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Women of their word

Living

BOOKISH PURSUITSLisa Coen (left) and Sarah Davis-Goff, co-founders of Tramp Press.

Interview
Ciara Moynihan

Lisa Coen, one half of the duo behind independent publisher Tramp Press, will be in Mayo on International Women’s Day to chair a panel discussion in The Linenhall Arts Centre with writers Lisa McInerney (‘The Glorious Heresies’) and Sinéad Gleeson (‘The Long Gaze Back’ and ‘The Glass Shore’). Entitled ‘Wordy Women and A Sweary Lady’, the evening will include reading, dialogue and discourse about the women’s work, and the publishing industry in general.
Originally from Cross in south Mayo, Lisa Coen set up Tramp Press in 2014 with Sarah Davis-Goff. An award-winning Irish publisher ‘dedicated to finding and rediscovering exceptional fiction’, its books have included Mayo author Mike McCormack’s multi-award-winning ‘Solar Bones’ and Sara Baume’s outstanding debut, ‘Spill Simmer Falter Wither’. Earlier this month, Tramp released Baume’s second book, ‘A Line Made by Walking’.
After leaving Presentation College Headford, Coen went on to study French and English in NUIG, eventually doing an MPhil in Anglo Irish Literature in Trinity, as well as a Phd. She first cut her teeth in the publishing world at Hot Press, where she worked for several years, and then Lilliput Press, where she worked as an intern and met Tramp co-founder Goff-Davis.  
It goes without saying that Coen always loved literature and books, but what drew her toward the publishing aspect rather than writing itself?
“I’d never really had a big interest in writing,” she tells The Mayo News. “I always liked the production side of things. Maybe that started with Hot Press – seeing the production of it was really gratifying. It’s great fun, really buzzy. The hours are very intense, and really unpredictable, which actually makes it sound horrible, but I quite like that about it. And it always appealed to me to be in the position of the person who was supporting the creative people, helping to push the artist forward.”
When Coen’s time at Lilliput was coming to and end, Goff-Davis was also finishing up. Faced with a difficult employment market, they decided create their own jobs. The idea of establishing Tramp Press was not just born out of the necessity of income, however, it was also born out of a certain amount of frustration about established publishers’ choices.   
“We saw manuscripts that we really liked being turned down because of commercial concerns. A lot of the publishers in Ireland and especially the UK are run by men of a certain age, and I think any industry where you have a lack of diversity you end up getting kind of singularity of voice. And we were seeing voices that we thought deserved to be out there not getting published and not being heard.
“A big part of it was the idea ‘When we have our own company we’ll do it our way’ – and happily we’ve been vindicated in that pretty obnoxious assertion,” she laughs.
The name ‘Tramp’ was chosen thanks to its multiplicity of possible associations. “We were trying to think of a word that implied an outsider, and something that was a bit cheeky,” Coen explains.
A tramp character features in a lot John Millington Synge’s writing too. “Even when he wrote letters to his fiancee Molly, he would sign them ‘Your little tramp’. We love Synge, he’s such a cool figure. He’s kind of a good patron saint I think for Irish artists now, because he was a feminist, he was trying out new work, he didn’t mind enraging people … he wrote this tramp character who often would walk into a sort of a stale scene and really shake things up. So we loved that, we liked it.
“Tramp also might make you think of Virago, and Virago Press is a publisher that we really admire; and it might make you think of Chaplin; people sometimes mention Beckett. Sometimes people ask us if ‘Tramp’ means we do erotica – to which we say ‘We would do erotica if we got any good erotic fiction sent to us!’. So the Rorschach effect with ‘Tramp’ was really good – we enjoyed that.”

