Two seemingly disparate novels were brought together at the Dundee Literary Festival last weekend as authors Rosemary Goring and James Robertson shared the stage to discuss how they have been inspired by episodes in Scotland’s history to produce works of compelling fiction.
Rosemary Goring’s debut novel, After Flodden, is a sweeping saga of political intrigue, romance and danger. The Professor of Truth by James Robertson is a study of grief, obsession and the search for justice, inspired by the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. This year sees the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden, whilst it is also 25 years since PanAm flight 103 crashed above Dumfrieshire, killing all on board. Both authors read extracts from their novels before beginning a discussion on the links and tensions between history and historical fiction.
Robertson felt that it was perfectly legitimate to explore incidents from the recent past, but in basing his narrative on Lockerbie, he was very aware that he was stepping into sensitive territory. The Professor of Truth is not just a retelling of the tragedy but an exploration of the bigger issues surrounding it: themes of truth, justice and trust.
Goring responded by saying that although her novel was set in the distant past, and despite it being safer in some respects, she too was aware of the responsibility to “get it right.” The Battle of Flodden resulted in a huge loss of life and had a massive impact on the political and social landscape of Scotland in the ensuing decades. It was the subject of the first ever news report, she revealed, albeit reported by an English witness. There have been no Scottish eye-witness accounts of the battle unearthed to date; consequently, the author was able to play with the boundaries of the history to some extent.
Robertson agreed that the further back in time one goes, the more freedom the writer enjoys, and that even though his novel is pure fiction, it was understandable perhaps that it would draw comparisons with the real event and the characters involved. In making his main protagonist, Alan Tealing, a lecturer of English Literature, Robertson was able to explore the issues surrounding the construction of narrative: how we are expected to believe the narratives we are given, and what happens when we challenge those narratives.
It was agreed that it is the job of the fiction writer to fill the gaps left by historical research. Rosemary felt that it was important to explore those areas neglected by the historians and to consider the emotional aspects of the narrative. Like The Professor of Truth, After Flodden is a study of grief, both personal and national.
On a more light-hearted note, the authors shared anecdotes relating to their own research, and the problems encountered in writing Scottish dialogue. Robertson, who has translated many titles into Scots, including the popular Gruffalo series, said that the education system does not promote the language, leaving many people unable to read Scots off the page. This poses a huge problem for writers of Scottish fiction who wish to make their books as authentic as possible. Goring revealed that she had deliberately kept Scots to a minimum in her own work, and both writers agreed that the use of the vernacular was not sustainable for a full-length novel. This does rather raise the question of how the Scots language can be promoted if Scottish authors are reluctant to embrace it in their writing.
The Chair’s final question was a broad one: why should we keep faith with literature? Robertson replied that we are, by nature, storytellers, which is why the novel is one of our most successful art forms. The narratives of our past, such as Flodden, and the much more recent Lockerbie, are there to be explored and challenged, and this year’s well-attended Book Festival is testament to our continuing love affair with “compelling stories.”