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SFF World: Interview with Sara Douglass

Sara Douglass is one of the hottest new names in Fantasy. Well that is only true in the United States. She has been published for some time in her native land of Australia, having received the Aurealis Award and being recognized as Australia’s best selling writer. Her books have been published for a number of years in Europe and Canada. In 2001, the US was able to read her work for the first time with TOR books publication of the first book in her world of Tencendor, with the US title of The Wayfarer Redemption. Recently, the third book in the series, StarMan was just published. Sara takes some time to answer questions drawn from the forum members of SFFWorld.


1) How did you come up with the names of the characters?

For the Tencendor books I used a number of names from the Medieval epic, “The Song of Roland”, others I just made up, Rivkah I pinched from the credits of a soap. Generally they come from just about anywhere.

11) Did you have the events, such as the ending or who would be surviving, mapped out in your head?

Yes, I always know how a series will end, and the basic framework of events, who will live, who will die, who will be happy, who won’t be. I generally plan out in great detail, writing out wall charts, scene cards etc. When I plan out a book I plan it around between 3-5 major scenes.


©2002 SFFworld.com. To read the full interview on the SFF World website please click on this link.

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The Aurealis Awards

The Aurealis Awards were established in 1995 by Chimaera Publications, the publishers of Aurealis magazine, to recognise the achievements of Australian science fiction, fantasy and horror writers. Sara Douglass was a finalist eight times and won three times over the course of her career (including having two books win first place in 1996).

Aurealis Awards: Fantasy division

Who’s Who in the Publishing House

Who might you meet in the publishing house? Here’s an abbreviated list (with my sincerest apologies to everyone I’ve left out!) of the kinds of people an author can work with during the long and arduous process of getting the book out.

The Publisher:

The top dog who keeps everything running smoothly and who decides on the direction the publishing house is going to go in (“What the heck, let’s abandon genre literature and concentrate on cookery books for the next ten years.”). He or she probably won’t have much to do with the actual editing and production of an author’s book, but undoubtedly will be heavily involved with negotiating the contracts.

The Commissioning Editor:

This is the person who makes the decision (generally in concert with an editorial board) about which manuscripts to take and which to reject. While the commissioning editor is generally far too busy to take a hands on interest in the editing process of the accepted manuscripts, he or she will take a fair amount of interest in the overall inhouse progress of the manuscript, and whether or not the author is happy.

The (Senior) Editor:

This is the person who works one on one with the author in the editing process, and comprises that one person the author has most contact with. Occasionally the editor may be freelance – more publishing houses are sending their editorial work ‘out’ to freelance editors now. I don’t like it, it is always better to have someone at the other end of the phone.

The Copy Editor:

Although usually the editor does all the editorial work on a manuscript, sometimes a separate copy editor goes through the manuscript as well. This person is very often freelance. The copy editor does all the minutely detailed editorial work.

The Proof Reader:

Once a manuscript has been through several editorial stages, it goes off (or out) to a proof reader who checks for inconsistencies or mistakes.

The Designer:

The person who designs, or gives an artist the commission to design, the front cover of your book. Usually the author is consulted on this process, but it depends on the publishing house as to how much say the author will have in the final appearance of the book.

A slightly new group in publishing houses these days is the web design team: more and more publishing houses now have a significant presence on the web. Depending on what ‘web presence’ the publisher decides to give the author, the web designer can often be an important person in the production of a book.

The Cover Artist:

Rarely does the cover artist work within the publishing house. They’re usually freelance. They are paid to produce cover art work for the book – these pieces might be oil paintings measuring 8 foot by 4, or computer generated peices of art work. (If the art work is a ‘real’ piece of art work, the artist is usually happy to sell it to the author.) how much say the author gets in this art work varies from publishing house to publishing house.

The Publicist:

The publicity department is responsible for letting the world know the book is out there. Weeks, if not months, before the launch or a book they’ll be discussing with the author and with their colleagues how best to promote it. Should they advertise in print or on television? Should the book have its own dump bin? Should the author’s photograph be disseminated as widely as possible or diplomatically and silently consigned to the nearest wastepaper basket? Once the book is launched they’ll arrange media interviews for the author, and perhaps also a publicity tour.

I love travelling about with my publicist – it is the only time in my life where I feel totally looked after and someone else worries over the details of how to get from A to Z. Touring is very tiring (ah, those touring days starting at 7 am as the star of a “Meet the Author” breakfast, progressing through interview after interview and book signing after book signing through the day …), but it is one of the only chances an author gets to actually meet his or her readership.

And now for the people who generally get forgotten, but who often are almost entirely responsible for whether or not your book is a success …

The Book Reps:

Every large publishing house has book representatives in every state. These reps have their own ‘patch’ of book stores that they visit every month. Their job is to convince the book sellers to stock their particular house’s books … in the end your book is not going to sell if it is not in the shops, and if the book reps can’t convince the book sellers to take a book … well …

I absolutely adore HarperCollin’s book reps here in Australia – they do a fabulous job, and the feedback I received from book sellers has convinced me that if the reps hadn’t done such a brilliant job of pushing BattleAxe when I was a totally unknown author, then neither that book, nor I, would have done well at all. I owe them a tremendous amount, so … thanks, guys.

