens.com blog put up by Sara on 15th December 2009. It is a precursor to the Silence of the Dying article. 


If you’re not up to reading a really, really angry post, with a few choice words, then please go no further.

Before I get started, though, I would like to truly thank Dr Karen R Brooks, an author, academic and newspaper columnist, who over the past few months has been such a loving, outstanding support. Thank you, Karen. I love you dearly.

I have been feeling angry for a long time, but it is very hard to articulate that anger (or I felt so guilty about trying to articulate it that I simply could not voice it). But the other day Karen (thank you, sweetheart) sent me an excerpt of a review of a book by Barbara Ehrenreich. It suddenly not only made sense of everything I’d been feeling, but in one wondrous swoop it lifted from my shoulders all that guilt I’d been carrying about (and which burdens so many people with cancer). It also made me very angry (yes, even more so!), because as I thought more about what the review said, I realised how people with cancer are made to feel guilty in so many subtle, different ways.

This post is a healing post for me, because it is the post where I am going to say, “Sorry, but I’m not falling for that guilt trap again.” I am absolutely over people who make those with cancer feel guilty.

The review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, appeared in the Washington Post in mid-November this year. Here is the part of that review Karen sent me:

… studies proclaiming a link between a positive attitude and cancer survival … are full of problems and discounted by most researchers. Furthermore, the popular insistence that cheerfulness can help beat the big C, while it can be a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining, leaves patients in the uncomfortable position of having to deny their very real anger and sadness, even to themselves, for fear of being complicit in their own illness.

You can read the full review at the link above.

That small excerpt in itself hit a horribly painful nerve deep within me. How many times have I been made to feel guilty that I was depressed, or hopeless, or scared? That if I entertained those feelings, well then, I was simply going to allow the cancer to beat me, and it would all be my own fault if I died. How many times have I sat on my sofa, all alone, shaking in fear because I couldn’t banish the dark thoughts, and thinking those dark thoughts alone would condemn me? How many people have prattled on to me about the ‘power of positive thinking’, not realising that all they were doing was deepening my own pain, forcing me to suppress any feelings of anger or fright or grief — all emotions I was utterly entitled to feel. Perhaps they thought they were making me feel better. Instead they greatly increased my pain.

People diagnosed with cancer go through a huge range of powerful emotions. They are absolutely entitled to every one of those emotions, they need to move through them (in the same way people need to move through the grieving process), and they need to move through them at their own pace. Telling people to brighten up, or buck up, or try and put it behind you, or thinking like that won’t get you anywhere, or try to be positive, and numerous other empty platitudes, does such immense, immense harm.

I’ll repeat something that review said “… the popular insistence that cheerfulness can help beat the big C, while it can be a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining …” So be positive and cheerful, girl. Not only will that kill your cancer, it will make everyone about you feel that much brighter, too, as you’ll be such a nicer person to be around!

Oh dear, yes. I never realised until I developed cancer myself what a burden it can be – simply because the person with cancer often has to console many of the people about them. That is not true of everyone. I have family and friends who have been immensely strong for me, and I thank them and love them so much for it. But as for others, who I had to work hard to console and who, after a while, gave up actually asking me how I felt and came out with factual statements like, “Hello! I bet you’re feeling a whole lot better today! Right? Great!” … well, what can I say. I was forced constantly to say yes, I was feeling better, when all I wanted was someone to console me because I was hurting so badly inside. People with cancer have a double burden to carry – they not only somehow have to make it right for themselves, they often have to make it right for those about them, too. You are literally forced into false cheerfulness by the needs of those about you.

That is so bloody unfair.

Once that review got me thinking, I remembered many of the other subtle guilts I have been forced to feel.

One of the great guilt trips (which appears in many guises) is that you yourself are responsible for your own cancer, perhaps by hiding deep secrets or bad feelings (or whatever harmful little pimple of bad emotion you harbour deep inside). You have cancer? Then it is all your own fault, man, because you’ve been harbouring ‘unresolved issues’ haven’t you? This is a great one in alternative medicine. As just one example, on this page, about half way down, it states the belief of Louise Hay that “cancer is connected with deep hurt, long standing resentment. Or a deep secret or grief eating away at the self.” The site helpfully gives us Hay’s healing affirmation which we can say ten times a day in which we manage to forgive ourselves.

We have to forgive ourselves. Oh, well then, why don’t we just go all out and crucify ourselves at the same time and get it all over and done with. Thanks. Very. Much. Peace, light and harmony to you, too.

I also have problems with those who advocate alternative approaches to treating cancer because that often also increases stress and guilt. Despite what I say below, I am not against alternative approaches to treating cancer at all. I will happily try something if it resonates with me; I have most certainly tried alternative practices (although I’ve given up trying to forgive myself!). I don’t want to get into a debate about whether or not conventional medicine is better or worse than alternative medicine in treating cancer. Everyone is free to make their own choices and I fully support anyone with cancer going down Route A as opposed to Route B. Whatever makes you happiest, most comfortable and more confident, then do it. You can also mix both conventional and alternative happily and with few problems, and there are very, very few conventional medical practitioners who will want to try and stop you trying alternative approaches (whatever conspiracy theory the alternatives are trying to push down your throat).

What I hate (and deeply resent) is the guilt that gets ladled about on so many alternative medicine sites.

I have already mentioned Louise Hay’s theory that we’re all responsible for our own cancers by harbouring unresolved grief etc. The site where I found that little gem (www.cancerfightingstrategies.com) presents a guide to some alternative approaches to treating cancer, (but is heavily biased and the author of the site never identifies themselves, nor provides contact info – a big, big no no).

There was one thing on one page that soured the entire site for me – and, yes, it was the guilt thing again. The author discusses the idea that cancer cells feed off sugar, and suggests (as do many others) that you eliminate all refined sugars from your diet: “Cut out all sugars, cookies, chips, etc. Now of course, you may not want to change your habits. That’s okay, you have every right to live or die as you like.”

Bloody hell. What a patronizing bastard (or bitch – as they don’t identify themselves I can’t decide which way to go). I eat a pretty sensible diet. I don’t ‘do’ chocolate or crisps or cookies, or very, very rarely. I eat lots of organic veggies. I cook from scratch from whole, healthy foods. But my single love is a cup of milky, sweet tea. Now even that is denied me, because some ghostly voice will be echoing inside, ‘You know you’re killing yourself with this cup of tea, don’t you?’ (And, of course, the animal protein in the milk will do me in, too, as so many happily advise.)

