Author interview conducted in March 2003
(via e-mail) by Aaron Hughes
Sara Douglass photo (left) by Rob Watson/Creative Image
from dust cover of book Enchanter
Sara Douglass, pseudonym of Sara Warneke,
is the best selling fantasy
author in Australia, with a dozen novels to her credit. Using
her training as an historian to invoke periods beyond the standard
medieval European setting so familiar to fantasy readers, Douglass is
helping to expand the boundaries of genre fantasy. Her
work is just beginning to receive the attention it merits in the United
States. Tor Books has recently published four of her novels, including
Hades' Daughter, the first book in a projected four-volume series called
The Troy Game, which spans the past three thousand years of recorded
Hades' Daughter was a nominee for this year's Aurealis Award for best Australian fantasy novel of the year, along with The Crippled Angel, the third book in Douglass' Crucible Trilogy. This comes as no surprise. Douglass is a two-time winner of the Aurealis Award, and in the award's eight-year history, Douglass has never not been nominated in the best fantasy novel category.
Sara Douglass (SD): I haven't seen that article, but that comment has made my weekend. <grin> So, yes, it is gratifying, although now I'm starting to look over my shoulder.
FR: Between fantasy writers like yourself, Sean Williams, Garth Nix, Juliet Marillier, Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Isobelle Carmody, and science fiction authors such as Greg Egan, Stephen Dedman, Sean McMullen, Damien Broderick, to name just a few, Australian fantasy and science fiction has entered an unprecedented boom period (with all due respect to A. Bertram Chandler). Why do you think this is occurring?
SD: Australia has always had the talent and the writers and the books, but about 10 years ago there was only one mainstream Australian publisher who would touch fantasy (interestingly, my agent approached them intially with the first of my books and they rejected me as being completely unsaleable). Then HarperCollins decided to make fantasy a major new line (thanks to the determined effort of their then senior fiction editor, Louise Thurtell, who pushed and pushed and pushed the issue) and HCP just started to buy and buy. They picked me up first, making me their lead author (what incredible luck is that. Every hopeful author dreams of being picked as the lead author in a new line because then the publisher is going to pour money and effort into promoting you), then just hung about conventions and signed and signed and signed. HarperCollins made their line into a fantastic success. Then most other mainstream Australian publishers started to scramble into a signing frenzy, promotion went on all over the place, and then even the rest of the world started to look interested. The Australian reading public were also hungry for some home-grown authors, and with all the publicity going on at last Australian authors are getting the recognition they deserve. Authors like Damien, the two Seans, Greg, Simon Brown etc had all been around for many years - suddenly they started to get the public recognition they deserved (I think the sf community had certainly given it to them previously).
FR: Your new novel Hades' Daughter, the first volume of The Troy Game series, is mainly set one hundred years after the fall of Troy, but the story is to continue for thousands of years. In the novel, you mention an encounter to come in the Seventeenth Century, and hint that the story will culminate in World War II. Can you tell us when the major events of the remaining volumes of The Troy Game will occur?
SD: OK, the first book is set three thousand years ago in the late Bronze Age. Book II (God's Concubine) is set during the Norman Invasion of England in 1066, Book III, Imp's Thrall, is set during the plague and Great Fire of London in 1666 (I'm stuck on the sixes!) and the final book, Kingman's Haven, is set during the lead up to World War II and the Blitz of London in 1939 to 1940. I completely skip the medieval period! (God's Concubine is more Anglo-Saxon than true 'medieval' as most people would understand it.)
FR: Having each book in a series take place centuries after the last seems like quite a writing challenge. Are you finding it easier or more difficult than you expected?
SD: I thought it would be extremely difficult - the major difficulty being transferring characters over hundreds of years with each book while maintaining the integrity of their characters (they also have name changes each book, which is also confusing). But, now that I've finished book II I've found it much easier than I expected. I think my editors are greatly relieved that it all flows so smoothly!
FR: The Troy Game falls within the "secret history" sub-genre, stories that tell of fantastic events that fit within or even explain actual recorded history. (Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History is another recent example.) Are you finding it enjoyable or constraining to work within the cracks of real history?
SD: You know, even though I'm a professional historian, I always thought it would be horrendous to work within real history and to have to conform to 'the facts' (even though all professional historians know there is no such thing as 'a fact'!). I steered well clear of it for years, sticking only to completely fantasy worlds. Then I wrote The Crucible, and everything changed! I decided I could toy about as much as I liked with the facts and it was such fun. However, apart from the contracting of dates (having the action within about a 5 years span instead of a 100 year span) I didn't toy about too much with facts in "The Crucible". What I did was present the world as medieval people would have seen and understood it, not as modern people understand the medieval world. There's a huge difference. Angels and demons did walk among human beings in the fourteenth century, and angels were most certainly not the romantic, sweet creatures that Victorian sentimentalism re-packaged them as. Angels were furious creatures to be greatly feared, not sweet winged apparitions that made your dreams come true. Likewise the entire notion that underpins that series, that demons are the creation of women who are raped by angels (and the implications that has for Christ's own nature). That was no fictional inspiration but a piece of ancient belief that the Church has tried to bury for over a thousand years.
