And what are we up to today?
If you love dystopia with a splash of horror, then Alexandra Oliva's reality-show-turned-survivalist-apocalypse The Last One is the book for you.
"Maybe I'm not even going east. Maybe sunrise and sunset have been reduced to parlor tricks. Maybe my compass is rigged, and my magnetic north is really a remote-controlled signal easing me into an oblivious spiral.
Maybe I'll never make it home."
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.
I recently got the chance to chat with Alexandra Oliva about her novel, The Last One, the first book I read in 2018. And what a read it was! Equal parts clever and harrowing, The Last One tells the story of a reality show on the eve of a catastrophe, and bends the perception of reality for character and reader alike. Please join me in the first installment of a series of author interviews and welcome Alexandra.
Grete: So I guess the obvious first question is, what's your favorite reality show?
Alexandra: The Great British Baking Show, hands down. I love how non-confrontational and sincere it is—while still being oddly intense. Plus, the other day I walked into a local bakery and I got to be like, "A princess torte! I know what that is!" I used to be really into a bunch of survivalist shows—my favorite was a Discovery Channel show called The Colony—but I'm kinda over those now. After designing my own show for this book, I was ready to move on to other things.
G: Rewrites and redevelopment are part of a writer's reality. During the course of writing the book, did any of the characters end up vastly different from how you first imagined them?
A: Brennan gained a lot of depth over the course of revisions. Although his scenes are all written from Zoo's perspective, I needed to make sure everything he said and did made sense, so I had to imagine every scene from his perspective as well. The ending of the book was pretty tricky to write, and deepening my understanding of his character and his perspective was key to getting it right.
G: Who surprised you the most?
A: Exorcist—simply by being in the book. When I was designing my cast for the show, I knew I needed a wild card character, but I wasn't sure who he was going to be. Then I came across a book someone had left on the sidewalk; it was an exorcist's memoir. I was like—yes, that's my wild card right there. I never actually read the book I found, but that's where Exorcist got his start, and I'm so glad things happened that way. Writing Exorcist and his antics was incredibly fun, and it provided a nice counterbalance to getting lost in some of the darker parts of the book.
G: Who is your favorite character in The Last One?
A: I identify most strongly with my main character, Zoo, but I also have a special place in my heart for Engineer. He's so sincere and well-meaning, and his reasons for going on the show are just so pure.
G: Naturally I now have to ask: If pressed, which one would you vote off the island?
A: If I were a contestant on the show, I would want Exorcist gone ASAP. He'd annoy the hell out of me. If I were making the show, I'd get rid of Biology because she ends up being more bland than the producers had hoped.
G: I found the double narrative structure of The Last One especially engaging. How did you select this story-telling method? Did you try to tell the story a different way originally?
A: Thanks! I had the idea for The Last One while I was revising and trying to find representation for another project, so even though I knew I wanted it to be a novel, I started out by writing it as a short story. The short story was essentially a condensed version of Zoo/Mae's journey home after everything went to hell. For the novel, I loved the idea of weaving in a narrative of the show itself with an expanded version of the narrative I already had. I think I found this so appealing in large part because it allowed me to explore two extremes of Zoo's personality—the bubbly animal-lover cast on the show for her chipperness and the hardened, struggling survivor who's just trying to make it home. How—why?—did she shift from one extreme to the other? To me, that question forms the heart of the novel.
G: What was the craziest research you did for this novel?
A: A two-week-long wilderness survival course in Utah. It was so intense, I lost nearly twenty pounds over just those fourteen days. More importantly, I learned about bow drills, skinning animals, and what it feels like to be starving and exhausted and to have to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
(Want to know more about Alexandra's wilderness survival experience? Check out her essay on LitHub and Waterstones blog post!)
G: There is understandably some harsh material in this book. Were you afraid you might lose readers because of any of it? Have you gotten any flack in response?
A: I didn't think about the book's audience much at all, honestly—at least not until after the book was sold. Then I was worried I might be asked to change things to make the story more palatable to a wider audience. I wasn't worried about any of the gruesome stuff—plenty of fiction contains horrific scenes—but my main character is an atheist who doesn't come to believe in God, and in a wider sense the book is an exploration of the blindness of chosen belief, and there are plenty of people who have a problem with this (just look at my one-star reader reviews). Thankfully, my editor wasn't one of them. That part of the book is very important to me, and if some people decide my writing's not for them because of it, I'm okay with that. Not every book is for every person.
G: What strategies would you most recommend to a new or up-and-coming author?
A: Take a deep breath, enjoy the highs, and try not to take the lows personally.
G: What was the most difficult aspect of getting The Last One published?
A: Probably the nine years of rejection that I went through with two other novels before I wrote The Last One and met my agent. It's so hard to accrue rejection after rejection and it's even harder to put a 100,000+ word project into a drawer to never be seen again, even if the reason you're doing it is because you know you can do better. I'm glad I went through all that, though—my practice novels (as I now like to call them) were key stepping stones to my finally being able to write a novel worthy of being published.
G: And finally, because I'm always on the lookout for an excellent read: Can you tell me about your favorite book? Why is it your favorite?
A: I love too many books to pick a favorite, but I recently read The Power by Naomi Alderman, and I highly recommend it. It's a fantastically ambitious novel about what might happen if girls worldwide suddenly gained a huge amount of power—the ability to discharge electric shocks. It's a premise that could easily get out of hand or come across as campy, but Alderman executes it so incredibly well. It's awe-inspiring, really.
Alexandra, thank you for letting me pick your brains about a book I enjoyed so much! I wish you all the luck on your next project.
If you are interested in purchasing The Last One, please visit
Hello! My name is Grete and welcome to my writing blog! I am a writer or romance, horror, and general observation