I have to feel guilty about a single bloody cup of tea with milk and sugar. You may think this a small, insignificant thing – but it isn’t. Multiply this a thousand times by all the things the alternative practitioners tell you not to do (because if you do them you are feeding your cancer and are, quite simply, responsible for killing yourself) and your life becomes a nightmare of guilt and fear.

There are so many sites like this on the web. They each have an agenda to push, and they don’t hold back on using the guilt trip to get you onto their particular hobbyhorse. Everywhere you go there is someone laying further guilt on you. Very quietly. Very subtly. Any pleasure is denied, even a decent sob, because it will likely kill you … and it is most certainly your fault you have cancer in the first place.

A word also about what happens to someone who suddenly announces she or he has cancer. Every single one of us, I am certain, gets inundated by well-meaning people about alternative approaches to treating cancer. We are referred to countless websites, articles and books about miraculous waters, minerals, enzymes, juices, diets, meditations, teas, amazing berries from the foothills of the Himalayas, courses, healing hands/back supports/magical dusters, and the amazing power of dancing naked under the moon at midnight. Amid countless others.

Personally, I have been referred (completely unasked) to well over one hundred different web sites and/or approaches. Can I just point out, very politely (and without screaming, which is what I really want to do), what this does to someone? All of you well-meaning people are now forcing me to choose between over one hundred conflicting bits of advice about which route to go down. Can’t you understand that I now sit on my sofa and shake in fear about choosing the wrong one? Do I really need this kind of incredible stress?

It is the same as if all these people have taken me to one hundred different conventional doctors, all with different approaches, and then sat me back and said, ‘Make sure you pick the right approach, or else you’ll die’. (Need I point out the guilt issue again.) From talking to other people with cancer, as others with serious diseases, this is a pet hate of many – that they are inundated with unasked-for advice by the well-meaning who simply worsen an already incredibly stressful time.

If someone asks for the information, then by all means hand it over. If someone doesn’t ask for it, then please stop ladling out the advice. It does not help. It makes it much, much worse. Please credit whoever it is with cancer (or whatever serious disease) that they have enough intelligence to know who Mr Google is, and that they know what Mr Google can do, and that if they want to avail themselves of Mr Google then they bloody well will all on their own. And if they don’t want to avail themselves of Mr Google, then please accept that this is their right, too.

I know that if I keel over one day, then many of these people who push this or that bit of advice are going to suck their teeth and scratch their arses and say (or think), “If only she’d done what I’d suggested …”. And, yes, conventional practitioners will say it too, if their advice has been ignored.

Anyone with cancer knows that at their death there are going to be countless multitudes lining up to say, “Oh, if only she/he had taken my advice …”.

All the guilt people with cancer are forced to bear …

A single issue keeps coming up with alternative medicine sites and spokespeople. If all these alternative approaches were so bloody wonderful, why don’t conventional doctors push them? Well, the alternative medicine practitioners and their fans mutter, that’s because the conventional medical practitioners won’t make any money this way so they’re hardly going to tell you about them are they?

Oh God, that makes me so fucking angry. It always has to be a conspiracy, doesn’t it? The fact that the alternative medical practitioners are going to make money from their alternative medicines and treatments is never mentioned! There is an entire industry out there feeding off the terror (and the guilt) of the hopeless, and I find that vile.

Why are there so any people ‘out there’ who insist, and insist on telling me (or by insinuating it by suggesting this, that, or ninety-eight other alternatives), that I have taken the wrong route? Do you really think you are doing me a kindness? Where in God’s name is your humanity?

I can only speak of my own personal experience here, but none of the surgeons, doctors, oncologists and nurses who have seen me throughout my (conventional) treatment have proved to be black-hearted money grabbers who have intentionally withheld information from me because it won’t make them a penny. They have all been genuinely caring individuals who have done their very best for me.*

Not one of them has sat back and moralized about thinking positive and seeking a higher spiritual plane by eating an alkaline diet (or via whatever means) when I’ve been sitting sobbing in front of them. They have simply held my hand, or hugged me, and told me they understand, and asked what they could do for me. They have been brilliant. They have never once made me feel guilty. They have never once pointed the finger at me and said, “It’s your fault”, nor have they once insinuated it, and yet alternative medicine and all those platitudes offered by the well-meaning does this over and over and over in a myriad of subtle, horrid ways.

Well, I am past the guilt. I am angered by all those who ladle out the guilt, but I am now past it.

So now I am going to have a cup of tea with some sugar in it, and think some glum thoughts, just because I damn well can.

*There was one extraordinary doctor who gave me some expensive treatment one day. When I fronted at reception to pay, the doctor poked her head into the reception area and said to the receptionist, “There is no charge. She has been through enough already.” That, my friends, is conventional medicine. And that, my friends, was such humanity and compassion that it even now, months later, leaves me in tears.

Should I send my Manuscript off to be Read?

Once you have finished a manuscript, most writers have an incredible urge for ‘someone to read it’.

First port of call is a friend.

Friends are bad. Friends generally have no critical skills. They are either going to praise it to high heaven in order to please you, or they will be overly critical. They almost certainly won’t pick up on the real issues within a manuscript (for example pacing, dialogue, wordiness, or huge holes in the plot). Unless your friend is a professional editor or writer themselves, and is prepared to put the friendship on the line, you won’t get any decent feedback from friends at all. There is nothing more frightening to an editor at a publishing house to pick up a covering letter to a manuscript to read “all my friends love it!”. I know many people whose friends have all loved their book – none of them have ever had their books published. Unfortunately there is generally a huge chasm between a commissioning editor’s view and a friend’s view.

Second port of call is often the internet – publish a chapter on the web and have everyone comment on it. We’ve all heard the success stories: unknown author puts first chapter of book on web, a surfing editor falls over it, massive publication deal for millions of dollars ensues the next day. Some of these stories are even true. Sometimes it does happen, but … and this ‘but’ is a killer.

Apart from the obvious (strangers on the web are likely to give you even worse feedback than your friends), there are massive drawbacks. Putting up a book on the internet, or part thereof, is literally publishing the book. It is very likely that no publisher will ever consent to publish in hard print a book which has been circulating on the internet (and once it is on one page, trust me, it is circulating). Many of my publishing contracts now state that no portion of the book has ever, or will ever, be put on the web prior to, or within a year of, hard print publication.

