Founded by Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff in 2013, Tramp Press aims, in their own words, “to find, nurture and publish exceptional literary talent”. There is something refreshing about this approach. In a publishing environment dominated by endless, seemingly futile debates about the ‘death of the novel’ and the rapid rise of quick and often thoughtless e-publishing, Tramp distinguishes itself by remaining committed to an older, and perhaps even nobler, approach to publishing fiction: namely, publishing new and exciting work in quality editions, and publishing work based on excellence, rather than by preconceived notions of marketability. In the lead up to the publication of their second title Dubliners 100, a centennial reimagining of Joyce’s classics short story collection by fifteen contemporary Irish writers, Christian Cooney and Tadhg Hoey met with Lisa Coen to discuss the book and her thoughts on Irish writing and publishing in general.
At Lisa’s suggestion they met in the Library Bar on Dublin’s Exchequer St. Christian picks up the story:
The setting seemed appropriate. The bar, situated on the top floor of a swank hotel, is an old-school affair. It is decorated in a lush but understated antique style that brings to mind a turn of the 20th century gentlemen’s club. It’s the kind of place you could imagine someone like Yeats whiling away his days, lost in intense literary and political discussion. It is a level-headed synthesis of old and new: kind of like Tramp Press itself. We started the interview by talking about the origins of the name Tramp. Lisa, who completed her PhD on Irish theatre, sees the name as a tribute to J.M Synge and the character of the vagabond in Irish literature. “I think what Synge did had a kind of impertinence and honesty to it”, says Lisa, “We saw ourselves as outsiders trying to break into something. The ‘tramp’ is someone who enters other people’s domestic spheres and messes up the rules. That was the inspiration.”
Tramp is a publishing house that seems quite comfortable aligning itself with Irish writing of the past and particularly the Anglo-Irish literary revival of the early 20th century. The company are currently in the process of launching a new project that seeks to rescue forgotten Irish classics. We asked Lisa about the motivation behind the new venture. She explained, “The idea is that once a year we rescue some forgotten classic. I mean there’s a reason why Dracula has never been out of print: It’s a great novel. But there are novels that slip out of the public consciousness for reasons separate from their artistic value”. The first title in the series is Charlotte Riddell’s A Search for Fame. In Lisa’s words, “It’s [A Struggle for Fame] about an author from Antrim who goes to London in the 1870’s and she tries to get published. It’s very funny and quite a feminist book in some ways. I think it’s a really hilarious take on the publishing world and I recognised many of the scenes from it. In some ways very little has changed. It’s a great, sprawling novel and it is quite autobiographical. We’re really excited.”
In keeping with the theme of merging old and new, the conversation turns to Tramp’s upcoming release Dubliners 100. Lisa credits Tom Morris of The Stinging Fly with the original idea for the collection, “He [Thomas Morris] came up the Dubliners idea- ‘Wouldn’t it be hilarious,’ is how he put it. He went off with the idea and pitched it to a couple of people. Then we got Tramp up and running and Sarah [Davis-Goff] said we have to chase Tom for that idea. I said it could be a nightmare but Sarah said let’s be ballsy. She uses the words ‘balls’ and ‘ballsy’ on a daily basis. Tom already had John Boyne on board. Boyne has been amazingly supportive. I think just having his name attached might have made a difference”. There are some other big names attached to the project as well. Paul Murray and Pat McCabe have both provided stories. It took surprisingly little persuasion to get big names involved, according to Lisa- “We hadn’t told Pat McCabe a whole lot about the book. We just e-mailed his agent and she just e-mailed back ‘Pat says yes’”.
Tramp seeks to offer an alternative to authors who are often forced in to the ‘two-book deals’ offered by larger publishing houses. These types of contracts are considered by many to be having a toxic effect on literary culture. Tramp are committed to forging long-term relationships with authors. Lisa explains, “It’s an idea we have of making Tramp like an old fashioned publishing house. In the olden days you might have a collection of short stories and then have a committed editor who coaxes you along to you first novel and then another novel and before you know it you’re John Banville. Now what happens is you get a two book deal and then you’re out the door. We thought if we develop a relationship with promising authors and work with them over a number of years we might have something. We have some people we’ve been working with slowly over the last while. Our ethos was that a lot of publishers were missing a trick by avoiding books that aren’t very marketable. But if we can front load with Arts Council funding we put less pressure on a book to sell. If you do something that you think is going to make money and it doesn’t you’re left with this turkey you have to stand over. But if you do something with integrity you’re left with this great product.”
There is certain amount of relief and satisfaction in hearing the co-head of a publishing house speak about ‘integrity’.
Before parting ways, we asked Lisa if she had any advice to offer aspiring writers who might be considering submitting work to Tramp, “I think being in a creative writing group is brilliant. The best stuff we tend to get is from people who are willing to work with other people. Writing is supposed to be solitary, but only to a point. Do you know On Writing by Stephen King? It’s terrific. He says keep the door closed for the first draft but open it for the second. Very often people become writers because they are great readers and sometimes they can write things that are very deferential; things written in another writer’s voice. We tend to tell them ‘that’s great but go write your own book now’. Don’t bother with a preface: it’s just clearing your throat. Be open to feedback is the big one. Trying to publish can be very frustrating. Donal Ryan’s [author of The Spinning Heart] rejection letters said things like ‘please don’t write to us again’ and ‘Dear Donald’. Peter Murphy told me if people misspell your name on a rejection letter it’s a huge compliment: it means they actually took the time to write to you. Usually you just get a standard rejection letter. So develop a thick skin.”
Dubliners 100 was released on June 5th marking the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s celebrated short story collection, Dubliners, with a reimagining and rewriting of the 15 original stories by a range of well-established and promising Irish writers. Starting with The Butcher Boy author Pat McCabe taking on The Sisters and concluding with Peter Murphy, author of John the Revelator, bravely reinventing The Dead, regarded by many as one of the greatest short stories ever written. the book is crowded with prominent names including Donal Ryan, bestselling author of The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December; John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; Eimear McBride, award-winning author of A Girl is a Half Formed Thing; and Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Tramp Press will also be publishing Spill Simmer Falter Wither, the debut novel by Sara Baume in 2015. Baume’s story Solesearcher1, has just been announced as one of the six stories shortlisted for the Davy Byrnes short story award.
(c) Christian Cooney
Christian Cooney is a member of the GOWP.biz writers group (Group of Writing People).