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The reality of Sara Douglass
By Murray Waldren

HER 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.

 

BE CAREFUL where you park, Douglass cautions in emailed directions, because her Federation house "has a falling-down brick fence and a toppling tree". It’s also moored amid a well-tended garden with "ever-colonising" flower beds ("at last count, I’ve planted more than 15,000 bulbs"). The side wooden fence is draped in creepers, jasmine invades a portico adangle with chimes and teapots. She’s proud of her garden, and of its follies like the wing-flapping goose statue. As a dozen sparrows belly up to the nearby birdbath, we inspect her latest innovation, a lily-adorned pond that already looks suitably rustic. "The Bendigo stork visited within a day of my fish being stocked," she laughs ruefully. "It knows all the fish ponds in the area and patrols regularly."

In her country kitchen complete with ancestral portrait gallery, we settle over coffee at the large wooden table. The wood fire burns cosily; a mini-grandfather clock ticks hypnotically, her cats re-establish territorial rights. One stalks disdainfully off, another glares from her easy chair, a third snarls with feral intent through the kitchen window. Luckily I'm inside and it isn't. I've obviously intruded into an exclusive club. Douglass, mantled in the shyness of someone who spends too much time on their own, slowly thaws into the conversation. She has a nice line in tangential asides, a generous laugh, and a no-frills attitude to her fame.

Since she bought the house some four years ago, she has been slowly renovating. "When my sister first walked through here, she said 'Sara, you know what you've bought, don't you? You've bought the house you grew up in.’ And she’s right – it is the house of my childhood, the same high-ceilings, the same layout, but without the nightmares it held. I've reconstructed my childhood home without the dark bits."

Even if it does have its own ghost: she’s inherited a haunting homebody called Hannah Wollstonecraft, who with her railway guard husband built Ashcote in 1892. "She died about 60 years ago," says Douglass, "but she's never quite left this place. She likes to ... play tricks; some people come here and refuse to return. One former owner actually hanged himself over her grave in Bendigo cemetery. Her presence is well known locally, but I regarded the stories with scepticism until I moved in. The first four weeks here were absolutely awful – if she doesn't like someone, you hear her tramping up and down the hall-way; doors slam, books fall off bookshelves ... it's the full poltergeist," she laughs. "I've only seen her once, playing the piano, but she often wakes me up at night with her prowling. And friends staying over have seen her at the foot of their beds. She finally accepted my presence, though, after I sought out her grave and put flowers there. I still tend it regularly."

 

"I LIVE alone but I am not lonely," she tells me as she refills the kettle. "Tried marriage once, didn’t like it. I function better this way." Yet more than most, she knows the emptiness of loneliness. Her childhood was a very isolated one in 1960s-conservative Adelaide. "Dad was a health and weeds inspector who worked out in the country and was home only at weekends. And I was the youngest of four by nearly five years, with my two elder sisters at boarding school. I was on my own a lot, very lonely much of the time – the only real life was in my imagination." Then her mother developed cancer when Douglass was nine. "It coloured my whole childhood. All my memories of her are from the three years she was dying. She died too young, for herself and for me - it's a tragedy my memories are so coloured by her illness and that I never got to know her as a real human being. Her death was a cataclysmic event, and an emotional burden I carried around until I realised at 26 I didn't have to keep doing so."

Nevertheless, she grew up in a house that was "full of books, thousands of them, and I just worked my way through them all, particularly when mum was ill. Books were somehow easier to get on with than my family – they were a wonderful escape, and made me want to be a writer. But I was told not to be silly." When she left school, she wanted to do a BA "but my father forbade me. Women were either teachers or nurses or office workers until they married. So I became a nurse and hated every moment of it."

Not her father for forcing her into it, though. He was, she says quietly, "my best friend. The best times of my life were when he would take me out to work with him during school holidays. It meant I'd spend weeks and weeks at a time with him. Sometimes we'd go prospecting in the extreme north of South Australia, camp out. Although he appeared a physically distant kind of dad, he remained my best friend until he died when I was 24. I was shattered." Soon after, a friend tossed her a spare application form for university. Why not, she thought. To her surprise, "they accepted me! I deferred for a couple of years then took the plunge. It was the defining point of my life."

Still nursing full-time, she studied history part-time "and for the first time met people who really cared about my ideas. University put me in contact with the past and by doing that made me feel part of some progression towards a distant point in the future. It almost gave me a family when I didn't have one, turned a world that was black and white into one full of colour and variety and thought and possibility." She continued nursing until she won a Commonwealth scholarship for the last two years of her doctorate, then "returned to it because I couldn't find a job". Then, breakthough: an appointment in 1992 to a medieval history lecturer’s position at LaTrobe University in Bendigo. It meant she could "kiss her 17-year nursing goodbye forever" – she was off to conquer academe.