If you have ever put a manuscript, or part thereof, on the web then you must, here and now, consider it lost. It has already been published, it has been circulated, and it is likely no one else will touch it. Hard print publishers do not want used stuff – they want fresh, new and completely unseen by anyone manuscripts.

But still you are consumed by the need to ‘have someone read it’. The third thing people do is try to send it to an author to read. Blind. Without even asking them (and in the hope that they’ll adore it so much they’ll beg their publisher to pick you up). Sometimes this can work, but there are also issues here, as well.

First, when I was an unpublished author, I would never in a million years have done that – I would have considered it incredibly rude (which gives you an idea how I feel about manuscripts landing in my post office box). Sending a manuscript, or part thereof, off blind to anyone is rude, and invariably will be seen that way. Write first, and ask. Read the person’s web page to see if they accept manuscripts. I don’t, as the vast majority of authors don’t, and I clearly state that on my contact page, but you’d be stunned to know how many people still send stuff anyway (and it goes straight in the bin – those are letters I won’t even acknowledge).

Now, before you think authors are incredibly mean, I need to explain why authors generally won’t read someone else’s work when it arrives unannounced in their mail box.

First, they are hugely busy – when five thousand people a year send in manuscripts, without asking, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that those manuscripts are not going to be read. We largely don’t have time enough to work on our own books the way we want, without having to deal with everyone else’s as well.

Secondly, and far more importantly, it is worth more than the hides on our backs to read other people’s work. Authors absorb ideas, and while we may not consciously plagiarise, five years after reading someone’s manuscript we may unwittingly incorporate their ideas into our own work – and then, hey presto, we’re in court. So most authors simply will not read other people’s work, and very particularly manuscripts that are sent in blind, because they shriek of unprofessionalism, and, in this instance, that’s highly dangerous. We don’t want to be sued, so we don’t read unsolicited manuscripts.

So who can you send your work to?

There are professional readers and editors who will critique a book for you (and I do mean critique, you will not receive a short paragraph of praise, but an indepth critique of how the work can be improved). Wherever you are in the world, you do need to be careful of sharks. For your money (and it will cost), you should get that indepth critique, and you need to work out beforehand with the provider what your money buys. Check with local writing societies, they will be able to give you an idea of who is working in your country or state and who is legitimate or not. Never trust anyone who claims they can get you published. If you pay for someone to critique your work you deserve a detailed report on it (although you don’t necessarily deserve a favourable report).

There may be local writing societies who are happy to read, but make sure they can provide professional critique, and not just hobbyist advice.

Is there a local college or university which offers creative writing courses? Taking a course may be very good for you – you can not only get someone professional to read your work, but you might learn something new as well.

You can send it off blind to a publishing house – you just never know your luck, but I advise very seriously against this. Ring or write first, ask someone to read it, and, if they do, consider their advice. You won’t get as much as advice as from a professional editor/reader, but it may help.

Authors also will work with unpublished writers via mentorship programmes. These vary from country to country, but I have on numerous occasions worked one on one with a young writer via mentorship programmes run by the Australian Society of Authors or other state bodies. They are professionally run, it is fun work, and applicants are interviewed and screened before hand.

Me? I never got anyone to read my work. I wrote and wrote and discarded and discarded and when finally I thought I had something worthwhile, I wrote to an agent, and asked if she’d like to read it (I didn’t send it off blind). She consented, and the rest is history.

The Author Tour

I am often asked what it is like to head off about the world promoting one of my newly-published books. I think most people assume they’re enormous fun and that authors look forward to them with bated breath and massive enthusiasm.

I used to think that, too …

Meeting readers is always a great deal of fun, and generally very rewarding.

But author promotional trips are generally not always the best means for either reader or author to make acquaintance.

The trip is paid for completely by the publisher. That means they want to get value out of the author; they want to sell books, after all. So days are generally packed with events and with people to meet (not readers, but people connected with the publishing industry, or booksellers, or agents … not readers as such).

What does ‘packed’ mean?

Well … imagine being in a different city every day. You rise at 4 am so that you can fly to whichever city you’re meant to be in that day. You arrive at a hotel completely exhausted (because you’ve been up late the previous night), if you can get to your room then you might have time for a shower and change, and then by early afternoon it is off to the events for the day.

Usually this will include book signings and bookstore promotional events. I enjoy these the best of anything connected with touring. Your get to sit down, signing books and chatting to readers generally isn’t very stressful (and usually very interesting), and people bring you things to eat and drink.

I like book signings. *grin* They can be strange, though, because just occasionally someone can line up for hours just to tell you how much they dislike my books. the fact that they might dislike them doesn’t’ fuss me, but I am amazed they felt the need to take an afternoon out of their life to make a point.

And bookstore events are great because sometimes parents bring in babies that have been named after your characters – I love that!

Okay, so we’ve established that I like book signings. the down side to them is that generally they are very rushed, and that the publicist is intent on dragging me off somewhere else.

That ‘somewhere else’ will almost always have to do with publicity, which means either a television studio or a radio station, or perhaps a sit down in a hotel lobby with a journalist.

I don’t mind radio interviews, but I loathe television interviews. That’s mainly because in a television studio, very particularly for a live show, guests are herded like cattle, you don’t get to meet the host until ten seconds before the interview commences, and you have no idea on earth what they’re going to ask. That means there you are on a live show and almost always the host throws you The Most Unanswerable Question in existence.

Then, once they’re done with the interview, the host turns away, you’re hustled off and the next guest hustled on … and it is just the most dehumanizing experience.

Radio interviews can sometimes be like that as well, but generally radio interviewers spend some time with you before hand, perhaps establish what they’d like to talk about, establish a rapport … and some of the live radio interviews I’ve done in studio have just been absolutely fabulous.

Of course, I could be sent back to my hotel room where I can be sat at a desk for six hours and do phone interview after phone interview after phone interview.

That can be absolutely horrendous. No matter how enthusiastic you may have been about your book at one point, by the time you’ve done all the writing and editing and proofing you never want to see it again, and having to do a publicity tour when you’re enthusiasm for a book is at its lowest ebb isn’t such a good idea!

Also, you may be promoting different books in different countries. It hasn’t been unknown for me to get off a plane, get in a car with the publicist, ask her desperately which book it is I am supposed to be talking about here, and does she have a copy on her – and if she does, then I desperately read the blurb on the back cover to remind me what the book is about!

