Given how publishing works, we are only now beginning to see novels that were influenced (but not inspired) by the COVID-19 pandemic. But while Bethany Clift’s new sci-fi novel Last One At The Party (hardcover, Kindle) is one of them, as she explains in the following email interview, this story, “…has never been a novel about a pandemic. It is a novel with a pandemic in it.”
Photo Credit: Laura Rhodes Photography
I always like to start with a plot summary. So, what is Last One At The Party about, and when and where does it take place?
Last One At The Party is about a woman who, as far as she is aware, is the only survivor of a global pandemic (!). But, this woman is far from your normal apocalypse survivor — she is not a scientist, a survivalist, a member of the government or Bear Grylls’ wife — she is an emotional and physical mess. In a world of 7.5 billion souls she is, perhaps, the least likely and least equipped to be the last stand of the human race. When the going gets tough she gets drunk, high, masturbates and loses herself in hedonism, ignoring the plight and blight around her. Last One At The Party is the diary of this last woman and details how, where and most importantly why, in the end, she decides to survive.
Where did you originally get the idea for Last One At The Party, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote this story?
In 2018 I was driving home through the English countryside late one night and I became lost. I had no idea where I was, no phone signal and there hadn’t been a road sign for miles. I pulled over and got out of the car. It was the beginning of January, late at night, the air was crisp and clear, and the sky a celestial bedspread of stars. I became aware of the utter stillness around me. There were no houses, no cars, no airplanes buzzing overhead. I couldn’t hear road noise or any other human-made sound. It was so quiet I could hear the cows loudly chewing grass in the field next to me.
I was completely alone.
And then I thought, what if I wasn’t just the only one here? What if the reason it was so quiet was that I was the only one anywhere; that I was the only one left alive in the whole world. What would I do next? I didn’t know it at the time, but this became the idea for Last One At The Party. A couple of weeks later I wrote the first line of the novel. That line set my parameters for the rest of the story and is perhaps the one line that has never changed throughout countless re-works and edits.
And is there a reason you gave our hero a Golden Retriever as opposed to a Labrador or a German Shepherd or, I dunno, a cat?
Ha! Well, for a start a cat would just fuck off as soon as it had fleeced you for food or got bored, so it had to be a dog.
I chose a Golden Retriever because when I was a kid I desperately wanted a dog, but we didn’t have one, so I used to borrow my neighbor’s dog to walk. The dog was called Daisy, and she was an ancient Golden Retriever who was probably incredibly happy just to laze about all day by the fire and most definitely did not want excitable nine-year-old me turning up at her front door insisting on taking her for three-mile walks. But she came with me. Every single time. She was lovely and friendly and sweet and loyal and she wasn’t even mine. And every year she would get me a present on my birthday and at Christmas to thank me for taking her on walks she didn’t need and didn’t want. She was my first dog and she was wonderful, so I immortalized her in my novel.
I’m guessing that you wrote Last One At The Party before the Covid-19 outbreak started…
So, I had just finished my first round of edits when COVID-19 began to hit the headlines, and by the time I started my second edits we were in lockdown. It was, and is, a pretty insane place to be — that my debut novel that has a pandemic in it is being published during a pandemic. It’s also been strange for me to watch because a lot of things that I spent a long time imagining — social distancing / masks / how the UK would react — have, to a lesser or greater extent happened here in the real world.
Given the timing, did you go back and change anything in the book because of Covid-19?
I did make changes during the editing process to include COVID-19 references because Last One At The Party is grounded in realism; everything that happens within the novel could (and in some cases since the beginning of 2020 has) happen in the real world. My editor and I made a decision early on that, in order to keep this realism, Last One At The Party had to include reference to COVID-19 — the novel is not set in a parallel universe, it is set in our real world. So, I had to guess what would happen next, how COVID-19 would affect humanity in the long run, and then weave this through my narrative. It was very important to me because I wanted the reader to be able to associate fully with my protagonist, to share her experience, and in order for this to happen I had to reflect what had been happening in their lives, in the real world — hence the inclusion.
Last One At The Party sounds like a post-pandemic / post-apocalyptic science fiction story. Is this how you’d describe it?
