A Conversation With Sara Douglass

by Claire E. White

Bestselling author Sara Douglass is a household
Photo of Sara Douglass
name in her native Australia. And with the release in the United States of The Wayfarer Redemption series and her new series, The Troy Game (Tor), she is now being enthusiastically embraced by American audiences, as well.

Born Sara Warneke (Douglass is her pen name), in 1957 in Penola, a small town in the south-east of South Australia, Sara grew up with her parents, two older sisters and older brother on a sheep farm called Gundealga. She loved the farm and hated leaving when her family moved to the capital city of South Australia, Adelaide, when she was seven. She did most of her growing up in an old bluestone Victorian house in the suburb of Malvern, surrounded by books. She attended the Methodist Ladies College, which she says "was gentle, gentile and caring, and totally oblivious to the social revolutions of the sixties."

Her life took a cruel turn when her mother died after a long and brutal battle with ovarian cancer. After her mother's death, Sara concentrated on school and began to write. She came in second in a national essay competition on the life of horses in the circus, rodeo and racing. After graduation, at the insistence of her father and stepmother, she took up the family tradition of nursing, which she found that she despised. After seventeen years of enduring the stressful profession, she went back to school, while nursing part-time, eventually receiving a Bachelor of Arts and a Ph.D. in early modern (16th century) English history at the University of Adelaide.

She took a position as lecturer in medieval history in La Trobe University, Bendigo, which is in central Victoria, Australia. Although she loved the study of ancient history and the university, the interdepartmental politics of academia was anathema to her. So she began writing again, turning out what she calls "several really awful novels, a couple of not bad ones, and then one day, sat down to begin BattleAxe. I knew by the time I was about 100 pages in that this was the novel that was going to do it for me, if any novel was." She finished the book and sent it off to a literary agent that she found in the Yellow Pages. The agency accepted her as a client after six months, and six weeks after that HarperCollins offered her a contract. Her editors asked her to change her last name so that her books wouldn't be stuck on the bottom shelf in the bookstores, and Sara Douglass was born. Her first book, BattleAxe, (as it was called in Australia) began the series set in the land of Tencendor and was an immediate hit with both critics and readers alike. The Axis Trilogy begins the adventure into Tencendor. It tells the story of the enigmatic Axis, BattleAxe of the Seneschal, his mysterious and dangerous origins (if he is allowed to assume his full heritage he might as easily destroy the land as save it) and his heart-rending love for two woman, Azhure and Faraday. The Axis trilogy won the prestigious Aurealis Award in the category of Best Fantasy Novel. Recently introduced in the United States by Tor, the series will be published as six books: The Wayfarer Redemption, Enchanter and StarMan are now available, with the other three books in the series (Sinner, Pilgrim and Crusader) scheduled for release starting in 2004.

Sara's work is known for its vivid and complex characterizations, powerful emotion and richly descriptive fantasy worlds. Her work is intense: the battles are brutal, the passion is dangerous and the characters are never either all good or all bad. She does not write lighthearted, flimsy stories in any way, yet there is a witty and wicked humor which underlies her writing. Her newest series is The Troy Game, a four book series, which begins with the recent release, Hades' Daughter. The Troy Game is a historical fantasy covering 3,000 years of British history, tracing the bizarre tale of the establishment of the Troy Game on the banks of the Thames in 1100 BC and following it through to the conclusion of the Game during World War II. Hades' Daughter begins intriguingly with the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Ariadne helps Theseus defeat the Minotaur, thinking they will live happily ever after. But Theseus abandons the pregnant Ariadne, who curses Theseus. Ariadne, the Mistress of the Labyrinth, destroys all but one of the labyrinths, thereby setting in motion the destruction of the ancient world.

Publisher's Weekly says of Hades Daughter, "In this dazzling start to a new trilogy, Australian author Douglass…. once again combines mythology, fantasy, magic and romance to produce a consistent, well-rounded story full of seriously flawed characters both abhorrently evil and enthrallingly empathetic."

Sara lives in Bendigo, Australia in her beloved Ashcotte, a Victorian home with fabulous gardens and a resident ghost. When she's not writing, you might find her working in her garden, or curled up with a good book. She spoke with us about Hades Daughter and her evolution from medieval historian to internationally bestselling novelist.

What role did books play in your life when you were growing up?

