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Sara Douglass

e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson

Sara Douglass, actually Dr. Sara Warneke, grew up in South Australia. After a career in nursing, she did her PhD in 16th century English history, lectured at La Trobe University in central Victoria, and then started in on fiction. She has written over a dozen fantasy novels so far, only a handful of which are available in N. America - three out of the six in the Wayfarer Redemption, and Hades' Daughter, first in an exciting new epic series, The Troy Game.

Enchanter and Starman were joint winners of the 1996 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel; The Wounded Hawk received the award in 2001, and both The Crippled Angel and Hades' Daughter have been short listed for 2002 Aurealis Best Fantasy Novel.

Q: The first of your novels that I read was Battleaxe and the most recent was Hades' Daughter. They are quite different in scope, the latter being somewhat constrained by known history and mythology. Do you have a preference between these styles of fantasy?

A: At the moment I am happiest writing fantasy set in this world. Ten years ago when I was writing the first of the Tencendor books I was happiest writing in a more fantastical world. My tastes change, I think, with the weather!

Q: In what I have read so far, you paint your worlds on large canvasses. Do you plan ahead much in story and character development, or simply leave space for individuals and events to grow as you go?

A: I generally have an idea where I am going to start and where I will end - and what lies in between is open to constant change and re-evaluation (I know exactly where I will end in The Troy Game, but not sure how I will get there). I do try to plan ahead, particularly when I'm writing each book (planning for that book), but sometimes I can change my mind at the very last moment. I've just finished writing God's Concubine (and whether or not Tor will be brave enough to actually go ahead with that title is anyone's guess!) which is book 2 of The Troy Game. I'd done a draft by the end of December, whereupon I got an awful migraine, took some powerful medication for it, and, while under the influence of said medication (man, it was good!) I had such a brilliant idea that I totally rewrote the book within the first two weeks of January. Such things are sent to try both authors and editors.

Q: Love triangles are important in both The Wayfarer Redemption and The Troy Game series. Do you use them in all your works?

A: I think I generally work on 'love quadrangles' at the very least. I always incorporate some romance into books (I'm such a romantic at heart) and I love playing about with characters and who ends up with whom. Rarely does anything end happily: compromises must be made, someone is disappointed. That's life.

Q: Speaking of which, you surprised me when you wrote Axis out of love with Faraday in The Wayfarer Redemption. I had the impression that this was not the initial intent but that Azhure just grew more interesting. Was that the case?

A: No, it was exactly the opposite! Faraday was never meant to be a major character. She just kind of grew - she's an example of my inexperience as a writer at that stage (she taught me to be far more disciplined in later series!). I did the banquet scene with Faraday and whoever else it was (sorry, but I wrote that book almost 10 years ago!), finished the scene, then realised that Faraday was such a good character I should use her. Azhure was always meant to be the primary female character and love interest. I hated Faraday so much I killed her off in each book, but HarperCollins (the publisher who worked with me on crafting that series) kept sending the manuscripts back saying I wasn't allowed to kill her, she was too popular with readers. So she's raped many times over, killed and then resurrected, blown up, fated never to be really happy, loses children all over the place ... poor girl.

Q: You have avoided the Tolkien trap of an ultimate evil by creating some sympathy for the bad guys in your novels. But it's also hard to like the main characters much of the time. Is this how you see the real world?

A: Isn't that how the real world is? Everyone exists within shades of grey. There is no naive, simplified version of good versus evil (it frightens me that current political diatribe is slipping back into evil empire/axis of evil simplification). I do take a risk with characters, but I don't think I've ever been able to do a character who is instantly likeable and good and sweet and who never screws things up or gets things wrong. I've always enjoyed exploring the concept of evil: I think it exists in all of us, just as good exists within evil.

Q: Actions of the good guys were often ruthlessly driven by an 'end justifies the means' credo in The Wayfarer Redemption. Does this reflect your own beliefs to any extent?

A: *Tries very hard to remember those three books!* No, I don't think end justifies the means, but that excuse is constantly used about us. Think about the Allied bombing of Germany during World War Two - it was justifiable to take out hundreds of thousands of civilians just to get a bunch of railway lines or a factory. End does not justify means, unless, of course, you're the winner. I think what I was trying to do in a vague kind of a way in The Wayfarer Redemption was to show how using the end justifies the means excuse warps and saddens characters.

Q: You are hard on your heroines, and I must say that I enjoy them most when they fight back, as Azhure did. Will Cornelia develop into more of a fighter in future volumes of The Troy Game?

