'Women can be very good at working past the joy' - publisher turned author Sarah Davis-Goff
With the publication of her first novel, publisher Sarah Davis-Goff has moved from gamekeeper to poacher
'I think it's a deep dark secret that I've been denying myself since I was a kid," says Sarah Davis-Goff with a laugh. By which she means the desire to write. Her first novel Last Ones Left Alive is about to be published, meaning that Sarah has gone from gamekeeper (ie publisher; she set up Tramp Press in 2014), to poacher (ie writer).
Last Ones Left Alive is accomplished and beautifully-written, set in a dystopic future Ireland and following a young girl, Orpen, as she tries to navigate the inhospitable landscape around her, and within her. It's a book for readers who like adventure, action - some great fight scenes - and tension, but also those who look for profound reflections, on identity and belonging.
It's not the usual first novel, and when Sarah tells me she spent almost five years writing it, discarding many drafts and thousands of words along the way, I'm not surprised.
So where did the love of books come from? "I grew up inhaling books," she says. "I was quite a sickly child. I had lung problems - I had half of my left lung removed when I was about five because I had really bad double pneumonia - and I had to spend a long time in hospital."
"I was fine," she insists when I say how lonely that must have been; "I was grand, I didn't really know what was happening. It's my parents I feel sorry for, it must have been scary."
Sarah's parents -Sir Robert and Lady Sheelagh Davis-Goff, who have a property business-were, she says "really great about this. They were very much 'go and do these things!" And so Sarah, despite recurrent lung infections and shortness of breath, "did all the things you're supposed to do as a child growing up."
But alas, refusing to be held back by one's physical challenges isn't the same as these challenges not existing. Sarah also missed a lot of school - she went to Headfort in Meath aged seven, then to St Columba's, both boarding. "I'd be at school, I'd get sick, and I'd be sent home for a couple of weeks or months. My parents were quite concerned because I was missing a lot of school, so they would set me assignments before they went off to work - 'write an essay about X'. I really enjoyed that."
Did she mind missing so much school? "There were some difficult aspects of it - I'm quite competitive, and I found it very frustrating that I would just begin to catch up on school work, then I'd get another chest infection and I'd be sent home again to recover. But at the same time, being home was lovely, being looked after was lovely. Other people have it so much worse," she insists, adding, "I guess the good" - she puts 'good' into air-quotes with a laugh - "is that I spent quite a lot of time alone, which I quite enjoy to be honest, and I spent an awful lot of time reading. I think all round I was incredibly lucky."
And the house - Sarah and her three brothers grew up in Seafield House, in Donabate - "had a lot of books. My family are all really into books. My aunt (Annabel Davis-Goff) is a writer. My grandmother wrote a book, my cousin Sam, in America, just got his first poetry collection published. There's all these fantastic books everywhere. It's like having a wonderful, edited library to pick and choose from." As for the golden-sounding privilege of her early years, she says, "It's not something I try and hide, it's a fact of my life, but at the same time, it doesn't reflect any of my achievements. It's not like I'm proud of it and shouting about it either. My parents are genuinely excellent people. I feel incredibly lucky to have spent a childhood with them. They both work very hard - they would leave at about 7am for the office, wouldn't come back til 8 or 9pm. They work together and live together. They're one of these couples, they really love and admire and respect each other. They get along exceptionally well. They've been married nearly 50 years and they still flirt. It's lovely."
During those years, Sarah read Enid Blyton, the classics, anything that caught her eye, "and then I stumbled across a Stephen King novel, and my mind was blown open, as a 12-year-old, reading Firestarter, thinking 'Wow - this is also what you can do with words…'"
And yet, writing wasn't something that really occurred as a possibility. "It's not something I ever vocalised. Anyway," she adds, "I think I was quite slow to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I was a bit lost for a few years."
After school she did a year at the Dublin Business School, then went travelling "for a really long time. I picked grapes in France, taught in a school in India for six months, things like that. And I really enjoyed it." But still this feeling of not knowing quite what to do. "I had really vague ideas, that I'd 'get into marketing' or something," she laughs.
It was a conversation with her aunt, Annabel, writer and academic, that began to shape Sarah's direction. "She's someone I admire a lot. She left school when she was about 16; she just decided she wasn't going back. She emigrated to the States, ended up working in the movie industry, married Mike Nichols, the director" [he directed The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman, and Postcards From The Edge with Meryl Streep] had a couple of kids with him, wrote books and now she's the writer in residence at Bennington College in Vermont. She's very cool. A good person to bounce ideas off."
Annabel mentioned St Johns, a "tiny" liberal arts college in Santa Fe, New Mexico, "I asked my parents and they were game for it because I think they were a bit worried about me, rambling round in a very lost manner - so I went." There is still the faintest of American twangs to her accent. "I was hired by the college to be a writing assistant and I just really enjoyed that process. That's when something really clicked for me." After that, she was, she says, "in a rush! I thought, 'right, this is my direction in life'."
Sarah did an MA in publishing at Oxford Brookes university, followed by an unpaid internship at a small non-fiction publishers in the States, and then a larger publishing company in London. "I lasted about two weeks," she says. "I was in the marketing department. I realised then that small publishing was probably for me." And yes, she is entirely aware that unpaid internships are not possible for everyone; that, in fact, they represent the kind of social inequality that means publishing, in general, is a career only open to a few. "I'm coming at publishing from a remarkably privileged position where my parents could support me," she says candidly. "I think this is one of the real problems."