Cover of The Wayfarer Redemption by Sara Douglass
They were my life! I had a terrible childhood (not so terrible as some, but terrible enough). Books were my only escape (as was school) from a family life that was sometimes too much to bear (and having said that, I must also say that this was no one's fault -- our family was the victim of circumstance and an over-keen adherence to Victorian morals of silence and in-expression). But the one terrific thing about my childhood was the family home which was so stuffed with books you can't even imagine. There were books lining the walls. There were books stuffed under the sheets in the linen closet (and often on top of the sheets). There were trunkfuls of books in the back room -- and there were even books in the toilet. My family was a sad remnant of a once grand Georgian and Victorian English family (someone got drunk, went bankrupt, and now Queen Lizzie owns our old family plot!!): some of those sheets had been woven by my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother in the late eighteenth century ... and among the stacks of tarnished silverware and moldy chandeliers (I have to waffle a bit here -- the grand chandelier that once hung in our entrance way lobbed into my house here in Bendigo a couple of months ago, and once I had cleaned off the 45 years' worth of mould and dust I discovered a beautiful -- but very heavy -- gem. I had it hung yesterday, and now I type very grandly under my beautiful Venetian crystal chandelier!).

Where was I? Ah, yes, the books. We had seventeenth century Portuguese books of poetry propping up the buckets under the leaking roof. We had nineteenth-century midwifery books (must have been where I got my fascination for childbirths gone wrong!). We had first editions, fiftieth editions, pamphlets, leaflets, maps, atlases, seventeenth-century books of prayer, climbing guidebooks, tractor manuals, rug patterns, sewing guides, stuff everywhere. I read it all. Thousands of books, and I swear I read them all. (Except those too moldy to read, or those involved in essential household tasks like propping open doors and holding up buckets.)

Was there anyone in your life in particular that encouraged or inspired you to write fiction?

Not actively, although I think my father very gently and subconsciously pushed me towards it. But, as I said, I grew up in a very conservative and Victorian-down-on-its-luck family, and a girl was expected to work, not to write. I wanted to go to university once I finished school -- but I had to work instead. Once I started to write seriously in my early 20s then there were very few people who encouraged it. It was a very private, very silent affair.

What prompted you to start writing your first novel? How did you find the time, when you were already fully employed?

I loved writing always, so I wrote my first novel when I was about 25 or 26. At that time I was more than "fully" employed. I worked full time as a Registered Nurse, I studied full time doing an Arts degree, and somewhere I found the time to write. I don't think I had a social life at all! I finally managed to get to university when I was about 25 -- I worked full time, went to classes in the evenings, studied on the weekends and nights. There's always something new to learn, something new to do; I preferred that to nightclubbing!

Would you describe the road to publication for your first published novel?

Well, after almost 15 years of rejections, the road was surprisingly
"Overall, I like to push boundaries. I hate allowing readers to become complacent with predictable plots and characters."
easy! I picked up the phone book, opened it to "Agents", and picked the only one with "literary" in its name (the last thing I wanted to do was end up with a bloodstock agent by error). I sent off the ms, waited six months (this was the hardest part), was stunned and over the moon when the agency finally rang back and said, "Welcome aboard, darling." (That remains the most exciting moment of all -- because I knew then that I had a decent chance.) Then my agent offered the book (this was the first in the USA titled Wayfarer Redemption) to Pan, who declined it on the grounds that it would never sell (Delicious! They admitted years later they'd made a terrible mistake, and their means of apology was playing a large part in the engineering of the sale of the book to Tor, which was rather lovely of them), then HarperCollins snapped it up, used it as their lead book in their new fantasy line, spent heaps of money promoting it, and the books just walked off the shelf. It was a dream run.

The Wayfarer Redemption series (as it is called in America) is certainly not your ordinary fantasy series: you touch on some unusual issues, such as the incest practiced by the Icarii. What kind of feedback have you gotten from editors and/or readers?

You know, not one editor or publisher or reviewer (to my knowledge) has ever had a single concern about the incest theme. There was one scene in the original book in the wayfarer series where Axis relieved himself on a dunghill (it was tastefully done, I swear it!) and the editors went ape over that and I had to remove it, but incest? Hey, that's fine! It's amazing sometimes what editors can quibble over, but incest isn't one of them. Essentially, no one seems to have been put out by it. I was trying to veer away from the "sweet" in the books, and it just seemed to me that incest was the kind of thing that the vain, beautiful, sensual, irresponsible Icarii would have had no problems with -- indeed, it was just the kind of thing to intrigue them. The incest theme goes very wrong in the final few books, I'm trying to remember here, but there is a case where the indulging in forbidden incest creates havoc, and the prim refusal to indulge in allowed incest creates disaster. Overall, I like to push boundaries. I hate allowing readers to become complacent with predictable plots and characters.

