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02/11/01: Sara Douglass: Slaughtering Sacred Cows
by Pieter van Hiel

You've probably never heard of Sara Douglass. If you're a fantasy lit fan, you probably will hear about her - soon.

Douglass, whose real name is Dr. Sara Warneke, is a 43 year old Australian writer whose book regularly make the best-seller lists in that country. In March, the first installment in her Wayfarer Redemption series will finally see print in North America. She holds a PhD in Early Modern English History, as well as a nursing degree. The knowledge and experience she gained in her previous careers in nursing and as a university professor are used to effect in her novels.

Douglass was kind enough to grant an inteview to The Guide, and was remarkably open and candid in her answers. Without further ado - Sara Douglass...  

The Guide: First, one of those annoying two-part questions. You've acheived  international fame as a writer. First, what is that like? Second, does your fantasy work incorporate anything which you feel makes it  distinctly Australian?

Sara: Ah, the old "what does fame feel like question". :) It doesn't affect me much at all. I still get out of the bed in the morning, have breakfast, sit down to work, tend the garden. It's just a tag that people append to me, but it has no real meaning to my daily life. On the other hand, I'm pleased to have that 'tag', merely because it means more sales, and as I need to pay off my mortgage and buy food more sales are always nice!

I'm not distinctly Australian except in the 'grittiness' - and perhaps even honesty - of the books. I don't hesitate to call a spade a spade, and don't hesitate to acknowledge that life is often unfair, painful and troublesome to cope with. My characters are real humans (even the nonhuman races!) in the problems that they endure throughout their lives. There is no romantic gloss. Australia is a harsh (but beautiful) land, and as an Australian exposed from time to time to the hard world of the outback that's the way I see life - in a hard bright light that hides nothing. I think that comes across in the books from time to time. Nothing is perfect, there are no golden heros, and even those who 'win' will also 'lose'. I don't shy from the tragic aspects of life yet still acknowledge hope, and, of all the feedback I've had from readers, those are the aspects (life is painful and tragic, but if we can find the strength within ourselves we can overcome the hardships) they appreciate the most.

The Guide:  Did the speed of your success surprise you?

Sara: I do have to laugh at this one! Let me see ... I spent some 14 years from the time my first novel was rejected to the time a novel was finally accepted. During this 14 years I was rejected by every known publisher on this planet, some asking me to NEVER EVER contact them again (most notably Mills and Boon, who said my writing was far too 'dark')! "BattleAxe", the first novel in THE WAYFARER REDEMPTION, was first published in Australia in 1995, and it has taken until 2001 to achieve publication in North America (and even then it took an incredible turn of events to get picked up). If that's 'speedy' , then I pity writers who have had it slower. :) Like most writers, I've not had overnight success, but have had to work long and hard and patiently to achieve any kind of success at all.

On the other hand, success (slow, speedy or otherwise) has surprised me. I write only for myself in that I write what pleases me, not what I think might please others. I'm very surpised, and very, very gratified to discover that so many people share the same dark recesses of the mind as I do.

The Guide:  According to your bio, you started working as a writer after failing  to find your niche in the professional world. Was writing something that  you had previously considered at all?

Sara: I'm not too sure about this 'failing' at my professional careers (!) - I achieved splendidly, both as a nurse and as a medieval historian. It's just that neither was for me, so I moved on. I always wanted to write, but was always dissuaded from it (my family was conservative, and girls simply didn't waste their time writing ... they became either teachers or nurses to fill in those 4 or 5 years between school and marriage, where they would settle down for the rest of their lives happily dusting and grilling lamb chops). I wrote avidly as a child, not much as a teenager, and started writing seriously again when I was about 22. It took me until I was 36 to get something published.

I still am a medieval historian - it's just that I'm not so ensconced within the university system (which is what found so difficult to work within). I don't consider myself so much a writer as a historian who is madly and passionately addicted to medieval research and to the collection of ancient and rare books, and who write novels as a means to support her addiction. I still publish within the medieval field, keep up my contacts, even continue to do things like examine PhD theses. I actually now classify myself as an antiquarian (in that delightfully nineteenth-century definition of the eccentric antiquarian huddled inside a dusty library, following his or her own interests with no need to satisfy university quotas or politically correct lines of research, with neither the antiquarian nor his/her reasearch never ever to see the light of day ...).

The Guide: Somewhat a related question - why fantasy fiction? You've said you hate the term. Also, what sort of literature did you read growing up?

Sara: Why fantasy? Because with my background in medieval history I can write it well. (Many successful fantasy writers have a scholarly medievalist background lurking somewhere.) My earlier novels were romances, thrillers, horror ... and then one day I decided to try my hand at fantasy, and the glove fit perfectly. I'm not actually a fantasy fan. I very, very rarely read it, preferring crime or thrillers when I read fiction (and I generally don't read much fiction at all, preferring to stoop over my dusty tomes in my dusty, dim library ... OK, so I'm overdoing the imagery!).