And many  more…

There are a thousand different people who I haven’t mentioned. Sorry! I am always amazed by the numbers and variety of people who turn up – there are the warehouse staff, the legal people, the web people, sundry other ‘techies’, the gofers, the marketing managers, the general ‘fixer-uppers’ … the list just goes on and on.

The Australian Magazine: The reality of Sara Douglass

sara_douglass-murray-waldren-picHer great-grandfather was court psychic to Queen Victoria. A tetchy ghost haunts her house. And she produces blockbustersSara Douglass full of spells and charms and mystical derring-do set in medieval realms. Welcome to the territory of a paranormal partisan? Not so. At 42, Bendigo-based Sara Douglass may be the hottest fantasy writer in the country, outselling international big-guns like Raymond E. Feist and Stephen Donaldson here and poised to gatecrash their multi-million-dollar territory in the US, but she’s definitely a feet-firmly-planted, success-through-adversity achiever.

In bottom-line literary terms, she’s a genuine high-flier – since her first book in 1995, her Axis Trilogy has sold more than 150,000 copies. Her second trilogy, The Wayfarer Redemption (with the third title, Crusader, released mid-1999), is already touching the 100,000 mark. Then there’s her stand-alone fantasy title, Threshold, her young adult novel, The Hanging Wall, and this year’s non-fiction work, The Betrayal of Arthur. And she’s just finished the first book of her third trilogy, The Crucible, with The Nameless Day scheduled for release in May.

Astonishing productivity, with an even more astonishing readership – nine books in five years, some 300,000 copies sold. In Australia alone. Factor in last year’s British releases and her upcoming European translations and the potential expands. Exponentially, really, given she has just been wooed by Tor Books for a seven-book back-list deal. This promotionally-minded publisher is co-ordinating a full-on campaign this year: with the American fantasy market so voracious and its readership so mammoth, the buzz is strong that her high six-figure sign-on is a bargain deal.

Aficionados probably know that Sara Douglass is the pen-name of Dr Sara Warneke. They may not realise her surname change came not from academic niceties but through marketing tactics: “HarperCollins thought Warneke was too far down the alphabet and thence too low down on the shelves. They asked me to choose a name between D and M …” Between deep and meaningful? I ask. “If only,” she laughs. “I chose it because Douglas is what I would have been called if I had been a boy. I added the extra ‘s’ because that spelling is the feminized form and was used a lot in medieval times – it suited my medieval bent.”


This article by Murray Waldren was first published in The Australian Magazine, 22 January 2000. To read the full interview on the Murray Waldren’s personal website please click on this link.

OzLit: The Nameless Day

the-nameless-day-1steditionThe Nameless Day, book one of The Crucible, introduces readers, not only to a new trilogy by Australia’s leading fantasy writer, Sara Douglass, but represents a slight change of direction for the prolific wordsmith as well.

In a former life, Douglass was an academic – a medieval historian – and there is no doubt she has used the knowledge and insights gained in this period to endow this book with an authenticity and richness that is often lacking in historical novels. This, however, is not only an historical novel. In The Nameless Day, Douglass has employed a type of historical faction – that is, a narrative that interweaves historical “fact” with fiction. Drawing on well-known figures in Western history such as John of Gaunt, the Black Prince, Joan of Arc and Hal Bolingbroke and painstakingly recreating old London, and pre-Renaissance Europe, Douglass locates her novel in a parallel medieval earth that is at once familiar and wonderfully strange. History buffs will note the compression of time and characters while fantasy fans will appreciate the otherworldiness and magic that creeps into the story.

In this world, a place and time where church law governs and the inquisition has deftly inscripted its presence, good and evil are at loggerheads. But, rather than drawing a picture of these events in a way Michelangelo might, Douglass ignores binary oppositions and locates herself firmly in the surrealist school. Angels and their voices are not the product of a psychotic mind, but are the lucid mentors of select individuals. Furthermore, demons walk the earth – sometimes wearing an all too familiar shape. As in the past, good and evil are not simply esoteric terms but significant theological and secular realities that are explored through real characters and significant debates and beliefs of a bygone era. And, as Douglass’ fans have come to expect, the resulting story is an uncompromising tale of passion, lust, brutal machinations and humour.

The book opens with the interestingly named friar, Wynkn de Worde (an actual historical figure no less (the appellation is a gift for fantasy writers!), undertaking what can only be described as devilish work. When he meets an untimely end, the archangel Michael is appalled and rapidly ensures the procreation of his successor. The rest of the novel, set in the late fourteenth century, explores the spiritual and profane journey of Brother Thomas Neville.

Thomas Neville is a cold, unforgiving holy prat – there are no other words to describe him. He is a goody-two-shoes with a holier-than-kingdom-come attitude that, as a reader, you just know has to shift. And, as the narrative progresses and glimpses of his unsavoury past begin to surface, sympathy for this misunderstood and cold creature is evoked. In the character of Neville, Douglass has created a flawed yet endearing (yes, even though he is all of the above) anti-hero whose transformation is both longed for and always-in-process. His wanderings around Europe and England take him to many places and involve him in many encounters sexual and otherwise. Colourful characters are sewn into the fabric of Neville’s life and as his perspective widens so too does his attitude to God, man and woman start to change.

