As someone who is yet to see the disaster that is the Cats movie, I have to admit I feel a little left out when it comes to Rita, Lily and Abi’s love for the whole thing. The livestream begins with a song from the film, and the three all grooving out.
‘You remind me of Mr Mistofalees,’ Abi says to Lily. Is this a compliment? I don’t know. Luckily, Rita clarifies that this is not a Cats livestream. No hate. I just haven’t seen it yet. I’m a bit scared of it.
This is, however, a Happy Things livestream. And we have a double HT this time round, thanks to Lily and Abi, both of whom have top-notch choices. But first, some chat. Lily and Abi make up Gears for Queers, and their book of the same name comes out on 4th June from Sandstone Press.
Rita: How does it feel launching a book during quarantine?
Lili: We’ve never written a book, so we had no idea what to expect when launching a book. So we didn’t really expect anything. Mostly we’re finding it hard. We’re not so much sad about events and stuff, although that is a shame, it’s more that putting a book out makes you feel quite vulnerable and it’s strange not having a physical community to ground yourself in, so we can’t just bike down to the local cafe and be like, ‘Someone wrote something horrible about us on Goodreads. Make us feel better!’
Abi: There’s the sudden realisation that people are actually going to read your words, which I don’t think you’re necessarily thinking of when you’re writing it. And then you’re suddenly like, ‘Oh God, people are going to read the book.’ And that’s terrifying.
R: Did you ever get that sense when you were writing the zines? Because, for people who don’t know, this all came from a zine Lily and Abi wrote before called Recipes for Wild Vegans. Does it have the same anxiety, releasing a zine and releasing a book?
L: No, because with zines, you’re so much in control of the distribution of them, and you can give them out just within your community. It only really moves within your network and also within communities that already have a basic understanding of the stuff you write about. Whereas with a book, I think it gets so much more broadly out in the world, and we’re not necessarily part of the community it’s being thrown into.
A: And we’ve had one review on Goodreads that was in any way critical. But she literally started the review saying, ‘I’m not the target audience,’ and then goes on to ask why does it make any difference if you’re queer and you cycle. And we were like, ‘Well, this is a ridiculous review.’
L: She also used the term ‘gender issues’, which I’m kind of obsessed with as a concept. We’re so used to producing and writing stuff within our community who are understanding and accepting, and zines are such a safe space for us. The book is so different in that respect.
R: Someone who’s not queer and someone who’s not a cyclist might pick it up.
A: And that’s the weird thing about it.
L: I haven’t got an issue with people doing that, of course not. It can be read by anyone. But if you’re reading it, you have to accept some basic premises, otherwise you’re just not going to enjoy it.
R: It makes me think: for people who think like that, do they pick up a book and think, ‘Oh, this is a straight book and it will only be read by straight people?’
L: We’ve sworn a pact to not look at Goodreads again.
R: Shall we talk about your Happy Things? I love having two guests on because it means you both have individual Happy Things.
L: Contrary to our social media persona, we haven’t actually merged into one person. We have distinct interests.
A: So, my Happy Thing is The Sims, which is probably my favourite thing to do by far at any point, ever. I’ve been playing The Sims for 17 years now, so it’s stuck around.
R: It’s amazing that The Sims has lasted for so long. I don’t think any of its contemporaries have had the same kind of survival power.
A: There’s something about it, isn’t there, that’s just intensely engrossing – about creating your own characters and just letting them do what they want. Well, I don’t actually just let them do what they want, I very much control every move or action. I make them the perfect person as much as possible, that’s my usual narrative.
[To Lili]: Your Happy Thing?
L: My Happy Thing is letter writing, which is a very old-school thing. I wrote letters to a few different people when I was a kid. I used to write letters to my cousin, Caitlin, and we’d discuss quills we wanted to buy.
A: It’s the most middle-class thing I’ve heard in my life.
R: When you say ‘quills’, do you mean actual plumes?