Reality did not mirror fantasy. "Doing my PhD had been so stimulating but when I got to LaTrobe I was quickly disillusioned. The lecturer’s life was … stressful in the extreme. The teaching, marking, panels, committees, politics ... It constrained my whole world. In the first 18 months I had only Christmas Day off. And there was so much uncertainty associated with it." To cope with the stress, she started to write, "a distraction that took me into another world. Once I started, I just had to keep on - that's why the books are so thick. Within a week of completing one, usually in a couple of weeks, I'd have another started. By the time I had my first book accepted, I had six worth keeping in the drawer. I'm not as obsessive about it now - it's become a job. But it still means I have no time for anything else except gardening – I’ve lost track of what else there is to do.

"I tried different genres but something about fantasy seems to suit my mind. Seven years ago I was writing romance for Mills and Boon and I was awful - the stories were getting darker and darker. They eventually banned me from submitting. Almost by accident, I started to write fiction I guess you could call fantasy. But I was writing just for me, an audience of one.

"Sending the first book off was merely exploring an option. I remember bundling this big thick manuscript up and as it thudded with a huge bang into the postbox, thinking 'Oh my God, that's the worst mistake I've ever made'." Lyn Tranter (now her agent) took six months to consider it, "the worst six months", but once she decided, everything took off. "Within a month we had a publisher. HarperCollins promoted me hard but, really, the best selling point is word of mouth. Momentum slowly built up over the first three years and then snowballed."

So what’s the recipe, I ask with mercenary intent, the essence of fantasy? "Fantasy worlds use enchantment in the same way we use science now," she responds. "It’s a voyage for the reader as much as it is for the characters in the books. And a voyage for me. People want their world to be a little mysterious, romantic, magical, heroic even. Fantasy gives us all a little bit of hope in an otherwise repetitive, bland existence." And it’s not as easy as her productivity might indicate. She plans rigorously before she begins, making detailed notes and using her background in medieval history as a backdrop. "The characters always come first," she says, "and I get very emotionally involved with them. But sometimes they grow in unexpected ways and the whole plot changes. The key, though, is the quest, a search for something. The item itself is not important; what is important is how the characters grow and what they find out about themselves. It's alchemy of sorts."

An alchemy that has found adherents most authors only fantasise about. For a year or so Douglass had her email address posted on her web site and was receiving up to 400 messages a day. "Responding took hours," she chortles. "The contact was wonderful but eventually overwhelming; I had to change my address. I really enjoy book signings though, when I can meet readers face to face. They’re a dedicated, loyal and interactive audience, from children of about 12 up to grandparents, across all social strata. Because you’re so shut off when you are writing, readers can be just a vague concept – you know someone is buying your books but you're not too sure who they are."

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."

The toss up now, she says, "is whether I change my name permanently; Warneke belongs to a life that finished somewhere in the past. When I was very young, I used to dream about this young boy, Douglas, who would say to me, 'well you got the chance at life but not me'. So now he has his life as well. The two halves of me are united, if you like."

You're sure there's no spiritualistic inclinations here? "Mum's side of the family certainly had a long history of mediums – my great-grandfather used to bring Prince Albert back for Queen Victoria – but I suspect we've lost the touch." She pauses then half-wistfully suggests "we are taught as children to live only in this world and to ignore any idea of parallel worlds. I imagine sometimes there might be gateways somewhere that you can slip through to these worlds. I’m not afraid to go through these portals."

 

ON April Fools Day last year, Douglass resigned her university appointment to become a full-time writer and ever since "has seemed to have less time than I did when I worked full-time and wrote part-time". She’s contracted to write the The Crucible trilogy in 18 months and that’s "a lot of writing because they are big books (160-200,000 words). But my readership is keen for a new title every six months or so – it’s a lot of pressure." The first trilogy was done from enthusiasm, she sighs, the second from economic impetus. "The characters had fulfilled their potential from the first series, which made it hard work. As well, I was very ill for the three years I was writing it – it was a bad time personally for me. The new series I am very enthusiastic about, emotionally, physically and creatively."

Then the bombshell. "Once this series is completed on September 1," she says in flat tones, "I plan to take a year or so off, sleep for a month, travel. My accountant tells me I should move to Ireland for tax reasons ... here, I'm losing around 65 per cent of my income. It's so dreadful I almost wish I hadn't been successful. And I do like a cold climate ..."

Most of all, "I want to think about my future, and what I really want to write rather than writing what people expect me to write, or what people think will sell. I dread – and I've watched it happen to others – getting stuck in a particular style. I want to get back to that excitement you have when you first start." Writing, she says with quiet fatalism, may not even be part of that future. "I’ve had three major career changes already, and I’m not afraid to do it again. And I really, really need a rest. I don’t want to antagonise my readers but I don't see writing as something I'll necessarily do for the rest of my life." She pauses, cups her hand behind her ear: "What was that? The sound of my agent screaming?" Then she laughs. "When I was very young, I wanted to be an explorer - and there's still time, to explore the more physical world than the worlds of imagination."

This article was first published in The Australian Magazine, January 22 2000.

Copyright © Murray Waldren 2000

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