Ah! Enough of "the Crucible". <grin> I actually stick far more to 'fact' within the Troy Game than I did in "The Crucible".
FR: Are you going to be faithful to recorded history, or start making some changes as you did in your Crucible Trilogy, set in a recognisable but somewhat altered Fourteenth Century Europe?
SD: I think I answered that above! But may I just add that if anyone implicitly believes 'recorded' history then they're having the wool pulled over their eyes. History is always, absolutely always, recorded by people with an agenda, or by people who don't know a thing about what they're recording, or it is read by people of a later age with a such completely altered mentality from those who wrote the history or record that they utterly misinterpret everything they read. Most recorded history is as much fiction as what I write.
FR: The Labyrinth as a game that has been played in various guises for over three thousand years, from ancient Crete to modern-day London, is a terrific idea. Do you remember what inspired you to come up with such an interesting concept?
SD: Um, probably because it was true. The Troy Game existed and was a major component of both the ancient and the medieval worlds. Hopscotch is a derivative of the Troy Game, that old saying about not stepping on the cracks in the footpath derives from the Troy Game, many military manoeuvres used today similarly (the medieval tournament probably derived from the Troy Game also), dressage similarly, maypole dances similarly, and probably most of the old-fashioned dances (i.e. dancing in couples or circles or even square dancing) similarly. Many medieval churches had a labyrinth installed into their floors, the Troy Game as a horsed and military manoeuvre was played in London once a year until it was halted by the Reformation in the sixteenth century (I include this in the second book in the series). I could go on and on. The Troy Game has a long and clearly 'recorded' (grin) history. Homer mentions it, it is depicted on pottery vessels from the ancient world, and so on and so forth. This wasn't an idea I invented, although I doubt many people have put all the pieces of the puzzle together in the same manner I have.
I first encountered the Troy Game many years ago when I was doing research in old English county and state archives. Many medieval manuscripts mentioned it. At the time I didn't pay it any attention as it made no sense to me, and I certainly didn't connect it with the ancient theory that Brutus and his tattered remnant of Trojans founded London (there's no reason why this should not be the case as there were very strong trade links between the British Isles and Troy; the Trojans knew the place existed and they knew how to get there). Then late one night I was browsing through a book by E.O. Gordon on the ancient geography of the London area when something he said made all the pieces start to clang into position. It was a real moment of epiphany! I collect old and rare books on London, and over the next few days I went through them all, as well all the copies of manuscripts I had. The Troy Game was mentioned everywhere. The Game has always been there, it just needed someone to find it. (Doesn't that sound pretentious! <grin>)
FR: In The Troy Game, labyrinths allow cities to prosper by harnessing evil energies, but there is a countervailing danger if the energies are ever released. Did you intend this as a metaphor for modern technology?
SD: No, no metaphors intended. This was the actual use of the Troy Game. It was a magical dance (or series of dances) used for the protection of a city or a state. The labyrinth is literally a dancing floor, the Minotaur a representation of the evil that all joy and good works attract, and the dance (as depicted in Hades' Daughter) the means to negate that evil, to trap it (the labyrinth is used to trap evil within the dark heart of the labyrinth; evil can find its way in, but it can't find its way out again).
Most people seem to think I made the entire thing up. I didn't. I've simply used what was there, and what was used and done and danced and believed. Did you know that the oldest coin in the world (or it could be the oldest European coin) actually is one that pays homage to the Mistress of the Labyrinth?
FR: You are noted for your strong female characters. In Hades' Daughter, Ariadne and Genvissa are very powerful villains, and by the end of the novel Cornelia is growing into the role of a strong heroine. Whom do you draw on as inspiration in creating such strong women in your fiction?
SD: What I drew on for inspiration was my absolute hatred of women being depicted as "wishy-washy, follow the golden hero about and polish his sword in the evenings while he's enjoying a well-deserved rest from slaying dragons" kind of gal. To be frank, before I started writing fantasy I was reading a very well known series by a very well known author whose male characters were so wooden and horrendous, and his women characters worse, that I literally threw the book across the room and, within the week, started to write the first of the Tencendor books (BattleAxe everywhere but the USA where it is the unnamed Book 1 of the Wayfarer Redemption). I was determined to have strong female characters, which is why I loathe Faraday so much! <grin>
I hate people trying to put me in a box marked "Girly and Delicate and Can Probably Sew Well, Too". Doesn't describe me at all. I can snarl if people try to box me up like that. When I was young I wanted to be an adventurer in Africa. Hate weak female characters. Hate them. (Much shuddering went on here before I could move on to the next question!)