So imagine between three to six weeks of this, living out of a suitcase, days running from 4 am to midnight, seeing only the inside of television or radio studios and hotel rooms and bookstores, and nothing of the city or country you’re actually in, and by the time I have finished I am literally ill with exhaustion and stress.

So the next time an author doesn’t appear particularly friendly at a book signing, just remember that they’re probably totally exhausted and thinking only of home.

Non-American authors tend to regard the American tour with complete horror – it is known as the most difficult place to tour in because of the nightmarish scheduling .I actually now have it stipulated in my contracts that I do not have to tour. I have become so ill and so exhausted, I just can’t do them any more.

It is better to go to a conference to meet and chat to authors – everyone has more time, no one is rushing off somewhere, and there is usually a bar close handy.

©2006 Sara Douglass Enterprises

Darkglass Mountain Trilogy

Tencendor is no more. The land is gone.

But not everyone is dead.

StarDrifter SunSoar, father to Axis, somehow survived the catastrophe and lives in Coroleas. But he is not the only Tencendorian to survive. Caelum SunSoar, in the days before the Timekeeper Demons decimated the land, maintained extensive diplomatic contacts both with the Corolean court and with the court of King Maximilian in Escator across the Widowmaker Sea. Now more than five thousand Icarii, as well Acharites (the human race of Tencendor), the remnants of these diplomatic corps and their families, live scattered about Coroleas and Escator.

Among them are many Enchanters, but none with the same degree of potential as StarDrifter SunSoar.

The destruction of Tencendor was an event that attracted attention all about the edges of the Widowmaker Sea. The Coroleans were amused (they had always envied the Icarii), and the Escatorians were saddened (they had admired the Icarii’s ability and learning), but further afield, in the land of Ashdod far to the south of Escator, news of the downfall of Tencendor promoted intense speculation.

And … well … no … that’s enough of the story line for now, I think!

The Darkglass Mountain trilogy is a chance for me to bring back all my favourite characters (well, most … I am trying desperately to write Hal Bolingbroke into this but don’t think I will be able to manage it) into the one story line. StarDrifter, of course. Axis. Maximilian, King of Escator, and an older Garth Baxter.

There will be new characters – the enigmatic Ishbel, the novitiate priestess of the semi-mythical Viscerati; Salome, a Corolean duchess, who has spent her life trying to hide a terrible secret; Isaiah, the battle-weary Tyrant of Isembaard; his court maniac, Ba’al’uz; and the Skraeling Lord, back at the head of his ghostly army.

You can see the working map for this series – showing the lands of Tencendor, Escator, Ashdod, Viland and Coroleas all shown in relation to the world on which they exist (or existed, in the case of Tencendor!).

You can now also read a page on The Serpent Bride.

©2006 Sara Douglass Enterprises

Sara’s Bio: 2005

Sara Douglass not my birth name – I’m actually Sara Warneke, but if I’d been a boy I would have been called Douglass … so when my first publisher HarperCollins Australia insisted I choose a different surname to get me off the lowest shelves in bookshops, I went with ‘Douglass’ with the double ‘ss’ to feminize it.

I was born in 1957 in Penola, a small town in the south-east of South Australia. My parents, two older sisters and older brother lived on a farm called Gundealga (look out for the name in the Axis books) where Dad and Mum farmed sheep and a lot of hope. I loved the farm, and hated leaving it to go to school and, eventually, to move to the capital city of South Australia, Adelaide, when I was about seven. We moved to Fisher Street in Malvern, a southern suburb, living in an old and gently decaying bluestone Victorian house (which I still dream of regularly … it was the house where I did most of my growing up). I was packed off to school, Methodist Ladies College, which was gentle, gentile and caring, and totally oblivious to the social revolutions of the ‘sixties.

I loved school, adored it (probably because it was a wonderful escape from family life). I had a terrific group of friends there as well – hello to Robyn, Trish, Ingrid and Cathy. I had a mad, insane crush on Cat Stevens. I developed a mad, insane passion for horse riding. And I did a little writing – not much, but a little … coming second in a national essay competition on the life of horses in the circus, the rodeo and racing (I am convinced I would have won if my essay had been more politically sound). And eventually I finished school, and passed into the great wide open world.

My father Bob, and my stepmum Joan, had been gently insisting for many years that I take up the female family tradition of nursing. Oh God, I loathed it. I loathed it, and yet it took me 17 years to escape. I loathed the stress, the anxious watching of patients in bed lest they do something silly like burst an aneurysm or have a cardiac arrest, the hours. I finished my training when I was 20, and took off with a friend to Europe for about 6 months. This trip was another of the great milestones of my life. Never had I felt so free – free from family expectations, free to be myself. It was brilliant, liberating, eye-opening. When I came home I managed to find a position as a Registered Nurse (‘Sister’ here in Australia); I was Sister Sara for many, many years in a small, bizarre private hospital on East Terrace in Adelaide. While I was there I started a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Adelaide.

This BA changed my life (again!). I was amazed that people actually took my thoughts seriously, and I adored the study. To cut a long story short I completed the BA, and then did a PhD in early modern (16th century) English history. I loved and still love the University of Adelaide, not only for the people, but for its remarkable library – the Barr-Smith library. Many of my manuscripts reside there in their special collection, if you ever want to see them (and if they’ll let you). The staff club of the university remains, I swear, my spiritual home. All this time I was still working the odd weekend as a nurse to supplement my scholarships and grants, but in 1992, a year after I’d completed my PhD, I finally abandoned nursing and took a position as lecturer in medieval history in La Trobe University, Bendigo, which is in central Victoria, Australia.

I’d jumped from the frying pan into the fire. This job was the most stressful I have ever held. The interdepartmental politics, the teaching, the emphasis on research even though you never had enough time or the facilities to do it. And the house I lived in … awful. So in an effort to find a way out of that job I began writing again, seriously (very seriously, this was the only thing I could think of to save me), wrote several really awful novels, a couple of not bad ones, and then one day, sat down to begin BattleAxe. I knew by the time I was about 100 pages in that this was the novel that was going to do it for me, if any novel was. So when I was done I wrapped it up in brown paper, picked out a literary agent’s name from the Yellow Pages (Australian Literary Management), and dropped it off into the nearby postbox. Instantly I knew I had made a terrible mistake. This novel was laughable! No one would ever take it up! And the agency took 6 months of umming and ahhing before they decided to accept me. Within 6 weeks HarperCollins had picked me up … and Sara Douglass was born and the land of Tencendor took off into the stratosphere.