American readers are especially fond of one of the leads in that series, Faraday. But you really put her through the ringer. How did you create the character of Faraday? Did you intend for her to become as big a part in the series as she did?

Faraday was a ghastly mistake, and an example of my inexperience as
Cover of Enchanter by Sara Douglass
a writer at that stage. She was never meant to become a major character -- she just "grew". I couldn't control her. Worse, she was the kind of character I loathed -- accepting of her fate and her victimhood, unwilling to fight for what she wanted, for her very life. Ugh. Hateful. But once she was there, then readers cooed and fawned over her, and even though I killed her off in every book, the manuscripts always lobbed back onto my desk with a note from the HarperCollins editor saying something like, "Love the new book, Sara! But can you just alter that bit on page 452 where you blow Faraday to smithereens? She's too popular with the readers to be allowed to die. Bring her back, please. PS. That's an order, not a request." And so Faraday gets raped, blown up, turned into various manifestations of livestock and suffers various other indignities, all because I was never allowed to do with her what I wanted, which was to dispose of her as quickly as possible. She's an example of how a reading public can force an author to do something the author doesn't want to do, and I've never allowed it to happen again.

I've had gentle, victimized women in most of my other books -- the best example being Mary Bohun in my series The Crucible. But while Mary is victimized, she never becomes a victim in the same terrible way that Faraday allows. Instead, Mary uses her gentleness as a strength; she refuses to allow herself to become a victim (a different thing from being victimized); and she triumphs because of this. Mary Bohun spends most of The Crucible" in bed, dying of a terrible cancer, being verbally, physically and emotionally brutalized by a monster of a husband, but she is never a victim. Mary is possibly one of my favorite characters ever; she's an absolute gem.

I'd like to talk about your newest release in American, Hades' Daughter. What sparked your imagination for beginning this series? Have you always enjoyed Greek mythology?

The Troy Game is a direct result of my total and absolute obsession with London. Most of my time is spent researching London, most of my money is spent collecting rare books and maps on the city. It was one of these books, E. O. Gordon's The Mounds and Circles of London which sparked the entire Troy Game phenomenon. As a medieval historian I'd come across the entire Brutus story many times. I'd also come across many references to the Troy Game. But I'd never tied all these references together. Gordon managed to connect the two in my mind and suddenly, all the snippets I'd come across in my career as a historian and researcher fell into place. I was stunned, excited, and over the moon. This has to be one of the most exciting projects I have ever worked on. While there is much fiction involved, it is all based on fact, which is the most exciting thing. Greek mythology? I find it as boring as hell. (smiles) I used it only because I had to because that's where Brutus came from, and as an aside, the whole Brutus/Cornelia thing is based on fact as well.

The book follows the lives of a number of characters, but let's start with Princess Cornelia. Now Cornelia is a hard heroine to get close to. She has all the vanity and immaturity one would expect of a teenager, yet from her narrative she seems to really regret all the bad decisions she made, which makes her more sympathetic. How did you approach writing Cornelia? Were there any characteristics that you were specifically trying to avoid with her?

Cover of Hades' Daughter by Sara Douglass
People's reaction to Cornelia is fairly odd. As a 14 yr-old, I think she copes remarkably well with the situation! And remarkably credibly. But because she is seen almost entirely through the eyes of a group of arrogant, power-hungry, ambitious, deceitful people -- most of whom abuse her terribly -- then readers tend to believe her as those rather hateful characters believe her (people prefer to believe the falsehoods, rather than the truths). Corineus says it as it should be said on the ship on the way to Britain: Cornelia does only as any girl or woman would do who was brutalized, raped, had her life torn apart, was forced from her father and country and the life she had known.

What is this? That because Faraday was compliant and accepted her victimhood she is a likeable character, while a girl who fights with everything she has is unlikable? Gosh, I'm getting onto my feminist soapbox here! I like gals with heart and spirit, I don't like victims. I was actually asked to rewrite Cornelia to make her more acceptable for the American audience -- in her original incarnation she was far harder, far bitchier. My Australian editor loved that, my American editor loathed it. In the end I toned her down, and I think she works the better for it.

Cornelia's relationship with her husband Brutus is a complex one, which started with a forced marriage and even rape. How did you approach the challenge of making Cornelia change her feelings for Brutus in a believable way?

That was very, very hard, and I'm still not sure that I accomplished it well. I actually altered Brutus more, I think, making him a little softer, so that Cornelia's change of heart might appear more plausible. Both of these characters were extremely difficult, and very challenging.