Where the book will challenge many readers is in its conception of good and evil. Douglass, using the schism that occurred in cultural and religious thought around the fourteenth century, holds spiritual beliefs and notions of the church, God and humankind up to a mirror and, in the ensuing examination, the reader is invited to look through a glass darkly. There are angels condoning the abuse and use of women, ordering death to newborns while those cast in the role of demons advocate for human rights and the sanctity of home and hearth. The earth is transformed into a literal Manichean battleground and, as the book progresses, what were once clear boundaries, with apparent allegiances, shift and slide. For Thomas Neville and those who believe in the role of the church, what constitutes good and right is no longer so clear cut.

To explain any more of the story would be to destroy the suspense of the plot. It is a tight, well-conceived tale that will sometimes surprise the reader, especially when a well-known figure from the pages of history is revealed warts and all. But that is part of the delight of reading this book. History is popularised – returned to the reader in an immensely enjoyable and palatable form. The two-dimensional people from history books and documentaries are transformed into three-dimensional characters who live, breath, love, shit and fart. Overall, I found this book a joy to read. Douglass has breathed life and light into an otherwise dark age and come up with an wild and uncanny explanation as to why Western culture underwent this huge fluctuation in comprehension around the 1300s. For her old fantasy fans, there is so much in this book to satisfy generic expectations – but there is much, much more as well. Hopefully, it is these extras that will introduce a wider audience to Douglass’ work who will also come to appreciate the quality of her imagination. The Nameless Day is without doubt Douglass’ best book yet. History has never been so picturesque and quirky and fantasy has never been quite so wondrous!


©2000 Dr Karen Brooks, Department of Popular Culture and Media Studies, Arts Faculty University of the Sunshine Coast. Reproduced in full with permission from Dr Brooks.

Community News: Chat with Sara Douglass

The following is an edited version of an online chat with Sara Douglass chats on community.news.com.au Monday, 29th November 1999 8pm AEDT, taken from the Harper Collins Australia website.


Host Mark: The last time we chatted was when the World Science Fiction Fair was on…what have you been up to since then?

Sara Douglass: Working! Building my new web site …And also planning out my next novel.

Jason from Sydney asks: Are you writing a new book?

Sara Douglass: Next week I start the second book in The Crucible trilogy called The Wounded Hawk.

Host Mark: Does that mean you start researching or sitting in front of the computer actually writing?

Sara Douglass: It means sitting in front of the computer and writing. I’ve spent a while planning and so now comes the hard bit where I have to put what’s in my head onto the small screen. It is going to be a busy Xmas! The book is due on March 1 next year so I don’t have much time. Gulp.

Christopher Heron from Melbourne asks: Do you feel funny writing about good and evil as the millennium approaches it’s end…do you think it will influence your writing?

Sara Douglass: Oh gosh, not the millennium. If you actually date the millennium from the birth of Christ then we had it 4 years ago! The short answer to this is that, no, the millennium has had no effect on my writing or on my perception of good and evil. I have always been fascinated by the perception of good and evil, even as a child who is to say what is good and what is evil? In my next trilogy called the Crucible (a plug!) I twist the entire notion of good and evil about so that what is evil good, and vice versa.

Host Mark: How long does it take you to research and plan…it seems you are incredibly organised.

Sara Douglass: Well, first of all I ‘dream’ a book which is when I think of a topic for a book/s and then spend some year or 2 dreaming about it. All this time, of course, I am working on something else! Then comes the day when I can actually work on the new book and I spend some time planning (I can plan a book in under 3 hours – scene by scene) and that short time is because I have ‘dreamed’ it so long and then all I have to do is write it, which is the very worst part! Am I organised? No, I don’t think so, but I am disciplined.

Christopher from Melbourne asks: Do you write everything down from your dreamtime? Or does it just live up there so to speak?

Sara Douglass: No, of that time almost nothing gets written down it all lives in my mind. If you can imagine that for every physical book of mine, there is something like ten more books of adventures etc that never got into print!


©1999 Sara Douglass Enterprises / Harper Collins Publishers. To read the full community chat with Sara Douglass on the Harper Collins website please click on this link.

SMH: There Be Dragons

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

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

(from Threshold, by Sara Douglass)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Animist: Introducing Australian Writer & Historian, Sara Douglass

Ian Irvine interviewed Sara Douglass in 1999 for The Animist magazine. He has given us permission to reproduce his interview with Sara in full. He’s a published author (under the name Ian Hobson), literary journal writer and teacher of writing. More information can be found at http://www.authorsden.com/ianirvine.