So the stereotype of the 'posh girl'? "Yes, I think that's fair. I think that's what publishing is - posh girls, and even more posh boys - and I think that's really problematic. It means only a certain kind of taste is represented." After the curtailed internship, she tried to get work. "I tried really hard to get a job in publishing for a very long time, over a year. By then, I'd been away for so long, and much to my surprise, I found I really wanted to be in Dublin. I wanted to work here, have a life here. And then an internship opened up in Lilliput Press. So I went there and basically wouldn't leave!"
At Lilliput, Sarah was, she says, "so desperate to please and impress that I decided I'm going to be the best intern ever!" And so she found the 'slush' pile - the pile of unsolicited manuscripts that every publishing company has. "I thought, 'I can take care of that!'" In the pile, Sarah found Donal Ryan's novel, The Spinning Heart, since published to huge acclaim. "I just picked it up," she says. "Donal is an astounding writer. I think you know from the first sentence. I was really excited. I got other people in the office to read it; that was a very cool moment! It gave me an absolute boost of confidence."
While at Lilliput, Sarah met Lisa Coen, "Lisa came in as an intern, and immediately, all my pretensions to being the best intern Lilliput ever had went out the window! We got along really well." From that came Tramp Press. "We did try and look for jobs," Sarah says. "Nobody would hire us!" As for 'how' they set up, "It's not that difficult," Sarah says. "We wanted to keep overheads spectacularly low, so we worked from home. Tramp by name, tramp by nature!"
They also knew what they wanted to achieve - "We wanted to put out just a few titles a year. We wanted to publish great stuff because it's great, even if we can't see a market for it. And no unpaid internships. We need to support people from a really diverse range of backgrounds getting into this industry." So far, they have published Mike McCormack, Sara Baume and Emilie Pine, among others.
One of the things Sarah and Lisa decided at Tramp is that they would not accept submissions beginning 'Dear sir…' How did that go down, I ask? "Some men were very unhappy about this," she laughs. "Lisa and I are very upfront about who we are. Our submissions page has a photo of us; we're women, we are not sirs. It's a gross knee-jerk reaction to assume that the only person capable of reading a manuscript and responding, is a man. But we still get the occasional one…" They also get a fair amount of abuse. "We got one email addressed to 'Dear Miss Butch and Miss Dyke…' We get quite a lot of hate mail; a stunning amount for just two women trying to do their jobs." How does that affect her? "It makes me laugh, a lot. I'm OK with it."
All through, Sarah had been writing. "I'd written a terrible vampire thing, years ago, it was so bad! I started this book four or five years ago, at which stage it looked very different to how it is now. I write extraordinarily uneconomically. Often I don't know what I'm trying to say, and it's only through writing hundreds of thousands of words that I formulate a story and a character. It's a real pain!" Undoubtedly, as a writer, yes, but the end result, for readers, means there is not word wasted in Last Ones Left Alive. There is no bloat, no extraneous matter.
She showed an early version to Lisa - "I wanted to show her because if I was trying to put out a book that was really horrifically embarrassing, I wanted her to tell me that. Not just for the good of myself but for the good of the company!" - and eventually deemed the book ready to be shown to an agent. "I give a lot of advice, as a publisher, around submitting a manuscript, and I followed so little of it!" she laughs. Her agent sent the book to a selection of publishers. "Tinder Press were the first to read it and love it and get what I was trying to do. They offered a good offer, and we said, 'yeah, let's just go with that!'"
So, how well do publisher Sarah and writer Sarah co-exist? "The daydream is of selling so well you'll be able to afford to buy a house in Foxrock… but at the same time, as a publisher, I know how wildly unrealistic that is. I know what to expect, and that's lovely. I know to keep expectations kind of low, to be honest, and I'm comfortable with that."
Another early reader - although not so early that it didn't take Sarah a year to reveal that she was working on something - was Sarah's partner Dave Rudden, also an author (he writes the Knights of the Borrowed Dark series). "We've been together three years or so. We met at a bookselling conference. I love that we're interested in doing the same things but coming at it from different angles - he's a kids' writer so his experiences are quite different but we're living very much in the same world."
In August, the couple are getting married. "I'm very on-brand," she laughs, "I popped the question! It wasn't a particularly romantic moment. I think we were in bed one morning and I said 'do you want to get married' and he said 'yeah'." Dave is, she says "the best. I definitely could not marry anyone else, ever. I feel outstandingly lucky. I didn't feel that I would be a person who would get married." Why not? "I just never met a guy I liked a lot. Or even if I liked him a lot, I couldn't see us being happy together, not over the long-term. But Dave is so beautiful, he's so feminist. He's the opposite to me in a lot of ways in that he's quite outgoing and good with people."
Is she not? "No… I get quite tongue-tied, I'm a little bit nervous."
And so, right now, "I'm trying to remember to enjoy it," she says with a laugh, "Women can be very good at working past the joy! But this is something I've wanted for a really long time. I'm trying to remember just to allow myself to acknowledge that a little bit. There's no other time that's going to be as exciting in my life as now - my first book is about to come out, I'm getting married to this unbelievably great guy, there's a lot going on."
'Last Ones Left Alive' by Sarah Davis-Goff, €16.99, is published on March 7 by Tinder Press
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