PAJNewman (PAJN): Threaded throughout this book is, obviously, the rippling effects of the tragedy on Piper Alpha. It clearly alters Marcus’ life forever but I thought you kept the focus on the characters rather than straying too far towards the official reports and accident enquiries. Was it a temptation to want to write more about the sense of injustice that these sort of disasters have on the communities or was the plan always to see it through the characters’ eyes?
Iain Maloney (IM): In the early stages of planning I thought that would be a bigger part of it – while many people remember Piper Alpha and know what happened, there are many others around the world who don’t so I thought I would have to provide some explanation or context. However my focus quickly shifted to the characters and it became clear that I was telling the story of the family, not the story of Piper Alpha. Non-fiction books like Stephen McGinty’s ‘Fire in the Night‘ tell the facts about the disaster better than I ever could. Fiction’s strengths aren’t documentarian, they lie in exploring how something feels, the personal and social experience. I hoped, the way all historical fiction writers do, I guess, that if people didn’t know about Piper Alpha then my book would encourage them to learn more and so it has proved. We live in a time when all the information is a few seconds away from us so writers no longer have to include the full context and background the way Tolstoy or Melville used to. Readers today can look up references they don’t know, new words, and unfamiliar locations and get back to the story in a few seconds. It’s very liberating, I think.
PAJN: The novel is clearly very carefully structured. We have shifts in time, shifts in narrative stance depending upon which strand of the story we are with at any particular time. How late in the writing process did you come to these choices?
IM: Very early on. This was the third novel I published, the fourth I’d written (there’s an unpublished first novel that no one will ever see) so I was a bit more confident and experimental. My first two novels, ‘First Time Solo‘ and ‘Silma Hill’ are told chronologically start to finish so I was ready for something new.
The whole crux of the story is how the past and the present interact with each other in ways the characters don’t even realise. Every decision Carrie makes about her relationships and career, for example, can be traced back to events in her childhood – Piper Alpha and her father’s trauma, obviously, but other, smaller things that seem trivial at the time but leave their scars. In order to show that I needed to bring the past and present literally closer together on the page, to show the event in the past, then its consequence in the present. If there’s two hundred pages between those moments, it weakens the impact. It’s also a key part of representing trauma on the page.
For sufferers of PTSD, during a flashback or during a dream, the brain is literally reliving the experience not rerunning a memory so in a sense the distinction between past and present collapse in that moment. At a fundamental level in trauma, time is not linear so in a sense the structure of the book also mirrors Marcus’s journey – when all the disparate parts of the storyline meet up at the end, then it’s possible to say that Marcus is in a sense “cured” – although speaking about a cure for PTSD is misleading. I’ll stop there – this was the subject of my PhD so I could literally go on for hundreds of thousands of words.
PAJN: Similarly, there are geological metaphors used throughout the story. Was that always baked into the idea or is it something you found in the editing process?
IM: I knew geology would be a part of it – with Marcus working in the oil industry it had to be – and having Carrie follow him into the field felt right. I knew from the start I wanted to write about a father-daughter relationship. It’s perhaps the least-written about familial relationship in literature – mothers/sons, fathers/sons, mothers/daughter, these are much more common – and I wanted them to begin from a good, close place, so having them share interests was a simple way of showing that. I needed Carrie’s specialty to be something that enabled her to move around the world, so earthquakes and volcanoes were an obvious choice and then the symbolic possibilities of volcanology become clear. The first title of the book in draft stage was ‘Caldera’ – the crater left in the aftermath of an eruption. I struggled more with the specific allusions in the book – I didn’t want to hit the reader with too much obvious symbolism. I really tried not to use phrases like “she erupted in anger” or “he blew his top” because it felt, well, hack. I allowed some when it felt right but I held back. Some snuck in though. When I named Carrie’s partner Ash, I didn’t immediately realise the symbolism, I just chose it based on rhythm and sound. I guess by that point my brain was in a volcanology groove.
PAJN: There appear to be some superficial biographical similarities between the character of Carrie and yourself. How much did you draw on growing up in Aberdeen and then working internationally when writing the novel?
