ian irvine

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.




Part Two: Introduction to Sara’s Lectures by Ian Irvine

‘Writing Lectures Week After Week is Good Training for Novelists’


When I first met Sara in 1993 she’d been a History lecturer at La Trobe’s Bendigo campus for a year. As an honors student I was working hard to make some sort of career in academia and/or the literary and music worlds. Sara, on the other-hand, was busy writing and researching collections of 2,000 word (50 minute) lectures for her Medieval and Early Modern history subjects (30-40 lectures per subject). From early on she acquired a reputation as an interesting, highly competent but no-nonsense lecturer given to dead-pan asides about some of the more weird, wonderful and ghoulish details of Medieval history. Her knowledge of both the overview and the detail of her subject matter – i.e. 1,700 years of European history – was encyclopedic and she routinely did her own translations of texts from the Old English.

I got to know her better in early 1994, when I was offered a job tutoring in two of the subjects she ran. I remember feeling completely out of my depth for the first few months. Although there was a Medieval dimension to my PhD research I was mostly looking at literary and philosophical texts. It was a massive task for me to become re-acquainted with European history from Rome to the French Revolution. Luckily, Sara was always available with an encouraging word, copies of her lecture notes, or copies of key essays or historic documents that she wanted discussed in the tutorials. Across the three years I tutored for her I learnt to augment the performative aspect to teaching (which other Humanities lecturers had also taught me – all-be-it informally) with effective and interesting ways of structuring lecture content. Some of those structuring skills also went into my PhD work.sara-douglass-2000

Sara’s motto was to make classes entertaining to students: ‘bring the historical material to life by telling vivid stories’; ‘insert interesting quotes by historic personages’; ‘take time to describe setting’; ‘pose rhetorical questions frequently, i.e. the kind of questions students might be thinking’; ‘introduce poems and popular sayings from the era being covered’ and so on. She also taught me to illustrate abstract concepts with well-chosen details and to use humor, irony, absurdity and occasionally various shock tactics to maintain interest – techniques, it must be said, also used by novelists. To Sara, academic lectures should be written incorporating techniques used by what we these days call ‘creative non-fiction’ writers – delivering a history lecture was not the same, to her, as writing an academic essay on history.

I learnt these things gradually, during twice-weekly meetings in her office – an office packed wall to wall (and right up to the ceiling) with hundreds of books on Medieval society, history, culture etc. However, it was not for another six years – when she started doing occasional talks for my Novel students enrolled at Bendigo TAFE – that I understood how the discipline of writing 50 minute lectures (approx 2,000 words a piece) week after week for entertainment hungry undergrads also taught her the work habits of the novelist.

‘I’ve realised that unconsciously my typical chapter length is around 2,000-2,500 words – the same word count as a typical 50 minute lecture,’ she told the students of our 2005 Novel Writing class.


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.