Writing the novel you want to see in the world
Sarah Davis-Goff of Tramp Press on going from publisher to author
Sarah Davis-Goff: has written an Irish feminist post-apocalyptic novel called Last Ones Left Alive
In 2014 Lisa Coen and I put out our first book under the Tramp Press banner. We were young. I was bullish, irritated by the over-productive, under-resourced, gate-keeping male-centric world of publishing we’d experienced as office juniors or unpaid interns.
We wondered: what if we could secure funding from the Arts Council to help us start out on our own, publishing just a few titles a year, focusing on nothing but their extraordinary quality?
What if, instead of leaving unsolicited manuscripts to languish in drawers unread and ignored for months, we treated them like a stream in which there are nuggets of gold?
What if we were accessible? What if we branded beautifully produced books with a logo, so that readers would eventually trust what we were doing and reach for any book with an x in a circle on it?
We’d a million ideas and about 10 of them worked, but 10 is enough. Since then, we’ve published life-changing works of fiction and non-fiction, working with authors including Sara Baume, Mike McCormack and Emilie Pine. Our writers have won the International Dublin Literary Award (formerly the IMPAC), the Goldsmiths, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. They’ve won the Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards twice out of the last three years, beating off huge, long-established publishing houses.
Look, I’ll say it. We’re really good at what we do. And I love it.
I have also, seriously and secretly, been working on a novel. Like most other writers, this has been managed by stealing hours in the evenings and at weekends, by going for those big word counts on holidays – and all without really knowing why, except that it satisfies me and answers me in a way that even publishing, my great passion, does not.
We’ve published extraordinary work at Tramp Press, books a publisher could never ask for – the kind of once-in-a-lifetime literature that you never knew you needed till you’d found it. At the same time, though, even in the 3,500 plus manuscripts I’ve read since we started the business, I haven’t found exactly what I’ve been looking for.
I’ve been craving work that talks about the world around us, or rather the world that seems to exist for one half of the population and not the other. Ireland is better than many places for women, of course, but – can we admit it together? – it’s not great. This is the country of Magdalene laundries, of recurrent scandals in provision for women’s health, of repeated examples of miscarriages of justice around sexual violence. In Ireland there are – to this day – women going abroad for the abortions they need, months after a grassroots campaign led by women addressed the misogyny in our own constitution by repealing the Eighth Amendment.
In this place the structures that are meant to serve and protect its people – the justice and health systems particularly – are fundamentally unjust. There are cases of rape and murder so frequently on the news, there’s the gender pay gap (and boring arguments over whether there’s a pay gap, which are also sexist), the plain-faced, everyday misogyny women experience at home, on the street, via our media and in work … women are battered and bullied outside and inside the home with stunning regularity. Trans men and women have to deal with offensive pseudo-debate facilitated by our national broadcaster. The #MeToo movement is not restricted to the movie industry, the music industry or the publishing industry (let’s all wait for those stories), it’s every industry, everywhere, every day. Please believe me when I say we aren’t all living in the same world.
We are, in fact, surrounded by monsters. When we shout about it the only other people who can hear, apparently, are other people who are equally powerless to do anything about it.
We are living in a dystopia.
I want to read work where the bald, utterly enraging fact of our inequality is taken as a given. I want to read books where women know exactly what they want to do about it.
As I became clearer about the book I felt I needed to read, the foundations of the novel I would end up writing were set: the characters; the conundrums they were dealing with; the forms of their tormentors; the setting (Ireland, of course).
I wanted to create a world not unlike our own, with problems women and men face as a result of toxic masculinity. In writing a post-apocalyptic world, though, I don’t have to convince anyone that this world is unfair. We can literally start on the same page. And in creating monsters, at least some of these problems could be dealt with, physically, by characters who wanted to change the dystopias in which they found themselves.
Besides writing the work I wanted to read, I needed to do something with all the anger I feel about the dystopia we’re living in. I need somewhere to put it all. It’s through writing I get to talk about the patriarchy, and issues like addiction and loneliness, and the cost of being a protagonist in your own life. I was so curious too, about how the industry would look from the other end of the spectrum, from the perspective of being a writer rather than a publisher.
Orpen, the girl at the heart of the world of Last Ones Left Alive, isn’t a creation of mine so much as a byproduct of the world she lives in. With a really clear vision of this post-apocalyptic Ireland, my heroine and her family, and the journey and choices she has to make seem obvious and essential.