IM: This is always a curious question because I’m not sure which similarities you mean. Readers often notice things that weren’t intentional or read things that aren’t there (that usually happens with friends who say “this is clearly you” and I think “but that character is a bit of a dick – is that how you see me?”).
I’m from Aberdeen and the story is set there, so there are some unavoidable crossovers but Carrie is 8 years older than me so her Aberdeen and mine are different, certainly from a cultural angle. Other crossovers are just for convenience – she goes into academia and so did I, so that means I had less research to do. She visits Sakurajima in Japan and so have I because, again, research.
In other ways she’s the complete antithesis of me. She has no interest in music, for example, while music is a huge part of my life. I mention that because it was an important realisation when I was learning about her personality. I find people who don’t care about music, who are just happy to listen to whatever is on the radio without curiosity, odd, and when I realised Carrie was one of those people it unlocked her for me. If anything, there are more similarities between Marcus and me – he drinks in the pub I was bar manager of, he likes bands I like, he likes hiking and camping on the west coast of Scotland.
Writers can’t avoid putting bits of themselves in their characters but it tends to lessen with each book. The debut is usually hugely autobiographic and by the tenth you’ve got a handle on how to do it, when to borrow and when to invent. A more revealing question is “which of your friends/family is this character based on?” I think few authors would be happy answering that honestly!
PAJN: Do you find it easier to write about Scotland from the other side of the world? Does distance give perspective for you?
IM: I think so, yes. Like Joyce writing about Dublin, distance gives both objectivity and nostalgia. Living in another culture, one that’s very different (I live in Japan) enables you to make comparisons and evaluate things – X is better in Scotland but the Japanese do Y better – in a way that when you’re surrounded by the day-to-day realities can be harder, for me anyway.
However the longer I’m away (17 years at this point) the harder it becomes. I don’t think I could set a story in Scotland in 2022 because I’d get so many little details wrong. Pop culture references, the price of things, how technology has changed, those kinds of things. For me as a writer, in a sense, Scotland is frozen in an earlier time. It’s much easier these days to set stories in Japan or somewhere totally invented, like in sci-fi.
PAJN: How long did ‘In the Shadow of Piper Alpha’ take from beginning to end to write?
IM: A little under a year. I had a two-book deal and this was book two so I had a deadline 12 months after delivering ‘Silma Hill‘. I still can’t quite believe I managed it but it was hard – given the subject matter and the stress of going from no idea to finished manuscript in that time, writing this book was emotionally very difficult. But perhaps without the deadline I’d never have finished it. It meant I couldn’t wallow, I couldn’t take a break, I couldn’t kick decisions down the road, I had to plough on and hit my word count every day.
PAJN: Do you think the ending is an optimistic, pessimistic or neither ending?
IM: (SPOILERS!) I think it’s optimistic. As I said earlier if you think of the journey and the structure as one from trauma through treatment then it has to be optimistic, certainly for Marcus. He and Carrie aren’t reunited at the end but the first step has been taken. It might go wrong but it might not. It’s not a happy ending. There’s no closure. She’s still not talking to her mother – she’s not even mentioned. Marcus is still drinking. She’s made no real effort to deal with her own trauma the way Marcus has. But yes, I think for Ash and Isobel, if they were watching the final scene from the trees, they’d think this was a positive moment.
PAJN: Do you ever find Carrie and Marcus coming back to? Would you ever consider bringing them back for a further novel?
IM: The characters never leave me, especially ones where there was such an emotional investment in telling their story, but in terms of bringing them back… it’s honestly never even crossed my mind! I could imagine fleshing it out, adding scenes – it covers 33 years of their lives so obviously it skips a lot – but a whole new story? Probably not.
PAJN: Books change over time. I know that ‘In the Shadow…’ was originally released as ‘The Waves Burn Bright’. How do you feel about it now? Does the title change and the continued passage of time alter how both yourself as author and readers are reacting to the work?
IM: It’s my favourite of my novels, I think it’s the most accomplished (as it should be – we should get better with each book) but until Tippermuir expressed an interested in republishing it, I hadn’t opened it or read a line since the final book event of the original launch. In that time the weaknesses multiplied in my imagination and the strengths receded. I expected to have to do a huge rewrite and I struggled over whether I should or not – is it better to be faithful to the original or to improve it with skills I’ve learned since (the old George Lucas conundrum)? But when I read it back I was pleasantly surprised. I had to make a few changes but nothing major, just tightening the prose and changing a few words here and there.
