Karen Brooks: One year on…

It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since Sara died. It’s not that the reality of her death isn’t apparent; the ache of her absence is constant and painful. Rather, I think it’s because through her books, short stories and lingering cyber-presence she continues to touch, challenge and move us.

In some ways, it’s as if she’s still here.

Like many of her friends and fans, I’ve been reading her books again – it’s a way of bringing her closer, providing comfort in bleak and sad times. What re-reading her novels has also served, is to remind me of what an astonishing talent she possessed.

From her very first novel, BattleAxe (which changed the landscape of fantasy publishing in Australia) right through to her final books, The Devil’s Diadem and the posthumously published collection of short stories, The Hall of Lost Footsteps, the breadth and depth of her work, the way she used and transformed history, invented complex and rich societies; the liveliness and courage of her characters, their weaknesses and strengths, passions and foibles, are all there to enjoy whenever we want.

The problem with this, of course, is that the experience is bitter-sweet. On the one hand, you plunge into a novel (actually, you’re grabbed by the throat and dragged into the world between the pages whether you’re ready or not) and lose yourself in an astounding tale. On the other, once the final line is finished, there’s the cruel reminder that never again will there be the opportunity to dive into a new Sara Douglass invention.
Every day around the world, someone who has had the Douglass experience wakes to the knowledge that they won’t again – at least, not in the same, thrilling way that first encounters engender – and they too mourn what we’ve all lost.

For those who are Sara Douglass Worlds’ virgins, understand how much you’re envied. But how lucky are we that she’s left behind such a legacy for us to discover or revisit over and over and extract whatever pleasures, memories and wonder we can? That was Sara’s gift to all of us; one she willingly and lovingly gave.

Then, there’s also the powerful truths contained in her blogs, like the one reproduced here, The Silence of the Dying. Here, Sara discusses death, giving voice to those who cannot speak for themselves as well as bearing her heart and fears in such a raw and frank way. Reading it again isn’t easy, but it is a privilege; a difficult, demanding one, but a privilege nonetheless and I’m grateful to Harper Collins and Voyager for this.

Sara’s words, the lyrical, sensual, sorrowful and authoritative, however, are only one aspect of Sara’s life and thus death. For those who truly knew and loved her – those few whom she admitted into her extremely private world – her loss is both a yawning chasm and a constant whisper, a murmur in the heart and soul that reminds you of the joy her love bestowed and the anguish it’s no more. The song of her surcease should be sung – not as a dirge, but as a sweet refrain.

In commemorating Sara’s death, I think it’s more appropriate we remember her life. We should, on this day especially, celebrate her accomplishments. But let’s not forget the amazing, beautiful woman behind the words – her knowledge, compassion, honesty, empathy and her delight in a life cut brutally short.

We’re so fortunate Sara’s spirit lives on her words. Every time we read or recall these, it’s comforting to know that, like her characters, she is also brought to life again and again and again…

Karen Brooks

This memorial was posted on the VoyagerOnline blog, you can read the post here.

Karen Brooks: Loss, Grief and the Healing Power of Words

Editors note: This article was taken from Karen Brook’s personal blog.

I have been absent a while, haven’t I? For that I’m so sorry and please, I ask that you read and accept this blog as a rather poor attempt to both apologise  and explain why before I beg your forgiveness and let you know that I’m back and invite you to return as well…

karen-sara-selfie-kitchenThe reason I’ve been gone is twofold: I’ve had several operations this year, related to post-cancer complications, and which mean I now have a pacemaker. It’s been hard to become accustomed to and I’ve had periods of terrible illness and pain. But all that pales by comparison with my second reason for deserting this cyberspace and puts what I’ve been through into perspective – the terrible illness and death of my beloved friend, Sara Warneke who most of you know as the writer Sara Douglass.

Ten and half months ago now, my partner, Stephen, and I shifted temporarily to Hobart, Tasmania, to care for Sara as she tried to deal with the last stages of ovarian cancer. I have written about this elsewhere, mainly in my obituary for Sara on the Voyager website a day after she died.  You can read it here or on the Voyager website.

(I should add that Lucy Sussex also wrote the most amazing obituary for Sara that’s appeared in many newspapers.) I also write about Sara – her life, influence and works as well as our relationship that spans twenty years – in the Introduction to the beautiful compilation of her short stories, The Hall of Lost Footsteps, which was published posthumously by Tinconderoga Publications.

HallofLostFootsteps-200x300Together, these, along with a brief piece I wrote about Sara in Australian Author, explain the months and weeks that led up to her death and give a glimpse into our long-term friendship. What none of these do, however, is elucidate the impact her death has had in other ways and on other people – not just me, but Stephen, her other very close and loving friend (and mine too), Dr Frances Thiele (who adored and was in turn, adored by Sara), or the grief felt by her family, other friends, and loyal fans.

