Questions for Louise Welsh about Plague Times Trilogy

Questions by Annabel

Annabel: When you began writing these books, had you already planned a trilogy? Had you ever thought that A Lovely Way to Burn could be a standalone novel, ending on a possible hopeful note for its heroine, Stevie?

Louise: I knew from the first strike of the keyboard that Plague Times would be a trilogy. Each book can be read on its own. As a lover of second-hand book shops, I like the idea of a reader coming across a volume out of sequence, enjoying it and then searching out the other two parts of the story. The ending of A Lovely Way to Burn does offer a glimmer of hope for Stevie (spoiler alert). She is still alive.

Annabel: I loved Stevie. Such a strong character and it was such a brilliant move to make her a presenter on a shopping channel. Now, own up, how hard did you research her job?

Louise: I don’t own a television, so the first thing I do when I check into a hotel room is switch on the box! I find shopping channels fascinating. When I was younger I had a series of market stalls and they remind me of pitches where people would sell what we used to call ‘swag’. These weren’t stolen goods, simply things that could be bought cheaply and sold well – brollies, clockwork toys, packs of socks etc. I liked the randomness of these stalls. No one was ‘curating’ them. They existed simply to make a buck. The shopping channel is rather like that. I watched online to try and imagine Stevie’s role. The presenters are great sales-people. They have to talk for hours about objects that are not always very exciting and convince viewers to reach for their credit cards.

Annabel: Obviously, there is a real vogue for dystopian novels now – they’ve always been one of my favourite sub-genres. However, with the first two parts of the trilogy, you’ve combined the dystopian breakdown of civilisation due to the pandemic with different crime and thriller genres – the medical thriller in A Lovely Way to Burn, and a prison break and country house mystery in Death is a Welcome Guest. Was your intent to widen interest by mixing genres, or do you just like subverting genre boundaries?

Louise: I am a great fan of genre fiction. I had wanted to write a series about a world-wide pandemic for a long time and also had a yen to set some scenes in a hospital. In one respect A Lovely Way to Burn is a love letter to the NHS. It asks the question, what happens when drugs begin to be used for profit rather than to help people? Even the most modern hospitals have a gothic aspect to them. They are huge labyrinthine buildings where people can legitimately cut you up! Even when it is the place we most need to be, we do not really want to be there. I like working across genres. Combining crime with a world-wide pandemic also allowed me to ask the question, does the loss of one life matter when people are dying all around you? Stevie believes that it does.

Annabel: I also loved Magnus, the main character in Death is a Welcome Guest. Again, another inspired career choice in making him a stand-up comedian. As a Scot working in London, he has a slightly different take on the world. As a Scot yourself, was it important for you to make one of your protagonists Scottish?

Louise: I wanted Magnus to come from somewhere in the British Isles that is geographically far away from London. I also wanted a contrast to the urban environment. Orkney mainland has a small but busy airport and an international sea port, but it also offers less populated islands, remote beaches and amazing archaeology. The archaeological sites offer a connection with our ancestors and serve as a reminder that civilisations have fallen before.

Annabel: Magnus has a strong homing instinct to return to his family home in the Orkney islands. During his journey north, as the pandemic subsides a little and survival skills take over, staying alive becomes so dangerous. Were you ever tempted to not let Magnus reach home?

Louise: Magnus is a survivor . . . I think . . . or is he . . . ?

Annabel: After reading the first two books, I couldn’t imagine what you would do in the third, given that the first two were broadly contemporaneous. Was the plan always to consolidate the first two, or was a third different vision, (with another genre-crossing feel) but remaining hopeful ever on the cards?

Louise: I always wanted books one and two to take place in the same time as each other. Stevie and Magnus go through the same period of jeopardy and mayhem. Their experiences are different, but they have both encountered fear and experienced devastating loss. Book three was always scheduled to take place seven years after the initial outbreak of the Sweats. I wanted to revisit the Stevie and Magnus as they tried to put their lives together again and put them through another series of adventures.

Annabel: No Dominion brings Stevie and Magnus together seven years later in the Orkneys. Stevie is President of the Orcadian Council, Magnus is a crofter and foster dad to teenaged Shuggie. Was there ever a temptation to make them a couple?

Louise: Let’s just say that there is definitely some sexual tension there.

Annabel: No Dominion then becomes a novel of teenage rebellion, as strangers lure a group of them away with empty promises of a good life in Glasgow. Stevie and Magnus take up the chase, and we have a road trip and quest with a body count reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’s No Country for Old Men! Even more so than the other two, I was reminded of Terry Nation’s original series Survivors from the 1970s, which I loved. Was this series the inspiration for the trilogy?

Louise: Terry Nation’s Survivors was a big inspiration. I was a child when the series was first on television and my parents allowed me to stay up late to watch it. Terry Nation was a socialist and I think his series asked viewers what kind of world they would like to live in. Plague Times Trilogy, especially the final volume No Dominion, asks the same question.

Annabel: Is there any chance you might revisit Stevie, Magnus and the others in another seven years, to let us see whether any technology gets restarted for instance?

Louise: I have loved writing Plague Times Trilogy and the experience of imagining the book will live on in my mind, but I always conceived of it as a trilogy and will not write another book featuring Stevie and Magnus. I am going to miss them both.

Annabel: Do you have a favourite dystopian novel?

Louise: Tons! In no particular order, HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, JG Ballard’s Cocaine Nights, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, PD James’ The Children of Men, Kazuo Ishiguru’s Never Let Me Go, Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has a brilliantly dystopian ending . . . I could go on.

Annabel: And finally, we always ask: What are you enjoying reading at the moment?

Louise: I am rereading Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori (1959). It is a very funny book – a weird take on a detective novel. A group of old people begin to receive anonymous phone calls. The mysterious caller tells them, ‘Remember you must die.’

Thank you Louise.

Annabel is one of the Shiny Eds. Read her review of No Dominion here.

Louise Welsh, No Dominion (John Murray, 2017). 978-1848546592, 384pp., hardback.

BUY No Dominion from the Book Despository.

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