On the Importance of People and Place: An Encounter with Sarah Davis-Goff




I MET SARAH DAVIS-GOFF, novelist and editor, at a café in Dublin to talk about publishing, her recent novel, and the particular moment Irish literature is having. After our drinks — she had a soy latte, I drank green tea — she pushed open the door, exposing a scar on her wrist. “I got it at kickboxing,” she explained, stopping for a moment to chat with the security guard just then by the door. As it turns out, not only was she indeed a regular at that particular café, but the security guard in question was her friendly sparring partner from kickboxing. Flashing her scar, they shared a smile, a knowing nod as we passed through the door out onto the street and the Dublin wind.

Sarah Davis-Goff is someone who means what she says, and in our short time together my abiding impression of her is of someone with a deep connection to people and place. It was palpable in how she inhabits her home city, also in her debut novel, Last Ones Left Alive (Tinder Press [UK]/Flatiron [US], 2019). It is also, I was lucky enough to see, palpable in how she and fellow editor Lisa Coen run their publishing house, Tramp.

Tramp was founded by Sarah and Lisa in 2014, who, Sarah told me, met while interning at another Dublin-based indie publisher, Lilliput Press. United in their love of editing and publishing great writing, they decided to establish a publishing house of their own. It’s probably a common enough dream; few, however go on to make the impact that they have done with Tramp. Sarah quipped that she and Lisa started Tramp in order to have jobs and to keep doing what they loved. But there’s more to it than that.

Tramp unapologetically embodies progressive values in their editorial process. The press actively seek submissions from people of color and those traditionally underrepresented in publishing. The editors also take an active stance with regard to gender; they decline to consider submissions addressed to “dear sirs,” or from writers listing a male-only list of influences. That Tramp has an all-female editorial board makes this easy for anyone to understand, but in the times we live in, it would all be for the good if other editors would take note.

Since the press’s establishment in 2014, its impact on Irish publishing has been huge. Authors like Sara Baume and Mike McCormack have been nominated for prizes, including the Booker and the Desmond Elliott Prize, and won the Goldsmiths Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award (among others), cementing their place on the literary scene in Ireland and the United Kingdom. I also have it on good authority that they are committed to paying even their debut authors a decent advance, unlike some indies that notoriously play the poor mouth.

In short, part of the mission of Tramp has been to shake up the publishing establishment in Ireland, and it has been very successful in doing so. One can think of them as part of a broader movement, along with publications like The Stinging Fly, they have contributed to the modernization of the image of Irish literature, turning it from something stagnant and misogynist into something compelling, contemporary and successful. In Ireland at least, gone are the “green fields of home” stereotypes, the chats in the kitchen, the roaring, drunken patriarch. And for now, the brand of Irish literature is sailing high on a tide of domestic and international interest. Of course, this is less of a clean break with tradition than some commentators seem to suggest, the enduring success and appeal of writers like Colm Tóibín being a case in point.

And the rich tradition or Irish writing (which, after all, brought Joyce and Beckett to the world) is something that the editors at Tramp are keenly aware of. This is evidenced by their Recovered Voices series, which seeks to shine a light on forgotten writing from the annals of Irish literature. This year they will publish an anthology of classic Irish fantasy, edited by Jack Fennell. It is also present in their name. Part of the story behind the name, Sarah told me, was motivated by taking back a term of derision used to describe women. The other side of the story is that it’s a nod to the tradition of Irish literature, specifically playwright John Millington Synge’s “tramp” figure, a proxy for the artist, the bold outsider, who arrives unannounced to shake up a stale patriarchy.

Sarah speaks in quick-fire bursts of alarmingly articulate language, such that I struggled to keep up and put pen to paper at the same time. This shouldn’t really have surprised me; I read Last Ones Left Alive in two sprints, and I would have read it in one if I didn’t need to sleep. The sparse prose of the book clips along fast enough to make you feel the urgency of the protagonist’s (Orpen) journey across a zombie-infested Ireland.

Yeah. Zombie-infested Ireland. That’s not one you’re going to read in the canon of Irish literature alright, and indeed when I first heard of it I was rather surprised that the co-founder of Tramp, the publisher who puts out the likes of Baume and McCormack, would write a postapocalyptic zombie novel. Probably, though, that says much more about my own tastes and prejudices as a reader than anything else.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it; in fact, its greatness lies in challenging one’s expectations. And sure, aren’t we all about that in the era of Eimear McBride’s rejuvenation of modernism and Anna Burns’s stunning Milkman winning the Man Booker Prize? I don’t believe I’ve read any postapocalyptic novels set in Ireland; no, zombies are something you’d expect (thanks, Hollywood) to see coming out of the United States, shuffling listlessly along a Midwestern road, or at a pinch in Korea, or Japan maybe.

