Rob Ewing is a GP and the author of The Last of Us, his debut novel about a small group of children who are the sole survivors of an epidemic, on a remote island north of Scotland. You can read my review here.
Rob was kind enough to agree to an interview and so, here it is!
You spent several years living on a small island off the coast of Scotland. How did you come to live there? What was it like? How did it inspire your choice of setting for The Last of Us?
“In 2007 my wife and I were looking for a new place to work – and we saw an advert for a GP post in Barra. We’d been there before, loved the highlands and islands, and decided to give it a go. It’s an amazing place: really beautiful, stunning beaches, strong sense of community, lovely wildlife. Fierce weather in winter, though. The island and its people were of course the direct inspiration for the story. There’s one road skirting the whole of Barra – so my very first image in mind was of a group of children walking this road, searching for something.”
What made you decide to become a doctor?
“Love to be able to say it was always my ambition – but as a kid I mainly wanted to be an artist, and draw comics. Truth is, I got decent grades and my mate Jamie went off to do medicine in Aberdeen the year before me, and I thought: Jamie’s having a great time. Think I’ll do that. (I should maybe ask Jamie why he became a doc and steal his answer!)”
Is it fair to say that The Last of Us draws on your experiences of living on Barra and Vatersay and your experience as a GP? What triggered the idea for the story?
“The idea for the story came from several sources. We had the swine flu epidemic during our time there: we were sent masks that wouldn’t work, antivirals which were not much good. I’d also read about operation ‘Dark Winter,’ a US government simulation of an imaginary bioterrorism attack where smallpox had been released in US shopping malls. And I was spending a lot of time with my kids, who were only little. One day they got ahead of me and out of sight on a beach walk, and it set me thinking: how would kids survive here? Would they band together, fight each other, scavenge, hide away, give up, or thrive? And how would they escape?”
Where did the decision to make the survivors children come from?
“I decided this right from the start, after reading Emma Donoghue’s Room, and being really impressed by how completely she got in the head of 4yr old Jack. Also, I’d read loads of novels about adult survivors, but relatively few about children. (this might be because The Lord of the Flies casts such a long shadow – which is why I put this book off for a year or two after I’d had the idea, I thought: nah, been done before, and unimprovably.) “
In The Last of Us, it seems the children are more civil to each other than adults are in other survival novels. There is less petty prejudice, rather the conflicts arise from personality differences and the strain of the situation the kids find themselves in. Was that intentional? If so, was this comparison of how children and adults deal with extreme situations one you wanted to make?
“Really interesting that you should pick up on this. Initially I wanted the story to stand in opposition to The Lord of the Flies, where the children were at each other’s throats. I wanted to have a more positive take on humanity. However…! I soon realized that this doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling read, so I had to put a bit of conflict back in, to improve tension. Perhaps some of my earlier desire to make them cooperate (Elizabeth’s teamwork) lingered in the story.”
What is the one thing you would like people to take away from the novel?
“Hopefully they’ve enjoyed it! Though turns out it’s quite dark – funny, I never appreciated how dark it was when writing. (note to self: more humour in next book.)
Also: in the event of an apocalypse: stockpile, fill your bath and containers with water, let your pets out if you get sick, and go and live on Barra where there’s no zombies.”
Where does your desire to write come from?
“The desire to get into other people’s heads. Whether it’s an eight year old called Rona, or a cut-throat cut-purse in Victorian London, or a neolithic tribeswoman, or mad young inventor in early 19th century Edinburgh, or a drugged-up lothario choking to death in a Sydney nightclub, or a Yemeni girl who has to care for her siblings and feckless father – I get a buzz out of being other people, inhabiting their minds, seeing and experiencing their lives.”
Tell me about your experience of publishing a debut novel. What was your expectation when you began writing, and how has that compared to the actual process?
“There’s about a year from acceptance to publication (longer sometimes) so the oddest thing is, you wrote the book a while ago. And then in reviews everyone uses your second name which sounds weird. The coolest things: having properly famous writers read your story and like it; seeing the cover and then the book in the shops for the first time; having people ask: what happened next? As for expectations: it’s impossible not to get carried away, think it’s going to sell millions. The book has been slow to sell, wasn’t reviewed widely, but I’m really proud of it.”
If you could be compared to any author, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
“Honestly have no idea! I guess part of finding your writing voice is learning to write like yourself. But I’ll tell you who I really admire: George Mackay Brown, because he perfectly combined storytelling with poetry.”
Do you have another novel in the pipeline? Can you tell me anything about it?
“The next novel is a thriller, about ¾ complete, set in Glasgow, about a GP who suspects an older GP of murdering a patient. I was working on this when The Last of Us intruded and demanded Write Me: so it’s been a long time coming. Hopefully worth it in the end!”