Authors in Quarantine – Liz Westbrook-Trenholm

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

COVID fashion statement: bleachy duds and shaggy hair.

Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID outbreak?

Liz Westbrook-Trenholm: Domesticity way up, writing way down.

I’ve been washing and bleaching everything inside and from outside our home, baking comfort foods, (state of emergency diet now enacted for the month of May) and sewing (searching for the most bearable face mask), all while listening to audiobooks, all cozy and historical mysteries as I seek respite from COVID news.

Routine has become strict and rarely varied. First it’smorning coffee, when we mutually drown in the firehose of social media, followed by a few hours spent on projectsuntil it’s time for an afternoon walk timed to beat the 3-5 pm jogging and biking rush hour on our preferred nature paths. We come back, dry off (we go in all weathers), readand play board games until wine-time, dinner, chat and music. Our day concludes with TV and bed. Rinse and repeat. Every day.

Excitement is laundry day, a video chat with a friend or relative, or Hayden’s weekly trip to the grocery store, me waiting at home for my hunter/gatherer (he has better lifting power than I do and we don’t run a car) to bring our weekly food, which I dunk in bleach mixture, except for eggs. Trust me, eggs in soggy cardboard containers do not go well. 

​The routine is comforting, at first, giving a sense of control to the uncontrollable situation we all find ourselves inhabiting. How can we react to the endless torrent of sorrow, disaster, fear and conflicting advice pouring from our media? Why, bake cinnamon buns, what else?

Aaaand it doesn’t take long for the comfortable routine to become a prison. Hayden starts taking dyspeptic pictures of himself in his bathrobe and turning them into silly gifs. I’m trying one hair style after another. After gentle discussion, we decide we need to schedule in some spontaneity. We write lots of activities on slips of paper which go into a cookie tin. (Hayden rejects ‘give each other haircuts’) We pull one out every couple of days when we get edgy. Sometimes just a game we haven’tplayed forever. Reading to each other, possibly with dramatizations. Looking at photos from years ago. A take-out Mexican food fiesta. Birthday party, with home-made hats (I knew there was a reason I’d kept a shoebox of orphaned earrings and feathers for decades). Other activities that are MYOB, so there. It’s not so much what we do, but that we burst out of the wire cage of routine we’ve built, and change things up a little. It’s surprisingly refreshing. Sex in the afternoon is awesome. Oops. I said I wouldn’t talk about that.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Liz Westbrook-Trenholm: All of which spills over into how we deal with social distancing. Note the ‘we’. This would not be possible without each other. Always a close couple, a kind of two-person party, we’ve become, if anything, even closer, more careful and tender. Of course, it was disappointing for two inveterate travellers like us to see our plans collapse and our world shrink to only anywhere we can walk to. We can get tetchy, but we cut each other slack when the black dog drops by, or when one or the other wants to be all alone. We don’t take offense. It all makes sense. An old friend once said, “Where is it written you should be happy?” Sometimes it’s necessary to sit under the dark cloud and just breathe until the sun comes out again. It does come out again.

That being said, we work hard at keeping in touch with others via Zoom, Facebook chat, phone, email and text – whatever medium works best for each. We have especially upped our calls with family. I talk often now with my daughter who is distancing alone in London (the UK one). She’s worked out some solutions and has produced some powerful art in her off-work time, but it got pretty dark and desperate before she found her COVID groove.My sister and I vent constantly, bless her for being there.Calling friends and acquaintances and hearing that they’reokay releases swacks of relieved endorphins and hugely shortens the list of people I have to worry about. If they’renot okay, I’m there to hear it out and keep in touch. Sharing their burden paradoxically lessens mine.

​Another side-effect is my tendency to babble uncontrollably at sight of another human. I strike up two-meter distance chit-chat with total strangers or the pharmacy clerk behind her plexi-glass shield. My urge to chat about anything anything at all, at some length, is difficult to contain. I try. Truly I try. Let me tell you ALL about it sometime.

​I’m also thinking about what comes next as treatments and, we hope, vaccines evolve over the coming one or two years. Years. Yeah. As an asthmatic baby boomer smack dab in the middle of one of the at-risk demographics, I’ll need to keep shying away from close contact with anyone who might be a carrier. While we’veall been in it together, it’s been do-able. When I become a minority, it’ll pose new challenges. My friends with disabilities and health issues are nodding their heads with grim grins and saying, ‘Yuh-huh. Tell us about it.” No need. In sharing your stories and concerns, you gave the world a lot of information and demonstrated a lot of coping strategies, long before COVID came along. I expect to be using them shortly! I’ll likely write about it.

Spec Can: How is the outbreak affecting your writing?

Liz Westbrook-Trenholm: The times have affected my writing in two main ways. One is that I have done much less. My writing often takes me deep into dark corners and edgy issues that can leave me drained. I’ve been a little nervous to approach it.

But now, after a hiatus for bleaching and retreat, I find I’m approaching it with a gentle, cozy style. A young woman, a run-away on her last legs, physically and psychologically, falls into a carefully dug hole in the middle of a forest. She looks up from the pre-dug grave at a man silhouetted against the dawn who says, “That’s mine.” And they go from there, into a gentle interaction of restoration and understanding between generations.

Or the old woman, isolating alone in her apartment, who opens her door to the god of the underworld in the form of a lost toddler in a really odious diaper. She draws him into her home and nurtures him, fearless and practical. What deal will they cut when he reaches his full size? 

End of life is a theme in the back of mind for all of us right now and in both of these stories. It’s a topic that turns up in my fiction regularly, but in these, my emerging ‘COVID’ stories, I find the characters less fierce and more wise and accepting than my frequently angry, feisty dames. 

So. How about that COVID thing, eh? Who among us thought we’d be living through history in the making? How can anything be the same again, any more than it was after the plague years, or the potato famine, or the abolition of slavery in the west, or the world wars? So many scabs have been ripped off our social shortcomings. So much strength and ability has emerged, showing us what we, as a society, could be. What will we do with it? Where will we take this experience, both within ourselves and in the way we interact with each other? Now, there’s a good writing topic for any spec fic writer.


Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

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