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Putting the Tramp Stamp on the Irish Lit Scene

Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff

Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff are an Irish publishing sensation as well as being nominated in this year’s IMAGE Business Woman of the Year Awards. Jeanne Sutton grabbed them for a cup of tea to talk about how they make their partnership work.

Tramp Press are easily the most exciting creative new business in Ireland. In one short year this plucky publishing company has operated with such panache, the word start-up almost no longer applies. In the last month they garnered two nominations at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards (Flight by Oona Frawley and Dubliners 100, their reworking of Joyce’s short story collection, are on the shortlist) and have just published their third novel. A Struggle for Fame by the Victorian novelist Charlotte Riddell is the first title in their Recovered Voices series, which seeks to rescue forgotten literature, and is already gaining a cult audience. (We may be a little biased however- Fiachra in our art department is responsible for the shocking pink meets demure portraiture cover.)

In the new year Tramp are set to publish debut novelist Sara Baume’s eagerly awaited Spill Simmer Falter Wither. But how did this small press strike such literary lightning with such ease? That’s down to its co-founders, Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen, who when you meet them display such a hivemind you imagine webs spinning between their brains.

Both come from a place that loves literature. Sarah Davis-Goff took time to travel the lower hemisphere and Asia before starting her undergraduate degree at a “really weird, little liberal arts college called St. Johns” in New Mexico in the United States. It was in her third year she realised she was a born editor after the university hired her to review fellow students’ papers. She pursued a masters in publishing in Oxford Brookes in the UK, a place where her now partner in crime Lisa Coen almost ended up. A Mayo native, Lisa studied in Galway initially and found herself doing work experience in Hot Press before starting her masters. A job offer led to her delaying the course. She doesn’t regret her decision, saying it was a great place to work and learn. She eventually went back to study Anglo Irish writing in Trinity. As is normal practice in publishing, Sarah and Lisa ended up interning until their paths collided in Dublin’s Lilliput Press. As is normal practice among interns, they were uncertain about their future. “We were both sitting there saying ‘What are we going to do next?’” Lisa recalls. And thus Tramp Press was born.

“I actually can’t remember which us mentioned it first,” Sarah says.

“I can’t either!” admits Lisa. “It means neither of us can say, ‘It was definitely my idea.’”

This meeting of minds works well in a company that is devoted to finding new voices amid the slush pile. “When we started talking about Tramp we had the same sort of excitement and vision for the company and where we wanted it to go. And the same ambition,” Sarah recalls. Lisa had left Lilliput by then and was working in business publishing while they were setting up Tramp. It wasn’t the happiest stopover, “It was a proper grown up job with a pension and everything. And it had a really comfortable chair. And I was miserable. I was so unhappy. I got to a point I was so miserable I quit.”

Tramp wasn’t meant to be a full time job immediately, with the business plan allowing for three years in terms of growth. However, it was clear from the start that this was a winner. The Guardian review of their first novel, Flight, singled Tramp out as a company that dares “to think outside the box.” Lisa is glad she made the decision to leave that safe job, “I don’t really miss the pension. I miss the chair. I’m really glad I had a ‘real’ job for a year that I wore a blazer for. I’ll never wonder, ‘What if?’”

The name Tramp Press encapsulates their “upstartish” and “outsiderish” nature, says Lisa, drawing from the work of JM Synge, who often used tramps to represent the artist,  a rambling and free figure. In his play, In The Shadow of the Glen, a woman leaves her husband, after he briefly feigns death to hear what she’d say, for a passing tramp promising her freedom. The playwright’s love letters to the actress Molly Allgood were even signed off ‘your little tramp’. The name was also a nod to publishers like Virago, and is not without its provocative moments. People sometimes ask does Tramp focus on erotica. Or Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot famously tells the tale of two wordy tramps. Lisa relishes such “Rorschach” responses.

Going into business with a friend can be fraught with difficulties – will the friendship survive? How blunt can one be? As pals first, business partners later, Lisa and Sarah have firm ground rules. Their key piece of advice is having a shared vision. As Sarah explains,”I think you can put everything else aside if you’re both ambitious in the same way for the thing that you’re trying to create.” She stresses her and Lisa’s similarities, “Our opinion is almost always the same. Some people seem to advise that opposites attract. It has not been our experience. I would say that that would not be a good thing in business. Although Lisa and I each have our particular strengths – they’re quite complementary and we can both do everything if we have to.” Lisa also says that having a ‘let’s not feel guilty’ rule helps, although sometimes these tereotypical type As break this principle.

Starting a business in this sort of economy is always fraught. How did people react to the news that two interns were about to head to the CRO? Family and friends were “surprisingly positive” according to Lisa, “Nobody said it was a stupid idea”. Sarah says the word brave was frequently employed, “Which I think was nice and flattering in a way.” Lisa muses, “I think its more brave to do a job you hate because it takes more energy to suppress your soul and put on a happy face, than to do what you want.”The industry itself has been supportive while family has been encouraging. Sarah’s parents are entrepreneurs themselves, and Lisa’s mother is the cowl scarf knitter-in-chief for the company.

As for the books these Tramps find themselves returning to? Sarah lays claim to Ulysses, “It’s more like a sculpture than a book, there’s just so much going on. If I had to live on a desert island and could only have one thing i think it’d be that.”Lisa picks two classics, “Molloy by Beckett. I always prefer somthing that has a dark humour in it. it would be that or The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I love that one.”

Visit www.tramppress.com for more information. Buy tickets to the awards ceremony here.

Follow Jeanne Sutton on Twitter @jeannedesutun

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