There are real-world issues Orpen has to face; to stay in her rural home where it’s seemingly safe, or to seek her fortune, despite the advice and admonishments of her guardians. She has a hunger to see more of the world around her, but her mother wants to keep her close. No matter how much Orpen is warned or prepared, there are dangers out there that she can’t really comprehend. In the end, like most parents, they’ve to hope that they did their jobs well and prepared their child well enough to cope with life, and to at least be on her guard.
The novel, over years, took shape, and at last a voice emerged. Last Ones Left Alive was the first thing I’d written that more or less does what I want to do and talks about the things I feel a need to incite a conversation about.
But of course in publishing, writing a book you think and hope might work is only the first half of the battle. There’s a reasonable assumption that this part of the process, the part where I submit to agents and publishers, was different for me than it was for others because I work in the business.
And this assumption is absolutely correct.
The first was that I understood about editing – which of course most non-publishing professionals do too. It’s been my strong experience as publisher that only bad writers will not deign to be given feedback. Great writers always crave edits though, and I wanted desperately to get better, to be good. Even if something I thought read well turned out to be complete drivel, working as a creative team to really make a piece sing is an absolute joy. I also knew that if I was lucky enough to find a publisher there’d be rounds and rounds of editing, from an agent, my publisher, so getting sick of the manuscript wasn’t going to be an option.
That’s not to say it wasn’t difficult. Despite my going on about how professional I am, how good at my job, I sulked like a four-year-old for about a week after I got my first set of edits back. It is not easy.
The second thing I knew was that I should wait until the manuscript had been through several drafts and was really polished before I submitted it. You only get one good chance to make a good impression in publishing, and I wanted to blow people’s socks off.
This was also hard. It meant waiting, and working, for years.
The third thing I knew is maybe the most important, and this is to follow submissions guidelines.
At Tramp Press we devour submissions because we want to find great work ahead of our competitors. We read and respond to work usually within a month, and because of this it’s hard to remember that writers have had bad experiences with some presses who are slow to get back, or never get back at all.
It’s for this reason I know that writers sometimes attempt to get around submitting in the usual way. Whether it’s going via our family members (someone sliding their manuscript across the bar to my business partner’s sibling at her work is a great one), finding out our private numbers to try and pitch to us over the phone, or even – my least favourite – showing up at our homes, some writers feel that this is what it takes to get noticed. And it does get you noticed! Because it pisses us off, and it’s so unnecessary.
So, when it came to my turn to submit, I knew better than anyone else in the world to follow the submissions guidelines and to trust the process, for moral reasons as well as practical ones. I don’t want my work to be published because I happen to know people in the business. I want some cool professional person I admire to love it and want to publish it because it’s great. Trust the submissions policy. Let the work speak for itself; let’s work to create the world we all want to live in where work is judged on its value alone, and not according to whether it was written by, say, a man.
Even still, I had to work so hard to follow the submissions guidelines for my agent. I put a lot of time and thought into my cover letter and my synopsis, I researched the agency I liked thoroughly. And then, like an idiot, I sent it to the wrong email address.
Submitting is hard. Putting something you’ve worked so hard on for so long out there is to put yourself in a vulnerable spot. But it’s exciting too! It’s a really good time to daydream about headline-making deals, and buying fancy houses, though I know better than most how impossible these dreams are.
Despite my finding the process surprisingly difficult, my publishing story ended up being straightforward. My agent, after fairly extensive (and totally necessary) edits, liked my manuscript, and she sold it to someone who wanted it right away, someone I didn’t know through my day-job. I was very lucky to have such a simple journey – but straightforward is not the same as easy, and adding this perspective to my publishing knowledge is really valuable.
The fact that Last Ones Left Alive is going to be on shelves soon is so great, so wild. I wish I could tell my 10-year-old self, clutching her battered old copies of Stephen King novels, that it was okay to have big dreams about having a go herself, maybe even to start trying earlier.
Meanwhile, I’m still hoping that we’ll find more work that talks about the issues I think we need to talk about coming through the Tramp Press doors (metaphorical doors! Not literal doors, please don’t come to my actual door, this has been tried and it’s not a good way to submit LOL).
Until then, in writing Last Ones Left Alive, I have created the kind of Irish feminist post-apocalyptic novel I wanted to see in the world. And maybe it’ll even help start some conversations about the dystopia that so many women in Ireland find themselves living.