The zombies in Sarah’s novel are called skrakes, and they create an atmosphere of fear throughout the book. It’s no wonder, then, that Orpen, who was raised by her mother and another woman on a zombie-free island off the west coast of Ireland obsesses about them, even when she’s still in skrake-free territory. Somewhat miraculously, Orpen was raised in a loving and safe environment, something she insists tells you all you need to know about her mother and her other caregiver, Maeve. Trained to fight and educated to survive for survival’s sake, Orpen’s natural desire for knowing more is fed by scraps of information from the ruins of the old world, images of the elusive Banshees, and ultimately the mysterious Phoenix City. This place, which her parents try to warn her off, may or may not exist somewhere on the east coast of Ireland, and finding it becomes an obsession for Orpen.

The book follows a binary structure, whereby alternating chapters tell of Orpen’s upbringing and training, interspaced by her journey across Ireland, at first with her dog, Danger, and Maeve, who she pushes along in a wheelbarrow. The process of turning into a skrake is a gradual one, a slow wasting away until what was a person is filled with a vicious vigor.  So as we gradually realize that Maeve is on her way to becoming one, the race to find Phoenix City becomes one charged with very dramatic tension. This, like everything we find out about the skrake, is another part of Orpen’s survival training in a world gone cruel beyond reason.

A running, if not subtle, theme in the book is a deep mistrust of men, though the only man we do encounter in the book is a thoroughly decent guy whose main fault is poor judgment in terms of attracting the attention of the skrakes, whose acute perception is highly tuned to the job of hunting down the Last Ones Left Alive. One of a trio of characters fleeing Phoenix City, he tells us that women in Phoenix City have two choices, to become Banshees or Breeders, but men have only one. Presumably, this is something we can expect to find out about in the forthcoming sequel, which Sarah told me will deal more with the elusive Phoenix City. Having read the first book, though, I cannot help but imagine that it will also involve a return to Slanbeg and the characters who fled there in Last Ones Left Alive; Orpen’s parting kiss seems to promise as much. That is, though, only this reader’s hopeful speculation.

There are several engines driving the prose which are proper to their roots in genre fiction, which makes the book difficult to categorize clearly. The book unfolds like a thriller, with a chase-like journey traversing the breadth of Ireland, twice, and then back again. Like a mystery, you want to find out why Maeve is in a wheelbarrow, whether Phoenix City still exists, and if Orpen will make it there and meet the Banshees. The skrake themselves inspire horror. They are breathtakingly depicted, particularly in the scene where they work themselves into a frenzy around the fire and then chase our band of survivors to the coastline. When the Banshees do finally emerge, it could seem a little like a deus ex machina device but it does not; their presence has been sufficiently foreshadowed throughout to give us the feeling that they have been hot on their heels the entire time, which indeed they have. It’s no wonder, then, that film rights have already been sold, and I really hope we’ll get to see this original take on a postapocalyptic zombie scenario play out on the old green fields.

If there is any critique I would make, it is that I would have liked to see how language itself falls apart along with the crumbling houses and roads, and the opportunities for beauty it might present. For someone raised in relative isolation, educated primarily in how to kill skrake, Orpen is surprisingly articulate, and has more than a passing knowledge of Irish geography, despite the fact that she only has a crumbling map and two tight-lipped parents to guide her. This, despite the fact that during her later years on Slanbeg, Orpen and Maeve seem to have lived in near-total silence. Orpen tells us that when they spoke after this long pause, it was strange. Yet in Orpen’s ever-articulate narration, we don’t really get that sense. I should think that there is a lot of scope in the midst of the exploration of a decaying country also to explore how its language falls apart. And as for the other characters, I should think that after a couple of decades of living under the constant threat of the skrake the residents of Phoenix City would develop their proper vernacular. A little like how she is taught to avoid tall buildings because they’re liable to fall on you, I’d be happy to see the narrator avoid big words as they’re liable to be useless with a skrake on your six. In general, I’d love to see what can be done with the ruins of language as Orpen hides in the ruins of rural Ireland.

