OCTOBER 28, 2019
WHEN I WAS in Belfast last summer, I popped into Waterstones and there was a huge display for Hanna Jameson’s novel The Last due to the book having been chosen as the Thriller of the Month. As a result of this exposure, the novel was a best seller across the United Kingdom for the month of August.
The novel has an arresting and intriguing premise: after a nuclear war 20 survivors hole up in a remote Swiss hotel. When the body of a murdered child is discovered, everyone is a suspect. But what laws, if any, apply at the end of the world? The result is a story that’s every bit as compelling as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and as well written as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
The novel’s surging success in the United Kingdom is more than a product of hype. It’s a hugely compelling read that’s equal parts suspenseful and thought provoking. All of which raises the question: how did the US book business miss out on this extraordinary novel? I reached out to Hanna Jameson via email to learn more about the many mysteries that surround The Last.
JIM RULAND: The Last’s protagonist, Jon Keller, is from the United States. Why did you choose to make the main character American?
HANNA JAMESON: I wanted Jon to be a white Western man grounded in well-meaning but kind of useless liberal politics, and I wanted him displaced from his home in a permanent way, so him being from the United States was best for that.
I read in an essay you wrote that you went away to write The Last. Can you tell me about that?
It wasn’t so much going away as being forced away to a city whose rents wouldn’t destroy any chance of me writing another book. I took the last of my money and moved away from Brighton to Edinburgh, where I only knew one other person and rent was a third of what I’d been paying. I wrote the book in five months and by the time I finished I’d run out of money and waitressed for a month to be able to afford to move back south. I didn’t know if it was going to sell or not, and I didn’t know what I was going to do if it didn’t. It was a Hail Mary.
It’s easy to imagine The Last being written in a lonely, desolate place, much like the book’s setting, but that wasn’t the case, was it?
No, not really. Edinburgh is mind-bogglingly beautiful, and the people who live there are the best. And even though I was cut off from everything and everyone I knew, I didn’t feel lonely or desolate at all. In fact, it was the happiest and freest I’d been for years, walking back and forth from the coffee shop where I wrote every day and doing almost nothing else. I didn’t fully realize how lonely and unhappy I’d been living in a city where I knew tons of people, until this point.
Can you talk a bit about your experience at the Edinburgh book festival and what it was like to return there to celebrate your book?
It was quite abrupt, as I flew in during the afternoon, did an event in the evening, and then flew back the next morning. But it was a lovely and surreal experience seeing my book in the window of Edinburgh Waterstones, when two years earlier I was living there and had only just finished writing it, not knowing if it was going to sell or not. I’m only sorry I didn’t get to pop into Cafe Noir for a coffee, which is where I wrote the whole thing. But I felt very lucky.
I stayed at a hotel outside Bilbao this summer that was a refurbished convent. It was massive and some of the floors were closed off, entire wings leased to other enterprises. It was a very strange place. How did you land on a Swiss hotel as a setting for the novel? Is there a place that inspired it?
It was inspired partly by the Cecil Hotel (now renamed and refurbished) in Los Angeles, where Canadian student Elisa Lam disappeared and then died. The setting for the book moved from somewhere in France to somewhere in Switzerland because it needed to be remote enough to avoid any nuclear blast or fallout, and the Swiss forest seemed like a good call. That, and the Swiss have a lot of guns, and guns were integral to my plot.
Although he’s never named, Trump casts a long shadow in The Last. Both his presence and his politics. Did you envision The Last as a worst-case scenario for his presidency?
Yes and no. Mostly no. The nuclear war jokes on Twitter and the endless debate over blame played a part in my thinking. But I don’t believe Trump is the pinnacle of the world’s evils, or the pinnacle of the world’s problems. He’s just the most recent symptom of a poisonous and exploitative global system designed to reward the worst of us at the expense of everyone else, and the planet we live on. The Last is a fairly optimistic novel. There is hope for people, and our capacity to act in more humane ways toward each other. Terrifyingly, the events in that book don’t even come close to what I envision as our worst-case scenario, because I didn’t write a novel about climate change.
I read The Last in a semi-remote setting where I didn’t have access to the internet, and your novel stirred the anxiety I felt about being “disconnected.” But that’s nothing compared to what you put your characters through. Did you know from the beginning the internet would be virtually nonexistent in this world?
Yes. There were no concrete answers as to where and if there would still be internet access available in a nuclear war situation, but a key aspect of how we live now is to be connected mentally and emotionally even if we’re not connected physically. Even if we’re cut off for a short time, whether running out of phone data or on the subway or on a flight, or a train where the wi-fi isn’t working, it’s stressful. I experience it as a physical sensation of stress and anxiety. It scares me a little, how reliant we all are upon it. I work alone, so most of the time when I communicate with friends and people I work with, it’s via email and message. I wanted to ramp those disconnected emotions up.
The Last does so many things well: it’s a dystopian thriller, a mystery, an epistolary account of the end of the world, and a reckoning of what shape society might take after a nuclear holocaust. It even nudges up against the supernatural. Did you have any trepidation about these overlapping genres when it came time to sell the book?
Fortunately for me, I have almost nothing to do with the process of selling my books, as that’s my agent’s job, and she shields me from all of it very well, which is what a good agent should do. The mixing of genres played on my mind in a vague, generalized “Will anyone like it?” level. But that’s true of every book. It certainly doesn’t concern me when I’m writing, as the story comes from the characters first and if I start projecting genre-snobbery bullshit onto it (ooh but some people find horror too niche, some people don’t like dystopia), I wouldn’t write what I want. I’d be trying to contort narratives to conform to completely arbitrary myths and rumors about what “the market” wants. I’m sure a lot of people would have had concerns about an epic love story wherein a time-traveling English professor goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, but Stephen King wrote that and it’s brilliant, because it’s well told. As it stands, so many people have messaged me saying they’d never read a dystopian novel before mine and they loved it!
There really isn’t another book like it. Reading it felt like the best kind of TV series that has moments of suspense, dread, and terror, but also humor and profound human connection. Can you describe what you set out to do when you sat down to write the book, or did it unfold as you went deeper into it?
I set out to tell a good story and be honest and true to the characters. I kind of enjoyed the anxiety of knowing I hadn’t read a book like it before, because what motivates me to write is knowing there is a story that I want to read but can’t find anywhere else. I start with a character, a scene, an image, a few dramatic moments, like a movie trailer in my head, and then I pick a place to start and let the characters do the rest. I’ve made it sound simple but it’s not, writing books never gets easier.
Jim Ruland is the author of Forest of Fortune, co-author of My Damage with Keith Morris of Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and OFF!, and curator of the Southern California based reading series Vermin on the Mount, now in its 15th year.