Emma Heatherington: Tyrone writer's novel recalls tragedy of Omagh bombing
Jenny Lee chats to Co Tyrone author Emma Heatherington about her latest novel, a heart-rending tale of forbidden love, which is loosely based on events surrounding the 1998 Omagh bombing atrocity
"THE noise is furious, and I fall to the ground as the sound of the deafening blast rings my ears. Something stabs me deeply in the leg before I'm thrown into a shop window, shards of glass falling down round me like rain. A gush of water forces at torrent, bringing a wash of red blood past me."
These words are taken from Tyrone author Emma Heatherington’s latest 13th novel, The Promise. It tells the story of teenagers Kate and David who are brought together during the day of the Omagh bombing.
The car bomb attack on August 15 1998, carried out by a group calling itself the Real IRA, killed 29 people, making it the deadliest single incident of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
It’s another decade before Kate and David meet again – but the spark that ignited between them on that day has not diminished.
Spanning a period of 20 years, the love story, set against the backdrop of the Troubles, marks a departure for the 45-year-old writer who in her 12 previous novels has deliberately avoided writing about politics, religion or her native Northern Ireland's troubled past.
“It was never an area I had wanted to write about, but a conversation about writing a love story involving people from different parts of society sowed a seed," Emma says.
“I grew up in Tyrone where everything was so segregated. We all went to different schools, different youth clubs, played different sports and mixed in different social areas. Unless you took part in a deliberately organised cross-community project, like those seen in Derry Girls, it was impossible to meet people from another religion.
“I wanted to make my characters polar opposites in terms of their backgrounds, but I also wanted to write something fresh that hadn’t been done before.
“So I came up with the idea off of them meeting in the most tragic of circumstances where no-one cares what nationality, religion or gender you are. All they can see is the humanity, kindness and the goodness of each other.
“I wanted to show that people can fall in love if none of those outside influences were there in the first place.”
The author admits that writing the novel made her dig deep into her emotions and tissues were often on hand to wipe tears as she typed.
“As I've started to write this more emotional genre I’ve become completely engrossed in the characters. I find it a good sign when I'm writing a book that if I am crying [when I'm] writing because it hopefully will move the readers and make them feel something as well.”
Like many, Donaghmore-based Emma still has vivid memories of that day.
“I remember being in the car and the news coming on. It was a day off my cousin's hen party and we were heading to Monaghan for a meal and a few drinks," she recalls. “There were mixed emotions about whether or not we should go ahead with it and there were some girls unable to make it because they were nurses called to help at the Tyrone County Hospital.”
She had friends passing through the town who narrowly missed the bomb and knows others who were caught up in it, and, while they survived physically, they still have the “emotional scars”.
In researching The Promise, as well as speaking to people who had experienced the bomb attack on the day, she also read up on interviews from other witnesses and about post-trauma from world events such as 9/11.
“I wanted to get a very real and respectful version of how survivors are coping in their everyday lives in the years following.”
Emma has experienced personal trauma in her own life, losing her mother suddenly when she was just 15 years old. And in 2019 her own son was among the many young people waiting at Cookstown’s Greenvale Hotel on St Patrick’s Day when three teenagers were tragically crushed to death when waiting to go into a disco.
In her novel her protagonist Kate founds the Silent Steps charity to help victims of trauma. While praising the work done by charities such as Wave, Emma believes there is a need for more such organisations.
“Whether it’s from the Troubles or other experiences, trauma is something so many of us are living with.
“Covid kicked in soon after the Greenvale tragedy and young people’s lives in general have been very introverted. They have missed out on so much and I think in a few years’ time there will be a surge in mental health problems which will surface.”
Emma would love to see The Promise serialised for television.
“That all is in the hands of my agent, so we will wait and see," she says. "With the whole success of actors like Jamie Dornan, Jimmy Nesbitt and Adrian Dunbar, people are really taking notice of us for our creativity.
“There has been so much success here with crime drama, so I think it is time now for a northern Irish love story to be shown,” she adds.
When it comes to casting, while Emma wouldn’t argue about West End star and close neighbour Fra Fee playing the role of David, she would love to give the opportunity to up-and-coming local actors.
“I’m honoured that people have compared The Promise to Sally Rooney’s Normal People which has born incredible actors like Paul Maxwell.”
During the past year Emma has been extremely busy, completing three books. So with five children in the house during three lockdowns, the obvious question is, how?
“I definitely didn't lock myself away in a room because there are no spare rooms in our house,” she laughs. “I live in a very modest three-bedroom semi and have just learnt to write amid the noise.
“The kids are older now, apart from Sonny who is six and required help home-schooling, but I just snatched moments when I could and was I was lucky that the story ideas kept coming.”
Emma also celebrated her engagement to long-term partner, musician and artist, Jim McKee last Christmas.
“We’ll start looking at dates when the world settles down a bit more,” she smiles.
This spring Emma was involved in delivering online writing workshops, alongside former EastEnders actor Sean Maguire, through Los Angeles-based The Players Conservatory.
“It was a great experience reaching out to actors and writers from all over America, as well as Canada, England, and a girl from Belfast. We plan to run another class in the future,” adds Emma, who hopes to travel to the US in the future to hold an in-person course.
And can she reveal anything about her next novel?
“I would describe it as Bridgerton meets Madison County meets Me Before You. During Covid I found a new love for the lough shore, around Ardboe," she says of the quiet rural area on the west of Lough Neagh. "The new book is about a young couple who grow up in the fishing community there.
“He has an accident on the farm which leaves him wheelchair-bound and with memory lost, leaving his wife to become his full-time carer.
“Seven years later she meets another man and finds herself falling in love and has a moral dilemma over what to do.”
The Promise is published by Harper Collins. It has first been released in Ireland and is available now in bookshops and online via Easons.com, with free Ireland-wide postage. The digital and audio versions are available worldwide on Amazon.
**This article was amended on May 17 2021