The Forbidden Room Contains Fantastic Fiction

A nationwide competition made Sarah Wray's dreams come true, writes Lee Henry

For struggling writer and mother of three Sarah Wray, it was a long shot. A nationwide writing competition, The Wow Factor, had been launched by Waterstone's and Faber, attracting legions of committed writers, each hoping to one day see their children’s book vying with the 'Rowlings' and the 'Dahls' of the world.

The winner would have their work sold in every Waterstones in the country. Although she had quit work as a teacher some years earlier to indulge her love of writing full-time, Wray thought that the adventure was bound to come to an end.

The Forbidden Room by Sarah WrayWith six books written in her spare time and only limited attention from publishing companies, the idea of entering a writing competition was clutching at straws.

Nevertheless, Wray decided to go for broke. She had been working on a new story and had already written six chapters. After reading the rules of The Wow Factor, she condensed the six into three and sent them off to Waterstone's HQ in London. She had no idea that, far from reaching its conclusion, her adventure had only just begun.

‘I sent the first chapters off in July 2005,’ recalls Wray. ‘They said that the finalists would be notified in September, and that each manuscript had to be finished by then. So I had to work pretty fast.

‘I had already planned the story before I heard about the competition, so I knew exactly where I was going with it, although I tend to write quickly anyway. It never takes me more than six months to write a book. I finished it with about two days to spare before the phone call came.’

Some 3,500 budding scribes entered The Wow Factor, and Wray had made it into the final fourteen as regional winner for Ireland. But there would be another nail-biting month to wait to before the judging panel would announce the winner. On the panel were This Morning’s Fern Britton and Phillip Schofield, as well as acclaimed children’s authors Anna Dale and GP Taylor.

’From that point on I could think of nothing else. It meant so much to me,’ Wray admits. 'When the final phone call came, the judging panel themselves were on the line. They told me that I’d won and that the following week I’d be coming to London for a live television interview on This Morning. It was like a dream.’

The Forbidden Room is a chilling tale for teenagers in which the young heroine, Jenny, loses her legs and her beloved mother in a tragic road accident. Confined to a wheelchair, Jenny settles into life at Oak Hall Children’s Centre, where she dreams of one day regaining the love she has lost with a new foster family.

When John and Helen Holland offer to take her in, Jenny resolves to make the most of her new-found home. She instantly connects with their young son Stephen, a talented youngster astute beyond his years. But when she discovers a diary hidden beneath a floorboard in her bedroom, things begin to take a turn for the worse.

The story is a concise, slow-burning thriller that revolves around the moral implications of modern stem cell research. Wray drew heavily on her degree in genetics, received from Queen’s University, and her time spent working in research laboratories.

‘After I graduated I worked in the medical lab before going on to teacher training,’ Wray explains. ‘I find that the hardest thing about writing a book is coming up with a good plot idea. Once I’ve got that worked out, the writing comes easy. So when I was between books I came across a story in the press about saviour siblings.

'There was a couple who wanted to use IVF treatment to save their sick child, but they weren’t allowed to do it. I was thinking, as a parent, if I had a sick child and there was a treatment available, would I take matters into my own hands. The whole plot came to me then and there.’

Although influenced by children’s writers like Enid Blyton, JK Rowling and CS Lewis, Wray’s first unpublished outing was a book for adults, followed by a number of books for children. With The Forbidden Room, Wray found that she was better suited to writing stories for teenagers.

‘I wouldn’t consider The Forbidden Room a children’s book as such. Teenage fiction is becoming more popular, with authors like Jacqueline Wilson writing mature stories for older children. To me, teenage fiction is almost like a genre on its own. Hopefully the book has a cross-over value and will appeal to both children and adults.’

Almost a year after winning the competition, and four months since the publication of The Forbidden Room, Wray has just finished her follow up, another mystery thriller for teenagers, this time structured around the diary entries of a male protagonist. It’s been a rollercoaster year for the Liverpool-born Wray, one that she has savoured.

For all of those wannabe Aesops, dreaming of carving a niche for themselves on the Northern Irish literary landscape, Wray has some sound advice.

‘My husband always reads my work, so I know what’s it’s like to have someone else’s input. But now I have to be accountable to my editor and to my audience, rather than just writing for myself. It’s quite a responsibility, but that’s the way the publishing business goes. If you have an audience, you have to try to satisfy that audience, not alienate them.

‘I’m grateful that I have the chance to go forward and keep writing professionally. The Wow Factor has given me the career that I’d always dreamed of. And for any writers out there struggling to get themselves heard, all I can say is: don’t give up. It happened to me, it just might happen to you.’