A: Yes, but not in the same manner as Azhure did (who I didn't really like that much, either). She's a gentler character. she's very much like a character in the series The Crucible (which you won't have in the USA for about another 5 years) called Mary, unbeloved wife of Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV). Her gentleness is her very strength ... but Cornelia, poor girl, is one of those characters who constantly gets things wrong, too! Cornelia will never get out on horseback and shoot arrows everywhere. She is not a warrior, she has far more effective weapons.

Q: I remember when I first read a fictional account (by Mary Renault) of the Theseus myth, feeling indignation at Ariadne's treatment. What prompted you to write her such a draconian revenge?

A: Because, by gosh, I enjoyed it! There's nothing like a good Catastrophe to get the blood moving! Also because the Aegean world was destroyed at that time. I simply used fact, not fiction.

Q: Which fantasy and/or historical authors do you enjoy reading most?

A: I don't read either fantasy or historical fiction (or very very rarely). I think the only historical fiction I've read recently is two of Philippa Gregory's, The Other Boleyn Girl, as also her two books on the gardening family (the Trandescents??) in 16th and 17th century England. Fantasy I only read if forced! (It is work, I just can't read it for leisure.)

Q: Your next novel to be published in N. America is Threshold and I'm looking forward to reading it; you mention on your website that it is your favourite. Why?

A: Well, it was my favourite for a very long time, and possibly still is. (Again, using the proviso that I haven't read this for about 6-7 years.) It has been a controversial book: the men always pick up on the often brutal sex scenes (in interviews I am still asked about those, 6-7 years after it was first published here!), and women pick up on the political incorrectness of the book (the heroine, Tirzah, stays with her abuser), but overall, and discounting the brutal incorrectness of the entire book, it was one of the tenderest romances I ever did (which may seem an odd comment given what I've
just written!). My editor at the time told me that she could only work on the book about ten pages at a time before she'd burst into sobs and have to take a walk about the block! I prefer not to think on the fact that Fiona gave up editing after working on this book

I enjoyed it immensely because it gave me a chance to work with ancient mathematics, which is both sexy and brutal. Tirzah's abuser, Boaz, abuses her with numbers more than actual physical violence, as also by forcing her into literacy (which in her culture is a hated thing). One of the scenes most commented on is one where Boaz torments Tirzah with the alphabet - he never actually touches her (or at least only fairly gentle touches). But because I depict it as a rape (an intellectual rape) that is how people see it.

Oh, there's that rather nasty childbirth scene at the very start. Oops. Forgot about that ... (once you read more of my book you'll start to realise that in all my books bar one (which is the one I've just written) there is always a brutal childbirth scene ...

Q: I did notice the brutal childbirth scene for Axis' mother in the first book of The Wayfarer Redemption; dare I ask why there is always a brutal childbirth scene?

A: Well, that very first scene, where the child eats its way out, was because I'd had a particularly bad day at work and there was no way she was just going to lie down and have the thing pop out singing!:). But as to why I do them ... probably because childbirth scenes are just such good value dramatically: there's so many things that can go wrong, particularly in pre-modern worlds.

As a historian I am aware that before the 1800s over 60% of women and babies died in childbirth, that the average labour went on for 5 days, that most children died before 5 years of age, that limbs and heads were routinely pulled off by inexperienced midwives ... what I depict in my books is generally
less brutal than what our foremothers experienced (Rivkah's birth scene was actually fairly typical).

There seems to be a widespread rather new-agey romantic view that pre-modern women just lay down in the fields and gave birth with the minimum of fuss. That's total baloney. Most women sewed their shrouds at the same time they sewed their babies' clothes. All women expected to die during childbirth, all women expected, at the very least, to have either themselves or their babies horribly disfigured.

I remember reading the diary of a woman who lived during the early 1600s. She had 16 children - all of whom died during birth or shortly after. The reason for this was the inexperience of both the midwife and the mother, as well as some of the terrible fashionable theories going about (for instance, she finally had a healthy child at birth, but then the prevailing fashion was that the baby should be fed only water for the first month of its life; the mother sat there and filled in her diary as that child screamed, then died of starvation, and she thought always she was doing the best thing for it).

Another fashion, which lasted for several hundred years, was for pregnant women to be bled three times in the last few weeks, taking out sometimes almost two pints of blood at each bleeding - no wonder they laboured for 5 days and then died in terrible agony, of complete exhaustion.

Sara Douglass lives and writes in in a Victorian cottage called Ashcotte in Bendigo, Australia. Find out more about the author and her works by visiting her Website. An American Publication Schedule there shows Tor USA planned releases of further volumes in The Wayfarer Redemption and The Troy Game, as well as Threshold and the Crucible series.
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