I RECENTLY dropped by Waterstones on Sauchiehall Street to check on the status of my books and turn their covers face out. While there I noticed one entire wall given over to ‘Novels Set in Glasgow’. There is proof, I thought, that Alasdair Gray’s stated mission to make Glasgow as imaginatively alive as “Florence, Paris, London, New York” had succeeded. My second thought was that Waterstones in Aberdeen would struggle to match this display. In the canon of Scottish literature, my hometown is under-represented.

Not that there aren’t great books. Sunset Song is rightfully rehabilitated from “that book about Teuchters we studied in school” thanks to the recent film adaptation, and Stuart MacBride has a series of fine crime novels set in the granite city. The problem is that books that portray the city I grew up in are few and far between. There are more ‘furry boots’ jokes in Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue than there are novels that show an Aberdeen I recognise.

The Waves Burn Bright is my attempt to redress the balance. After touching on the city in my first novel, First Time Solo, I wanted to push Aberdeen centre stage and make it a character. I quickly realised, however, that to write about Aberdeen honestly I had to address the open wound in the heart of the granite – Piper Alpha.

On July 6 1988, 167 men died 120 miles off the coast of Aberdeen and the city has never fully recovered. The way the Pan Am bombing is for Lockerbie, Hillsborough is for Liverpool, the stadium fire is for Bradford, Piper Alpha is an event horizon. Beyond that point there was no return; nothing would ever be the same again. The oil and gas industry was no longer about Texans in ten-gallon hats on Union Street and insane house prices, it was also about danger, death, grief and trauma. Whatever Aberdeen is today, Piper Alpha, more than anything, shaped it. If I wanted to write honestly about my city, I had to confront that trauma.

But I hesitated. It’s almost 28 years since that July night. Most of the survivors are still alive, many families still live in the city. Time heals, but only so far. Bowed heads and damp eyes can still be seen by the memorial in Hazelhead Park. In the bars of Belmont Street and Rosemount my tentative “I’m thinking about writing about Piper Alpha” was met with sucked teeth and shaken heads.

Despite being a child, I vividly remember the days after the disaster, the images on TV and in the papers of that inferno, of that twisted stump sunk by Red Adair. There isn’t a family that was in the city at the time that wasn’t personally touched, that didn’t know someone connected, someone involved. It’s a cliché that Aberdeen is a small fishing village that hit the big time but in many ways it’s true – psychologically Aberdeen is a village and when disaster hits a village no one is exempt. My mother was, and still is, a nurse in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. She was on duty that night in ITU. She came home with stories, with faces and injuries etched into her memory. Piper Alpha was in our living room, in everyone’s living rooms. And we were peripheral. In other living rooms there were ringing phones, police officers sitting and declining cups of tea, there were tears, there was grief, there were holes that could never be filled.

Twenty-eight years later the scars of that night can still be seen, from the memorial to the hushed, respectful atmosphere that blankets any room when the words ‘Piper Alpha’ are mentioned. Aberdeen is Piper Alpha and Piper Alpha is Aberdeen. To write about the one is to write about the other.

The novel is, I believe, a unique invention, perhaps the only tool humans possess that allows us to enter into the minds of others. There’s an old joke about behavioural psychology, the theory that you can understand another’s internal thought based on external behaviour. Two behavioural psychologists are in bed and one says to the other, “That was great for you, how was it for me?” Until we take the inevitable step and embed technology in our brains, the novel is still the best method we have of confirming that your internal life is similar to mine. Journalism can tell us what happened. It can go some way to explaining why it happened. But only fiction can give us any concept of how it felt, how it still feels, how a disaster nearly 30 years ago can still tear someone’s heart into pieces, why it is so important to never forget.

I believe that if approached with sensitivity, with respect, with proper research, there is no subject that should be outside the embrace of the novel. It is with this attitude that I humbly approached the subject and with which I humbly present the results to Aberdeen. My book is a fiction, my characters figments of my imagination and very deliberately not based on anyone connected with Piper Alpha, but they are my attempt to try and understand what happened to our city and to, in my own way, try to live up to Aberdeen’s unofficial motto: Lest We Forget.

Iain Maloney’s novel The Waves Burn Bright is published by Freight Books, £9.99