Playing Wife

Scott Westerfeld is the final week tutor at Clarion South, an intensive six-week writing workshop for sf and fantasy writers. And I’m the tutor’s wife. This involves getting up at the same ungodly hour he does to make him breakfast, while he goes over his notes and scribbles on the stories that will be critiqued that morning. I kiss him goodbye as he grabs his bag and heads out the door. "Have a good day at work, sweetheart," I say.

"Sweetheart" is not a word that normally passes my lips. To me Scott is Scott not darling, sweetie, sugar, possum, love or anything else. Clearly, this playing wife thing is destroying my brain. I’ll start wearing gingham and aprons and long for a house with a white picket fence. I’ve been making him lunch and dinner as well as breakfast and doing all the washing up, cleaning, tidying and laundry. It’s just exhausting.

Or it would be if I was a bit more conshie about the whole thing. Fortunately I’m not. I let the dishes sit. And my version of tidying is more of a gather and dump process. I haven’t gone near the mop or vacuum cleaner or dusted or anything that requires true exertion. I’m a pretty crap wife, really.

One night instead of rushing back to cook dinner for knackered husband I sit around and drink beer with the students, gossiping and swatting blood-bloated mozzies, before belatedly dashing back to the flat and taking over the dinner-making proceedings from the exhausted and ravenously hungry husband. "Is that beer on your breath?" he asks, suspiciously. "I was near people who were drinking beer," I answer honestly. Scott is turning into a husband.

Neither of us quite realised how much work a Clarion workshop involves. Scott presides over the crit room from 9AM to 1PM where he and the 17 students dissect the day’s stories and he dispenses pearlers about writing that involve the following phrases: "first shoe", "Brechtian law of dialogue", "information assymetery", and "sweating commas". The students diligently write down everything he says. I worry this will go to his head.

Sometime between 1:10 and 1:30PM he comes home for lunch. We eat, briefly converse, then in the few minutes left before he begins the one-on-one sessions with students that will occupy the rest of the day (usually three or four one-hour session), he plunges into reading and re-reading more of their stories.

He returns for dinner. We eat and exchange possibly as many as fifty words, before he starts reading the next day’s stories: all 20,000 words of them. Long before he’s finished I go to bed, read, pass out.

While he’s away critiquing and being wise, I’ve been rewriting the Magic or Madness sequel, working on the Daughters of Earth anthology or slacking off. Slacking off is best. I had a lovely lunch with Kim Wilkins where we talked writing, babies, academia and frocks and I managed to douse myself with a glass of champagne, which the kind restaurant replaced without charge. I’d had only one sip before it filled my lap.

Mostly I went into the city to visit my mate, Ron Serdiuk, at his wonderful sf, fantasy and crime bookshop, Pulp Fiction. We gossiped and I watched him sell four, five, six or more books to customers who come in just looking for the one. Ron’s passionate and knowledgeable about those genres and it shows. He pays attention to what his customers do and don’t like and recommends accordingly. Very dangerous indeed. Yes, I bought books too. Louise Welsh’s latest (Ron got me hooked by loaning me The Cutting Room) and Devil in the White City.

I also helped out the young man from Mallorca with very little English who came in looking for Spanish-language books. I’m pretty sure I translated Ron’s directions to a shop that sells such books reasonably accurately. Though I do tend to get left and right mixed up. Still, we gave him a map, and I got to talk Spanish. By the time I got home I was exhausted. I took one look at Scott and revised my assessment of my fatigue to mildly peaked.

Yesterday I helped out Grace Dugan, Clarion South’s co-founder, with printing out the stories for the following day. There were four of them ranging in length from nine pages to thirty-seven. Just under 20,000 words. The author of the shortest manuscript neglected to add page numbers so I numbered the 153 pages by hand. The printer freaked out several times and started printing a line of garbage at the top of otherwise blank pages and would not stop until we’d done everything we could think of to fix it several times. At which point the stapler started buggerising around with us. Two hours later we had 72 copies of the stories to distribute to students and tutor. It gave me a tiny glimpse of the hard work that makes this workshop run. The conveners: Robert Dobson, Kate Eltham (the other co-founder), Heather Gent and Robert Hoge look every bit as tired as the students.