Sara Douglass (given name Sara Warneke) is one of Australia’s leading fantasy writers. In terms of her sales and public following she is certainly the country’s most successful to date. She is also one of Australia’s leading Medieval and Early Modern historians. Born in Penola, South Australia, she spent her early working life as a nurse. Quickly growing tired of the profession she eventually worked her way through three degrees at the University of Adelaide, culminating in a PhD in early modern English history. During this same period she began her ‘apprenticeship’ as a writer. Apart from satisfying the public’s demand for what she terms ‘thick books’ Sara currently teaches medieval history at La Trobe University, Bendigo. Her first series of fantasy books, The Axis Trilogy, won the 1997 Aurealis Award in the category of Best Fantasy Novel. She is increasingly sought after as a speaker at national and international literary events and her works are beginning to attract a significant international following. It has been a pleasure to interview Sara for this edition of The Animist. -Editor


Sara is the author of the following books: BattleAxe (Axis pt.1) (1995), Enchanter (Axis pt.2) (1996), Beyond the Hanging Wall (1996), StarMan (Axis pt.3) (1996), Threshold (1997), Sinner (Wayfarer pt.1) (1997) and Pilgrim (Wayfarer pt.2) (1998). Crusader (Wayfarer pt 3) is due for publication in mid-1999. Currently she is also working on a new trilogy entitled The Crucible. Sara has also published a number of historical books and articles (using both her literary and real names), including: The Betrayal of Arthur (soon to be published by Pan); Images of the Educational Traveller in Early Modern England (E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1995), and Passport Control in Early Modern England (published as part of the Studies in Western Traditions series, La Trobe University Bendigo, 1996).


Ian Irvine: You mentioned in a recent public lecture that you are a little uncomfortable with the term ‘fantasy’, and with the label ‘fantasy writer’. You seemed to argue that the term works against serious imaginative writers working in what now encompasses the ‘fantasy’ genre. Could you explain your position on this issue.

Sara Douglass: The issue is a little broader than just the fantasy v serious literature scenario: the fantasy issue is highly representative of a much broader ‘problem’ … or stance, perhaps.

It comes down to the fact that in the word trade there are 2 camps: the serious literary types who write really serious, good and meaningful literature … and the populist trash who write for the general public. (So I am being a little cynical … bear with me here!) According to the serious, meaningful and good literary types, they are the only ones who write ‘good’ literature, the only serious literary endeavours are their’s, and the writers who produce for the mass market shouldn’t be considered in their league at all. I don’t dispute that at all in the sense that writers who produce for the mass market (Jeffrey Archer, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Tom Clancy – the list can go on and on) don’t write literary masterpieces according to the strict definition of literary style, prose, grammar etc. – but that’s not to say they don’t write very meaningful and important work. They simply write in a manner that is accessible for the masses. Yet that is considered ‘bad’ in the ‘real’ literary world (although the view is changing with far more emphasis being placed on mass market writers in uni courses etc. now). Let me put this in a slightly different way, and one that you, Ian, will relate to. You took a BA in Humanities in which the emphasis was very much placed on the Great Minds, Great Thoughts, Great Cultural Achievements of the past. But what is, in the end, more important? What a Great Mind Thought … or what 100,000 lesser minds did with the Great Man’s Thoughts? What is more important: the Thought (or whatever) or the use to which it is put by (or the way in which it is reinterpreted for) the masses?

In the word trade (I hesitate to use the term ‘the literary world’, because that is way too narrow), there are the serious literary books – what are often indisputably wonderful literary examples – and there are mass market books … the serious literary stuff affects only a few minds, while the mass market stuff affects and alters a hundred thousand (or a few million) minds. I don’t think either of the streams of books more important than the other – but they are both as important as each other in different ways.

Yet the serious literary world has labelled authors who place their tales in different, often magical worlds, as ‘fantasy writers’. It’s a highly derogatory label, and meant to be so in the literary world. ‘Fantasy’ is used as a derogatory label even by science fiction fans (although NOT science fiction writers)! That’s why I so strongly object to the label fantasy: it was coined as a put down, and largely continues to be used as a put down, and it generally understood as a put down by non-fantasy readers. (How many times have I heard someone who is finally ‘forced’ to read a fantasy work to admit they actually really enjoyed it even though they thought “fantasy was for kids”?) It is exactly the same as calling an indigenous Australian a ‘blackie’ or an African American a ‘nigger’.

There are very good and very serious writers writing in the ‘fantasy’ genre, and while fantasy readers adore their work, they will very rarely be taken seriously in the ‘serious’ literary world which tends to be highly inbred and somewhat snobbish. There are major Australian newspapers which refuse to review fantasy because they believe the genre childish, insignificant and stupid. Besides, fantasy books generally have raised type gold or silver titles, and that must mean it is trivial and stupid. (That is the view of the editor of the book review section of a major Australian newspaper which I had better not mention for fear of being sued!)

Ian: How do you personally view the canon-makers who often seem to arbitrarily classify the worth of writers by reference to the ‘culturally’ perceived value of genres?

Sara: I don’t care a bit, actually. I do my job (in writing for the mass market), I have made my point to my audience, I have touched their lives and, occasionally, have made their lives better. I have enhanced the cultural lives and understanding of a huge number of people via my books because I write in a way that is accessible to the vast majority of people who like to read. Honestly, I view the canon-makers as irrelevant. Neither I nor my audience listen to what they have to say. We exist outside their small realm of influence.

Ian: You’ve often linked many of the motifs and themes related to what is these days called the ‘fantasy genre’ to folk and sacred literary (often oral) traditions going back many thousands of years. Do you think that there are archetypal story sequences lodged, as it were, in the collective psyche which can be drawn on by writers and other artists generation after generation?

Sara: I know there’s been a great deal of work done on this, but I haven’t read that much of it. As far as western society goes I think it is very true that there are archetypical story sequences which, although not perhaps quite lodged in the collective psyche, nevertheless retain their appeal millennium after millennium. That’s why ‘fantasy’ has retained its appeal and why it is close to being the largest selling genre in the western world: as I mentioned in the lecture, fantasy is one of the few places that people can still access the archetypical story-lines.

