Please welcome Alexandra Oliva to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Last One was published on July 12th by Ballantine Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Alexandra: As a kid I didn't keep much of a diary, but I often retreated to the woods behind my house with pen and paper or stayed up late filling notebooks with stories. In that way, I've been writing for as long as I can remember. Then, in college, I realized that while I could probably perform perfectly well in any number of professions, I didn't care about anything else as much as I cared about writing. Not knowing what else to do, I started pursuing writing straight after graduation. I had jobs, of course--waitressing, tutoring, a dash of office work--but I always identified as a writer above all else and my goal was to be traditionally published. It wasn't easy--it took three manuscripts, a decade of trying, and a heck of a lot of heartache--but I made it.
As for why: Words are the only medium through which I've ever been able to create anything even close to what I imagined possible. Writing has also always felt like the only way I could contribute something uniquely me to the world. Besides, it's fun! I'm following a selfish impulse, really.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Alexandra: I fall somewhere in the middle; I tend to have a few key moments in mind from the beginning of the writing process and then I bushwhack from one to the next. I'd liken it to having a treasure map with a few Xs marked, but there's no trail and the terrain is a mystery--at the beginning, at least.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Alexandra: When I start a new piece of writing I sometimes get annoyed at myself because the prose doesn't feel like it's coming out polished enough. That's natural of course--it's a first draft. But when I've just spent weeks/months/years fine-tuning another project, it's sometimes difficult to readjust to churning out first-draft level writing. I often have to remind myself that it's through revision that I will really get the chance to achieve what I hope to achieve.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Alexandra: I think my somewhat odd childhood is my biggest influence, really. I grew up in an extremely secluded mountain town where I had a lot of freedom to just be. As shy and quiet as I was, I somehow never felt insecure about my off-kilter-for-a-girl interests (video games, sci-fi and fantasy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)--I just loved what I loved. I also had a lot of time and space to be bored, which is great for developing creativity. When you have only one TV channel and the only thing on is golf, you find other ways to entertain yourself. I think that's where the core of my writing comes from--entertaining myself through reading and writing SFF as a kid. As I've gotten older and more "worldly," my interests have expanded; I've become more aware of what other really cool literature exists out there and become more interested in beautiful prose for the sake of beautiful prose. That's why in my writing I try to meld pretty writing with exciting plots--because I love both.
TQ: Describe The Last One in 140 characters or less.
Alexandra: A woman is on a reality TV show when disaster strikes, and she thinks it's all just part of the show.
TQ: Tell us something about The Last One that is not found in the book description.
Alexandra: It includes Reddit-inspired message boards, which were really, really fun to write.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Last One? What appealed to you about writing a novel that deals with reality TV and an apocalyptic / post-apocalyptic setting?
Alexandra: I've always loved apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, anything involving impending doom and disaster--one of the earliest I can remember reading was Lucifer's Hammer. Growing up I also read a ton of science fiction and epic fantasy, which wasn't technically apocalyptic, but often involved a hero racing to stop evil from either taking over the world or ending the world. I'm not sure why those stories appealed to me so much, but I think some of it is rooted in the fact that I was such a mouse as a child. I wanted to be more like the brave characters featured in these stories--the more rogue-like the better. However, the books I grew up on tended to be very black-and white, good-versus-evil. That kind of dichotomy no longer appeals to me, but I still love the excitement and emotion inherent to a character's facing the possibility (or actuality) of their world being destroyed.
Regarding reality TV... I don't know. I never had any particular desire to write about reality television. When the idea for this book came to me, it was more about wanting to find a way to really mess with a character's head. I loved the idea of not only using the setup of a potentially apocalyptic event, but giving the main character reason to believe that what was going on around her might not be real--without making her blatantly insane. That's where the reality show came in. This of course meant I had to design and write a reality show, and I figured that if I was going to do that I might as well go all out and have fun with it.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Last One?
Alexandra: I took several wilderness survival classes, including a fourteen-day field course with the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, a fantastic outfit in southern Utah. It was an incredibly intense and amazing experience that really helped me flavor the book with the detail and realism I wanted. While I was writing The Last One, I also liked to joke that whenever I wasted an afternoon binging on episodes of Mantracker or The Colony it was okay because I was doing "research." With those particular shows there's an argument to be made that that was true, but that argument gets mighty weak when applied to things like Masterchef...
TQ: In The Last One who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Alexandra: I don't know if he was the easiest to write, but I probably had the most fun with Exorcist. He's the wild-card contestant on the reality show and very happily plays the part. He does some pretty ridiculous stuff, which was really fun to write. The hardest was Zoo, the main character. Half the tale is from her first-person perspective, which I'd never written in before. There's some pretty intense psychological stuff going on with her, and it took me a long time and many tries to get that aspect of the story where I wanted it to be.
TQ: Which question about The Last One do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Q: Do you think researching and writing this book has affected how you would act in the event of a natural (or unnatural) disaster?
A: Yup! Mostly in that when it comes to the initial survival phase, I wouldn't worry about food at all. A person can function for a surprisingly long time without food, but being without shelter or water can kill you awfully quickly in the right--or more accurately, wrong--circumstances. That's why I now keep a stash of water purification tablets and drops in my house. I'm not a prepper; I don't bank on the worst coming to pass and I certainly don't want it to--but if it does, I really don't want dirty water to be what gets me.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Last One.
1) The first one on the production team to die will be the editor.
2) They'll wait until I'm asleep--or nearly asleep--to strike. That's how they do it; they blur the line between reality and nightmare. They give me bad dreams, and then they make them come true.
TQ: What's next?
Alexandra: This is my debut and it took me eleven years to get here, so right now my full attention is on sending this book out into the world. Once things with The Last One quiet down and I'm able to reclaim some mental space, I'm looking forward to settling in to work on my next book.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Alexandra: My pleasure! Thanks so much for having me.
The Last One
Ballantine Books, July 12, 2016
Hardcover and eBook, 304 pages
Survival is the name of the game as the line blurs between reality TV and reality itself in Alexandra Oliva’s fast-paced novel of suspense.
She wanted an adventure. She never imagined it would go this far.
It begins with a reality TV show. Twelve contestants are sent into the woods to face challenges that will test the limits of their endurance. While they are out there, something terrible happens—but how widespread is the destruction, and has it occurred naturally or is it man-made? Cut off from society, the contestants know nothing of it. When one of them—a young woman the show’s producers call Zoo—stumbles across the devastation, she can imagine only that it is part of the game.
Alone and disoriented, Zoo is heavy with doubt regarding the life—and husband—she left behind, but she refuses to quit. Staggering countless miles across unfamiliar territory, Zoo must summon all her survival skills—and learn new ones as she goes.
But as her emotional and physical reserves dwindle, she grasps that the real world might have been altered in terrifying ways—and her ability to parse the charade will be either her triumph or her undoing.
Sophisticated and provocative, The Last One is a novel that forces us to confront the role that media plays in our perception of what is real: how readily we cast our judgments, how easily we are manipulated.
Alexandra Oliva was born and raised in upstate New York. She has a BA in history from Yale University and an MFA in creative writing from The New School. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband. The Last One is her first novel.