Milton Keynes-based author Bethany Clift is preparing to see the publication of her debut novel Last One at the Party, which is due to be released early next year and has received positive early reviews. She writes for Celebrate:MK of how getting lost in nearby countryside helped her come up with the idea of her book, how it feels to release a pandemic thriller during a pandemic, and how she wants people to feel upon reading her book.
My name is Bethany Clift, I live in Milton Keynes and I really hope that I cannot predict the future. Let me explain why…
In 2018 I was driving home after working late at a conference centre in Oxford. I was in the middle of the countryside, hadn’t seen a house or signpost for miles and was completely lost. I pulled over, checked my phone – no signal. Close to tears, I got out of the car. It was the beginning of January, about 10.30pm, 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? And then I began to panic.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this became the idea for my debut novel Last One At The Party.
I wanted to write about what it had felt like to be alone that night, about what someone might do if they were the last person on earth. So I started to write about the end of humanity and what might happen if humans completely disappeared. Who would be the top of the food chain if it was no longer the human race? If you were the last person left what would you do? What would you eat and drink? Where would you live? How would you live? WHY would you live?
I wrote about the last woman left alive in the world, a woman who is real and flawed and honest. Not someone capable and readily equipped to face the end of the world – someone like me, or my work colleague or the woman that lives across the road. My character was not a heroine in the old world and is not one in this new world either. When the going gets tough, her instinct is not to try and find a cure and save humanity – it is to get drunk and ransack Harrods. I wrote about her life before the end of humanity and her life after and about the physical and mental journey in between that leads her from the person she thought she was to the survivor that she really is.
I wrote a book that I loved, and then the most surprising thing happened; I discovered that other people loved it too and in October 2019 I was offered a publishing deal for the novel. Then, at the beginning of January 2020 my sister sent me a tiny news story which talked about a virus in China that had killed half a dozen people and jokingly asked me if my novel was coming true. Three months later the UK went into lockdown.
I had written a book about a fictional pandemic which kills everyone on earth that would now be published during a real global pandemic.
See what I mean about hoping I can’t predict the future?
Still, I comfort myself with the knowledge that Last One At The Party has never been a novel about a pandemic. It is a novel with a pandemic in it. 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. This is a story about life, not death.
Two years ago, stood in an Oxfordshire layby, verging on panic and imagining I might be the last person left on the earth, I took a deep breath of the dark night, filling my lungs with sweet, clean air and, instead of panic, I felt a heady rush of being alone and alive in this quiet, green oasis where everything felt possible. I was alone but I wasn’t lonely or helpless. I could find my way. I could do this by myself.
This is how I want Last One At The Party to make readers feel and what I learnt before, and during, the process of writing the novel. We each write our own destinies and as long as we have life we have a chance to make things better for ourselves. As long as we have life, we have hope, and that is a future that I am happy to predict for all of us.
Last One At The Party is published by Hodder Books and is out in paperback on February 17th 2022. Translation rights have been brought in twelve countries so far and the novel is being adapted for television by Scott Free Films. You can pre-order a copy of Last One At The Party at all good independent bookshops and here.