Ian: You are obviously widely read in the Teutonic, Celtic, Medieval and Early Modern literary traditions in particular. Do you consciously (or unconsciously) draw on such traditions for inspiration in your story writing?

Sara: Of course I rely on pre-modern literary traditions for my writing! (And in fact, most best-selling fantasy authors do.) Examples? Gosh … in the Axis Trilogy most of the cultures, societies, plot lines and even some of the characters are heavily influenced by our cultural past: the Avar and the forest cultures, their religion and rituals were heavily based on pre-modern (and particularly Dark Age) European cultures and rituals: the Avar worship of the trees remains, of course, in our remaining (although secularised) worship of the Christmas tree! Although I don’t draw word for word, or plot line by plot line, most of my writing is influenced by my readings and love of pre-modern cultures.

Ian: I’m interested in the emphasis you place upon imagining and populating ‘landscapes’ as a necessary precursor to writing fantasy novels. Could you talk about this process a little.

Sara: Okay … where to start?! Fantasy writing, especially as it mostly encompasses setting your plot in a different world, necessarily encompasses creating a new world. Sometimes people who want to write fantasy feel daunted by the whole idea of having to create a new world, of having to create a plot that is deep enough to sustain at least one thick book and hopefully 3 thick books, and also creating all the characters and situations to go with this in depth plot. Not only that, but in creating a new world you must also create a new religion, a new culture (and a culture with myths that stretch back hundreds if not thousands of years), a new language, new systems of counting, new of ways of relating to space and time (new distances, new ways to tell time), new swear words … the list goes on and on. And, you must do this for every race you create to live in your world: every race has its own culture, languages, religions, myths etc. How long is all this going to take? the would-be author thinks, and perhaps decides it would be best to forget the entire idea.

So how long does it take? No less than half an hour, no more than 2 hours, and 2 hours is more than ample. Quite literally, all you have to do is create a map, that is, create a landscape … and that landscape will then present to you the types and numbers of races, the structures of their societies, what is important in their lives and how they live their lives. It also give you religions, gods, systems of magic, government … whatever. Even the myths that stretch back into the unseen past. The landscape itself will give you the rest.

I’ve always started with a map. I sit down and take a half an hour to draw freehand, and without any planning, a map of a land. Here’s the coastline (always putting in a bay or two so you can have a port town … ports always come in useful), here’s a few towns, here some lakes, here hills, here’s a bog, here a road, and so forth. Oh, and always a fog-bound island or two off the coastline from whence fierce pirates or mysterious barges can sail forth from time to time. Once you’ve done that, then you can see where different peoples are going to live: here the people who live on the plains and grow crops and herd livestock; here the hills where live isolated groups of mysterious monks; here the peoples who live in the soaring mountains or the flat wastelands. The landscape dictates how they live, and from there you move quickly to the nature of their religions etc., the types of conflicts which might occur between the various races, the resentments that will blow up, etc. etc. etc. By morning tea time you have a plot and something to keep you out of mischief for several years while you write it up. Easy.

Now, I’ve always found that process easy, but I didn’t realise how easy it was for other people until recently when I conducted a workshop on how to construct the fantasy world for the Bendigo Writers’ Group. I divided people up into groups of 3 or 4, gave them some general instructions and some do’s and don’ts, and set them down to, in their first half an hour, create a landscape. I must also add that about half the group were made up of people who’d never read fantasy and didn’t know much about it.

So I left them to it and wandered off to the kitchen, had a cup of tea and ate all the chocolate biscuits the Writers’ Group had kindly provided. A while later I wandered back in to see how everyone was going. I was stunned by what had taken place in my absence. All the groups – in half an hour – had not only created a landscape, represented by a rough map, but had also created the societies, races, creatures etc. which lived in their landscape. Myths and cultures were there as well. Not only that, they’d also got well started on their plots. All in half an hour. None of this had I asked them to do … it was just that once they had a landscape before them, the peoples and races and cultures almost literally leapt off the page and bit them on the nose. By the end of the workshop, which extended over 5 working hours, most groups had books ready to be typed up. It showed me two things. One, the power of the human imagination given only a few prompts. And Two, what the human imagination does once it can visualise the landscape of a different world. Instantly it populates that world with gods and religions, races and conflicts, heroes and scoundrels, and even a thousand years of myth. One group, in presenting their world, got so carried away they began their presentation with the hundreds of years of myth and history that had shaped the races of their land.

Ian: It seems all female writers eventually cop a question about the influence of their gender on their work …

Sara: Yeah. Gee, thanks …

Ian: … I wanted to avoid it … but I’d like to know more about the remarks you’ve made concerning the feminisation of fantasy writing in recent years – you’ve stated somewhere that publishers are looking for writers who can depict strong female characters ( I thought straight away of Azhure) and that many of the adolescent male fantasy themes which once dominated this genre have passed their use by date. You also mentioned the fact that many fantasy readers have grown up and want to read fantasy that reflects their adult world view. The first chapter of BattleAxe (your first book) is critical in this regard. Here is a uniquely feminine experience (childbirth) portrayed with a realism rarely encountered in the work of other fantasy writers. Might we also talk about the sexualisation of fantasy (Sinner in particular seems to explore this domain)? Are you conscious of writing within fantasy’s ‘new order’ so as to speak?