For me, Last One At The Party has never been a novel about a pandemic. It is a novel with a pandemic in it. I wanted to explore someone living after the end of humanity and chose a pandemic as the tool to get to this moment, but it could just as easily have been a war or alien invasion. The focus of the novel is set after the pandemic and not during it, so any readers looking for a novel that dissects a pandemic and the subsequent fall of society will find that this is not the book for them. This is a story about surviving post-humanity rather than post-pandemic. Last One At The Party is a story about life, not death.
It also sounds like it could be funny. The New Girl author Harriet Walker said it was, “Creepy, witty, laugh-out-loud, and shudder-inducing.” Do you think it’s funny?
I think it’s fucking hilarious in places! It has to be, because there’s only so much misery that I can write and that the reader can take. But, also, because so many times in life our gut reaction to pain and misery is to greet it with disbelieving laughter. That’s why the British invented irony (did we invent irony? It feels like we should have) so that we could take any awful situation and squeeze comedy out of it. I didn’t want to alienate the reader with pure misery. The overall theme of the novel is hope; that where there is life, there is hope. It is very hard to have a theme of hope if the misery in unrelenting.
Also, there is a bit in the novel that involves a dead body with flatulence, and if there is one thing that my kids have taught me it is that farting is always funny.
So who do you see as being the big influences on the humor in Last One At The Party?
The British sense of humor! I do think there is something uniquely British about the humor in Last One At The Party and, like most writers, I am an absolute magpie for a good story or joke or situational comedy moment. Hence, I will freely admit to having mined every relationship, friendship, casually meeting with a random stranger that I have ever had in my life, for the vein of comedy that exists in Party. So, rather than thank a particular creative work, I would like to thank the British public for providing me with the basis for the funnies.
Aside from the people you just cited, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Last One At The Party but not on anything else you’ve written?
But the two novels that probably stand out the most are The Stand by Stephen King and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I know that The Stand is incredibly predictable but…! It was the first post-apocalypse, road novel that I read, and the first one that I loved and has remained in my top five ever since. It is a beast. But it is a beast that holds your attention from the first page until the very last — all 823 pages later. I loved the world, I loved the characters, I loved the structure — Stephen King is an absolute master of popular fiction. And The Road is a true dystopian horror masterpiece. It is dark (literally) and filled with pain and unrelentingly bleak. There isn’t even hope at the end, the misery just continues with a different set of characters. There is no light, no levity, no rest or reassurance in this novel, it is just awful. It contains one of the most horrific scenes of pain and suffering I have ever read (the basement) and it is only because Cormac McCarthy is such an incredible writer that I continued to read the book after that. If this were by any other author I would most probably have put the book down and walked away. But I couldn’t. I had to know how it ended. It is magnificent.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; did any of those have an influence on Last One At The Party?
The most influential movie for me is Aliens, for many reasons, but above all because Ripley is a badass. I love her. I wrote my dissertation about her, I cut my hair like her, every single time I am in an elevator on my own I re-enact her elevator scene from Aliens. She is a feminist icon and W.W.R.D. is one of my life mottos. My main character in Last One At The Party is not like Ripley. She is the opposite of Ripley. She doesn’t rush to save anyone; she gets drunk, takes drugs, and masturbates. But, she and Ripley do have one thing in common: they don’t pet the dog. They don’t make themselves likeable or pretend to be something they are not or act in a way that will get the reader to root for them. They are who they are and if you do don’t like it (which some of my reviewers haven’t!) then, well, f@*k you.
This brings me to my last question: Do you think Last One At The Party could work as a movie? Or, for that matter, a TV show or game?
Well, I am incredibly lucky because the rights to adapt Last One At The Party have been bought by Scott Free Films to be made into a TV show, and it is currently in active development. I’m not allowed to say exactly what is happening, but I can say that the project is moving forward and it is all very exciting. I always through that the book would be best as a TV show because there is such a huge world within the novel, and we only get to see a very small part of it through our protagonists’ eyes. I also think that the end of the novel gives scope to see “what happens next” and I am hoping to start writing a sequel next year. In the meantime, I get a lot of messages from readers saying what they think happens next which is always really interesting — but no one has got it right yet.