Since then, as of early 2005, I have written 15 novels. I have moved from Bendigo in Victoria to the house of Nonsuch in Cornelian Bay in Tasmania. I have discovered a passion or gardening, and seem to collect a few too many cats. Occasionally I write, often I haunt ebay, many days you can find me in some online forum or another, but mostly I am engaged in some fruitless endeavour to stop Nonsuch crumbling away completely into the water. What can I say? It keeps me happy.

©2005 Sara Douglass Enterprises

Frequently Asked Questions: 2005

Please note, none of these questions are in any particular order, just as they occurred to me as I was typing!


When will ‘X’ book be released in ‘X’ country?

Believe it or not, authors are the worst people to ask! I have so many different release dates for different books around the world I tend to get confused, and I am also often the last person to be told, so I have given up trying to answer this question. Please contact Tor in the USA, and HarperCollins in Australia and New Zealand for details.

When is the next book going to be released? I throw my hands up! I have no idea! *grin*

What books of yours are available in America?

As of early 2005, most of them are, or will shortly be.

As from 2007 my books will be published world wide (English speaking rights) by HarperCollins Publishers, which will make things a little easier.

Why did I change my name from Warneke to Douglass?

I had no intention of using a pseudonym when I was first accepted by HarperCollins Publishers in Australia, but they asked me (for ‘asked’, read ‘insisted’) to change my surname because a book by Warneke would go on the lowest shelves in bookshops. Only dwarves who fell over ever bought books by “W’s”. They asked me to pick a surname between D and M (go check the bookshops and see what percentage of authors are ‘strangely’ in the D-M bracket!) because this was the surname range most likely to be on the eye-level shelves. So I picked ‘Douglass’ because, had I been a boy, that would have been my name. (I added the extra ‘s’ to feminise it, but Douglass with the double ss is a fairly common name anyway.) So, if you think about it, ‘Douglass’ isn’t a pseudonym at all.

Will I continue the Tencendor series?

2005 update: Yes! No one has asked for at least 3 years, and that meant I have now been energised into actually signing a contract with HarperCollins (a world wide deal) which will see a new trilogy coming out from 2007. I’ll add details once everything is more finalised. Stardrifter and Axis will be back … (but none of the ladies, we’ll have several new femme fatales). I’ll also be incorporating Maxmilian from Beyond the Hanging Wall, and Boaz and Tirzah’s (from Threshold) descendents will be back (as the bad guys!). The trilogy is called Darkglass Mountain.

In the glossary of Enchanter under the name Moonwalker it states that this is the name Rivkah adopted when she went to live with the Icarii, there is no listing of Goldfeather. Is Moonwalker the name you were going to call Rivkah or just a mistake?

Moonwalker was Rivkah’s original name, but HarperCollins Publishers Australia (original publishers) didn’t like it, so it was changed to Goldfeather (more in keeping with the Icarii way of naming people). It was changed in BattleAxe’s glossary, but not in Enchanter, and I’ve left it there through countless editions simply because it amuses me! Not one single publisher or editor around the world has picked up on it.

Is there going to be a sequel to Threshold?

Sort of. I am combining the sequels to the Tencendor series with a sequel to Threshold. StarDrifter meets Boaz. Should be interesting. You can check out the new page for Darkglass Mountain. While you won’t see Boaz and Tirzah again, if you hang around long enough you’ll meet their son, and the Goblet of the Frogs is right back in there. I’m still not sure about Fetizzah. The jury is out on her returning.

Which is my favourite of my own books?

Threshold, because it was a special book (hard to define why – but one of the reasons was because it was such a relief to get away from High Heroic Fantasy and do something very different; also the characters were particularly wonderful to work with). I loved doing The Crucible, though, as I could indulge my love of medieval history, and I’m looking forward to The Troy Game so much you wouldn’t believe.

The violence against women (almost domestic violence romanticised) in Threshold doesn’t bother you?

No, actually. It was needed for the plot, and I think it works. No one ever comments on the violence against babies in the book (the scene of infanticide at the beginning of the book … and, may I add, a particularly gruesome form of infanticide!), so I guess the violence against women must be the ‘in’ thing to get all huffy about. Besides, the woman who is so violated is less concerned about the physical violence, as the fact that her tormentor forces her to learn to read and write – an abhorrent act in her culture, and one she interprets as a violent rape. Violence in our present society is endemic – I don’t shy away from it, whether against men, women or children.

And the theme of incest in the Tencendor books?

Oh come on, that was just plain fun! *grin* I really do like taking some of the sacred cows in modern western culture and turning them on their heads. I’m too old and tired to be consistently politically correct.

Are there any books I regret writing?

Noooo. There are a couple I might not do again if I had my time over because of the length of research that went into them versus the actual sales meant they weren’t worthwhile spending so much time on, but I’m not unhappy about any of my books circulating out there.

Do you have any say in the covers?

Yes and no. In Australia I generally work closely with the artist. For overseas publications I don’t have any say at all, although both Tor and HCP UK (for The Crucible series, at least) have commissioned wonderful covers.

Can I base an online game (MUD, MOO, whatever) on your characters and worlds?

Only if you purchase the rights to do so. Unfortunately, if you don’t purchase the games rights, then you’re breaking copyright.

Where do I get my ideas from? Where does my inspiration come from? How do I write?

See my page on my Businesslike Approach to Baths to get full details on 1) how I write and 2) where I get my ideas/inspiration from. ‘Ideas’ are the result of many months of hard work. They just don’t ‘pop up’!

Is it difficult working out the plot for a trilogy?

Writing a series can be tiring, mainly because my enthusiasm only seems to last the first two books! By the third book not only has my enthusiasm dimmed somewhat, but I am thinking ahead to my next series, and can’t wait to finish the current one to start work on the next series. Frankly, I’d like to write more stand alones, but they are not as commercially viable in the fantasy genre (apart from one or two notable exceptions) as series – readers want series not stand alones, which don’t seem to sell as well. The Troy Game, my current project, extends over 4 books, but I think I’ve solved the enthusiasm problem as there are going to be four very different books, involving different research and approaches, and that will keep the enthusiasm up. Besides, the final book, set in London during the Blitz of World War Two, is the one I’m really looking forward to!