L: We were the right age to be obsessed with Harry Potter, so we got really into the idea of writing with quills and ink. But it gets into a really nitty-gritty discussion about what birds. There’s a great bit where she writes, ‘Owl quills are great for travelling because they’re small and compact.’
But I stopped writing letters for ages, and then when I was 18 and went off to uni, one of my best friends from sixth form went to a completely different university: she was in London and I was in Warwick. We started writing letters to each other, and then I just kept doing it.
This is my box of letters [shares a pretty big box with viewers]. That’s 11 years worth of correspondence with Jenny.
My main concern is that one day I’ll do something noteworthy and someone will want to archive my letters, and I’ll have to get Jenny to burn the ones that have aggressive caricatures of people I hate in them.
Jenny actually moved up to Edinburgh relatively recently and it’s the first time in ages that we’ve lived close to each other. And the letter writing died down a bit. And with the stress of lockdown, I hadn’t been able to send her a letter in weeks and weeks and weeks, but I sent one last week. But I almost don’t want to send one, because I want to be really petty when the historians are looking back saying, ‘This is the defining moment of their generation, but inexplicably they’ve written nothing about it.’ And they’ll just be really curious as to why it didn’t affect or impact me into recording it at all.
R: Which is counterintuitive to your zine life, I suppose.
L: Yeah, I guess. With the Zine Library, I always say how conflicted we are. We love running the zine library, but we’re also conflicted about zines in libraries. There are plenty of zines we make that we would never put in a library.
A: I’ve taken out some of my old ones from the Edinburgh Zine Library.
R: So, with The Sims, there’s a very ephemeral thing about it. It’s something that happens day to day, never repeats the same day, but it’s living outside of lockdown.
A: I think that definitely is part of it. It’s very distracting, firstly. I describe it as a doll’s house for grown-ups; that’s how it feels sometimes. I play it in lots of different ways. There are some times that I have a very strict narrative that I’m sticking to, and I have ideas about where my Sims are going to go with their lives and what’s going to happen. Or I will just make really cool characters and never play them. Or I will build buildings and then take a long time creating perfect architecture.
L: It does encourage anti-productivity. You get nothing out of it and you have nothing to show for it. I don’t know what your Sims log is recently, in terms of the number of hours.
A: It’s a huge number of hours.
L: LIke 4,000 hours or something ridiculous. But you have nothing to show for it. I feel like that enforced non-productivity is quite good for you.
A: Definitely, I will go through a week where I will play The Sims constantly, every hour of every day for a week, and then I won’t play again for another six months. I can’t stop doing it.
L: We don’t chat during that week.
A: It’s incredibly compulsive. Lili knows all the narratives of my characters.
R: Going back on that: you mentioned something about creating these narratives that you want to see play out. There’s something cinematic about it: creating a movie so you can watch the thing you want to see because you don’t have the content you need.
A: Definitely. I was thinking back about when I first started playing it. I got the CD-ROM from a friend that had been burnt illegally, and I had to crack it. When I first got it, the main point for me was to create me and whoever I was crushing on at that point, and then make them have a relationship. That was literally all I did. It was on the desktop computer in my Dad’s house, so I had to be very careful that he didn’t see it when I was like, ‘Woohoo, woohoo, woohoo,’ which is sex in The Sims. I found this hilarious as a kid, and also a little bit naughty and exciting. I got to play out none of those relationships in real life.
R: In a way, it serves the same purpose for a lot of people as fan fiction, like self-insert.
L: There was a period where Abi was obsessively making us in The Sims. We’d have a family, we’d have a house and the kids would grow up. I feel like it’s quite nice and easy to play out that sort of stuff in The Sims, whereas IRL that’s kind of complicated and hard work.
R: It’s also testing out the things you think you want in a controlled environment where you can fail and there’s no real-life consequences.
L: Abi sent me a great article about how millennials play The Sims, and how they tend not to build huge mansions or fantastical things. They’re just like, ‘I would like a two-up and two-down, and to succeed in my career in a linear way.’
R: We’re not an ambitious generation.
L: We’re really realistic.
