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How a family secret that was kept hidden for years inspired this teacher to become a writer

Co Down single mum Sarah Gilbert has tapped into a tale from her family's past to create a whole new career as an author. She tells Karen Ireland how her self-published book Hello, At Last is proving a success

Sarah Gilbert, (48), from Newry couldn't get a story which had been handed down from her maternal grandmother out of her head.

The narrative niggled at her so much that it eventually found its way on to the pages of her first novel, Hello, At Last, which was launched just before Christmas.

A former actress, Sarah says the novel happened because she had to give life to the events she was so familiar with and write them down, and the book was created almost by accident.

"I never had any desire to become an author," explains Sarah, a single mum to Thomas (8).

"My grandmother was the youngest of 12 and when she was a young girl, her older sister was about 20 and she and her baby died in childbirth.

"That is what the family was told and believed for years, until it finally emerged that the baby had lived. But because the husband didn't want our family to know, he sent the baby off to the United States to be brought up.

"We only found this out in 1999 and it was a huge shock to the whole family to learn there had been a child born which no one knew anything about. It seems that sort of thing happened quite a lot at the time."

The desperately sad story struck a real chord with Sarah and as a speech and drama teacher, she used the idea as the backdrop for a dramatisation during her class.

"It stayed with me," she says. "And I developed characters and eventually I decided to give it legs and turn it into a story. The book isn't exactly about these facts, but it is based on this true story and the events were among the seeds which got me started into writing," she recalls.

Once she started writing, Sarah says the ideas just came tumbling out and she couldn't stop.

"I would be out and about doing something and another idea for a storyline would come to me and I couldn't wait to get home and write it up on the laptop," she adds.

Soon, any spare time she had was consumed by writing the book, about a secret based in the Twenties which affected generations right up until the present day.

"It is set in a fishing village in Co Meath," she says of the book. "A baby was born, but it isn't until the end of the book that you find out who they are and what actually happened," she adds, determined not to give too much away and spoil the book for would-be readers.

"I was part of a writing class at the time called The Write Place which was also a publishing house. I brought the book to the editor Brenda and she took a look and loved it. This gave me the confidence to pursue it (getting the book printed) and to keep going." But these days budding writers need not necessarily wait around for a much-coveted book deal from a recognised publisher.

Sarah was keen to see the gripping tale in print.

"I decided to give it a go and self-publish it, just to see what the reaction would be," she says. "It was a case of now or never."

Such was the success of the first editions of the book that it sold out before Christmas and she had to get more printed, which is testament to its success.

"It has just taken wings and grown. All the feedback has been really positive," a delighted Sarah explains.

Fans include her parents Richard and Mary, as well as her brother John and his family.

But is wasn't writing that first inspired a young Sarah. Growing up first in York and then in Carlingford, she had her sights set on a career in acting.

"I became a speech and drama teacher and then followed my dream and went to the Guildhall School of Drama in London and then began my career in acting, which I loved." She appeared in the film Omagh, about the 1998 bomb which killed 29 people in a Real IRA attack on the market town and various television programmes, including Fair City.

"I loved acting and it was a great career, but I think it is very much a career for a single person with no commitments.

"When my son Thomas was born, I realised I couldn't take on jobs which involved me leaving the house at 6am and returning again at midnight.

"As a single mum I also couldn't afford the insecurity of not knowing when I was going to get my next job. It just isn't a child-friendly environment to work in," she stresses.

At this stage Sarah took a job as a TV and radio voice-over artist.

"This was much more flexible and I could work from home, which was great with Thomas," she explains.

"You will have heard me but not seen me over the years," she jokes.

Part of this work involved her being asked to write a radio play, which was her first time "dipping her toe in writing water".

"I was asked to write a play for radio and I thought, 'well I have never done this before but I will give it a go' - and it worked out well. The play was well received," she says.

Following on from Hello, At Last, Sarah has written a series of children's books, called Stretch Little Sunflower.

"They are about teaching children to have confidence to be who they are and to know that it is okay to be different. It is about saying - just be who you were created to be. I hope to have them published very soon."

And now that she has the writing bug, novel number two is also under way.

"This book is more modern than the last one," she says. "It features crime, domestic violence, mystery, a missing person and hopefully some comedy and tears along the way. It is a drama and all the characters are interlinked."

With her "fictional baby" under way, Sarah says in her downtime she spends as much time with her actual baby as possible.

"We are very close and do everything together. We love going hill walking or away for the day to do something fun but educational, such as the Giant's Causeway, The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum or the Folk Park. We love visiting historical places. Of course, when we are not out and about I am mum's taxi, ferrying him back and forth from football and Taekwondo."

Although she came relatively late to motherhood, Sarah says there is no better job in the world and she was completely ready to be a working mum.

"It is my most important role. My maternal instincts just kicked in and I was ready to be a mum," she adds proudly.

And although he hasn't read the book, Sarah says Thomas is her greatest fan and always tells her how proud he is of his mummy. "It has been a steep learning curve, launching a book but I am delighted with how well it has been received so far and looking forward to more to come."

The book's back cover also features a shot of a lady pushing a bicycle, which Sarah reveals is her mother, adding: "This is my mum dressed as the main character would be at that stage of her life."

Hello, At Last, £9.95, McEvoys, The Gift and Art Gallery and other outlets in Newry or visit thewritespace.ie and sarahrgilbert.com

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