Fantastic Reviews (FR): You have a doctorate in Sixteenth Century English history, and you have said elsewhere that you generally begin your world-building with the Western medieval world as a template. But The Troy Game, with settings from ancient Greece to modern England, seems to be part of an emerging trend in fantasy away from medieval Europe to other periods of history. Do you think the familiar medieval setting is getting exhausted?
Sara Douglass (SD): I was just interested in exploring other periods in History. My undergraduate degree was actually in modern Chinese and S-E Asian Politics and History, and my own reading ranges far and wide. I'd very particularly like to do a book set in the Victorian age at some point. But, to answer your question, I don't think the familiar medieval setting can ever be exhausted - it is way too fabulous.
FR: You have said that you hate the term "fantasy," because it is used to belittle an important genre of literature. Why do you think there is a bias in the mainstream against fantastic literature?
SD: It is actually fascinating how much of what once was powerful - so powerful it was used to make and break realms - is now relegated to the realm of fairy tales and children's literature and games. There is a process of belittlement of what society and government (or, more likely, the church) is most terrified of. Fantasy is a good example of this - the belittlement of fantasy (or what we would call fantasy) began in the early part of the modern age (say, the 18th century) and continued apace from there. It isn't real literature, it is 'childish' (which is what fantasy is largely meant to convey and why I loathe it so much).
There is an enormous amount of hidden, and very powerful, history and mystery locked away in 'childish games'. I've already used some examples of the Troy Game. We still play the Troy Game, but it is concealed in childish games and superstitions where it can be safely disregarded. Same goes for many nursery rhymes, especially those which involve counting or the repetition of sounds (eenie meenie minie mo). These were once powerful memory spells or aids which were gradually stamped back into 'meaninglessness'. You talk about Threshold in a later question: Threshold is based upon a religion of numbers which in ancient societies was very, very powerful (priests controlled the use of the number 1, which is the most powerful number of all). Numbers now are, what. Just vaguely useful items in tallying up how much you have to pay for the groceries. The medieval church was behind the debasement of counting spells into nursery rhymes, but did you know the Catholic church fought for centuries to keep the Zero (the 0) out of western Europe. (It was terrified of it, and of its power.) Check out the almost religious world of knot theory some day - there's some powerful ancient mysteries hidden in that (most likely the Troy Game as well! <grin>)
Gosh, where am I. A long way from your original question. If I can speak very broadly, fantasy is just one of very many examples of once powerful mediums which have been belittled and subsequently ignored because, possibly, people were terrified of the power of these mediums. Fantasy has immense appeal and is immensely popular. At some point in the past that terrified intellectuals or priests enough that they set about its debasement.
I know there have been studies done of this (the very broad 'debasement' of the once powerful into childish irrelevance), and it is a fascinating area.
FR: You speak very knowledgeably about trends in the fantasy genre, yet you say you don't read much fantasy. What gives. And what do you prefer to read?
SD: Ah! I have been found out! <grin> I probably mentioned that on my web page and that section on fantasy was built up many years ago when I had been reading some fantasy. But essentially I haven't read any fantasy at all in the past 8 years (save for the occasional book I've been asked to review or provide a blurb for) and it is very rare these days that I'd ever comment on trends in fantasy - in most interviews or panels where I'm asked this question I'll just refuse to answer because I have no idea. (Everyone wants to ask me what is the role of woman in fantasy today - I have no idea!)
I read a great deal of non-fiction (mostly maps, actually, I am an obsessive collector of rare maps), but I adore crime, particularly the British crime writers, who are the absolute best.
FR: From the pictures on your web site, you have a beautiful garden, into which you put a great deal of effort. Do you work on your fiction in your head while gardening, or is that time to get away from writing?
SD: My life does not revolve around writing. It is just one aspect of my life. I avoid the 'writing circus' (the festivals, the panels etc.) like the plague! Gardening is also only a fairly small part of my life. I love doing it, but it only takes up a fairly insignificant portion of my overall time. My life actually revolves about the fact that I am a fanatical, obsessive antiquarian - a professional historian gone to wrack and ruin (i.e. one who can ignore the politically correct because she has independent funding!!). I trawl the world for treasures - whether ideas or objects. Both books and garden are, to a significant extent, distractions.
FR: The first three books of yours published in the United States - The Wayfarer Redemption (originally titled BattleAxe), Enchanter, and StarMan - are referred to here as Books 1-3 of the Wayfarer Redemption series. Confusingly, these three books were published elsewhere as the Axis Trilogy, while what is called the Wayfarer Redemption series in Australia and Britain - consisting of Sinner, Crusader, and Pilgrim - will be published here as volumes 4-6 of the series. Who's got it right. Do you think of these books as a six-volume series, or two related trilogies?
