obituary

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stressful and uncertain, and again she sought a way out of her employment and returned to writing, completing several unpublished novels, including Mills&Boon-like romances that were rejected for being too dark.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

Karen Brooks: Obituary

Sara-2011The outpouring of grief that has followed the death of Sara Douglass (Sara Mary Warneke), who died on Tuesday morning has surprised no-one – except, had she lived to see the effect of her passing, Sara herself.

How do I know? Having been Sara’s close friend and confidant for twenty years – and having followed in her career-footsteps (from academic to author; as she did for many others, she both inspired and encouraged me) and being in the process of recovering from cancer myself – I’ve spent the last nine months caring for Sara, along with my husband, Stephen. We shifted to Tasmania at the beginning of the year and have been privileged to share the best and worst of times with the woman who called me her soul-sister.

Though Sara was an intensely private person, when Stephanie Smith, Sara’s editor and good friend at Harper Collins, asked me if I could write an obituary, revealing something of Sara’s last weeks, I agreed. Sara had a deep affection for her readers and fans and loved connecting with them through cyberspace – through the early years of her message board and its various discussions, to her blog and websites (her homepage and the Nonsuch garden) and FaceBook. So, without disrespecting her privacy and with a heavy heart, let me briefly invite you into Sara’s, Stephen’s and my world – a world that with her death, for us at least, has been cast adrift and irrevocably shattered.

Her final weeks were not easy; even the seemingly simple act of showering tired her for an entire day. Nonetheless, Sara maintained her wonderful sense of humour and acerbic wit, and her curiousity and concern for others. She managed to edit and see the publication of what is now her final novel, the magnificent The Devil’s Diadem and even saw (though didn’t read) the advance readers’ copies of her collection of short stories, The Hall of Lost Footsteps, which is being published in November by Ticonderoga Publications.

karen-sara-stephen-selfieAccompanying her to every medical appointment, ensuring she had meals, clean clothes and well-fed cats, Stephen and I spent as much time as we could with Sara and did what we could for Sara. And typically of her, she was incredibly undemanding and often apologised (for what, we still don’t know!). I don’t know how many times she thanked us. We didn’t feel (and still don’t) that we deserved her thanks … we loved her and still do love her and it was a joy to see and be with her, as others who know her can attest.

While she sometimes appeared aloof, it was often because she didn’t hear what was said – Sara was quite deaf and relied on hearing aids – but distant she was not. On the contrary, she was one of the most loving and affectionate people I know who would embrace you in the warmest of hugs and squeeze you tight. I will miss those hugs more than I can say.

Visited by a few dear girlfriends (she was selective about who she let into her life) who travelled to Tasmania to see her, she very much enjoyed their company, but was also glad to be by herself again. She was a very solitary person who lived in her imagination as much as she did in the real world. I think she would be overwhelmed by what people are expressing on various forums now; she would be laughing in her unrestrained and contagious way and shaking her head in bewilderment.

Her final days were, by her choice, in a palliative care ward in Hobart. Despite what she wrote in her forthright and amazing blog, ‘The Silence of the Dying’, Sara chose not to die at home. After two weeks in hospital and then just over two in palliative care, she made the decision, despite everything being set in place (care teams organised, doctor ready, and I was to move in with her), not to return. I think it was emotionally too hard for her – the distancing from her old life had begun. The palliative care ward was comfortable, the ambience was warm, the staff caring, frank and compassionate: just like Sara. There was a garden on the balcony outside her window.

At first she felt guilty that she experienced relief at her decision not to go back home, but we quickly assuaged that and told her it was both normal and perfectly all right to feel such things.

After that, she seemed to find inner peace.

Then, she died.

She died as she lived – on her own terms, in her own time. Her death was quick.

She looked peaceful, serene even, her alabaster skin glowing, her hair softly framing her face. It’s an image that will live in my mind forever.
In accordance with Sara’s wishes, there’s no funeral or formal celebration of her life. She wanted ‘no fuss’. That is so Sara! As I promised, I’m following these wishes – it’s the least I can do.

Sara will be cremated on the 29 September at 10 a.m. There will be three people present. I will read from both BattleAxe (the part where StarDrifter sings the Star Song) and from page 511 of The Devil’s Diadem to the end. I will also read selections from the various tributes that family, friends and fans have left. I will make sure you’re all there with Stephen and me as we say another goodbye.

Then, as the sun sets on Friday the 30th of September, I will spread her ashes over her beloved garden with her cats and a bottle of bubbly as witnesses. I ask that, wherever you are in the world – real and virtual – you raise a glass or pause, and for just a moment, help us send Sara on the first steps in the eternal dance of stars.

I know she’s poised to soar and once she departs, she’ll twinkle brightly forever – in our hearts, minds and every time someone picks up her books and reads her astounding and beautiful words.

Vale Sara.


Editors Note: Karen Brooks had been Sara’s friend for over 20 years and with her husband Stephen was her carer for the 9 months before she passed away.

This obituary was posted on the VoyagerOnline blog, the original post can be read here.