Plotting for traditional fantasy series tends to be dense and complex, which is something I am trying now to get away from. In the Tencendor books there were plots over plots over plots and a cast of thousands to support them. I now prefer to write books and series with only one main plot, but with a few thousand red herrings thrown in to keep the surprises fresh.

Do you always know the plot for an entire series before you begin work on it?

I always know where I am starting, and I know where I will finish, but the middle book(s) are often a mystery to me to be discovered when I get there. So, I know the starting point, and I know where the series will end, but writing the bit between is a journey of discovery for me.

When is the next book coming out?

I have little to no control over this; sorry, but authors don’t control this aspect of the process.

If I send you books, will you sign them?

It’s way too cumbersome for me to do that: postage costs far too much, and I’d be constantly wandering to and from the post office. I do signings around both Australia and America from time to time, so try and catch me at one of those.

If you write snail mail to me I will generally send back signed bookmarks.

Can you interview me, or have me appear at your function?

Requests for appearances and interviews in Australia can be made through HarperCollins publicity department or through Tor in America (phone number unknown as I never ring them!). But be prepared for a “I’m sorry”. I have a heavy schedule for the next couple of years, and my spare moments are very precious (I also loathe travelling like you wouldn’t believe). I do very little promotional or appearance work compared to some authors, partly because I guard my private time very jealously, and partly because I have a wide (and widening) range of business and gardening interests that just keep me too busy (I won’t travel through the six months of the Australian summer and autumn, for example, as I need to nurse my garden too closely then). I find literary events highly tedious (why in the world so authors spend so much time talking about themselves when they are writers?), speaking engagements too difficult to get to (thank God I live in relative isolation in rural Australia!) and, basically, I prefer to concentrate on my writing, which I enjoy, and my gardening, which I enjoy even more. I don’t think much of the goings on in Constantinople at all (read Voltaire’s Candide to work out what I mean! *grin*).

Am I a witch? A Neo-Pagan? A New Ager?

No. No. No. I am a perfectly ordinary person. I will not join your coven, and I will not be your Messiah. I am distinct from my books (most authors are) and my books offer few doorways into my personal life and beliefs. I am very down to earth, very practical, too lazy to think about the greater issues of life, death and the universe, and don’t have no truck with no nonsense. *smile*

How can people from overseas get my books?

Contact Bob Hoffman at the Australian Online Bookshop if you have difficulties finding my books in your country. HarperCollins in the UK, Ernst Kabel Verlag in Germany, and Tor in the USA all have various contracts to publish my books – but I have no idea on the publication schedules, so ask them, not me!

Can you write faster?

No. I write as fast as I am able, as fast as enables me to retain my sanity, and as fast as enables me to maintain a life. I’m actually slowing down my writing – for 4 or 5 years I put out two books a year, and that’s too much. I need to slow down. From now on it will be one book a year.

Why are my books now coming out in trade paperbacks/hardback first, rather than mass market paperbacks?

Again, this is a publisher’s decision based on marketing research. Authors have no say, so ring or write to HarperCollins or Tor about it. But as to why they do it … well, it is a marketing decision, and it means a bit more money for both publisher, book seller and author. *grin*

What about that interview where you said you were thinking of moving on from writing?

Ah, the panic I caused with that! But I also stick by it – basically the interviewer noted the many changes of career I’d had in my life (nurse to medieval academic to fantasy author) and wondered what I’d do next. I said I had no idea, but that I couldn’t see myself writing for the rest of my life. That got interpreted as “Douglass is going to give up writing!”. Well … one day I will give up writing, but I don’t know when that will be – only when it no longer gets to be any fun or the ‘expectations’ start to get too onerous. At the moment I am very seriously thinking of taking a long (and maybe permanent) break from writing after The Troy Game. By then I will produced 16 novels in under 10 years, and I think I’ll be ready for the scrap heap! I am very very tired of the promotional work and the media demands, and more than anything else the degree to which I am sick to death of those two things will determine when I stop writing.

Where do the names for characters come from?

From several sources: I either make them up, or find them in medieval poetry or other source material, or even from the Bible and classical literature. For the Tencendor books many of the characters’ names came from a wonderful medieval poem called The Song of Roland – Belial, Magariz, Belaguez among others (so, no, I didn’t realise Belial was supposed to be a devil!). If I am writing in a particular ‘culture’ then I will glance at the literature from that culture: for instance, in Threshold I got names from the Bible and sundry books on Egyptology, and others I just made up on the spot.

Why did I kill/maim/be cruel to ‘x’ character?

I am going to use Ray Feist’s answer here: “Because I bloody well could”. Because I’m the author and because it felt good for me and for the integrity of the novel at the time. I don’t particularly like happy endings, and novels where no-one gets hurt occasionally makes for bland reading. Tension requires that the characters which readers get emotionally sympathetic with must occasionally die. Badly.

Recently one of my fans (Hello SinnerStar!) labeled the various nasty ends of my characters as a “Sara Fate: TM”. I rather like that! I often imagine my characters sitting in a tea room somewhere behind the scenes thinking, “Oh God, she’s running out of uses for me, I’m going to die badly very soon!”.

Sometimes a Sara Fate:TM is simply because I’m having a very, very bad day – in the initial scene in BattleAxe where the woman gives birth … well, that was supposed to be a normal birth, but I’d had SUCH a bad day at work, and by the time I got home and wrote that scene … well …

Is Faraday ever going to have a happy ending?

I would dearly like to squash her under a huge pumpkin studded with rusty twelve-inch nails so that she dies a lingering, painful death from blood poisoning and a badly leaking belly, and I reserve the right to do so any time I feel like it. (Of course, by the time you get to the end of Crusader you’ll see that that is not quite the fate I’ve given her … nevertheless, I’ve been nasty enough …)

2005 update: Faraday will not, never, no way José, ever appear in the new Tencendor series, Darkglass Mountain.

Do I like my characters?

Sometimes, sometimes not. As is apparent in the above question, I have never liked Faraday very much, and other characters I get seriously annoyed with when they won’t do what I want them to do. Basically my favourite characters are the secondary characters in any novel: Belial in The Axis Trilogy, Zabrze and Isphet in Threshold, and Baron Raby in The Crucible.

What are you going to write next?

Whatever takes my fancy, and whatever I think I might be able to sell. My mind changes from week to week about what I’ll do next. At the moment (2001-2002) I have jut completed a historical fantasy – a trilogy based around the adventures of Henry V and Joan of Arc (The Crucible). I’m currently working on the research for The Troy Game, which series should take me at least four years to write. After that … well, after that I can seriously see a life beyond writing.

