Sara Douglass is 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 feminise it.
I was born on the 2nd June 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 came home one day to find Mum complaining of stomach cramps, saying she was off to the doctor. I can still remember that day, and even the dress Mum wore. It was the start of the bleakest 3 years of my life as Mum unsuccessfully battle ovarian cancer. Watching her die, and watching a family disintegrate under the strain (while grimly clinging to that old Victorian value of there being no strain, and nothing is wrong dear, it is just your imagination). When I wrote Enchanter, and did the scene where Azhure finally relives the horror of her mother’s death, it was, for me, a cathartic experience. Immediately after that scene Axis, in order to save Azhure from whatever bleak hell she’d gone into, has to apologise to her on behalf of the entire world for all the wrongs of the world. For me, that was even more cathartic: I’d needed someone to apologise for the living hell that my childhood had been – even though there was no one to blame, and no one who should have been blamed. Immediately after writing those two scenes I went and lay down on my bed and cried for 3 hours. Even though so many years have passed, Mum’s sickness and eventual death remains one of the pivotal experiences of my life (although I carry no chip on my shoulder over it … I’ve only talked about it here because a very insightful journalist probed me about those two scenes, and eventually their genesis made it into national print here in Australia).
Back to school and growing up. 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 arrogance of the doctors (as the bio in front of so many of my books attest – and yes, I’ve had arrogant emails from doctors about that, as well!). 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 … wasn’t that Clint Eastwood film as well??) in a small, bizarre private hospital on East Terrace in Adelaide. When I say bizarre, I mean bizarre. This was a place which hadn’t evolved since the 1920s – all us sisters had to wear long starched veils – this in the ’80s and 90s! This was a place where the housekeeper carefully collected blood from the operating theatres and poured it over the garden at night (“It helps the camellias, dear.”) And this was the place where a manic possum stole the keys to the dangerous drugs cabinet (please don’t ask me how the possum got the keys, that is SO bizarre you would never believe me) and ran off with them to the highest gum tree it could find – it took the military might of the SA police’s Star Force (the elite anti-terrorist squad … it was a slow night when the sister in charge rang the police to help in apprehending the possum, and they police sent the anti-terrorist squad!) to get those keys back. I don’t think the possum survived. (Can you imagine? The search lights, the guys in their bulletproof jackets and helmets, the guns, all trained on this gum tree and the little possum’s face, blinking way up high with the blue velvet ribbon of the dangerous drugs keys in his cute little paws.) I think I’ve said enough about this hospital for you to get the picture … anyway, 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. All 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 … (see the first house link). 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.
Finally I saved enough to buy my beloved Ashcotte (which ties me to Bendigo … I mean, if I wanted to sell the prospective new owners would have to be interviewed by the ghost) and to leave academia to concentrate on … well … on my gardening and maintaining of web pages … and a bit of writing!
And here I lie still.