It is almost a syndrome of victim falling for abuser (in that kidnapped victim so often falls in love with kidnapper as a survival mechanism) which I used to some extent in Threshold (and which is due out in the USA later this year) and which, in Threshold, I have been highly criticized for.

Cornelia continues to grow through the books, and her relationship with Brutus continues to be a highly complex one. I've finally worked out how it will be resolved (and I'm waiting for my American editor to shriek and pull her hair out!) (grins). It has to be a compromise. Don't forget that Cornelia has at least one other love interest in this series -- Coel, who comes back as well -- and in book two, God's Concubine, she samples two other contenders of the heart, Silvius (Brutus' father), and the vile Asterion himself (while actually being married to an entirely different man!). Cornelia starts to discover choices, which Brutus has to accept if he is to grow himself. This is another comparison with Faraday, if you like. Faraday had her choices made for her, she was largely forced to accept the choices that Axis made. In this series Brutus is going to have to accept the choices that Cornelia makes, in part because he offered her no choice at all in his initial marriage and rape of her.

Cornelia endures a really terrible childbirth during the voyage to Llangarlia. In fact, there are quite a number of horrific childbirth scenes in the Wayfarer Redemption series, as well. What went into your decision to have these scenes?

"I don't believe 'moral neutrality' can possibly exist. 'Morality' and 'neutrality' are completely incompatible. Do my own deeply held beliefs about good and evil exist in the books? Yes, they do (and highly and very particularly in The Crucible which I still can't believe will ever actually be published in the USA!). The first three books of the Wayfarer series are quite literally a diatribe about the medieval Roman Catholic church and the appalling hold it had over society."
(much laughter!) I am very well known for my horrific childbirth scenes. All twelve of my published fiction books have them somewhere. I don't really know why I do them save that they're great dramatic value -- and none of them are "fiction". Remember I worked for years as a medieval historian, and the slaughter (and I use that word deliberately) that western women pre-1800 went through during childbirth was horrific. 80% of mothers and babies were injured or killed during the birthing process, or died in the first month post birth. The average labor was over 5 days long. Midwives (who were absolutely appalling) routinely pulled off heads and odd limbs ("Oops!" she mutters, as she stuffs the unfortunately severed left arm under the sheets and hopes no one notices), and routinely carried long, vicious hooks to sink into the baby's head to haul it out. The romantic idea that pre-modern women simply dropped their babies in the field with little fuss is a myth: well, if they shut themselves inside a room and refused to allow a midwife near them they had a chance, but if there was a midwife attending then they expected death). Much of the suffering they inflicted on themselves, and partly because women expected midwives to intervene at every chance they had (if they were paying someone to attend, then they damn well wanted that women to work for her money, none of this laying back and allowing nature to take its course, that attitude killed most of the women and babies, and they never ever realized it).

I remember finding a journal from the early 17th century that was written by an English parliamentarian living in London. He was wealthy, he could afford the best care for his wife in her numerous pregnancies and deliveries. She had 16 babies. They all died. Fifteen of them died during birth or in the first month. From memory, one was drowned by the midwife because she (the midwife) felt insulted by the mother, several others died of starvation in their first two weeks of life because the mother and her husband (both were highly educated and intelligent people) had heard that it was best for a baby not to be fed during the first month of its life (unbelievable, I know), others had bits pulled off during botched deliveries. One daughter survived to 4 years old when she burned the palm of her hand on a hot pot and subsequently died of septicemia. I remember reading this hand written journal in an archive, seeing the husband's handwriting deteriorate into scratches as he listened to the screams of his starving but otherwise healthy newborn, reading of each subsequent death, and just weeping at the futility of it all. All of those children were healthy and viable -- until that moment they had to leave the womb. Then they were subject to such violence and ignorances that they were all (bar one) killed shortly thereafter.

If anyone can get the book by Edward Shorter called A History of Women's Bodies then read it. It is an eye opener. Granted, it is a bit sensationalist, but all the research I've done over the years corroborates what he argues.

Of course, very few babies ate their way out as they did in the
Cover of The Nameless Day: Book One of the
Crucible Trilogy by Sara Douglass
opening scene of Battleaxe (which was not called that in the USA). I wrote that scene at the end of a very long and hard day at work when I was tired and feeling hateful. But it literally sold the book. Given that editors decide on the first two to three pages of a book as to whether they want to go any further, having a bit of drama like a mother-eating baby on page two helps!

The only character who seems (at this point, anyway) to be totally evil, is the Minotaur, Asterion, although we don't get inside his point of view very often. Will he play a greater role in future books?

