Alumna Publishes Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim

April 18, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin

Sarah Davis-Goff (SF07) is the author of celebrated new dystopian novel Last Ones Left Alive. Photo by Bríd O'Donovan.

Sarah Davis-Goff (SF07) is an Irish author whose debut novel, Last Ones Left Alive, was published in March 2019 to significant critical acclaim. Davis-Goff also serves as publisher at Tramp Press, an independent publishing company located in Dublin. Over email, she answered questions about her experience at St. John’s, the appeal of dystopia, and what she wants to see more of in literature.

Why did you decide to come to St. John’s College?

I got lucky! I was at a bit of a loss here at home in Ireland. I knew only that I didn’t want to do what a lot of my friends were doing, which was to go to Trinity College Dublin or University College Dublin; I knew I didn’t want to go to the U.K. either. Happily, my aunt Annabel Davis-Goff was working then as writer-in-residence at Bennington [College] in Vermont, and she had a great insider’s knowledge of good liberal arts schools in the U.S. I knew as soon as I checked out the St John’s website that it was the place for me.

What was your campus experience like? What do you remember most?

I remember the heat in summer, the dryness of the air, and those occasional times the rain would just bucket down, the sense of relief the whole campus would feel. I remember the lazy happiness of sitting out on the grassy knoll people-watching with friends. That intense feeling of revelation you’d get sometimes in seminar, I loved that—I miss it.

It wasn’t all perfect all the time, of course. But it’s hard to remember at this remove the negative things, especially when there was so much that was great—the incredible people I was lucky enough to meet and study with and learn from being foremost. My four years at St John’s were some of the happiest and most exciting I’ve ever experienced; I felt very at home, and I’m harbouring an ambition of maybe going back when I’m retired as a GI for a little while.

Was there a particular part of the St. John’s Program, Program author, or text that stuck with you?

For me—and maybe this is predictable—it was our reading of Ulysses that really stayed with me. Within the course of a few weeks, this modernist classic went from being almost completely incomprehensible to being one of my favourite works of literature. That turn towards understanding is a great example of the power of having a good class with a strong communion of ideas and insights into a text.

Tolstoy, Swift, O’Connor, and Austen have all been writers I’ve loved returning to, aside from Joyce.

Did your time at St. John’s in any way influence your writing?

Absolutely! More than anything else, it gave me the confidence to reach for those big ideas. Though I didn’t end up pursuing an academic career ultimately, I could feel that I had the base knowledge and at least some of the language to make everything accessible to me as a thinker—which I believe is what a great education is meant to do.

What was your career trajectory after St. John’s?

I’d a feeling when I went to St John’s that I’d find out about myself and my true interests in the world and that I’d see a way forwards once I’d been through the Program—and, luckily, that turned out to be the case. I became a writing assistant in my junior year and really loved it; that’s when the penny really dropped for me about having a career in books, maybe as an editor. After I graduated, I went straight for a master's in publishing at Oxford Brookes University in the U.K., and after that got a few internships (one in London, one in New York) before I ended up back at home in Dublin, which I’d realised was where I wanted to live.

Last Ones Left Alive imagines a dystopian Ireland. It was released in March 2019.

Where did the idea for your debut novel, Last Ones Left Alive, come from? What drew you to dystopia?

I really enjoy smart horror and smart genre work in literature. I think zombies are such a fascinating, plastic literary device, [and] they’re useful in trying to talk about so much, whether that’s consumerism (like those Romero classics, plus—in my opinion at least—Colson Whitehead’s excellent zombie lit fic novel Zone One), or soul (as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). The particular horror I’m reaching for is about addiction and an addict’s manipulations. But I’m also interested in the strains that monsters like these put on the relationships of those around them—they create a sort of siege mentality for the living, where relationships are dialed up to 90.

There’s a sort of snobbish perception that horror or other genre fiction isn’t as adept at talking about big themes as literary fiction, and it’s just not true—I think we’re increasingly seeing that not just in literature, but in film and other media too. So, it’s important to read, watch, and listen outside your comfort zone, particularly if you’re thinking of trying to contribute your own work.

Mostly I wanted to talk about the women’s experiences, which are so often dystopic, and to question heteronormative power dynamics, particularly as they revolve in the concept of a singular, violent ’hero’ figure. Trying to subvert our conceptions of the heroic, and to come up with other ways to disrupt conventions, is interesting to me.

Tell me about Tramp Press, the independent press where you serve as publisher. Why and how did it start? What do you like to publish?

We started Tramp for three main reasons: My business partner Lisa Coen and I had been working for some years in publishing at this stage and we agreed that other publishers were publishing too much, with huge lists of sometimes varying quality. We’d seen in our roles some great works of literature being turned down because of a lack of perceived commerciality. We wondered if we could start a company which functioned largely as an arts organisation (and with support from the Irish Arts Council), which only put out a few titles a year of blistering quality. We love literary fiction, we’ve published a couple of bestselling collections of essays, and we’ve imported some U.S. and Canadian fiction—Problems by Jade Sharma and The Red Word by Sarah Henstra (which won the Governor General’s Literary Award a few months ago!).

We’ve also been able to help address some endemic issues within publishing around diversity, and Ireland’s relationship to the U.K. market, such as ensuring Irish-published titles are eligible for the Man Booker Prize, which is the biggest literary award really this side of the pond. Making changes that will last is incredibly satisfying.

The name Tramp is a reference to Synge and his ‘tramp’ or artist-type characters, who’d be introduced in his plays to stale patriarchies and shake things up. It’s a bit of a Rorschach—people ask do we publish erotica (we would if it was brilliant enough, I’d say!), and we like the sense of reclamation over a word that’s been used to shame women.

Oh! The third reason we set up Tramp, by the way, was because nobody would give us jobs. We had to create our own, or move out of the country, or not work in publishing in the way that we wanted. We’ve found starting something of our own really exciting; we’d recommend it to anyone.

How do you define a Great Book?

A great book must be timeless and must present fresh truths and potent ideas. I noticed a few years back that I was reading mostly cis[gender] white writers, and though I lean towards reading more women than men, I do wonder if the full spectrum of the male white experience might already have been fairly well-explored and recorded in literature, you know? We all need to hear more from marginalised voices, and I believe this is where the potent ideas and fresh truths are more likely to be found now.

This interview has been edited for length and/or clarity.