After reading Bob Atkinson’s wonderful alt-history novel, The Last Sunset, I felt compelled to interview him in regard to some of the themes surrounding his novel and writing.
Q: Let’s start with an easy question. Your novel mentions uisge beatha, an ancient form of whiskey, many times. In The Last Sunset you describe it being like “liquid nitroglycerin” in the stomach. (He emptied the glass in one suicidal swallow and felt the nitroglycerine detonate in his stomach….”). What can you tell us about uisge and-more important- have you ever tried it?
Bob Atkinson: Uisge Beatha in Gaelic means ‘Water of life’. In fact the word ‘Whisky’ is derived from that word, ‘uisge’.
Whisky had been brewed in illegal stills for hundreds of years in the glens and islands of Scotland and Ireland. All modern whiskies are descended from those illegal brews. Legend has it that uisge beatha was distilled up to four times and was so potent it could indeed detonate in the stomach like nitroglycerine.
In some remote parts of Ireland a drink called ‘poteen’ continues to be brewed in illegal stills. If you are ever lucky enough to get your hands on a bottle it should be enjoyed as much for the links it forges with those long distant clansmen as for its explosive effect.
Q: How about your own Scottish background? As writer with Armenian roots, I often ponder the importance of addressing the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century. Do you, as a Scottish writer whose family roots are in the Highlands, feel as though you have a literary onus to report- or at least consider reporting- the destruction of the Scottish Highlands culture?
Bob A: If a writer comes from a culture which is under threat, as in the case of the Gaelic Highlands, or one that has suffered terrible atrocities, as with the Armenian people, or the Native Americans, then I believe our writing must reflect that background. If I read a novel by a Sioux writer, for example, I would expect to learn about the Sioux culture and their unique way of looking at the world.
Here in Scotland, within my lifetime, the Gaelic language has all but died out on the mainland. It continues to be spoken and to be taught in the Hebridean Islands. However even here English is very much the language of business and commerce, and so Gaelic – the oldest living language in Europe – remains under considerable threat.
This past thirty years has seen something of a resurgence, due in no small part to the emergence of excellent Gaelic bands such as Capercaillie and Runrig, who see themselves as standard bearers for their culture. In my own small way I see myself as part of this movement, this determination that we should fight to preserve something ancient and worthwhile.
Q: The Last Sunset contains both a mix of true dread (as it touches on themes of the destruction of the Highland culture, World War 1, and even atomic annihilation) but there is also an infusion of hope in the narrative. Did you experience your own feelings of hope and despair as you wrote this story? Do you have a philosophical perspective on the inherent virtue or failure of human character?
Bob: My wife is from Belfast, and together she and I lived through some of the worst years of the Irish Troubles. I saw at firsthand just how wicked and depraved people can be, particularly when they believe they are fighting for ‘a cause’.
I also witnessed such courage and compassion that I came away with a firm belief in the inherent decency of human nature.
Human history is blighted by unbelievable atrocities – invariably in the pursuit of some cause or other – but I have to believe that we learn from our mistakes. As a father and grandfather I have to believe that “the better angels of our nature” will triumph in the end.
Q: In The Last Sunset we experience a nexus in time that brings together people from 1746, 1916, 1976, and 2026. Did you choose those years randomly or is there a deeper meaning? In particular I am curious about 1916 and 1976. And is there any reason why all the years end in six?
Bob: One of the themes of the story is the idea that supernatural experiences are often brought about by coincidences between different time periods. The massacre of Glen Laragain took place in the mist. In later years, images of that massacre are seen during misty conditions. In pursuing this idea, I wanted the different time periods to be connected as much as possible with that original event, not only to create the apparitions, but to bring about enough of a time displacement to fling those characters back to the day of the original massacre. Choosing years ending in six was one way of maximising this connection.
1916 was used because I wanted a character fresh from the carnage of WW1. I chose characters from 1976 to represent my own experiences of military service.
Q: Had you planned to add all those different sets of people (from different periods) when you began to write the novel, or did you find yourself adding more parties as your wrote?
