A few years ago, Sara O’Donovan was driving near her family home in Sussex when she thought that she saw an old friend walking on the road ahead of her.

The only problem? He had died in the 1990s.

“I was sure that I could recognise him from the back,” she recalls. “When I got to him, I realised it wasn’t him. But that moment of ‘what if?’ stuck with me.”

And that same moment has inspired her first novel, Within You, Without You, which Sara will read from at this summer’s West Cork Literary Festival: the same festival she also manages.

Speaking to Irish Country Living from her home near Clonakilty, Sara explains that while she grew up in the UK, her father, Dan O’Donovan, was born in Leap near Skibbereen.

“He headed off to try his hand in the world of racing; there was no space on the family farm with a big family coming up,” she explains.

Dan originally moved to Tipperary to work with Tim Hyde and Clem Magnier, and then re-located to the UK to forge a long career as a national hunt jockey – riding in the first televised Grand National in 1960 – before working as head man in yards including that of Lady Anne Herries, who trained Derby-winner Celtic Swing.

Horse tails to telling tales

Unsurprisingly, Sara was immersed in the equine world from the off, though with a preference towards show jumping; she qualified for the Royal International Horse Show on her 13.2hh pony and worked with Olympic rider, Steven Hadley, during her gap year.

Indeed, while she completed a degree in English, after university she worked with racing administrators, Weatherbys, and spent a year as racing secretary for William Huntington, the Queen’s trainer.

So, what brought her back to Ireland?

“There was much more fun in Ireland,” she laughs, explaining that on a trip with her Irish cousins to the Féile music festival in the ‘90s, she ended up meeting her future husband, Damien. “And that was that!”

Sara stayed working in the equine industry, initially with Rathbarry Stud in Fermoy, before turning her hand to reporting for publications such as Horse and Hound and The Irish Field. She and Damien also welcomed children Annie (now 15) and Tom (10) while continuing to keep their own horses on their small-holding.

By the mid-’00s, however, she made the move into marketing by joining the team behind a trio of west Cork festivals: the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, the Masters of Tradition Festival and the West Cork Literary Festival.

Sara O'Donovan manages the West Cork Literary Festival and recently published her first novel, Within You, Without You

With authors like Graham Norton now regulars at the Bantry-based event each July, we ask Sara what her ‘pinch-me moments’ have been through the years as a bookworm?

Reflecting, she fondly recalls collecting Liverpudlian poet, Roger McGough, from the airport – especially as she got to ask him about his friendship with The Beatles – as well as meeting actress-turned-author, Carol Drinkwater.

“I was a huge All Creatures Great and Small fan when I was little and to think that Helen Herriot [Drinkwater’s character] was actually at our festival was a real thrill,” she explains.

Keeping the faith

Being surrounded by literary talent, it’s not surprising that Sara would attempt her own work of fiction; though she explains that when she showed her first effort – a historical novel – to an editor, she was advised that it was not plot-driven enough to be published.

“[She said] have you got another idea?” recalls Sara, who at once remembered that moment of mistaken identity from years before.

The result is Within You, Without You. Stuck in a luck-lustre marriage, the main character, Kathryn, feels like her life has come to a complete standstill. On a trip home, however, she is shocked to see a familiar face on the side of the road; especially when he has been dead for 20 years. With long-buried memories of a first love uncovered, Kathryn returns to her past to see if she can re-write her present.

Sara O'Donovan- pictured her in a training session with her horse- is still involved in show-jumping as a hobby

Perhaps best-described as contemporary fiction – but with a paranormal twist – we ask Sara how challenging it was to take a single memory as a starting point and turn it into a finished work; especially as she had no idea where the story was heading initially.

“I sort of had a bit of faith the book would tell itself to me eventually,” she responds, explaining that she often drew on advice that Booker Prize winning author, Anne Enright, had given at a workshop once at the West Cork Literary Festival.

“I always remember her saying, ‘It’s like the lights shining from a car in front of you. They can only pick out a certain amount of the road, they can’t see the complete destination and that’s all you need to write a book.’ And that gave me a lot of reassurance.”

Creative process

Sara certainly drew on her experiences in the world of racing for the early stages of the novel; but is there much of herself in Kathryn?

“There kind of is,” she laughs. “A lot of the background is different obviously… but [she is] someone who is probably on the peripheries and not very front and centre; but at the same time, sort of goes after what she wants.”

In terms of the creative process, Sara engaged the services of a writing mentor to help her to develop her character’s backstory, but much of the writing was done by night after the demands of work, family and horses were put to bed.

“It’s like a parallel world that you just go into every night. I suppose it’s like having a social life!” laughs Sara.

Having sent the finished manuscript to literary agents without success in early 2020, she sought advice from Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin of Inkwell Publishing Consultancy in 2021, who encouraged her to send her book to publishers who were accepting un-agented submissions. A week later, she saw that Valley Press – an independent publisher in Yorkshire – was opening up a submissions window for that August.

Sending it off, Sara didn’t think much more about it; until she received an email in October saying that her book had been accepted out of 200 submissions, eventually hitting shelves in November 2022.

She admits that it is slightly surreal to now find herself on the programme of the West Cork Literary Festival as an author; especially in the company of this year’s writers, who include Donal Ryan, India Knight, Sara Baume, and more, in a packed programme of readings, talks and workshops.

But what advice would she give to a would-be writer who dreams of publishing their own novel?

“It’s such a cliché isn’t it, but I think really to keep going,” she responds. “It’s such a shame when people give up at the first hurdle. But also, look for help.

“If something is not working, maybe a change in direction can make all the difference.”

Sara O’Donovan will read from Within You, Without You at Bantry Bookshop on Wednesday 12 July at 11.30am. Admission is free. The West Cork Literary Festival runs from 7-14 July. See westcorkmusic.ie/literary-festival/ programme.

Read more

'I'm a firm believer in music being hopeful'

An cinematographer ciúin: meet Kate McCullough