Sara: I think the answer to the above might well stretch to a book!! First: strong female characters. I’ve read a fair bit of fantasy in previous years (although not so much in the past 5 years) and one of the things that drove me up the wall were stereo-typed females locked into roles that allowed them no self-determination, no control and no growth as a character. Partly this is a problem of the fantasy genre which, relying so heavily on past societies and myths for inspirations, then must somehow avoid the patriarchal nature of past societies and cultures. Female characters in fantasy must often be placed in the traditional roles women filled in pre-modern societies (fantasy is almost always set in pre-scientific and pre-technological worlds … the only type of worlds where magic becomes believable), yet they must still somehow be given the chance for strength and self-determination while remaining in traditional roles of housewife, obedient daughter, or beautiful princess. Writers must manage this, because both the reading public and, more importantly for the hopeful author, the commissioning editors in publishing houses (who are mostly women with a healthy record in self-determination) demand this.

You mentioned the gritty realism of the first chapter of BattleAxe: another problem with much of the fantasy available until only a few years ago was that it was wishy washy. Here were tales of great quests, the welfare of the world at stake, lots of people running about in horribly dangerous situations with very sharp swords and spiky lances … and no one ever said ‘ouch!’. People rarely suffered, they rarely experienced the inherent dangers of a life that was chronically unsafe. The pre-modern world (again the one fantasy writers tend to set their tales in) was one of dirt and chronic pain and easy death, and I don’t shy away from depicting that.

This moves into another part of your question: writing for a readership that has grown up. Part of the problem with fantasy writing was that for years many authors wrote for a young-ish audience, perhaps even believing the myth that fantasy readers were young readers. But people rarely grow out of their love for grand adventure, romance and the power of the unknown, and they still want to read it when they’re 35, or 45, or 75. But by the time you’re 35, or even 25, you know that life often hurts, that it’s not wishy washy at all, and that great joy is often as painful an experience as great fear or horror. Adult readers get tired of the constant diet of wishy washy fantasy; they know that this is not what life is about. I very, very deliberately set out to write fantasy that filled that gaping hole in the contemporary fantasy market: thus the opening scene of BattleAxe, my first book published. It told the fantasy reader who quested through bookshop after bookshop that here was a fantasy book that wasn’t going to shirk the pain and horror of life. That opening horrible, bloody scene sold me to an agent, it sold me to HarperCollins, and it sold me to the greater number of adult readers who, curious but jaded, picked up this book by an unknown author and thumbed through the first few pages. That poor woman died the most horrible death imaginable, but she turned me into a best-selling author. (And I’m convinced that the major reason I have become a best-selling fantasy author is that I write for an adult audience who know the pain of life. On the other hand, younger readers, who have experienced pain, also greatly appreciate my books.)

And following on yet again: the sexualisation of fantasy. Much the same answer as above. I was tired of books which portrayed wishy washy females, I was even more tired of books that depicted wishy washy worlds, and I was frightfully frustrated with books that had handsome male and beautiful female setting out on long and horribly dangerous quests, falling in love along the way, and only ever sending each other longing looks along the way. What was this, fantasy for Mills and Boon??? So, as I threw in strong females, as I threw in the pain and horror and the grit of real life, I also threw in the sex … because people do have sex, and they abuse it and are victims of it as much as they are abused by and are victims of any other process of life. I sexualised fantasy because it was time someone did it! And again, it has had a very positive response … almost a sigh of relief from readers. Fantasy has to depict real life situations, pains and grievances and joys and situations just so people can 1) relate to it, then 2) lose themselves in it.

Am I conscious of being part of the new order of fantasy writing? I’m not too sure what the new order is, because I don’t read fantasy now, but I am positive there are other fantasy writers out there who were as tired of the wishy washy bits as I was, and who realised the need to change fantasy to suit the knowledges and expectations of real people.

And as a writer, I am appalled at how often I have used ‘wishy washy’ in the preceding paragraphs! My copy-editor would have a fit …

Ian: You’ve acknowledged publicly that you like depicting a good battle every now and then. There are some marvelous descriptions of slaughter, pillage and war in your works. Obviously your readers love the epic conflict also. Why, do your think, we so-called ‘civilised’ human beings are still fascinated by war?

Sara: It’s just a part of us: no point denying it. We’re a very violent race. We like to think we have become civilised, but we continue to engage in violence and in ritualised conflict. Sport has largely become civilised man’s war (the Olympic Games as ritualised war? It’s easy to see it that way), although we still like to engage in the Real Thing whenever 1) we think we are justified and 2) we think we can win. There’s nothing better than thumping the baddie, esp. when we can safely participate in the war via our television screens. Wasn’t it nice of the Americans to give us some more Iraqi entertainment just in time for Xmas (let’s have a replay of that bomb going in just one more time, guys!)? Violence is at the very essence of every human being (whatever we mumble about ourselves being civilised). We like to watch it, read about it, and scream at the opposing footy team on Saturday afternoons and still think it’s all ‘good clean fun’. Apart from the odd occasion when it is meted out to us personally, we absolutely love violence and we like to witness violence being dealt to people we don’t like.