While I always knew the day of Sara’s death would come and, as she became sicker, tried to prepare myself (as did Stephen), it wasn’t until almost a week after she died, that the reality of her absence hit me. She really wasn’t going to phone or text me again. When I went to her house, she wasn’t going to open the door and fold me in one those tight hugs I loved receiving. She was gone… for real. For good. When the realisation struck, I felt like the sun hadn’t gone behind a cloud so much as imploded; as if the lights had gone off in not only my house, but, for the time being, my life, and plunged me into a grey world of shadows and murkiness leaving me to stumble and misapprehend.

Sara had been my anchor for the last nine months, my life had been tied to hers in the most intimate and loving of ways and now, suddenly, I was cast adrift. I could no longer talk to her, hold her, share my thoughts and fears, and she couldn’t with me either. A part of my world that, despite the encroaching presence of death was remarkably light and love and hope-filled, had been swallowed by darkness and, worse, an enormous silence that I didn’t see, despite everything being there in front of me, coming. It was the strangest and scariest of sensations. There was not the silence associated with quietude or stillness, but an agitation that had no way of being expressed or relieved. As if the frequency we operated on and within could no longer be tuned. There was only static, no clear signal. Weighed by grief, I swam in circles, barely staying afloat, my ears pricked for a sound, a sign, for a signifier that this lostness was temporary. For Stephen it was the same. We lived and worked in a haze, thinking we were coping when in reality, we were sinking into this hungry silence.

And yet…

Every time we spoke of her, recalled something either with each other, or Fran, or someone else including the many and beautiful homage on FaceBook and other cyber-pages, the silence cracked and the load diminished slightly. Memories came in the most unexpected form and ways. The first time Sara’s cat, Luther, walked into my arms and curled into my neck like he’d always belonged, giving me the audible cuddle that we call a purr, an image of Sara with all her cats surrounding her filled my mind and put me strangely at peace.

sara-frannie-kitchenI laughed out loud, scaring the other cats and, most of all, myself – but not Luther. After that, each time one of the others came to us for attention, licking, purring, kneading our legs and arms in the way cats do, putting you on edge as you wait for the claws to stick, we found our pain eased and smiles bloomed where tears had once fallen.

Then there were the notes – to me, herself, to others – that we found and treasured. Simple things, like remembering to pay the ‘butcher lady,’ put the bins out, remind Karen about Cromwell (one of the Birmans); there were lists of ‘things to do’ which conjured both sadness and delight at her orderliness; or the folder of recipes that Sara used and which we all enjoyed at her table together, using produce she grew in her garden and which we harvested and cooked as a family. These little paper treasures rip a hole in you when you find them, but then they catapult you back to the moment and the unexpected recall has its own terrible beauty. I loved finding these things, how they would throw us off emotional balance, only to repair our hearts after all. Together, they amounted to a record of a person and life that was rich, complex, giving and simple at the same time – one that we were privileged to share.

When the gardens of Nonsuch began to bloom a few weeks ago, our souls felt renewed. Here was the life that, together, Sara and, later when she became too sick, Stephen under her instructions, planted and nurtured. I felt Sara in every new bud, every blossom that burst into life and colour. Bees hummed, butterflies danced and birds sang while the supine cats, grooming themselves in the sunlight, pretended not to watch them. This was her creation, her gift to everyone, continuing, just like her stories will as well.

stephen-sara-mt-wellington-windyAfter weeks of not being able to conjure a word or creative thought and becoming despondent about that, a story, unbidden but so very welcome, took seed in my mind. I was in, of all places,  a Whisky Distillery when it happened, taking me by complete surprise. I was in no ordinary distillery mind. I was in Larks in Hobart with my sister and her friend who were visiting. This place, like so many others around Hobart, has also become a special part of our shared life with Sara. You see, not long after we arrived here, Stephen and I introduced Sara to the joys of a locally made Whisky liqueur – Slainte – that is made by Larks.

It’s like nothing I have ever tasted before – pure golden sweetness followed by a warm caramel heat that coats your throat before it delivers a small kick below the heart. It is magic. The first time Stephen and I tried it, we knew Sara would love it, and bought her some. We were right. Sara called the woman who made it a goddess and swore it was ambrosia. Stephen would ensure there was always some for Sara and Larks, in a spirit of generosity, not only discounted what we bought, but gave Sara a bottle for free with every order as well. That a simple drink could bring so much pleasure amidst so much pain….

slainteIt seems fitting somehow that the first time I returned to this place after Sara died, a place that though Sara had never graced its cosy rooms nonetheless brought her so much comfort and joy, I found a story – the basis for my next novel. It was there, waiting for me, and I accepted the gift of its presence gratefully.