2005 update: The next few years will be taken up with Darkglass Mountain.

Why are so many facts wrong in The Crucible?

Because it amused me! *grin* The Crucible is based in an alternate world and I had a huge amount of fun doing what I wanted with the characters and events, and not what I was restricted to by the dry facts of history.

Are you aware that John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford had four children and not two? This is a terrible error!

The fuss over my giving Gaunt and Swynford only two children instead of four has caused me the greatest astonishment. So many die-hard romantics have written to me telling me I had it all wrong. I think there must be a Gaunt/Swynford Appreciation Society out there somewhere. So, yes, I am and have been always very well aware that they had four children instead of two, but I had no role for four children – I only needed two. The number of semi-hysterical people who have demanded I correct this has amazed me – why is it so important? There are so many other deviations from fact in The Crucible (most far far worse than eliminating two children for the sake of plot), yet this is the only one that seems to bother people. Heck, I have Christ clambering down from his cross and having sex in an alleyway off Cheapside, but no one cares about that … no, I must give John and Katherine the correct number of children, and I must do it now!

Is there going to be a film version of …’whatever’?

I am not particularly concerned about seeing my books turned into films and don’t chase the possibility down. I have no desire to sell the film rights of a novel to see it be massacred for the sake of Hollywood and for zilch returns (authors do badly out of film rights). I’ve had some discussions with directors/producers, but nothing has come of it.

Why don’t I try and get my initial unpublished novels published?

Because I know they’re awful. They were my ‘learning pieces’ and every writer needs them – but not to try to get published. Garth Nix once described the early novels that every writer need to write (and which will never get published) as the booster rockets/stages for space craft. They’re critical for getting you into space, but you never reuse them. Once written, they’ve served their purpose and are never looked at again.

Who do I most like reading? (Who is my favourite author?)

I don’t read much fantasy (many SF and fantasy authors never read in their genre). I honestly have no idea what’s out there at the moment, or know what today’s ‘trends’ are. I sat on a panel with 2 international fantasy authors recently, and they also sat bewildered when asked what fantasy they liked. They just don’t read it. Of fantasy authors, I have enjoyed Tad Williams and some of Ray Feist’s books the most. It would be easier for me to say who I didn’t like … but that wouldn’t be diplomatic!

As far as relaxation goes, I read a great deal of nonfiction (mainly in historical or archeological fields) and I’m only now beginning to appreciate crime writing – Ruth Rendell in her guise as Barbara Vine is one of my favourite fiction authors, but Elizabeth George is also a favourite, as is Laurie R King. I can see myself taking up crime writing one day …

Which authors most influenced me as a writer?

Again, this one always stumps me. I am not aware of any one or any several authors influencing me. I read everything I could get my hands on for the first half of my life, and I guess most of it influenced me in some manner, but I can’t think of a single major one.

What are my hobbies?

Well … gardening and books, really. I also enjoy playing about on the computer a fair bit. Gardening is a fairly new love, one I learned when I brought my first house (with the aid of the advance from the Australian edition of The Wayfarer Redemption) in 1996. For the past 4 or 5 years I have spent just about every spare moment digging up flower beds, and re-digging up flower beds, and cornering fellow-fantasy authors in dark corners at conventions and discussing composting in great detail (some people now run whenever they see me). Gardening is my greatest love. You can follow my gardening adventures at Nonsuch Garden.

But then books have always been a great love as well. With the success of my own books I can now afford to collect in a way I never could previously. At the moment I am building up a library on medieval London. My growing library is also one of my biggest headaches – where do they all go? I desperately need more wall space for more bookcases … (Update on the desperate need for bookcases: Sept. 2001 – I have finally contacted a local cabinet maker and he is to build for me a fully installed library – 9 foot high glass fronted book cases in gothic style – I can’t wait until they’re in!).

How does someone become a writer?

Through very hard work and through years of practice. Writing is a craft as much as dentistry is, or as much as carpentry is, but many would-be authors simply think it is a matter of throwing words on to a page. People are prepared to train as a carpenter, or a dentist, but think they can instantly become a writer. Writing is many, many years of solitary writing and many more years of disappointments. Mostly, is it about learning the craft of grammar and style, and learning how to distance yourself from your work so you can learn from your mistakes. Novice or amateur writers tend to think of writing as an emotional experience, a talent that simply bubbles to the surface. It’s nothing like that at all. Writing is as mundane a job, and as hard and as sometimes even as boring, as going in to the office every morning. If you’re in love with the romantic idea of being a writer, then get over it! It is hard grinding work most of the time. See my pages on Writing for more details.

Should I approach a publisher directly, or should I get an agent?

Tough question, and it will differ from situation to situation and from country to country. Authors always get asked this, and every author will give you a different answer. Publishing is a tough industry to crack, but the best way is to a) be professional and b) be good (and that means the hard years put in learning skills). Some people succeed without an agent, some with. See my section on Publishing and Writing for details on agents and more …

If you don’t have an agent then it is always a good idea to get someone ( a professional, please, not your best friend!) to look over your contract for you or give you some advice on it (a contract lawyer would be your best bet). I know a well known fantasy author who has never had an agent or a lawyer – she told me she trusts her publishers implicitly. She shouldn’t – from what she’s told me of her contracts she’s been taken for a long and appalling ride. Publishers will try and get the best contract possible – for them. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. I also know a first time author, no agent, who has by herself negotiated with a major publisher a contract that many authors with agents would be envious of.

How do I get an agent?

Get lists from writer’s societies, or search the WWW for lists (search for ‘literary agents’ on a search engine … I’ve seen the lists out there, but can’t remember where they are). Some agents are now so overwhelmed by manuscripts that they don’t advertise by traditional means (e.g. phone books). They know that if a writer is professional enough, they will find the agent, and agents don’t want to know about the unprofessional. Whatever, pick an agent who is still taking on clients and who likes to work in your area. Agents generally charge between 15% to 25% commission.

What’s better to write, short stories or novels?

