Louise Welsh interview: What happens after the apocalypse?

From the window of Louise Welsh's top floor flat on a sunny July morning, the city of Glasgow looks calm and pleasant, very nearly a dear green place.

Author Louise Welsh. Picture: Contributed
Author Louise Welsh. Picture: Contributed
Author Louise Welsh. Picture: Contributed

But the creative imagination doesn’t work like that. Even as her partner, the writer Zoe Strachan, comes in with a tray of tea and Bakewell tarts, Welsh is talking about post-apocalyptic Glasgow, a city of abandoned buildings and rusting cars, looted shopping centres overrun by packs of feral dogs.

I ask her what it was like to reimagine the city where she lives for her new novel, No Dominion, the concluding part of her Plague Times trilogy. “It was good fun,” she says, with a soft chuckle. “To walk about, switch your eyes on and think: how would this be? How you feel it physically, a building immediately becomes colder when it’s abandoned, and how quickly nature reclaims things, which is rather beautiful.”

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No Dominion takes place more than a decade after a virus known as The Sweats wiped out the majority of the UK population. In its wake, infrastructure, government, and law and order crumbled. Television and mobile phones are a thing of the past. The novel begins in plague-free Orkney, where a fledgling society is being rebuilt, and where Stevie Flint (A Lovely Way to Burn) and Magnus McFall (Death is a Welcome Guest) have independently settled. Flint has become the community’s “president”; they meet in a former gift shop in Stromness and talk about matters like vegetable-growing. But the arrival of some mysterious visitors from the mainland precipitates a series of events: the murder of a local man and his wife, and the disappearance of a group of teenagers.

Soon Magnus and Stevie must set out on a road trip through post-apocalypic Scotland, bound for Glasgow. Like all of Welsh’s novels since her blistering debut, The Cutting Room, it is a whodunnit, but it is much more than that. Again, she laughs. “The crime novel is a very elastic form. I think it would be nice to write a quiet exploration, a plotless novel, but that’s not the way my mind works. I don’t seem to be able to write anything without somebody bumping somebody else off.”

In this country of chancers, smugglers and survivors, Magnus and Stevie encounter different forms of society which have evolved from the wreckage: a former aristocrat running what amounts to a feudal fiefdom, an enclave of religious extremists who send to the gallows anyone who encroaches on their territory, and Glasgow itself, under the governorship of charismatic Provost Bream (Salmond, Sturgeon, anyone?), where the city is beginning to work again, but only with some very uncomfortable compromises over matters like labour and liberty.

“It is about how do we want to live, how do we want to organise society,” says Welsh. “Power play always comes into that. Do we want to live in a democracy, and what kind of democracy is that? We’ve had all these referendums: is that an expression of democracy, or an expression of democracy throwing its hands up in the air? It’s also thinking about the organisation of labour, how labour becomes rather valuable when technology breaks down.

“It raises a lot of ethical and moral questions, which I think the best thrillers do, in whatever form. What do you do when the chips are down? When you’re faced with do-or-die 
situations, how important do you consider your own survival to be? For the most part, we’re not asked these questions, but we know there are people right now in other parts of the world who are having to face unbelievable dilemmas.”

In looking at a society where so many things have been stripped away, we become painfully aware of how much we have. “I think anything that’s writing about the end of a civilisation can be a love letter to that civilisation,” Welsh says. “There are many things wrong with the 21st century, but there are many things that we enjoy and embrace, and it would be devastating to lose those things.

“Technology is a massive part of that. If I’m out in the car and try to check my email and there’s no signal, I feel annoyed because the miracle is not immediately working. If the car breaks down, I’ve got the AA card, if I feel ill or someone in the family is ill, we scoot to the hospital. How would we be if we didn’t have all that?”

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At the same time, while our world is far from collapsing, there is a sense that many of these certainties are being eroded. The NHS is weakened, even democracy itself has recently thrown up a number of unpleasant surprises. There is no doubt that post-apocalyptic ideas are back in vogue. From Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, to Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims, novelists are imagining a bleak, post-disaster world.

Welsh appears at the Book Festival today with ­Austrian writer Heinz Helle, whose new novel, Euphoria, is about a group of young men trying to live in the ruins of his country. Alan Ayckbourn’s new play, The Divide, which premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival, is about a society living in the wake of a deadly contagion. It’s also a predominant Fringe theme.

“The zeitgeist does exist,” says Welsh. “If people ask where you get your ideas from, you’ve always got answers to that because you think you know, but of course there are unconscious aspects as well. When I wrote Tamburlaine Must Die (her second novel, about the last days of Christopher Marlowe), there were three other Marlowe books that year and it wasn’t even an anniversary. To say we’re living in apocalyptic times is too simplistic, I hope it’s wrong as well, but I think we’re living in an edgy, uncertain time. We think of ourselves as living in a continuum rather than in a story. When things intervene, we become aware that we don’t know the end of the story, and that’s troubling.”

She says she handed the book in late because she kept responding to the shifts in the political landscape. “I think I am a writer who responds to the political landscape with every book. The Cutting Room was written during the referendum about Section 28; although that’s never mentioned, it’s absolutely embedded in the book. I think the worlds I inhabit in the books have always had political aspects to them, though they aren’t at the forefront because I never want to be shaking a finger at the reader. Maybe it’s more of an exploration, me asking ‘What’s it all about? What’s going on?’

“The word ‘deal’ is used more than once towards the end of the book. Suddenly we’re in this world were it’s all about making deals – I hate that.”

Glasgow’s Provost Bream is a classic example of a charismatic leader hailed as the solution to difficult times. “Of course he’s much more reserved, more reasonable than Trump. But I find that disturbing. As we look around the world, we seem to have these charismatic leaders, and people saying: ‘We need a strong leader’. I actually think I don’t want a charismatic leader, I want people who are rather boring and well-versed and responsive, but ethically underpinned by ideas of fairness and equality.”

Louise Welsh & Heinz Helle: 
Post-Apocalyptic Visions, Edinburgh International Book Festival, today 8:45pm