The Sims inspired this award-winning author’s work

The International Booker Prize winner Marieke Lucas Rijneveld discusses their new essay, now available with narration by actor Emma Corrin.

by Douglas Greenwood
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11 March 2021, 11:06am

Writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld's non-fiction feature "Bella and Lucas" explores how the award-winning author's childhood, and perception of self, was influenced by days spent playing The Sims at their home on a Dutch farm. It follows their 2020 breakout novel The Discomfort of Evening: a brutal, beguiling, partly autobiographical story of a young girl spiralling in the aftermath of her brother's death. It grappled with religion, bestiality and sexual perversion and was dubbed both "shockingly disturbing" and "remarkable" by critics, eventually winning 2020's International Booker Prize.

"Bella and Lucas" is a comparatively lighter affair. Still, Rijneveld's signature authorial style -- with grubby references to nature and an uncanny perspective on how we interact with others -- flows throughout. It focuses on the way Bella GothThe Sims' key character, came into Rijneveld's life at 10 years old and taught them the meaning of love and about a world in which you "could fast forward time if you got tired of it".

The feature is part of the app Alexander, in which celebrated writers tell non-fiction stories that gain new life on the platform, transforming into art pieces and audiobooks. In the case of "Bella and Lucas", the Golden Globe-winning star of The CrownEmma Corrin, has narrated it.

Alongside a preview of Emma's narration, in this exclusive conversation with i-D, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld describes the story's origins, having Emma Corrin work with their words and their new attitude to writing real truths away from the protective film of fiction.

Almost a year has passed since The Discomfort of Evening won the International Booker Prize. What have you learned in the time that's passed since, about yourself and your writing? It's been a crazy time. Of course, because of the global pandemic, I was very afraid of all the uncertainty. Everything I did, such as lectures and performances, suddenly fell away. I then started on my second novel and never stopped. When it was finished, I won the International Booker Prize together with [translator] Michele Hutchison, which was unreal and so incredibly beautiful. I remember taking a bath in a hotel after the announcement and thinking: I must never forget this. I didn't do that either, I keep that moment in a special folder in my heart.

Since then I have got busier, I feel a bit more confident. With the writing, I was able to show that I can do something. I feel calmer and I am stronger in what I am making.

Discomfort was partly inspired by real life, but this is your first wholly nonfiction piece of work, and it's centred around The Sims**. How much of your life, or your headspace, did the game occupy at that time?
**I lived in the world of The Sims for weeks. The game has always given me a lot of security. When I started this feature, I felt that security again, a kind of escape from the real world. I also started playing the game again to re-experience that [feeling]. I bought another lot in Sim Town and felt the love for Bella Goth again.

Therefore, it was not difficult to write this feature, although I sometimes struggled with nonfiction, as I am used to always mixing fantasy with reality. This time I had to stay close to myself, to the child I was then and how the birth of Lucas [their imaginary friend-turned-male part of themself] started. That was the most fun part because I also discovered for myself how important The Sims was for my identity.

Did you ever explore beyond The Sims and into the internet, where being a 'digital presence' ran much deeper? When the internet first came, I was also busy with MSN and [the Dutch social network] Hyves. I thought it was amazing that suddenly there was no longer any distance between my friends and I. I was not allowed to use MSN for too long because the [internet] cable was still connected to the telephone at the time. There were very few calls, but my parents were still afraid that they would miss one.

Every morning when I got up, especially on weekends, I looked forward to the world of the internet, the world in which I could hide. I still believe that meetings are actually better than online, but for many people it will reduce loneliness. I think it worked that way for me too. I was not lonely in the virtual world.

**What do you think about chat rooms?
**I think it's an easier way for many people to connect than in real life. I myself only have experience with Habbo Hotel, I don't know if it still exists, but I thought that was very fun.

For chat rooms, it is especially important that you know for yourself what you are looking for and what you will do there. If it's a way to have more contact or a way to be less lonely, that's okay. People don't like to feel like they are alone, and I think chat rooms are a great way out for that. You can make virtual friends, and especially if you are socially anxious, this is a good way. Unfortunately, there are also people who abuse it, so you always have to be extra careful.

**When asked by Alexander to write something, why did this feel like the part of your life to draw upon?
**I had been asked before to write a piece about my favourite game for a Dutch essay book. I knew right away that it had to be about The Sims, but the story just didn't get out of my fingers, so I decided not to participate. Still, the idea of ​​a nonfiction piece about the game stuck in my head. And when I was asked by Alexander a little later, I immediately knew: this must be about The Sims. It wasn't until I was writing that I found out that it's even more than the game, about Lucas, about love, and I saw how these topics are intertwined. I was delighted with this discovery, and from that moment on, the writing went smoother, and I got pleasure from it. I also wanted to give Mr Jan a big role because he brought me into contact with The Sims, with the virtual world, and of course, with Bella Goth.

In the story, you compare Bella Goth to Jacob Merkelbach's Portrait of a Woman in a Red Dress. As you grew up and explored digital worlds, did your perception of what art was change? I did not grow up with art. The only art we had in [our] house were the dinner plates with cows painted on the edges, nothing more. Only when I was able to buy a painting for the wall in The Sims and saw how the doll reacted to it did I start to appreciate it more. In addition, I also saw art on the internet, and much later, when I went to museums. Sometimes I regret that I did not come into contact with it before since art is so important for your development and the way in which you can see the world. Each painting is a different representation of someone's field of vision. It shows you the beautiful and the ugly sides of life.

What some people forget about you, perhaps due to the grounded and intelligent nature of your stories, is that you're a fan of pop culture. You watch Netflix and love Timothée Chalamet like most of us! Here, Emma Corrin of The Crown recites your story.Yes, I like Timothée Chalamet! I even had a phase where I started to dress just like him. Fortunately, that stopped when he started wearing clothes from expensive brands, but I wanted to look like him most. He is so natural, beautiful, sensitive and acts superbly. But I also love Emma Corrin. When I heard that Emma was going to read my feature, I jumped for joy. I think she's such a brilliant actress, and she has a very beautiful voice that fits well with the "Bella and Lucas" story.

**Did you discuss the piece with her beforehand?
**Emma and I have not discussed the feature. I relied on her empathy and her way of translating the text into a listening version. She did a fantastic job. She found the right feeling with the words and the right atmosphere. That was what it was all about.

**Has this experience made you want to delve deeper into nonfiction?
**"Bella and Lucas" is the first essay I have written, and with it, the first nonfiction piece. It was exciting to do. In my novels, I always mix reality and fantasy. Now I have to stay even closer to myself and also take the reader more with me.

An essay is more contemplative than a novel, which means that it also contains pieces in which you explain something to the reader, in this case, about The Sims, which I sometimes found difficult because it was more informative and therefore more difficult to make it beautiful. That is what I want, to describe everything as beautifully and at the same time as raw as possible. I had a lot of fun writing "Bella and Lucas". I'm sure this [won't be] my last essay.

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