Oh yes. Asterion was added literally at the very last moment (about two weeks before Hades' Daughter was due to go to press!) That's why he doesn't appear in many scenes with other characters -- he was just a late insertion (like WolfStar was in the first 3 books of the Wayfarer series: I only thought of his character as I was writing StarMan, and then had to go back, literally as the first two books were going to press and write him in). But be assured, you will be getting a great deal more of the dastardly Asterion in later books.

Author Orson Scott Card said that "no matter how many deliberate lies a writer tells, his own most deeply held beliefs about good and evil will inevitably appear in his work. It is impossible to write a morally neutral work of fiction." Do you agree with that statement? What views of yours about good and evil should a discerning reader be able to take from your work?

What? An author who tells deliberate lies? Never!!! (more laughter) Essentially, yes, I agree with the statement, if for no other reason than I don't believe "moral neutrality" can possibly exist. "Morality" and "neutrality" are completely incompatible. Do my own deeply held beliefs about good and evil exist in the books? Yes, they do (and highly and very particularly in The Crucible which I still can't believe will ever actually be published in the USA!). The first three books of the Wayfarer series are quite literally a diatribe about the medieval Roman Catholic church and the appalling hold it had over society. Particularly apparent in these books are the medieval church's teachings on the environment: only tilled fields (and ploughed in straight lines, no less, "Furrow wide, furrow deep") are acceptable, all mountains and forests are evil simply because they refuse to conform to man's will (and so thus the Seneschal's preaching and prating against the Avar and the Icarii). The Wars of the Axes (the war against forest and mountain) is a metaphor for the war on the environment, and if you don't think we still make war on the environment, then why do we discuss it in such war-like terms? I shudder every time I hear of a mountaineer talking of 'conquering' a mountain, or when I hear of those extreme sports athletes pitting themselves against road and field and water and lake etc. Why do people feel that the landscape is the enemy? Some to be conquered or "beaten"? We're still under the grip of the Seneschal and its teachings, sorry, went off on a rant tangent there. (grins)

In later books (which you don't have yet) I also spend a great time exploring the concept of evil. I don't believe there is true good or true evil, we're all a mixture of both, and this crops up time after time in my books. A character who at first appears to be the prince of light embraces darkness, and vice versa.

But Asterion, I think, is just a truly enjoyable nasty. He's a bit of a holiday for me.

Cover of Starman by Sara Douglass
Oh, and the other personal philosophy which I explore time after time in my books is Voltaire's "cultivate your own garden" philosophy. Essentially, Voltaire argued that we spend way too much time trying to fix everyone else's problems, trying to help and be helpful, when we'd all be far better off (and the world would be a far safer place) if we learned to "cultivate our own garden".

The books have amazing detail: the music, the myths, the clothes, the ancient religion, the different cultures all seem very real. How did you approach the massive amount of research needed for this book? Do you use the Internet for research?

The Britain of Hades' Daughter is PRE-Celtic. The Celts didn't invade until about 300 years after the events of the book (about 700 BC). This is ancient British religion and society, not Celtic (people always seem to assume that Britain was always Celtic before the Romans and the Christian Church invaded, but they Celts hadn't been there that long themselves before the Romans invaded). Sorry, that's the historian-pedant coming out in me! Ancient Britain was not Celtic!

Well, I've been researching it off and on for 25 years. One of the reasons I took up writing fantasy was because I had the background for it -- many medievalists or classical scholars transfer into writing fantasy simply because they already have the research under their belts and are very comfortable with constructing pre-modern worlds. As I said earlier, I collect old and rare books and maps on London (I have stuff from the 15th century through to the present day) so my research is at my fingertips; my library on London is probably better than any but the major university libraries. (Unless, of course, that damned chandelier falls and sets fire to everything,) I use the Internet, but not to research as such (unless I need a quick date). The internet is largely a highly superficial arena. It dazzles with the amount of material available, and blinds us to the fact that most of this material is highly superficial in the sense that it doesn't manage to do more than scratch the surface on any issue. I use the Internet to locate material, for which it is an excellent tool (and I've just discovered eBay, with its extraordinary collection of antique maps for sale!), but I do not use it to research. I love the Internet, but I have not yet been so dazzled as to believe that it is the only place to go. When I was teaching at university, just as the Internet was becoming more widely available, I found it very hard to persuade 18 and 19 year-old students that it was only a means to an end, it was not the end. It scratches the surface of human experience, but it does not in any way represent the entire depth of human experience. But so many people believe that it is the be all and end all, and look no further. I hear young people now say, "I only have to go to the Internet, or find it on the Web," and I wince.

