How Soon is Too Soon: Contemporary History in Fiction

Author Iain Maloney
Category: Writing

Scenes at the recent Manchester United v Liverpool Europa League ties, when fans taunted each other with memories of the Munich air disaster of 1958 and the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, were an ugly reminder that time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. In Japan, five years after the Tohoku triple disaster and in the wake of the Kumamoto earthquake, artists working in all media are asking if it’s too soon to explore these events. Historical fiction is a well-understood genre but when does the contemporary become history? No one would dispute that Janice Galloway’s Clara is historical fiction, but what about Rodge Glass’s Bring Me The Head of Ryan Giggs? Both extrapolate fiction from real people and events, but while Clara Schumann died in 1896, the 2008 Champions League final where the climax of Glass’s novel takes place is well within living memory. Can we write fiction about events in the recent, sometimes painfully recent, past?

While Scotland is rightly famous for its historical fiction, we also have a rich tradition of exploring our contemporary world

When I wrote First Time Solo it was just another novel set during World War Two, and Silma Hill is set in a semi-mythic 18th century rural Scotland, a Brigadoon of nightmares, but my new novel is the first novel written about the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988. As Aberdeen is my hometown I thought long and hard about whether it was the right thing to do. Memories of Piper Alpha are still raw, but after much soul-searching I concluded that if a subject is approached with sufficient sensitivity, respect and research, and not sensationalised or exploited, there should be nothing that is beyond the boundaries of literature. As one survivor put it to me, anything that keeps their memories alive is to be welcomed.

While Scotland is rightly famous for its historical fiction, we also have a rich tradition of exploring our contemporary world. Below is but a small sample of novels that have used fiction to explore recent events, used the contemporary to tell timeless stories, and which helped guide me through the often fraught writing process of The Waves Burn Bright.

James Robertson, The Professor of Truth. Very closely based upon--though explicitly not directly about--the Lockerbie plane bombing in 1988. Robertson received a huge amount of praise and criticism for this novel. It draws its inspiration from the real story of Jim Swire, a doctor who lost his daughter in the bombing but who became convinced of al-Megrahi’s innocence. It is often uncomfortable to read but this study of grief cemented Robertson’s reputation as one of Scotland’s most important writers.

Anne MacLeod, The Dark Ship. The more rural the community, the longer the memory. MacLeod’s debut novel centres around the real-life sinking of HMY Iolaire on New Year’s Day 1919. Carrying troops home from the First World War, it sank in Stornoway harbour during a wild storm and more than 200 men were lost, tragedy upon tragedy after four years of war. It's a moving tale of love and friendship that traces the aftershocks of the disaster through generations to the present day. The wreck of the Iolaire can still be seen in Stornoway harbour.

Alan Bissett, Pack Men. Far from Scotland’s finest hour, the riots in the streets of Manchester by Rangers fans during the 2008 UEFA Cup final form the backdrop for Bissett’s sequel to Boyracers. Using the tribal, testosterone-fueled trouble to counterpoint protagonist Alvin’s attempts to confront his own sexuality and his relationship with the working-class background he has left behind, Bissett explores the complex web of loyalties and enmities that ensnare modern Scotland.

The red-hot fire of indignation can sometimes be as useful to writers as Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’

Iain Banks, Complicity. In this, Banks’s angriest book (and that’s really saying something), he uses drug-fuelled and jaded journalist Cameron Colley and bitter ex-army officer Andy as his spokesmen to rage about Trident, the first Gulf War, the Thatcher government, the arms trade, capitalism in general and the hypocrisy he saw everywhere in society. While the serial killer/murder mystery plot is clearly on some level a revenge fantasy, Banks’s gift for storytelling and plotting moved this ‘state of the nation’ novel beyond the mere expulsion of anger that Dead Air represented a few years later. Written in the same burst of creativity that produced The Crow Road, it shows the red-hot fire of indignation can sometimes be as useful to writers as Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’.

Irvine Welsh, Skagboys. Trainspotting always was far more political than it was given credit for, particularly after the film adaptation became the accepted public version of the story, but Skagboys, the 2012 prequel which grew out of 100,000 words written in preparation for his 1993 debut shows just how political its heart is. Opening on Renton pre-heroin, a student joining his father on the picket line during the miners’ strike, Welsh explicitly draws lines between the Thatcher government’s policies and the wasteland Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and the others would go on to inhabit. Scenes such as Spud being made redundant are all the more heart-breaking given our knowledge of where it all leads.


Iain Maloney’s novel about the Piper Alpha disaster, The Waves Burn Bright, is out now on Freight Books.

Iain Maloney

Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen and now lives in Japan, where he teaches English and writes about travel, literature and music. He studied English at the University of Aberdeen, has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and, as a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, has been published in journals and anthologies around the world. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. Following the success of his first novel, First Time Solo, Iain published Silma Hill in 2015, followed by The Waves Burn Bright in 2016.