Ian: More to the point, how does the ‘war theme’ contribute to the literary arsenal of the fantasy writer?

Sara: I think I’ve answered that in my last response! Fantasy is just one more way ‘civilised’ people can indulge in violence. War plays a major role in fantasy writing, not only to sate the market’s interest in violence, but because, as most fantasy tales are set in pre-modern worlds, fantasy tales are necessarily set in violent worlds (or, more overtly violent worlds). Besides, every fantasy hero must have a sword, and thus they must get the chance to use it occasionally. Practically speaking, however, wars in fantasy novels do serve one major purpose as far as the author is concerned. One of the things about fantasy novels is that they are long (often a series rather than a stand alone book), and for that reason they have scores of characters. At some point the author realises she or he has a few too many characters, and where better to kill them off in a bit of violence? (Preferably an all-out war.) I have a running joke with my publicist at Harper Collins (Kate Thomas). I complain that I must always kill my characters off in some glorious bit of violence … no character can die a ‘mundane death’. So I threaten HC with killing off the golden hero (on the morning he is due for his final conflict with Evil Lord from the Icy North) by slipping over in the bath tub while performing his morning ablutions and smashing his head open on the tiled bathroom floor. Can you imagine? Building up the tension for 3 books (or 6 or 9) to the Final Confrontation, and then having one of the 2 main protagonist die quietly in his sleep the night before? Nah – they’ve all got to die as horribly as possible in as inventively violent way as possible. Violence … we’re all trapped by it.

Ian: How do you merge your life as a Medieval historian (you’ve had a book, some articles and a monograph published under your real name: Sara Warneke) with your much more public role as a fantasy writer? How do you think your university colleagues view your position as a fantasy writing historian?

Sara: I don’t try to ‘merge’ it at all: it’s just part of who I am. I’m a medieval historian and fantasy writer. I use my medieval historical background in my writing, and my writing in my teaching. Whatever, I am still the same person, whether people see me as historian or author. What do my colleagues think of my writing? Not much. I think I’ve let the side down by first writing fantasy and then being financially successful at it! What I am now starting to do is sell my medieval historical work under the name of Douglass: it makes a huge difference!

Ian: Many reviewers of your work have commented on the remarkable realism and believability of the worlds you create. How does your work as an historian contribute to that sense of realism that is such a feature of your fantasy writing?

Sara: One of the things I teach and am immensely interested in is medieval social history: the lives and thoughts of the ordinary people. Thus I am very familiar with the daily workings of the medieval world, and that makes me very familiar with the medieval worlds I create in my fantasy novels. I know how these worlds work, whether in social, cultural, political or religious aspects, and it makes my writing very easy (and probably adds to its success).

Ian: You’ve sometimes indicated that you write for pleasure, for imaginative exploration – even, as it says on the opening page of your books, that you escape academia through your writing. To what degree do you explore issues relevant to your own life through your writing? Would it be worthwhile for a future literary or cultural studies Masters student to psychoanalyse your works? Karen Brooks hints at the rich possibilities in her review of Sinner.

Sara: I suppose that every author uses incidents, people met, thoughts, etc. that have occurred in their private life in their writing, although I never consciously do it. I do not use my writing to explore issues from my own life. Well … not consciously. The only time I am aware that I used my writing to .. not so much explore, but to purge … was in Enchanter.

Azhure manages to finally confront the horror of her mother’s death (Niah’s death), and in doing so, finally manages to touch her real self. That was one of the final scenes of Enchanter, and it was so ghastly to write that once I’d finished it, I went to my bedroom, laid down and cried for 3 hours. At the time I had no idea why I’d been so affected by it. Then, when it came time for Harper Collins’ editor, Louise Thurtell, to edit the book, she crossed out all the pages of dialogue immediately after that scene where Axis basically asks forgiveness from Azhure for all the cruelties of the world. Again, I became very emotional and was deeply hurt without any conscious realisation of why I was so deeply affected (the scene stayed!). It took me many months before I finally realised what I’d done in that book. My own mother died when I was very young, and had also died a long and horrible death (although not the same as Niah’s). No one was to blame for her death, it was just one of the cruelties of life. So what had happened was that in Enchanter, via both Azhure and Axis, I had finally expunged the lingering grief and emotion of my own mother’s death, AND (most importantly) extracted from the world a blanket apology for the cruelty and pain that had been caused to me by her death.

Having said all that, that is the only instance I am aware of where my private life has impinged into my writing. Although I may have worked through lingering pain at my own mother’s death via Azhure, you can’t equate Azhure with me, or any other aspect of her life with mine. For instance, Azhure hated her father (or whom she thought was her father), Hagen, while I adored my own father … no other circumstance of Azhure or her life is like mine. (For instance, if it had been me, I would have dumped Axis like a shot and run off with Belial!) I have been highly amused at some of the more (psycho)analytical reviews of my works: you can read anything you like into them … a postgrad could psychoanalyse my works all they like, but all they would be doing is psychoanalysing themselves.

Ian: Do you agree with the statement that quality fantasy is a celebration of the realistically impossible in the name of the imagination?

