Writer’s Block with Sarah Davis-Goff

Sophie Grenham speaks to author SARAH DAVIS-GOFF about her day job as a publisher, feminist dystopian fiction and her debut novel …

For much of the Irish literary community, Sarah Davis-Goff is a figure that needs little introduction. She is one half of independent publisher Tramp Press, which she founded with Lisa Cohen in 2014. They met during their mutual tenure at Lilliput Press, after Sarah fulfilled her first publishing role at Dalkey Archive Press in 2011. Together, the dynamic duo of books have championed some of the most important emerging voices of the last decade, including Sarah Baume, Emilie Pine and Mike McCormack.

All the while, Davis-Goff dreamt of publishing a book of her very own, and now that day has come. Last Ones Left Alive is a heart-wrenching story about a post-apocalyptic Ireland, years after it was savaged by a mysterious disaster known as the Emergency. Foul creatures called skrake now walk the barren earth and nobody is safe. Orpen was raised on Slanbeg, an island off the west coast of Ireland, by her mother Muireann and aunt Maeve, who taught her how to forage, fight and survive. When tragedy strikes, Orpen takes to the road in search of Phoenix City, and a possible cure. With an injured Maeve stowed in her wheelbarrow and Danger the dog by her side, what could go wrong?

Davis-Goff’s utilitarian use of language seamlessly reflects the stark reality of a dystopian world, a place that’s hard, lonely and punishing. Yet, there is hope. We have a passionate heroine in young Orpen, whose spark and strength will carry you through the end of days.

Joseph O’Connor has said of Last Ones Left Alive – “From the get-go, it gripped me, and since the last page I’ve been haunted.” Louise O’Neill has called the book –  “Beautifully written and perfectly paced, keeping me awake until 2am as I promised myself I would read ‘just one more chapter.’ It’s a triumph.”

As well as fiction, Davis-Goff has written articles about publishing, literature and gender issues for The Irish Times, The Guardian and LitHub. She has a BA in Arts from St John’s College, New Mexico and an MA in Publishing from Oxford Brookes University.

Sarah Davis-Goff lives in Dublin with her fiancé Dave Rudden. She is currently writing her second novel.

Last Ones Left Alive, €14.99, is published by Tinder Press and available nationwide.  

On home

I live near Smithfield in Dublin with my fiancé. I love it – we’re surrounded by great coffee shops, we’ve the Lighthouse Cinema, and my favourite two bars, La Hacienda and Frank Ryan’s, are just around the corner. I find it intimidatingly cool here, and every now and then something new will open like Token, a hang-out that’s devoted to arcade games, or a cat café. Even still I never hesitate to leave the house in my absolute grubbiest gear.

On roots

I lived not too far away, in north county Dublin, first in Donabate and then just down the road in Swords, in the house my mother inherited from her parents when they died. There is a smell to my parent’s house; a pleasant, relaxed, dusty kind of scent which I don’t think I’ve experienced anywhere else. It’s the smell of furniture that hasn’t been moved in decades and of settled air. Probably there’s some damp involved! Weirdly though the smell of lavender makes me think immediately of my family, and of our being all together during summer holidays when I was growing up.

On early reading

My father was great for reading to my three brothers and me when we were all small – lots of adventure classics like Shipwrecked and She. Memories of my father’s lovely reading voice and my brothers sprawled out in front of the fire listening to great stories are incredibly dear to me. But, me being me, I wasn’t crazy on being read to – I didn’t like not being able to go at the speed I wanted to, and it didn’t feel active enough. I listen to audiobooks all the time now, but I’m usually doing something else, like walking or housework, and even still I’m fiddling with the speed a lot.

Besides that I think as a kid I wanted to read those books that were too trashy for my parents’ tastes; I discovered Stephen King when I was eleven or twelve and my mind was just blown. Up until that I’d been reading much more age-appropriate stuff, so finding out that words could also do these things was a great shock. I actually re-read Firestarter and The Long Walk recently, and I still think they’re exceptional books, all about being on the run, and fear of the establishment. I’m not sure my literary interests ever really moved on from those basic issues!

On growing up

I was a sickly child, so I spent a lot of time missing school, staying home and reading books when I was young. This really impacted on my personality; there’s nothing I love more than a whole day with nothing to do except read. As a publisher and a writer, books have obviously become a huge part of my life, but they loom no larger now than they did when I was a kid.

Like most people I did a lot of my growing up in college. I was incredibly lucky to go to this great liberal arts college in the States, and enjoyed a wonderful and almost completely useless education reading the great classics of western thought. We were taught by the Socratic method, with lots of conversation about the ideas we were being presented with, and we approached a huge range of subjects like science, maths and philosophy as well as literature.

I’ve forgotten literally everything I learned, but I managed to hold on to the confidence I found there in college!

