ANTHONY SUMMERS and Robyn Swan’s office is organised chaos.
Pile upon pile of files are laid out on the floor or hastily stacked up on the writing desk.
The only dash of colour is the pink and yellow post-it-notes that peek out from the heaving folders. Some carry obscure reference numbers, others recognisable words like ‘Taliban’, ‘Clinton’, and ‘Al Qaeda’.
Stuck to the frame of a large, light-giving window is a pleasant, black-and-white photo of the couple smiling. Below it is the cover of their latest book, The Eleventh Day, with the dramatic picture of the vomiting explosion that followed the crashing of American Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower of The World Trade Center at 9.03am on September 11, 2001.
Their study-library is the type of room for which an anxious parent might scold an obsessively studious teenage child. In the case of Summers and Swan, it is the other way around.
“Every night, we come back into the house, sit down at the dinner table [with their three teenage children] and start talking about September 11,” says Swan. “And then Tony looks up at me and says to the children, ‘We’re not going to talk about the book now.’ And they don’t believe us.”
For the last five years, from their base and home near Cappoquin in Co Waterford, Summers and Swan have been investigating and writing about the most infamous day in modern history.
It has been a tough slog. Summers, who was born in London and whose father was from Kerry, has lived in the area since 1973. Having worked for the BBC in war zones, he was offered the opportunity to write a book on the Romanovs in the early 1970s, which he thought “might earn enough to get me a new car.” It topped the bestsellers list and afforded him the choice of his own work. Several successful books followed; later, while researching a book on J Edgar Hoover, in Washington, Summers met Swan, who was then working for The London Independent.
“Well, Tony hired me to be his researcher,” says Swan. “He claimed it was going to be two weeks’ worth of work. And it ended up being two years. And when he could no longer afford to pay me, he offered to marry me.”
Swan, who was born and raised in Connecticut, says that moving from the capital of the USA to the somewhat more easygoing and sleepy Waterford countryside was a culture shock.
“Moving from a big city, where everything was happening, to the back-of-nowhere was hard,” she says. “But now I treasure the back-of-nowhere and I wouldn’t change it. I’m never, ever sorry that I did it.”
The couple’s home is situated opposite an early 19th century castle, on the River Blackwater. In this somewhat idyllic setting, they have worked on numerous books and biographies, including Official and Confidential: The Secret Lives of J Edgar Hoover and The Arrogance of Power: The Secret Life of Richard Nixon.
In the era of 24-hour-news, quick-fix facts and panting, speculative conclusions, Summers and Swan stand out as champions of old-school journalism based on diligence and digging around.
“It’s no longer feasible to spend the amount of time that we would typically spend on a book anymore,” says Swan. “This book we turned out more quickly [than usual], although it still took the guts of five years. But, you can’t have it both ways. And this is a product of the internet. The problem with the internet is that they expect you to turn out beautiful copy that’s new, and breaks news while sitting in your house doing nothing except reading other stories on the internet.
“But that’s not how good journalism is done. We go down the road, we interview people, we read thousands of documents and spend a lot of time on the phone, but at the end of the day we have to think, we produce the goods.”
In the case of The Eleventh Day, they most certainly do. It is a compelling (and often harrowing) read from start to finish and with 116 pages of notes and sources listed at the end, it is clear that this tome was a labour of love for both writers.
“We saw that all sorts of sane people were actually confused,” says 68-year-old Summers. “And what we do for a living is take controversial cases or people, and as an old friend of mine used to say, pick them up by their ankles and shake them to see what change comes out. So it sounds like a cliché, but we were trying to get at that elusive thing called ‘something like the truth’.”
One of the strongest aspects of this investigation is how it debunks the conspiracy theorists; people and academics who believe that the Bush administration was involved with the attacks. “We thought we’d poke around and see what we got,” says Summers. “And, in the end, we found nothing. And, really, the conspiracy theorists’ theories do not stand up, they’re not backed by the evidence. And it has blurred a whole lot of it that is serious.”
“We felt that we owed it to these people who were looking at the internet and reading these [conspiracy] books to turn the whole thing upside down and subject it to hard treatment,” says Swan.
That hard treatment does not in any way let the Bush administration off the hook. The administration comes across as incompetent, hot-headed, and, in the case of facing down Iraq but never asking questions of other more-economically powerful Arab states, frightened.
Within hours of the attacks, the administration, much to the disbelief of high-ranking intelligence agents, was targeting Iraq. It was later proved that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks on September 11. Indeed, Osama bin Laden despised the Iraqi leader.
The chapters dealing with bin Laden show him to be a complex character; at one moment intelligent and charismatic, at others a childish bully, but always a religious zealot. The book also reveals that the intelligence agencies knew of the arrival of one, if not two, of the terrorists before the attacks, but failed to act.
There are insights into chief terrorist Mohamed Atta and the other 18 self-proclaimed martyrs and it becomes abundantly clear that their motive was Palestine — something Summers says “people in the States need to understand.”
“We want people to read this book because, to be quite honest, this was a cataclysmic event for the world,” says Swan.
“It has shaped all of our lives. It has shaped the lives of our children and it will continue to do so. And they should have their lives shaped by the truth, as far as we can know it. People should know what to be afraid of and what not to be afraid of, and know what the lessons are from this and not have them peddled by an administration or by fantasists.”
* The Eleventh Day by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan is published by Random House