First impressions
While Tramp Press currently focuses on literary fiction, Coen would love to see it expand into other areas. She herself is a horror and sci-fi buff (she’s very excited about Julian Gough’s literary sci-fi coming out this year from Picador), while Davis-Goff, meanwhile, would love to see more young-adult fiction, or YA. “She has a frighteningly encyclopaedic knowledge of it,” Coen chuckles. “She’s constantly on the look out for that. She does kind of chase people down and seek it out.”
Tramp receives an enormous volume of submissions daily. Davis-Goff sorts through them, then compiles a list of promising work for she and Coen to discuss at a weekly editorial meeting. If they both feel passionate about a book, if they both feel excited about it, then they’ll pursue it. It has to be a mutual gut instinct.
Unfortunately, many manuscripts don’t make the cut, which can be difficult news for authors to get. For writers who are submitting work to publishing houses, Coen has some practical advice. Aside from ensuring that you don’t start a cover letter to a publishing company run by women with ‘Dear Sirs’ (a blunder that happens with ‘disturbing regularity’), authors should get feedback before sending in their work, rather than looking for feedback from the publisher. “If we get 20 submissions a day, feedback is just not practical … it has to be a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in most cases for us,” she explains.
“A lot of people send manuscripts before they’re ready … if you’re in that position that you can’t do anything else with it, ideally you would seek out feedback from somebody you trust. Perhaps you know a writer, or you have a friend who’s interested in writing, or there’s a family member who’s well read ... that’s a much better way to get critical feedback and work on a book than to send it off to a publisher, because maybe you’ll work on it more and you’ll regret having missed out on that first-impression opportunity …
“People often just fire stuff out before it’s ready, without reading the guidelines, without taking time, taking a breath. It’s absolutely worth putting a manuscript in a drawer for a couple of months and then revisiting it, and polishing, polishing, polishing. Definitely don’t send rough drafts.”

Gender barriers
When it comes to female authors, Coen is passionate about tearing down the gender barriers to women writers getting published and noticed. Citing the VIDA Count (a regular tally of gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews), she points out that men are more likely to be reviewed by, for instance, the Times Literary Supplement or The Guardian. Books by men also are more likely to win awards, she says, adding that books by women that do win awards tend to have a male protagonist.
“I don’t think people are always actively rejecting women, but I think there is a tendency to fall into an assumption that ‘male’ is the default and ‘women’ is the niche genre.
“I do think there are more hostile viewpoints too. I mean, I’ve definitely had rows with people at book events who’ve said ‘I don’t read books by women’ and I’ve said, ‘You can’t say that – you would never say I don’t read books by, I don’t know, red-haired people – it would just be absurd’, and yet smart people who operate within the industry will often say that. I do think that there’s a huge problem around perception of writing by women as being frivolous or less important, or less relevant … I think that’s a huge problem in publishing, which is historically dominated by older white men. That all said, 70 percent of fiction is bought by women, and we just put up with it!”

Big talk
All of this sounds like perfect fodder for discussion at the ‘Wordy Women and a Sweary Lady’ evening with Lisa McInerney and Sinéad Gleeson in Castlebar. “Feminism and politics will certainly weave its way through the conversation,” says Coen. “I will certainly ask them to talk about their experiences of sexism, which I assume they have plenty of. For the day that’s in it, you certainly couldn’t not talk about feminism, and it’s worth talking about how we see our type of feminism, as white Irish women with various privileges.”  
Also on the agenda will be McInerney and Gleeson’s circuitous paths to writing, as well as the reality of being a writer nowadays. “Your author is no longer some rarified being in an ivory tower; they have a load of jobs, they might write content for blogs and they might do podcasts, and they have essays on the go, so it’s worth talking about how busy writers are – particularly Lisa and Sinéad, they’ve got a lot going on. It’d be good to hear about their process a bit, it’s always fun to hear about how people go about putting the stories together.
“We might also talk about the money argument that’s been bandied about recently. Donal Ryan has been very forthright about how you can’t really make a living out of being a writer, so if we have time that might be one to talk about too.”
A lot to get into one evening, yes – but with an editor and two writers on the panel, eminently achievable. Expect a lot of words, and maybe just a little swearing.

‘Wordy Women and a Sweary Lady’ will take place at The Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar, on International Women’s Day, March 8. Tickets (€10 each) are available from www.thelinenhall.com and 094 9023733. Sara Baume’s ‘A Line Made by Walking’ (€15) is available from
www.tramppress.com and bookshops nationwide.

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