We were touring the London bookshops, my publicity agent, Amanda Harris, and I – pressing the bookbuyers’ flesh, doing introductions, signing what stock they had of my book. It was that Tuesday morning, September 11th, a sunny day in London. Amanda was dropping reminders of the launch of my book, to be held that evening in Somerset House – champagne to flow, luminaries expected, do please come, a courtyard with forty-nine fountains, the water tinted the blue-green of the book-cover. ‘You’ll all be very welcome.’
About two o’clock she received a call on her mobile. ‘A plane,’ she told me, ‘has crashed into a building in New York.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, thinking, the way you do – Americans. Half an hour later we were in Waterstones in Charing Cross and she received another call. ‘Another plane,’ she said, ‘has crashed. They say the Twin Towers.’ It began to seem odd now. ‘They’re pulling your leg,’ I told her. ‘Only,’ she said, her voice edging a bit, ‘I have a friend working in the Twin Towers.’ I was still thinking a hoax, or at the very worst, a prank, some glider gone out of control.
Of course, I had owned a copy of my book for some months, but it was a great wonder that morning to see the hardback heaps, all stacked together in the New Releases. A great wonder that the world should continue regardless, customers in the bookshops should pass it by with never a glance, this new marvel, a book by Jamie O’Neill. See – it has my name in relief on the cover.
At Foyles I ran into a friend who’s from New York and I asked him what was happening. ‘It’s crazy,’ he said, ‘can’t make any sense of it.’ But that was still all it was, a crazy accident, it didn’t require any sense. Accidents, of their nature, don’t.
As the afternoon wore on, and more details filtered in, we continued visiting the bookshops, but it was news we sought now, and the people were eager to share what they had. It got more and more bizarre. Three airplanes had crashed – not single-seaters, but airliners crowded with passengers. Amanda was trying for news of her friend, but she couldn’t get through to New York. We smiled, telling each other it was all all right. In between bookshops, I was giving radio interviews for regional stations. We listened to the broadcasts while waiting for our slot. An air of unreality pervaded the waiting-rooms. That my little world should continue, with me peeping my little story, while the real world turned upside down – it was too strange.
I got back to my hotel, and my boyfriend was staring at the TV. He hadn’t dressed and I was annoyed about this. ‘Don’t you know we’ve only an hour till the launch?’ I said. He didn’t turn from the screen, just shook his head. ‘There’s not going to be any launch.’
And it was only when I saw the pictures – they seemed somehow to be in slow-motion – that I finally understood. It was an event that only television could portray – the true horror of it, the enormity.
We walked down to Somerset House. People huddled in the courtyard where the fountains uselessly swirled. Inside the grand reception rooms, the champagne was returned to its cases. There was, and could have been, no talk of books. But I had people travelling from Ireland for the launch, and from all over the UK – even from France. Julien and I stood under the arch, greeting our friends and turning them away. No one complained, of course. We were all too stunned.
We returned to Ireland where there was a day of mourning. In this land of flags, all flags were lowered; businesses were shut, even the pubs, and strangers nodded in the street. The world of publishing, in London and New York, has always been close; but I think those few days the entire world was brought closer. There’s a proof there of our humanity, which I believe will stand proof against all violation of it. And my abiding memory is not of a cancelled launch, that trivial thing, but of the New York carparks on the television screen, where the cars for days were parked, parked so still, awaiting, like pets, our late return.