What is the greatest challenge you faced in writing this series?

Oh, gosh. I had carefully worked my contracts so that I had heaps of time to write Hades' Daughter. To enjoy writing it. Then Tor contacted me and said they wanted the book in two months' time (at that point I hadn't even started to write it). Could I do it? That was a walking nightmare and I ended up loathing the book. That was a terrible experience.

Can you give us a sneak peek of what's next in the Troy Game series?

Book 2 is called God's Concubine (I faced an uphill battle having that accepted as a title in the USA!). It is set in 1065 to 1066 during the events leading up to the Norman Invasion of England. Asterion is back (full-time, this time), and nastier than ever. Cornelia is back as the ever-suffering (but clearly not a victim!!!) wife of Edward the Confessor -- from that we get the title of God's Concubine, which was a historical nickname (and fun name) for her as Edward was so pious he refused to sleep with her so poor Cornelia (or Caela, as she is called in this book) had to endure a marriage of virginity as Edward spent his nights communing with God. Coel is back as the very powerful character of Earl Harold of Wessex, later King Harold. His relationship with Caela (Cornelia) is the pivotal one of the book. (Intriguingly, the incest theme is back, as Harold and Caela are reborn brother and sister which causes them much angst.) Genvissa returns as the gorgeous Swanne, common-law wife of Harold, up to mischief most of the time. Brutus is reborn as William the Conqueror (who else could he be!). He has an amazing wife called Matilda (who is no one reborn, she simply is) who teaches him what it is to be a husband: Brutus-William really grows in this book and understands the mistakes he made with Cornelia in their first life together. Mother Ecub is back, as also is Erith. Loth resurfaces as Saeweald, physician to Edward. Ecub, Erith and Loth are the only fictional main characters in this book. Oh, apart from Asterion, of course!

We have several "new" characters. That's in quote marks because one of them isn't really "new" at all. Silvius, Brutus' murdered father, returns. Brutus placed him in the heart of the Game, and he is languishing under London, trying to make things right. He manages to meet with the Cornelia character, and things spark -- she sees him as a Brutus, only gentler and more caring.

The Troy Game itself becomes a major character, working its own will, and infecting the Londoners so that they all start to ply the Game in their time off (historically correct). I had heaps of fun working in the medieval manifestations of the Troy Game.

"What has surprised me the most? As the years go by and books keep rolling out, the thing that surprises me most is that I was ever picked up at all. Once you're "in", then life is very easy, but having watched so many other worthwhile authors try and receive rejection after rejection, and then walk off head hanging down and take up stacking shelves in the supermarket, I know how fortunate I was."
And finally, I have a group of gorgeous characters that I wished I'd thought of for the first book -- the Sidlesaghes (which is a combination of old English words meaning something like sad singer). The Sidlesaghes are the ancient stones of England (i.e., the standing stones in the stone circles) and as things heat up, they transform into their real selves trying, like Silvius, to save the day. They work hand in hand with Mag. Everyone is pitted against Asterion. Asterion is a major character within Edward the Confessor's court, but no one knows who he is: everyone knows that Asterion walks among them, but they don't know which face he wears. (This is like a curious detective story for the reader, see if you can spot Asterion before Caela-Cornelia and William-Brutus fall into his trap).

Essentially, everyone is trying to find the Kingman bands that Brutus hid at the end of Book 1. If Asterion gets them then the Game is over (sorry about the poor pun!). But soon the bands start to move, seemingly of their own accord, and no one knows who is doing it!

Oh, and the London Underground makes an appearance. (grins)

And I don't have a birth scene in this book! I think this is the very first of my books where no one gives birth (although two of the women fall pregnant with something very, very strange).

A note about Caela: Caela's historical name was Edith, as was Harold's common-law wife. But how can you make something sexy of Edith? (Apologies to all Ediths reading this.) So I gave her a "pet" name of Caela, while Harold's wife was conveniently known historically as Edith-Swan-neck, so she gets to be Swanne, which is a beautiful name.

How have your careers as a nurse and as an historian affected your writing?

My nursing background has given me the brutal background -- watching people living and dying and suffering. I think that comes out in the journeys many of my characters take.

My historical background, well, that has given me the books. Without it I couldn't write what I do. I still consider myself a historian before an author -- my life is organized about my historical research, not my writing, although my writing complements it.

I'd like to talk about the actual creative process. Would you take us through a typical writing day for you?