To recover from the printing ordeal I went swimming with Grace and Lily Chrywenstrom (one of this year’s students). It was rather gorgeous, despite the crushing disappointment of a short-course pool. I expect such mingy pools in the USA, but in Australia! The horror. The day was balmy and humid and lovely, the water warm strewn with leaves from the surrounding gum trees. We swam, laughed, floated, sank and gossiped, while I tested my new boardies, rashie and fins, and swam fast as Thorpie (or almost). We agreed that swimming is good, so is writing, and that hard work is best avoided. The last one may just have been me.

Grace led us to the path through the bush that connects the two Griffith Uni campuses, Nathan (where the workshop is held) and Mount Gravatt (where the swimming pool is), and we walked back past gums and paperbarks and grass trees and other plants that Grace knew the names for but I’ve now forgotten. We saw butterflies, bush turkeys, heard many different birds calling to one another, but saw only crows which we dubbed singed rainbow lorikeets (you had to be there). The walk was even lovelier than the swim.

Earlier in the week I spent forty minutes stalking a goanna, just shy of two metres long from head to tip of tail. It took a while to find just the right stalking distance; every time I got too close it froze, clearly hoping I would stop seeing it and go away. Only at ten metres did it believe I was gone. I watched the goanna being divebombed by birds when it ventured too close to their nests, and at last reaching its goal: a garbage bin. It climbed in and out of the bin always having some part of its body peeking out, tail, hind legs, or head, snout and eyes. A strange clicking hissing sound came from inside as if the goanna were torturing a cicada.

The goanna waddled rather than walked, its stocky limbs moving in a circular motion that made it resemble one of Tolkien’s grumpy dwarves. When it was startled by a group of US exchange students it ran half way up a tree, where it froze in its you-can’t-see-me pose. The Americans were transfixed, unable to believe the size of it. I told them it was still a baby and would grow much much bigger. Who knows? It may even be true.

When Ellen Klages, another—despite her many acclaimed stories, recent first novel sale (to Sharyn November at Penguin USA) and growing reputation—Clarion student, stumbled across a goanna, it reared up on its hind legs and hissed at her. Surely it can’t have been the same one. It was strange seeing Ellen here in Australia. I’ve known her for years, but only in North America, and only at conventions. This is the first time we’ve hung out together when her accent has been the odd one out. It’s most peculiar. She’s as exhausted and worn out as all the other students, who’ve not only been reading and critting the 20 thousand words of stories every day for the last six weeks, but have been writing a sizeable number of them too. I’ve never seen her happier.

It’s just after midnight, the beginning of Friday, the last day of Clarion South 2005. Scott’s reading the last and longest story for tomorrow. He’s not a fast reader. It’ll be at least an hour before he crawls into bed. The bags under his eyes are meeting up with the stubble on his cheeks. It’s not a good look.

He arrived knackered, worn done by a long hard year of writing way too many books, all of them written to his ridiculously high standards. I’m still not sure how he managed it. The Clarion South experience hasn’t exactly been a rest cure, yet he’s loving it here. He uses the word "rejuvenated" frequently, even though he’s so tired he stumbles over that many syllables. He’s full of praise for the smarts, sharpness, energy, creativity, and dedication of his students: Mark Barnes, Nike Bourke, Nathan Burrage, Alison Chan, Lily Chrywenstrom, Suzanne Church, Shane Jiraiya Cummings, Rjurik Davidson, Evan Dean, Ellen Klages, Tessa Kum, Deborah McDonnell, Anne Mok, Emma Munro, Trevor Stafford, Susan Wardle, and Kenrick Yoshida. He says he’s learned as much about writing as they have, has been forced to put into words ideas about the craft that had floated about in his backbrain but never surfaced before. He’s sad it’s almost over.

On Monday we go to Heron Island with Ron and Sarah. Six days without computers: no writing, no internet, no critiquing, just tennis, snorkelling and mango daiquiris. I’ll stop playing wife and we’ll be back to being Scott and Justine again. We can’t wait, but neither one of us would have missed this week for the world.

I crawl into bed now. Scott keeps scribbling in red.

Written Brisbane, 11 February 2005; posted Sydney, 21 February 2005