ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Three weeks ago today, Chris Cleave's debut novel was published, and that day might have come and gone with just the average fanfare, except that the novel was about a terrorist attack on London. And on the morning of the book's publication, a real attack occurred.
At 9 AM on Thursday, the 7th of July, I woke up in a sunny mood, and I turned on my TV for the weather. Instead, I watched in real time the nightmare scenario which had played out in my imagination for the whole of the last year of writing. I remember looking at the breaking news and getting a sharp rush of adrenalin because I was suddenly sure I'd lost my mind. It was the only explanation for a coincidence so horrible and so improbable.
Then, as the injured started to pour out of the Tube and concerned friends began to ring, I realized this is really happened. I wondered if, by some kind of awful magic, I had caused this thing to happen. By imagining a terrorist attack so vividly in my book, had I made it come to pass? I even packed a bag for me and my young son, ready to flee the city when the tabloids turned up on the doorstep.
When my shock wore off, I started thinking as a writer again. Over the last year, I'd been working on a novel, the story of a woman rebuilding her life after losing her husband and her son in a suicide attack. I'd started writing on the day al-Qaeda bombed Madrid, and I'd been published on the day al-Qaeda, it seems, bombed London. A dark year of my life was now bracketed by horrors. In my novel, the woman responds to such horrors with stoicism and humor; now I watch to see how real life would compare.
What I never realized, until it really happened, was the force of the shock. You can't think straight. Your rational mind is stripped back to a reptilian brain, terrified and angry. I didn't recognize myself. I wanted to run or fight or both. I will never again judge a society in its first throes of a reaction to outrage. It's so easy to be logical about terrorism from afar.
The second great difference between imagination and the reality was London's speed of recovery. I'm not talking about Londoners' calmness and solidarity; that's all true, and it's been well-documented. No, I'm talking about London getting back to its vicious, grimy, money-grubbing, mud-slinging, glorious old self. I discovered this when I put a Web site up to ask if people thought, in the wake of the tragedy, my book was helpful or hurtful.
At first, I was surprised to get so many messages of support from Londoners on my Web site; people's strength and kindness was overwhelming. But there was something wrong. Everyone was being too nice. Even the newspapers were in shock. They were all printing kind reviews of my book. It wasn't until 10 days after the event that London rediscovered its divisions. I opened a newspaper to see my book described as `an insult.' A Londoner on my Web site posted that I was an imposter, and my book was a `morsel of fetid pap, a carnival of cliche, the very incarnation of mediocrity.' `Whew,' I thought, `my good old city is finally getting back to normal.' If here we are back to fighting over books, then the bombs can't have broken us yet.
SIEGEL: Chris Cleave's novel is called "Incendiary."
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