I have to be very strict when I am writing. I actually find the writing process of that first draft very hard (researching and planning is great, revising is fun, but that first draft -- getting the book from my head onto the page -- is murderous). So I force myself to be sitting in front of my computer by 9 a.m. (and preferably far earlier; 9 a.m. is the latest) and I sit there and grind my teeth and type until my task for the day is completed. Writing is getting harder and harder. I used to be able to write 30 pages a day, now I am down to about 20. So my usual task for a day is about 20 pages. I am usually done by 1 p.m., then I take a break, and in the afternoon and early evening go over the scenes I must write the next day and think about them. If I don't do this then I will find writing them the next day very, very difficult.

When you begin a new book or series, how much of the plot do you know in advance? Do you use outlines or character biographies?

I do very detailed planning. I don't do character biographies as such -- I tend to allow characters to "work themselves out" as much as they are able. Characters have a set "place" within the plot; I tend to work more on planning how characters interact with each other than on individual characters.

As for the plot of a series -- I know where I will start, and I know where I will end, but that bit in between is always a bit vague! But for each book I work out and plan beforehand in great detail. I spend several months before writing in planning out scenes. I use large filing cards (about 6 inches by 4) and I use one filing card per scene. At the top of the card will go where the scene takes place, and often when (time-wise). I put down the characters who will appear in the scene, and what the scene must achieve (i.e., each scene builds the plot one bit further, so each scene must achieve something). Then I go through the mechanics of the scene: what happens, often some of the dialogue etc. Often, if a scene is very clear in my head, I put down enough notes to cover three or four filing cards, which are then stapled together.

The beauty of the filing card system is that you can literally shuffle scenes as you need them. In both the planning and writing stages, you can move them about, which then enables you to see the "flow" of the plot quite easily. It also enables you to toss out scenes and insert new ones quickly. It is a very flexible system that works very well for me.

When I start writing, I work from these scene cards (I would have between 60-80 per book). Each afternoon, I go over the next day's scenes, fix them in my head and, with the current day's work still fresh, make adjustments, add more notes, more bits of dialogue etc. Then, the next day, I am ready to write those scenes from the revised cards.

For some books I also use wall flow charts, especially if I have numerous characters and subplots.

I'm a very methodical worker. If I'm not, then it is very easy to procrastinate and find something else to do (like head off to eBay and check out the gorgeous antique linens....(smiles) (I just won 12 damask towels! Yippee!)

As you look back over your writing career so far, what has surprised you most? Did you ever imagine how many people all over the world would be reading your books?

What has surprised me the most? As the years go by and books keep rolling out, the thing that surprises me most is that I was ever picked up at all. Once you're "in", then life is very easy, but having watched so many other worthwhile authors try and receive rejection after rejection, and then walk off head hanging down and take up stacking shelves in the supermarket, I know how fortunate I was. When I was first picked up by HarperCollins -- who then gave me such a dream run as their lead fantasy author -- I received such a dollop of luck that I know find it almost unbelievable. If I'd been the second author they'd picked up I would never have received the same degree of publicity and help. That I submitted that ms, in the form I did, in the month I did, and just by chance HarperCollins at that moment decided to start up a fantasy line, that was sheer, unadulterated luck. Yes, I had the product they wanted, but so did 700 other people.

What are some of your pet peeves in life?

Being lumped into a box, being "labeled" (I've hated this since I was a child). For instance, when people hear I am a "fantasy author", then I get dropped into that box which reads "dresses in long velvet gowns, is dizzy-headed, is a pagan, immerses herself in New Age books, dreams of sex with elves, has watched every Tolkien movie 57 times and read everyone of his books 890 times each." None of this describes me at all! (I don't like Tolkien at all -- I find him very naive, although I admire what he did hugely.) Also, the entire "fame" thing, which appalls me. I hate the loss of privacy, the people who come up and grab me in the street and so on. I'm a very private person, so I find the sentiment that I am publicly "grabbable" quite disconcerting! And, finally, lax grammatical standards. People who write "alot" for "a lot". And most particularly of all, people who write "i" for "I", "c u l8er" for "see you later". I loathe trendy laziness!!! (There, rant over.)

Is it true that your house is haunted? Tell us about Hannah.

