Sarah Davis-Goff is bubbling over with happiness. It showed the moment we met to discuss her dystopian debut novel – last ones left alive. She’s animated as she tells me of her passion for the story, and of the process of adding the title of author to that of publisher – of the innovative Tramp Press – but it’s when she mentions her forthcoming wedding that her eyes soften, and she breaks into the widest of smiles.
She hooked up with the children’s and YA writer Dave Rudden at a bookseller’s conference three years ago, and she popped the question to him last Autumn.
“Dave is the best,” she says, holding out her hand so that I can admire her ring. “He’s a brilliant writer and editor. He’s working on two books and has a TV series in the works, and he’s just amazing! I’ve been struggling to write pieces for papers, and Dave has given me feedback and direction.”
So, the liaison works then?
“I just feel terribly happy! I’m incredibly grateful to him, and apart from work stuff he’s just – he’s – I’m surprised that there is a guy like him out there.” She looks up, grins, and adds, “In a good way.”
For all that personal excitement, Sarah is pessimistic about the future of our planet.
“I think we’d be silly not to be,” she says. “We all know things are coming to an end, it’s just a question of whether its sooner or later. I hope its later, and I suspect it is, but not very much later.”
She’s set her novel, in Ireland, about 150 years from now is a post-dystopian world. Orpen has left the safety of Slanbeg – an island off the West Coast, and is travelling East to Phoenix City, searching for fellow survivors. Her mother has died, and she’s trundling her aunt Maeve along in a wheelbarrow.
Since her idyllic, if solitary early childhood, Orpen has been in training to face the horror of a land devoured by the skrake. Her aunt has been bitten – and without help, will become one of the skrake. Will Orpen’s physical and survival skills be enough to keep her safe? And will she reach Phoenix City – a place she thinks of as nirvana despite her aunt’s warnings to the contrary.
“I think zombies are a fantastic and very interesting literary device in that they can be used to talk about almost anything,” says Sarah. “For me, it’s meant to be an interpretation of feeling for someone who has to deal with the addict – this person who becomes afflicted very quickly. You have to witness their personality being eroded as there’s a manipulative aspect to it which I find alarming.”
It’s a brilliant, if terrifying read, as, ever vigilant, Orpen has to stave off the marauding skrake. The fights are described in minute detail, and it’s no surprise to learn that Sarah practised kick boxing, training hard as she was writing the novel. She also thought a lot about what it would take for Orpen to survive in such an alien environment.
“I get a lot of joy from thinking about that,” she says. “I have a whole load of equipment under my bed now; a collapsible hot-water bottle, chlorine tablets, sleeping bags, and these little sparks to light a fire with. I got far too obsessed with it, and it was a bit embarrassing, to be honest.”
Sarah started writing the novel five years ago, but she has always written.
“I was a sickly child. I had to have one of my lungs removed, or part of it, at least. And because I went to boarding school from seven years old, to Headford, then St Columba’s – and they were even colder than they are now – I got a lot of chest infections and would be sent home immediately.”
Her parents, Sir Robert and Lady Sheelagh Davis Goff, both worked, mostly in property, so Sarah had the house to herself.
“And my father would set me homework. It was, ‘ok, you have to write a short story based on this.’ I have these copybooks full of terrible, childish short stories which I really enjoyed, and my parents were really encouraging.”
Unsure what to do when she left school, Sarah went abroad for a while.
“I did irresponsible things like picking grapes in France and learning to write about wine. I went to India for six months and was an English teacher which I was horrible at, and I travelled and thought about what I wanted to do. But I was at a loss, really.”
Help came in the form of her aunt, the writer Annabel Davis-Goff who had made a name for herself in LA, working in movies.
“She’d landed in New York as writer in residence at Bennington’s and knew about the good liberal arts colleges in the states. I looked at one, St John’s in Santa Fe and it was love at first sight. I did a double major in Literature and Philosophy and a quadruple minor in random things like the poetry of science, and the history of maths. I loved it.”
In her third year, Sarah was hired by the college to be writing assistant, which meant she was charged with helping her fellow students with their essays. Realising, at once, that she had found her calling, she applied to Oxford Brookes to study for an MA in publishing. Then it was back to Ireland.
This was 2010, when jobs were scarce. Having worked, briefly and unhappily, in a property company, Sarah landed an internship with Lilliput Press. And she set out to be the best intern they had ever had – arriving early each morning and staying on late.
“I read all the slush pile. I was really focused.”
The slush pile, Sarah believes, is a horrible name for something exciting.
“I love reading unsolicited manuscripts. It’s like digging for gold. You see the souls of what writers are working on at the moment.”
When she came across the work of one Donal Ryan, she knew, within two sentences, that she had found that gold. And by the time she had persuaded her colleagues of it’s worth, and the news of the book’s success was breaking – with a longlisting for the Man Booker Prize, Sarah, having finished her internship and spent time with Dalkey Island Press, had returned to Lilliput, met the new intern Lisa Coen, and the duo were setting up Tramp Press.
Five years on, their success is legendry. Taking on just a few titles, publishing them to the highest of standards, the duo have produced the multi prize winning writers Sarah Baume, Mike McCormick and Emily Pine. What is their secret?
“No matter how big we get, we will always read that slush pile ourselves,” says Sarah. “We turn down a lot of manuscripts that are, actually, terribly good and go on to be published with success, but for us, it has to set our hearts alight, and not many books do that.”
Sarah has a busy year ahead. Writing her second book, organising a wedding for 200 guests, as well as working for Tramp is no mean feat. But she’s determined to keep doing both jobs, even if, in the future, children become part of the equation.
“It’s taken me time to figure out what I wanted to write, but in the end it was simple. I want to write the same things that I like to read, which is something page turning that gets the heart beating a bit faster. There’s so much feminist dystopia out there right now, and it’s cool to be contributing to it.”
Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff. Tinder Press: €16.99. €9.97
Published in The Irish Examiner on 30th March, 2019
© Sue Leonard. 2019