On creating

My favourite place to write is in bed. I’m a little ashamed about this, I feel like I should ideally be in a flowy white Cos dress sitting at a delicate table with spindly legs tapping elegantly, or slugging whiskey in a deerhunter cap and smoking furiously while I attack a typewriter. But I’m literally in bed, ideally with my PJs on. If the book does well I may upgrade to lounge wear but I’m making no promises.

I work from home and have a great desk that I can concentrate really well at, but when I’m there I very naturally slip into my day-job mode. There’s something about being in bed, or at least on bed, that I find really enables my concentration. There’s nothing else to distract me; I’m perfectly comfortable. I feel that nobody can get at me there, or ask anything of me.

Our bedroom has a bohemian feel through no particular design of our own. It’s more like a large corridor, really, with three doors and a staircase leading off it. There are lots of plants and pleasant oddities; an electric drum kit I still haven’t learned how to play, knick-knacks (a small bronze sculpture of a rhino’s head my little brother gave me years ago, a stuffed elephant for some reason). On one wall is a square wooden target which was a gift to go along with the throwing knives my fiancé Dave got me to celebrate the publication of my book, Last Ones Left Alive. They’re beautiful, small, deadly things with soft leather handles; like the drums, though, I haven’t worked out how to use them!

On bookshops

Hodges Figgis is the bookshop my parents would take me to as a kid. Their office was right around the corner on Duke Street, and I feel like after a look around there I’ve been reacquainted with what’s going on in literature and publishing in Ireland, which I love. Hodges Figgis is really dear to my heart and I just can’t believe I get to launch my own book there.

We’re so spoiled for great bookshops though, I also adore The Gutter Bookshop – Bob, Sinead, Marta and the team are incredible booksellers, and their books are presented so beautifully. Books Upstairs and Dubray Books and further afield, Bridge Street Books and Charlie Byrne’s are favourites too.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I’ve got a lot of books by authors I’m planning to join at literary events – so, very happily, tons of feminist dystopian fiction, which is my favourite thing to read. The Last by Hanna Jameson is like The Shining but after a nuclear war. XX by Angela Chadwick, about women being able to conceive children together without needing a man’s input is a very real read. I’m also incredibly lucky to be getting some books from publishers in advance of publication, so the new Marlon James is next on my list!

I’m so picky in what I read, I have to really love stuff; I only read about fifty books a year, and I’m not going to live forever, so that’s a really finite list to enjoy. I keep this in mind if something is boring or frustrating me. Life is way too short for books that you don’t love.

On escapes

I haven’t really figured out a good escape, to be honest. More and more I feel a pull towards nature – I’d love to spend some time alone (well, with my fiancé ideally) by the sea, or in the woods, somewhere with patchy internet and big sturdy bookshelves. I’ve lived in Dublin for a really long time and I’d love to move now to the country and get a dog; I suppose this is what happens towards middle age. Even with all that the city has to offer I’d love to look around and see green and blue instead of grey.

On Last Ones Left Alive

I’ve always been fascinated with stories that take place on the road, and once I’d established that this was the kind of novel this is – with my hero essentially trying to get from Galway to Dublin in one piece – things really came together for me. The seed for this kind of work honestly was planted a really long time ago when I was a kid and reading lots of Stephen King and Margaret Atwood and whatever sci fi I could lay my hands on. Though this work is literary fiction, there’s a big part of me that’s just writing for my twelve-year-old self, and knowing she would be happy with this book is really rewarding. Honestly there’s not part of this process I haven’t loved.

On dystopia

The quantity, and the quality, of feminist dystopia being published just now is so interesting isn’t it? It’s getting pretty hot outside. Climate change is featuring more in the news and in people’s every day lives. I think we’re all thinking more about the future, and not necessarily with optimism, and it’s only natural to see that inform literary fiction. I’ve always loved reading about the apocalypse – I grew up on Z for Zachariah and Children of the Dust (I’d argue that Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon McKenna is a great example of the genre). I think there’s a perception that men are more interested in this kind of thing, but that really hasn’t been my experience. Society has never worked as well for women, and in lots of ways women are already enduring a kind of dystopia.

On publishing

Being a publisher in my day job has afforded me a very privileged position when it comes to getting my own work out there. I know, in a way, not to expect too much. Lots of books are published every year – too many, arguably – and even fighting for a space on someone else’s reading list isn’t always a battle you’ll win, and that is challenging.

So though I totally indulge in fantasies of buying a house in Dalkey, I know better than most people that it’s just a fantasy. But my publishers Tinder Press are so great, creative and ambitious, and so sure and confident in Last Ones Left Alive. The prospect of seeing it on shelves in shops I love alongside other work I really admire is hugely exciting.

I know that chance plays a huge role in the success of any book. The only thing I can control as a writer is the work itself, and the only thing that really matters at the end of the day in publishing and in writing is quality.

On what’s next

Ha, some long naps, I hope! I’m working on the second book, which I’m at once very excited and nervous about. It’s ambitious, furious, feminist – not unlike Last Ones Left Alive – and I’m really hoping I can get it right.

@SophieGrenham

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