Last Ones Left Alive has been criticized for lacking a sense of place, but here I would have to strongly disagree. The narrator’s love of the landscape, the island haven where she grew up, and even the life bursting through the decay are very prominent throughout. When she is hiding from her pursuers, cutting across fields or negotiating crumbling country towns, it’s as though you were there with her yourself. It is a lot of space covered in a short time, but this is a judicious choice on the part of the author; after all, Orpen is being chased by zombies. Still, there is enough of a descriptive element to the book to leave you with a lasting impression of post-apocalypse Ireland: “[F]orest pushing in against the hills, tracks of small roads, now paths, weaving between it like rivulets of water on the beach at home. Little towns are nearly consumed back into earth with trees and vines deliberately dismantling the stoneworks of the buildings.”

Come to think of it, the whole scene puts me in a mind of family trips to rural Fermanagh growing up, where grass burst through the center of small country roads. I wonder if it still does.

Things like zombies can be dismissed as mere devices, fantastical conjurings to evoke our own sense of mortality and human frailty. These are the things which modernity has sought to push into the shadow. I sometimes can’t help but feel that, if at least not consciously, there is an intrinsic collusion between this denying of mortality and the wild ordinances of consumer capitalism. Best not to dwell too much on death — after all, there’s next season’s collection to think about! However, in the era of climate crisis, the effects of which are hinted at in Last Ones Left Alive, and the ever-present risk of pandemic, a book with themes like this is very much of its time.

But there’s something more to it in Sarah’s case, I think. When I asked her how her love of literature came about, she responded that she was a sickly child and devoured books. No shit; she lost one of her lungs, telling me that she technically died and was resuscitated on the operating table. Orpen stands as a very independent character from the author, and Sarah has said that she doesn’t particularly identify with her. Nevertheless, I cannot help at least imagining an inevitable bleed through into a book like Last Ones Left Alive of experiences of the ilk. Not only this, but in the feminist aspect of the book which is likewise woven into the DNA of Tramp Press. The logo of Tramp Press, a small x inside a circle, as Sarah told me, has its origins in signs left following the Great Depression that uprooted people across the United States, where the author was educated and, like so many Irish, has familial ties. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that it appears in the collection of symbols which Orpen etches into the landscape to navigate the ruins of postapocalyptic Ireland.

Another preoccupation that seems central both to the book and Sarah’s other activities is place, and people. In Last Ones Left Alive, we are left with vivid impressions of Slanbeg island; of an Ireland which is raced across; of landscapes, trees, ditches, and derelict buildings which are used to hide from the skrake. But another place, which we do not see in the book, takes root in the imagination nonetheless. It’s quite a feat of prose to leave us with strong impressions of what life is like in Phoenix City without ever describing it, because the first-person narrator hasn’t been. The people in the novel, though they are few, are charged with emotional intensity, perhaps all the more for their small number, and for the fact that time, and everything, is short.

Which puts me in a mind of Tramp’s relationship with its authors. It’s something I was lucky enough to witness when Sarah invited me to the launch of their 2020 list. A total of three books will be published; despite its success, Tramp is still a small press. Their success, as she put it on the night, has a lot to do with the fact that everything they publish, they “publish the shit out of.” This year they will feature, in addition to a collection of classic Irish fantasy, Sara Baume’s first work of nonfiction and a nonfiction title by award-winning poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa.

In this attention to their authors, which would be the envy of any writer published by a big commercial publisher, there is clearly more than a calculation about how something fits current trends, how much money they stand to make from selling on the rights, and so on. And in beating its own path, Tramp is setting trends. It’s a model which also gives the authors’ books the best possible chance of survival. And it’s likewise one that’s deeply rooted in place; the press has been part of the disruption of norms that put Irish literature in the place it is today. Tramp is also, I believe, the first Irish publishing house to expand into the United Kingdom, with an editor in Scotland joining the team last year. And this, considering the wealth of talent coming out of Ireland in terms of writing, is the logical next step for Irish publishing. Naming Faber & Faber in the UK and Grove in the USA as inspirations, Sarah described having an Irish home for new fiction and new voices as her dream for Tramp Press.

Publishing is a strange world, and, faced with the overwhelmingly corporate character of mainstream publishers, it can often seem bleak, perhaps hopeless for even strong indie publishers. Hopeless, but essential, a lot like Orpen’s journeys across Ireland on foot. Some lines from a short story I read recently, “My Old Home” by Lu Xun, come to mind: “Hope cannot be said to exist. Nor can it be said to not exist. It is just like roads across the Earth. For actually the Earth has no roads to begin with, but when enough people pass one way, a road is made.”

I wish them all the best on their journey.

¤

Luke Cassidy is a writer from Ireland. His debut novel, Iron Annie, is currently out of submission; he is represented in New York by The Fischer-Harbage agency and in Ireland by Storyline Literary Agency. He loves discovering new stories and looking at old ones in odd ways.

 

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