Whichever takes your fancy. Most writers tend to start out writing short stories and then slowly graduate on to novels. This is a good idea for one major reason: if you are writing short stories, you’ll have the benefit of finishing a piece, learning from it, then going on to the next piece and doing better. Novice writers who start out on a trilogy first are probably never going to make it because they will never finish, learn, move on. I started my fantasy writing on a trilogy, true, but I was also a professional writer beforehand with numerous published and non-published works (including seven or eight novels). My first published fiction book, BattleAxe, was the result of fifteen years of practice. Short stories are a very good way to get that practice. Fantasy and SF magazines in Australia and overseas are fairly far and far between. Try Eidolon and Aurealis (both of which have web sites – I can’t remember where they are now, but if you do a search you’re bound to find them), but be aware that they get many thousands of stories a year, it takes them ages to get through, and they’ll probably only take 20 of the three or four thousand they get.

What’s the best way to succeed as a writer?

1. Be professional in everything you do. No-one needs to deal with enthusiastic amateurs when there are heaps of professional writers around.

2. Know how to write. Learn your craft. Don’t just throw words on a page and think they look cute and that because your husband/sister/best friend also thinks they look cute that you don’t need to do any more work. Family and friends are the very worst critics you will ever have. Be prepared to write 3 or 5 novels before you get to something that might be worth something.

3. Find a genre that suits your skills: your favourite genre may not be the best one for you to actually work in. For instance, I adore military adventure, thrillers, but I can’t write them. On the other hand, fantasy is only of mild interest for me, but I know how to write it well. Experiment a bit.

4. Research your market. For instance, what are the current trends in fantasy? What publishers in what country publish what kind of material? What do they look for? A hint: if you have a dragon, a dark lord or a bevy of gnomes, elves and dwarves, you might not have much of a chance. Most editors right now are sick to death of hackneyed fantasy characters and plots. Dragons will almost certainly get you rejected every time. Tolkien may have been the master, but editors hate hopeful writers who can’t think out something original for themselves (and Tolkien-imitations are now so numerous and so boring that no-one wants to read them). Also, make sure your women characters are very strong: most editors in the field are women, and if they see simpering, shallow female characters you’ll never make it to the short list! Don’t write in clichés, unless you know what you are doing and you are very good.

See also my section of Writing and The Publishing World for some other advice. That’s about all the advice I can give you – if you want more, most areas in the western world (as the Internet) are overpopulated with writing courses, associations, groups etc. and any one of those would be glad to help.

Will you read my book/chapter/short story/poem?

No, for varying reasons. Legally, it is a minefield for me to do so because it could easily open me to charges of plagiarism at a later date. Reading someone else’s novel takes a lot of time as well – I simply don’t have the time to take a week off to read and comment on your work. Be professional, send it to an agent, writer’s society, freelance editor etc. for comment. I receive many requests to read material, and while I wish you all the best of luck and appreciate how hard it can be to ‘break through’, I can’t do it for you.

Why don’t I put up reviews?

Because I just don’t have the time to type them up, because some reviewers have objected, but largely because I don’t have time to read reviews. I don’t think I’ve read one of them in 2 or 3 years.

How do I feel about reviews?

I don’t feel much about them at all. Good reviews are fine, and so are bad ones. I often have a good laugh at the motives reviewers attribute to me (reviewers write for themselves more than for anyone else). Genre readers generally don’t read reviews, so they make little to no difference to sales. The reviews that do matter to me are those that are passed down the 9 am tram: “What did you do over the weekend, Jim?” “Well, I read this great book …” My agent once told me that word of mouth sold more books than anything else, and she was right.

©2000-2005 Sara Douglass Enterprises

The Troy Game Quartet

the-troy-game-us-covers-quartetEvery day millions of children world wide play hopscotch. Every morning and evening hundreds of thousands of commuters use London’s railway and road systems. Deep in the highlands of Wales isolated shepherds cut strange symbols into the turf in order to protect their flocks.
These otherwise totally unrelated groups are all unwitting participants in the same activity.
They are playing the Troy Game.


The four books of The Troy Game follow the fortunes of the Game from the time Brutus established the labyrinth (now known as London) in Britain to its final enactment during the Blitz of World War Two. While Brutus established the Game, he couldn’t control it (or, rather, he was prevented from taking total ascendancy by the machinations of the vengeful Asterion), and the Game ropes out of control, taking on a life and purpose of its own.

The Game itself is the major character of the series; it has its own purpose and its own needs. In order to fulfill both purpose and needs, it binds the major players into the Game until it has finished with them. A group of characters, those intimately connected with the Game’s establishment in 1100 BC, are so trapped by the Game that they are reborn time after time, age after age, in order to play the Game through to its conclusion.

  • Book one is Hades’ Daughter (click link for more information). This is set in c. 1100 BC, describing the catastrophic events in the Aegean after the eruption of Thera, and the establishment of the Game, and of Labyrinth-London, in late Bronze-Age Britain.
  • Book two is God’s Concubine (click link for more information). The tale now moves into the eleventh century, and the bitter struggle for power between Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror – both vying for control for the Game.
  • Book three is Darkwitch Rising (click link for more information). It is now the early-to-mid-seventeenth century. England is embroiled in civil war, kings are murdered, exiled and restored, and Cornelia-reborn is living the high life at Woburn Abbey. All have returned, dragged back this time by the Troy Game itself rather than by Asterion, and all are more powerful than ever. Moreover, Ariadne is back as well, creating mayhem and mischief (together with one of my ancestors, no less!) in the Tower of London. Darkwitch Rising is a pivotal book, because this is one of those books that just when you thought you knew where things were headed … I’ve gone and changed everything. Several huge surprises, and by the end of the book some highly strange alliances are formed.
  • Book four is Druid’s Sword (click link for more information). Set during 1939-1941, mainly during the period of the London Blitz, from 7th September 1940 to 10th May 1941, the book centres on Jack Skelton’s (Brutus’) desperate search for a means to not only save London, but the Faerie and all those he loves. He seems helplessly trapped, unable to find a solution, watching many of those he loves best lost to death for all time, until one day he finds himself in a long forgotten crypt, staring at a piece of marzipan fruit on a chipped plate, a half-full decanter of whisky and two dirty glasses, and a receipt from a seedy hotel, all of which sit on a crumbling altar. Suddenly, he has an idea …

To understand the Troy Game, you need first to understand where it originated – not in Troy, but in the ancient Temple Labyrinth of Crete. For my series, as for the history of the Game since the mid-Bronze Age, the story begins with the legend of Theseus.

It will also help to read an only very slightly mythical history of the Troy Game itself.

©Sara Douglass Enterprises 2000-2004