Now I’m further removed from the emotion of writing it, I can be more objective, like a proud parent with an adult child who is off making their own way in the world. I’m mostly just really happy that it’s in print again. I should say, actually, that it went out of print because the original publisher went out of business (and not because of my book!). I always felt it never got a fair crack at finding an audience so this second chance just makes me so happy.
PAJN: Who are your biggest influences as a writer?
IM: Originally and generally: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ali Smith, David Mitchell, Iain Banks, Margaret Atwood. But I never stop being influenced so recently I’ve found my writing energised by discovering Per Olov Enquist, Porochista Khakpour, Furukawa Hideo, Elin Willows. Some writers have had a specific impact on aspects of my writing such as David Mitchell (dialogue), Roddy Doyle (description), David Peace (narration), Ali Smith (respecting your readers).
PAJN: What is a typical writing day for you?
IM: I begin early, roll out of bed, kettle on, start writing. I never write until I know what I’m going to say – I believe writer’s block just means you’ve sat at your desk too early. So much of writing takes place in your head – imagining scenes, creating characters, working out plot points – and you don’t need to do those at a desk, you can do that while driving to work, doing the dishes, cutting the grass.
So when I sit down I already know where I am and where I’m going. Then I’ll either write until the piece is finished (short story, chapter, article) or until I get interrupted. I find I can zone out completely, especially when writing fiction, and snap out of it and find six hours have passed. It doesn’t happen often (I have the day job so that kind of free writing time is limited) but I love it when it does. I wrote my novella ‘Life is Elsewhere/Burn Your Flags\’ in two days doing that. 10,000 words a day over a weekend.
PAJN: What is next for you in terms of writing? Will you return to fiction writing?
IM: I’m not sure what’s next specifically. I never stopped writing fiction; I published my novella in 2021, but I’ve also done a memoir and a poetry collection. I tend to work on a few books at a time, partly as my interests shift but also because publishing is so volatile that you’re never sure what is going to be popular a year or two ahead.
So I have a travel book at the publisher’s now, two finished novels looking for a publisher, and a collection of poetry in the pipeline. I’ve also got a science fiction novel I’ve been working on for years that I hope to get finished this summer. I’m also regularly publishing short stories and poems on my Substack page (iainmaloney.substack.com). Corona hit the publishing industry hard, with lay-offs, furloughs, supply chain problems and a general lack of cash flow, so everything is a bit tighter, a bit more difficult, a bit more risk-averse. We’ll see what comes over the horizon.
PAJN: What is the question you wish interviewers and readers would ask but never do?
IM: I’ve never really thought about it. I think I’m pretty good at twisting questions to suit what I want to talk about! One thing I’ve never really had is the experience of readers asking specific questions about the books. All my public events have been launches, where basically no one in the audience has had a chance to read the book yet so all the questions are quite general. Interviewers like yourself who have read the book are also aware that many readers haven’t and want to avoid spoilers (rightly!).
But when I listen to much more successful writers talking about their classic books where everyone in the audience has read it, maybe more than once, and can ask specific detailed questions about something that happens on page 72, or have developed their own theories about motivation, intention, or something that happens offstage, I think that must be so much fun for the author. The only time we really get to dig into that kind of detail with our creations is during the editing process and that’s usually justifying yourself or fighting to save something from the cutting room floor. I’d love to do more book club events, for example, but being in Japan the time differences make it difficult.
Tippermuir Books: https://tippermuirbooks.co.uk/product/in-search-of-piper-alpha/
Iain Maloney is the author of seven books, including the critically acclaimed ‘The Only Gaijin in the Village’ (Birlinn, 2020), a memoir about his life in rural Japan.
He is also a freelance editor and journalist, mainly for The Japan Times.
He was born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland and he currently lives in Japan. He studied English at the University of Aberdeen, graduated from the University of Glasgow’s Creative Writing Masters in 2004, and holds a PhD from the University of Sunderland. (Biography courtesy of https://iainmaloney.com/)