"Fantasy' I see as a degrading label. What was once mainstream romantic epic literature has, over the generations, been pushed into the realms of fairy stories and fantasy. "Fantasy' is a light and fluffy label, meant to imply that the genre is lightweight escapism for those who can't cope, but instead I think modern fantasy has come to be one of the prime vehicles for moral debate within modern society. Good fantasy should challenge readers in a number of ways, and one of those ways is forcing them to re-examine the moral structures of their own society - it is certainly what I strive to do ... take a sacred cow and then offer it up for slaughter ... or at least to offer up to people the possibility that they have the power to take the knife in their hands! :) I'm not didactic, but I do like to explore moral issues - the incest theme throughout the Wayfarer books is a good example, but there are many more (the power of the Church versus the power of the individual being another common thread through all my books) - and none of that is light and fluffy and certainly not escapism. Not 'fantasy'. I write a good story, but I also like people to think about what they're reading. A reviewer recently wrote that I was one of the most extraordinarily daring authors in the issues that I tackle head on, and that's one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me!

What sort of literature did I read as I was growing up? Everything I could get my hands on. I was very fortunate to grow up in a house quite literally packed with books and I read them all back to back - encyclopedias, science manuals, eigtheeenth-century midwive's manuals, fiction of every kind, farming manuals, you name it, I read it. There was never any one genre or kind of book that I stuck to.

The Guide:  Does real life influence your work at all?

Sara: It influences every author. For me, both my work as a nurse and as a medieval historian have influenced me hugely in the way I write. And, as every other author, I imagine, my inspiration comes from daily life about me.

The Guide:  What are your thoughts on the fandom?

Sara: I don't think I've ever quite recovered from it! As I said above, I am no fanatical fan of fantasy myself (I've read it, and liked it, but have never become an avid fan), so I was quite stunned when, on BattleAxe's initial publication here in Australia I came across fandom. I've never felt comfortable with it, simply because I'm not a member of it. I've also felt that the vast majority of my readers, as all fantasy readers, come from outside fandom.

I'm always uncomfortable about it because I'm not fanatical about fantasy. I enjoy writing it, but it isn't my life. Fanatical fans can become a huge problem (see answer to next question) for me, and while most people in fandom that I've met have been fantastic, really lovely people, there have been others who have made me very very wary of the fantasy fan scene.

So, basically, while the vast majority of people within fandom are terrific, I'm always made a little uncomfortable by the scene as a whole. Give me a gardening convention, or a medieval historical convention, and I'm right at home. I'm an eccentric gardening medievalist, masquerading as a fantasist!

The Guide:  Your website contains a fair amount of personal information, as well as links that allow visitors to chat with you directly. Do you enjoy all the attention? Has there ever been a time when it has become unwelcome?

Sara: I've always been fairly 'available' to my readers, and, yes, that is a two edged sword mainly because 'attention' is never what it was about (no, I don't like 'attention' at all). Mostly the contact is fun and rewarding (to both me and my readers), other times it has become a bit hard. For instance, I used to have a publicly available email address. For a while that was fine, but then it became too much in the sheer volume of the mail received. I used to lie awake at nights feeling stressed about the need to reply to every one (if I didn't, then a small percentage would write back and abuse me for not replying immediately, and who did I think I was and so forth); I was also inundated by requests by children writing school projects. Every day I'd get a couple of kids writing to me, needing the answers to 65 questions TOMORROW. Eventually, all my time was being taken up with answering emails, filling in much the same 65 project responses for school children, and I was getting extremely stressed (I was also very ill over the period 1996-1999, which added to the stress) and I had to change my email address simply to manage to get some rest. I was also getting some very nasty stuff from fanatical fans of other authors who resented my success. Not so much criticism of my work (which is fine with me, I don't expect everyone to like what I do), but death threats. Rape threats. Emails full of vitriolic hatred. It was horrible, and it was frightening. I had to draw back from it. I recently had a comment from a fan who said that, as a famous person, I had to learn to put up with the abuse. I resented that very much. I'm a human being, and, as a human being, I feel I don't have to put up with any kind of abuse. It upsets me just like it would upset anyone.

So ... nevertheless, there I am on my Bulletin Board most days! That also gets stressful from time to time (generally when I have publication deadlines looming), but on the whole it is great. It's developed into a wonderful, friendly community that runs happily without me from time to time (in fact, it runs happily without me anytime!).

I also love web authoring (which is why the Douglass site has grown so large ... I just can't help myself) - the Douglass site is but one of about 6 sites that I've authored (mainly medieval sites which were attached to universities and which now no longer exist). One of my great projects (which will likely never get off the ground because of the amount of work involved) is to build a site devoted to medieval London.

The Guide:  What can readers expect from your future books? In particular, The Wayfarer Redemption, which is to be released in North America in March.

Sara: Well ... basically I do like to keep my readers slightly off balance - they might think they know where a character or a plot line is going, but I have a devious mind, and few can predict its twistings and turnings! I love to explore moral issues, which sometimes gets me into hot water, and I love to take characters to the full limit of their potential. There are always surprises. (I think my characters were profoundly relieved once I'd finished the Wayfarer books ... finally, they could get some rest!) My current trilogy is a historical fantasy set in fourteenth-century Europe, something very different from the Tencendor books, and I've done a stand alone book set in an ancient Egypt ruled by mathematician gods as well a non-fiction crucifixion of the Arthurian legend. Next, who knows?

Next month, Pieter van Hiel has no idea who he will interview. He's still shaking the celebrity tree to see who falls out.