Cover of Beyond the Hanging Wall by Sara Douglass
Yes, although I didn't believe it when I first moved in. Hannah Bloomfield built the house in 1892 and has not left it since. I seem to get on well with her, but sometimes when there is someone in the house that she doesn't like all hell can break loose. Doors can slam, footsteps can thud up and down the hall (one day I had a woman in my office with me, and doors were slamming and footsteps were thudding all through the house, my guest didn't realize that she and I were the only two live people in the house!). Hannah can also do things like tip over vases of water and pull people's hair. She gave one woman's ponytail a really good yank one day -- that woman was very put out, and spent ages trying to find who was hiding behind her chair. Hannah also has a sense of fun and can play jokes on me when she is in the mood: a couple of years back I had the mantelpiece over my bedroom fireplace filled with glass scent bottles which I collect. I was standing in the bedroom, my back to the fireplace, when I heard every single one of those bottles come crashing and shattering down on the stone hearth. I couldn't bear to look, thinking one of the cats had jumped up there (the noise all this glass made was unbelievable). I finally turned around, and every single bottle was in its place on the mantelpiece. That was Hannah's small amusement (I'm sure she was twittering away on some ethereal plane). She's done other things like that as well (pretending to be a friend, for example).

If you don't get on with Hannah, of course, then you're in for some trouble. She can do far more damage than yank a pony tail or two. About 40 years ago a former owner of the house finally let her get to him so greatly that at 6 a.m. one morning he grabbed a length of rope, let himself out of the house, walked up to the graveyard (about 10 minutes walk away) and hung himself over Hannah's grave. This was, I believe, about a week after he'd murdered the local Member of Parliament in the house with an axe. I'm not too sure if that was his idea or Hannah's, but I believe it took an awful lot of effort to repaper the hallway.

This actually brings me onto another story about Hannah. About 2 years ago I had commissioned a New York artist to make for me a beautiful wrought iron gate. I wanted to incorporate an axe into this gate (a very long story as to why, which I won't go into here). But I didn't know whether or not Hannah would like a front gate with an axe in it, so I decided to clear this with her (always a good idea!). So over morning coffee I casually remarked to Hannah (I tend to chat to the thin air about me) that could she please let me know how she felt about a front gate with an axe in it.

Then I forgot about it and went out into the front garden to do some weeding. About 11 a.m. I heard an old lady's voice quaver, "Are you Sara Douglass?" I sighed, but decided to be polite, and walked down to the then falling apart front gate, over which was leaning this ancient old lady (who I had never seen before, which was strange because she insisted she was a local). I said that I was, and for five minutes or so we chatted about how her grand daughter loved my books. Then, as happens between strangers, we fell into a bit of a painful silence. I was about to say something stupid about the weather, when I saw that this little old lady was staring up at the house (which is a fair height about street level, being on a hill).

Before I could say anything, the old lady turned to me and said, "Have you heard the story of the axe and this house?" My jaw fell open, I spent a few moments pushing it back into place (knowing this was going to be Hannah's answer), then said, No, could she please tell me. So then the lady told me the story of the ghastly murder of the Member of Parliament (who was apparently carrying on behind his wife's back, even though they had 8 children, this woman did tend to waffle a bit in her story!) by Mad Bob who had then hung himself over Hannah's grave (I'd heard the grave story previously). Then she smiled, said good morning, and left.

That was Hannah's answer: an axe to front the house would be highly appropriate, nay, even amusing, indeed! So now I have my axe gate, and I have no doubt it gives Hannah much enjoyment.

My local Member of Parliament stays well away.

If you were told you could magically spend a week in a past time period, where would you go and what would you do?

Well, London, of course. But when? There are two periods that I just can't choose between: the victory celebrations in London at the end of the war in Europe in 1945, and one of the great ceremonial celebrations of the medieval period -- say, Henry V's triumphal re-entry into London after his famous victory of Agincourt. That would truly have been something. I chose victory celebrations because that would put both London and Londoners at their best -- and also allow me to get a glimpse of the rich and powerful. For both 1945 and 1415 (I think it was!) there would have been a week of celebrations and gaiety that would have been splendid and so much fun.

Of course there was also that wonderful day when a bunch of drunk Vikings hooked their long boat up to one of the piers of London Bridge in the late Dark Ages, rowed and rowed for all they were worth, and pulled London Bridge down. During their victory celebrations one of their bards came up with that lovely verse that is now sung by children, "London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down!". (Bet you didn't know to what that nursery rhyme referred to!) What a blast! (grins)

More from Writers Write

  • WGA Writers on Strike Over Streaming, AI and Preserving the Writers' Room

  • Clarkesworld Magazine Temporarily Closes Submissions After Surge in ChatGPT Generated Stories

  • Prince Harry Easily Tops Bestseller Lists With Spare

  • Stephen King Compares Elon Musk to Tom Sawyer

  • U.S. Postal Service Honors Shel Silverstein With Forever Stamp