Sara: No, I don’t agree with the statement, because I don’t agree with your suggestion that situations and worlds in fantasy are realistically impossible. Our scientific world tells us they are realistically impossible, but I believe that anything is possible. I think that one of the major reasons fantasy is such a huge genre, and growing all the time, is because people are seeking alternative explanations for life, the universe and everything else. People perceive science as too rigid, it is magic-less and love-less and colour-less and offers no unknowns. I think people want magic and colour and the unknown and the fearful back in their lives. They can find it in religion or, if more secularly minded, in something like fantasy. The human soul might be inherently violent, but it is also inherently romantic: it yearns for the unknown, and for the perpetual battle between the forces of dark and light, night and day. At the same time, as I said in my lecture, no-one wants to wake up one morning and find Evil Personified knocking on the front door, demanding a duel at dawn with swords! people like the fearful and the unknown, but only in a safe environment (!). Thus the appeal of fantasy: people can participate in all the horrors and unknowns they like, without leaving the safety of their sofa.

Ian: Are gay elves, moody dwarves and emotionally volatile dragons going the way of the dodo bird in modern fantasy?

Sara: Cliched elves, dwarves and dragons are suspect because if any new writer relies on them, then they are probably so caught up in writing what has already been done to death for the past 45 years they don’t have any saleable imagination. If a writer wants to use them, then they’ve got to be imaginative and innovative in their use. Too many amateur writers think they can just reuse the same old Tolkien-ish stuff and get away with it. Generally, you can’t. Better to come up with something else along the same lines, but not the same old elves. The Icarii in my books are my elf substitutes: winged men and women, arrogant and magical and long-lived.

Ian: To what extent do you explore and make use of contemporary social issues in your writings?

Sara: I don’t really explore social issues, and I don’t want to save the world via my writing. But I do like to push the boundaries a bit! Thus the Icarii race indulge happily and freely in incest. I remember being asked at a writers’ conference one day why I was so fixated by incest. I didn’t realise I was until that point! But it does make a nice “Oooh” factor in my books.

Ian: Martin Livings, in reviewing BattleAxe way back in 1995, mentioned a number of strengths to your writing ‘consistency of prose’, ‘grittiness’ and ‘well-drawn characters’. He says that a fantasy novel must succeed in three main areas ‘pacing, character and scenery’…

Sara: Before you go on I’d just like to say a few words about Martin Livings. In the review he panned the original cover of BattleAxe, which was responsible for Harper Collins finally commissioning a decent cover – for that Martin has my thanks! Martin’s review also introduced me to the Australian sf community – writers and fans, and was largely responsible for my being embraced for them. I owe Martin heaps!

Ian: … Karen Brooks, in her more recent reviews of your work, has emphasised your capacity to allow readers to explore a wide range of emotions through the experiences of characters, she also mentions your mastery of suspense and mystery and, most particularly, your sheer inventiveness and imaginative flair. What do you believe aspiring writers should concentrate on in attempting to master writing for this genre?

Sara: What should aspiring writers for this genre concentrate on? What aspiring writers in every genre should concentrate on: learning to write. Writing work after work after work, and learning from each work. Learning ‘distance’ from their work so they can see where it is they must improve. Being prepared to spend years and years learning a craft before they can hope to get anywhere. What is absolutely amazing about hopeful writers is that they write their first book and think it’s brilliant (I’ve been there!). They don’t think they’ve got to put in the years and years of apprenticeship that a doctor would, or a plumber would. No. They just throw a few words on a page and think they’re a writer. Aspiring writers should aim to be prepared to spend years in apprenticeship, and they should realise that a writer should be coldly professional, not emotionally brilliant. Writing is a business, not a romantic hobby.

Ian: Where do you want to go with your writing after Crusader, the last book of The Wayfarer Redemption Series, comes out next year?

Sara: I’m writing a trilogy called The Crucible. It is a historical fantasy based on the devastating crises of the fourteenth century in Europe. It posits an alternative explanation for disaster such as the Black Death. I’m very enthusiastic about it! I’ve also got a book coming out later this year called The Betrayal of Arthur (published by Pan). It traces the evolving legend of Arthur over the past 1,000 years.

Ian: Thanks Sara for taking the time to answer our questions, all the best for your future projects.


©1999 Ian Irvine / The Animist. This interview originally appeared in the The Animist vol. 4,0101 February 1, 1999. Permission has been given by the copyright holder to reproduce this interview in full.

Book Loons: Sinner

sinner-usedition-book4This fourth episode in The Wayfarer Redemption (following Battleaxe, Enchanter and Starman) introduces a whole new generation of actors onto the Tencendor stage. Axis and Azhure have been promoted to be (mostly offstage) deities – ‘God of Song’ and ‘Goddess of Moon’ – leaving their offspring to inherit an empire.

Caelum SunSoar is now Supreme Ruler of Tencendor, with Askam and Zared (son of Rivkah and Magariz) as Princes of humans in the West and North, respectively. The Icarii are ruled by FreeFall, and the Avar by Faraday’s son Isfrael.

As usual, Sara Douglass paints in Sinner a series of soap operatic scenes on a grand epic fantasy canvas, deftly blending together many different textures of story. And, as always, her characters can be relied upon to be neither black nor white, but shades of all the colors of the rainbow.


©2004 Hilary Williamson / Book Loons. To read the full review on the Book Loons website please click on this link.