Doing the research and starting the writing process has brought me a healing I never expected. It’s not quick and nor would I want it to be, but it is a sweet and tender ache that brings with it unexpected bouts of sadness followed by moments of sheer joy – joy in the power of words and imagined characters to transport you beyond your own life and propel you into times and places otherwise denied. This is something Sara knew as well and used after her initial diagnosis and towards the end. It might be escapism, but it’s also a blessing. I like to believe, perhaps indulgently, that Sara made sure that tale came to me on that day the way it did. Anyhow, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Every word I write now, I raise an imaginary glass to my darling friend: Slainte Sara.

So, there you have it.  That’s why I’ve been absent from my website and blog – I retreated for a time, firstly to begin my own process of recovery and then to care for a friend who needed me, needed Stephen too. That I needed her just as much was always apparent to me, but her death has made that awareness acute and hard to overcome. She didn’t choose to leave me, us, this life, her life, and that’s why I’ve struggled so hard with her absence: the unjustness of it. What I didn’t expect was that, just as she was in life, she’s there beside me in death and, in my writing, whether it be this blog or the stories I have yet to tell, she will be with me every syllable of the way.

There you are, my friends. I am back. I hope you forgive me. After all, we have a journey to take and I have many tales to tell…

Thank you.

Editors note: This post originally appeared on the website of Karen Brooks. Karen and her husband Stephen were Sara’s carers for the last nine months of her life until she passed away.

SMH: Writing was fantasy novelist’s own escape

sara-douglass-smh-obitSara Douglass, 1957 – 2011

Sara Douglass was the pre-eminent Australian author of epic fantasy and the first author to show that an Australian could have worldwide success from writing fantasy. Her books sold almost a million copies in Australia alone, and far more internationally, with many translations.

She was born Sara Warneke on July 2, 1957 in Penola, South Australia, to Robert Warneke, a health and weeds inspector, and his wife, Elinor (nee Lees). A notable ancestor was the 19th-century spiritualist Robert James Lees, who claimed to have identified Jack the Ripper.

The Warnekes moved from the family farm to Adelaide when Sara was seven and she was sent to Methodist Ladies College. She began writing at school and came second in a national essay competition. Despite showing academic promise, she followed in what she described as a ”female family tradition” of nursing.

She worked as a registered nurse in Adelaide for about 17 years and completed a BA, then a PhD in early modern English history, both part-time at the University of Adelaide. Many of the manuscripts of her best-selling fantasy novels are held in the Barr Smith Library at the university.

In 1992, her PhD completed, she left nursing for a lectureship in mediaeval history at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus, and published one book of history as Sara Warneke, Images of the Educational Traveller in Early Modern England (1995).

Later, under her pen name of Douglass, she also published a study of the King Arthur legend, The Betrayal of Arthur (1998).

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

Then, in a move she would describe as ”almost by accident” she turned to writing fantasy, hitting her literary stride with Battleaxe (1995), set in the imaginary world of Tencendor. Like J. R. R. Tolkien, she found a background in mediaevalism the perfect training for writing in the epic fantasy genre.

Middle Ages history informed the imaginary sword and sorcery realms of her novels, and made them credible, lived-in worlds.

Once Battleaxe was accepted, her publisher, HarperCollins, requested a pseudonym because Warneke would mean relegation to the lower shelves of bookshops, She chose Douglas, the name she would have had if born a male, with the added ”s” to feminise it, mediaeval-style.

Now in her niche, she completed more than 20 novels. She was formidably prolific, especially since genre expectations for epic fantasy mean trilogies and books that can exceed 200,000 words.

Battleaxe was the first book of the Axis trilogy, followed the next year by Enchanter and StarMan.

The latter two books were joint winners of the 1996 Aurealis award for best fantasy novel, followed in 2001 with another Aurealis for The Wounded Hawk.

Two later series, The Wayfarer Redemption and Darkglass Mountain, revisited Tencendor. She also wrote several independent historical fantasy series, The Crucible trilogy and the Troy Game series.

Despite the pace and volume of her writing, she never compromised her authorial standards.

Advised to move to Ireland for tax reasons, Douglass preferred the cool climate of Hobart, where she restored a historic house and garden. Although she was an intensely private person, she maintained contact with her fans via email, bulletin boards and her website.

She stopped only when she was receiving hundreds of messages a day; she was generous with advice, and encouraging, to aspiring fantasy writers.

In 2008, Douglass was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the disease that had killed her mother. She produced some remarkable writing about her disease, including a blog entry, The Silence of the Dying. It drew a strong response, both online and when reprinted in newspapers.

Despite her illness, Douglass saw through the editing process of her final novel, The Devil’s Diadem, and although too weak to read, she saw advance proofs of her first short story collection, the recently published The Hall of Lost Footsteps.

Sara Douglass is survived by her siblings, Christine, Paul, and Judy, and her carers during her illness, Karen Brooks and her husband, Stephen.

©2011 Lucy Sussex / Sydney Morning Herald.

This obituary originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and was syndicated throughout the Fairfax Media network.