A: Even when we’re playing The Sims out in a fantasy world. No, just two and a half children.
R: It’s interesting that Abi is exploring and playing out possible narratives for herself, while Lili is controlling narratives through telling stories via letters.
L: I definitely like that process of writing out stories to different people. I think letter writing has always been important to me in terms of recounting events. I’m not a good diary keeper. But I do enjoy reading back through old letters and hearing those conversations again and thinking about the events around that time, and reflecting on that. I spent quite a lot of time in hospital when I was in my early 20s, and I used to write a lot of letters about hospital. And it’s really nice, in a way, connecting the dots on those periods of time. Seeing myself reflected in the things people are writing back to me. And the occasional time that I sent a letter to a wrong address and it was returned to sender. So I’ve still got letters I wrote that never made it to their intended recipient.
R: It’s also really interesting that when you do diaries, you’re writing to an abstract persona. But when you’re writing a letter, you’re writing to a very specific person who you communicate with in a very specific way and you portray yourself in a very specific way.
L: I write quite a lot of letters to Jenny and a lot of letters to my friend Tom. And there’s a particular voice I use when I write to Tom that I use in no other context and I don’t know where it comes from, but I’m suddenly incredibly eloquent, and I’m just like, ‘What’s happening here? Who is writing this?’
A: I feel like Tom’s quite eloquent. Not that Jenny isn’t.
R: Letter writing is something very reflective of ourselves and how we view ourselves with certain people. Like you said, you become more eloquent with certain people and you become more gossipy with certain people. It’s very proto-social media. You have different personas for different social media.
L: That makes perfect sense. It’s interesting talking about letter writing now, because when I started writing letters it made a lot of sense as a means of communication over distance, because we weren’t on Messenger or WhatsApp or any of those things. It’s interesting to me that it’s endured. These days, I’m in contact with the people I write letters to through multiple media, pretty much daily. But there’s a way you write in letters and things you talk about in letters that I think I don’t articulate or talk about anywhere else. Sometimes I don’t want a response to things I’ve said immediately. Social media demands that. You send someone a message where you’re like, ‘This happened,’ and they feel compelled to reply to that. Whereas in a letter you can say, ‘This happened,’ then you fold it up and it sits on your mantelpiece for a week because you forget to post it. Then you post it and it takes three or four days to get there.
A: You have to be very careful, especially with Jenny. You have to hold things back that you’ve written in your letter so that you don’t talk about it on social media with her.
L: Yes, I have to say, ‘I can’t speak to you about that because it’s the point of the letter and it would ruin the letter if I told you the story.’ There’s something about that delay and that process. And especially now, where we’re all missing physical connection. Having that physical contact, the marks of pen on paper and the individual stuff that comes with letter writing is really important. I’m not the sort of person who can keep other people in my head. If someone’s not physically around, I’m like, ‘Well, they don’t exist.’ Which I think links to very profound feelings of loneliness in my life. But, that’s why I think letters are such an anchor for me. This person was thinking about me without me being there, and I have physical, tangible evidence. The reason I cling onto these letters or return to them when I’m feeling sad or isolated is because they’re a physical embodiment of a relationship.
R: As a quick segue to your reading: you were saying that with letter writing you have specific people in mind. Who did you have in mind for Gears for Queers?
L: I think I was writing for Abi. When I wrote a chapter I was telling the story of the day, but the person who was reading and responding to it in my head was you, because you were the one who I presented it to. I didn’t really think beyond that. It was just a lovely way to reminisce about a particular day.
A: I certainly didn’t have an audience in mind. I was just writing a lovely story of the things we did, and that was it really.
And with that, we are treated to a passage from Gears for Queers. It’s a beautiful reminiscence of time spent in Holland, on day 13 of their tour. They’ve arrived at a guy’s house where they’re staying. They bike down to the Rhine to cool off and have a swim as it was a hot day. It’s a lovely description of the joy felt from holidays. To learn more, I really recommend buying the book.
You can buy Gears for Queers here.