SD: Well, the Australian and British trilogies came out many years before they were ever published in the USA, and they were only ever meant as two separate trilogies ("The Axis Trilogy" and "The Wayfarer Redemption"). The second trilogy has a very, very different feel to it than the first. For whatever reason Tor's marketing department decided to sell them as one 6 book series, calling the entire series "The Wayfarer Redemption" which has no meaning at all for the first 3 books! <shrug>
FR: Beyond the Hanging Wall, scheduled for an imminent American release, is also set in that universe. How does it fit in?
SD: It actually ties in more to the final 3 books than the first 3 of your Wayfarer Redemption. It is set in a land (the name of which escapes me because I wrote this so long ago!) across the Widowmaker Sea. The final 3 books of The Wayfarer Redemption contained several references to this land and to the characters of Beyond the Hanging Wall. There's a loose tie-in between BTHW and those final 3 books.
FR: It will be years before all of your works are published in the United States. (One schedule for American releases of your backlist runs all the way through 2010!) Is this frustrating to you. Do you have any plans to do a promotional tour in the United States?
SD: It isn't so much frustrating now (I know I have a guaranteed source of income up to 2010!), but it was very, very frustrating waiting for the books to start coming out. Tor had the rights to these books for about 2 years before any finally started to come out, and they kept putting the date further and further back. I was certain none would ever be published! Thankfully, however, now they're slowly making their appearance.
I did a promotional tour of the USA in 2000 with Juliet Marillier and Jacqueline Carey which was great. Especially that single fifteen minute period in our 3 week tour when we were allowed outside in the fresh air - we were taken to a Californian beach and given a quarter hour to run free with bare feet through the sand and tide! (Our minders stayed on the cliff top and watched us carefully through their binoculars in case we tried to escape.) There's no plans for another one at the moment (I think a later author did manage to escape and now Tor are being very careful).
FR: Do you have any new projects in mind beyond The Troy Game. Or are you still considering taking a break from writing when The Troy Game is finished. (By the way, bless you for actually finishing the epic fantasy series you start.)
SD: No plans at the moment. If I can afford it I'd like to take a year off. Preferably in London hunting down rare manuscripts.
FR: Will Hannah's presence inspire you to write some ghost stories. This is not a tongue-in-cheek thing, right. It's your honest belief that you live with a ghost?
SD: I had my doubts as to her existence when I moved into the house as well, but Hannah soon set me straight. I had a journalist and a photographer in here a few weeks ago. She's amused and terrified many people - there are those who will refuse to come inside the house and fairly recently I discovered that a previous owner was so distracted by her presence that he not only hung himself over her grave, but murdered the local member of parliament with an axe in my front hallway a few days previously.
I'd wondered why those strange dark stains were so hard to get out of the floorboards (While I take on a jesting tone, I kid you not about either murder or suicide). I'm fortunate to get on very well with her, and she's not adverse to playing the odd joke or two on me. When people ask me what it is like living with a ghost, I say that it is just like sharing a house. Not frightening just sharing. Nothing like a ghost movie. She has very strong dislikes and likes about people. If someone comes in the house then she'll make sure they leave. Fast.
Hannah has had a fairly strong influence on the final 3 books of the Wayfarer Redemption, as also on The Crucible. Hannah's married name was Bloomfield so watch out in those 6 books for the Field of Flowers. I've written a couple of ghostly short stories as well, but they haven't been influenced by her.
FR: Threshold, a fantasy in a Middle Eastern setting, is due for its American release within the year. You have called that your personal favorite of all of your books. Why are you especially pleased with that one?
SD: Probably because it was the first book where I could escape the high fantasy sub-genre and get into the kind of book I really wanted to write - something semi-historical and really, really sexy. <grin> I had a different editor by then and she allowed me to get away with an awful lot of the kind of stuff which had been cut out of the first 3 books of the Wayfarer Redemption. (BTW, that's another difference you'll notice in the final 3 books of that series - again, I'd lost my earlier somewhat prudish editor and I was given a great deal more flexibility). My brother recently commented to me that he was very pleased I'd managed to get some sex into the books after those first three. Somehow I didn't expect that kind of comment from a brother.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): You tried your hand at straight romance before turning to fantasy. Why do you think your talents are so suited to the fantasy genre?
Sara Douglass (SD): I tried my hand at a great deal of things before I started on fantasy. I tried fantasy because I had a really good research background in pre-modern worlds (not just medieval) and that made me very comfortable with the genre. I knew how people lived and thought in a pre-modern setting, how landscape, for instance, is the major factor in determining a society's religion as well as economics and politics. And it was fun. What else can I say?
Thank you very much for taking the time to respond!A pleasure!