Bob: All the characters had been planned before I began writing the book. Originally Shawnee Cameron was to be descended from Native American as well as Scottish stock. However, I just could not do proper justice to someone from such a background, and so with apologies to our Native American cousins I concentrated on the Scottish bloodline. I kept the name ‘Shawnee’ however because it was so attractive.
Q: In your short biography in the book, you mentioned that you are a military veteran. Were any of your four infantrymen from 1976- Andy, Rae, Jamie and Fergie- modeled after people you know?
Bob: Since I was a Corporal in the army I suppose Andy Macmillan is based very loosely upon myself. Jamie Macsorley was modelled very much on a close friend from those army days. Rae and Fergie are simply a pair of typical disgruntled rebels in uniform who are only just held in check by military discipline.
Q: With an apology for a spoiler (if you haven’t read the book, stop reading now!) one of the biggest surprises in The Last Sunset is the conversion of the British officer, Lt. Giles Longeholme. First of all, is Longholme based on a real, historical figure? And second, had you always planned to for him to change sides in the novel, or did it come to you as a surprise? I ask partly because at the start of the novel, you had me convinced that he would be the main villain.
Bob: Armand, you are very perceptive. Lieutenant Longholme was originally intended to be no more than the archetypal brutal redcoat officer. However by the end of the chapter in which he appears he had grown way beyond my intentions for him. He had become too interesting a character to remain just a black hearted villain..
Fortunately there is some precedent for such an about face . At the end of the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745, and throughout the rebellion, there were a number of instances of captured British soldiers electing to fight for the Jacobites.
Lieutenant Longholme himself is pure invention on my part. His commanding officer however – Captain Caroline Frederick Scott – commanded the garrison at Fort William during this time, and was notorious for his brutality towards the Highlanders.
Q: Do you have a particular passage or section of the book that is your personal favorite?
Bob: One of my favourite scenes is the one in which Andy Macmillan and Ishbel Cameron come to know each other amidst the peat smoke of the little thatched cottage. This scene sprung directly from that yearning to fill the ancient ruins that lie in our glens with light and with life. The scene also carries strong echoes of the night my wife and I first met.
Q: What was the most difficult part of writing The Last Sunset? Maybe something that really challenged you?
Bob: Sometimes the story just poured, out to the point where I felt as if I was a conduit rather than a creative writer. At other times it was like hacking away at a wall of granite, struggling for the right word or phrase.
Probably the most difficult parts to write were those remotely involving sex. I don’t know about other writers, but I found myself painfully aware that this book would be read by my wife, daughter, granddaughter, sister. You get the idea.
Q: And what was the most surprising part of writing your novel, something that you might not have expected?
Bob: On reflection, what really surprised me was the way the characters began to develop their own personalities as the story unfolded. Sub-plots appeared which I hadn’t planned, but which sprung directly from the interactions between some of the characters. By the end of the book some of these guys seemed like real people, so much so that they almost wrote their own dialogue. By that, I mean that I knew without having to think about it how each of them would react under almost any circumstances. I’ve since learned that this sort of thing is not uncommon with many writers, however to me it came as a huge surprise.
Q: (Warning: more spoilers!) Let’s end this interview with the end of The Last Sunset. The Epilogue is beautifully written and tinged with ambiguity. We are neither sure of the ultimate outcome of ours heroes’ quest to change history, nor are we entirely sure of Alistair Mhor’s dreamlike fate, but I have a feeling that the end was positive and offering some hope for the world and history. What is your own personal take on the ending, and what were you hoping to capture in that Epilogue?
Bob: I intended this scene to be ambiguous, since I was making the contentious and controversial suggestion that WW1 might not have taken place, had there been a different outcome to the 1745 rising.
This unravelling of events 150 years later is seen through the eyes of Alistair Mhor in his final dream. All his other dreams were of his experiences on the Western Front. The epilogue begins with Alistair back in that familiar terrible trench. However by degrees the dreamscape changes, until finally what had been a barbed wire entanglement is no more than a hedgerow, the figures writhing in the wire replaced by only one. The only man who would ever now have any knowledge or experience of that war.
“…These green French fields, where corn could now be harvested instead of men, these fields could at last be left unguarded. Alistair’s spirit is finally released from its nightmare. Hence the expression of peace he glimpsed on his own face at the point of death…”