On a wet Holy Thursday night the small Rathgar Bookshop is stuffed with readers waiting for an author whose head they’ve been inside for 215 pages. Sara Baume’s debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015) is the latest Tramp Press release and has received much critical acclaim topping bestseller lists up and down the country.
SSFW is a richly descriptive novel, where a character adopts a rescue dog and addresses his story to the mutt in turn revealing his lonely life to the reader over the course of the four seasons, which is the clue to deciphering the title. Baume is exactly what Tramp Press looks to root out from amongst the slush pile. She’s a brilliant, unique new voice that rubbishes the claim that creative writing MA’s produce only staid and formulaic prose writers.
From the audience in Rathgar came a polite heckle, “Did you get an A in Leaving Cert English?” Baume returned a blush before explaining that it was five years since she finished her Masters in Trinity and that one of the nice things about being a writer is that you can be starting your career at thirty and you still seem young.
Tramp Press are determined to print only brilliant fiction, “fiction so good that it makes you want to set yourself on fire.” We’ve heard this before, it’s their marketing line, but for readers it can only be a good thing when the result is a novel like Spill Simmer Falter Wither.
The story of Tramp Press began as a casual conversation across a desk in Lilliput Press between an intern and the office manager. Lisa Coen (the intern) and Sarah Davis-Goff (the office manager) joked about how they would do things slightly differently when they set up their own publishing house such as not having the current intern greet their successor on the way into their interview. With their own place they’d at least bring new interns in through a different door.
For ambitious young people there aren’t many places to go once you finish the experience-gathering phase in publishing. Most independents are run on a small experienced staff buttressed by a high turnover of interns. So these two joked for that afternoon but come evening they’d turned serious and were putting ideas down on paper and fleshing out exactly what was needed to set up their own publishing house.
The next week Sarah and Lisa took their boss at Lilliput Antony Farrell out for lunch and discussed it with him, “Most bosses if you took them out to lunch and said, ‘Hey we’re setting up a rival company’ you’d probably be fired but not Antony. He was delighted and gave us some great advice,” says Sarah. “He’s a classic publisher,” Lisa adds, “He just loves the idea of there being more great books out there.”
Initially they talked about Tramp as a part-time thing; Sarah continued to work in Lilliput as office manager and Lisa got a job in the business-publishing department of a big company, “It was the ideal grown-up job: I had a pension, health care and the nicest office chair. Regular hours too.” But soon Tramp was taking up all their time.
The year 2013 was spent applying for funding and getting everything in order. Lots of meetings and late nights – like getting any start-up off the ground.
Before their website was live people had managed to find them and send them on their manuscripts. “It all happened very quickly; we worked hard and it just grew. Oona Frawley’s Flight (2014) came to us through Anthony Glavin who is just a great guy for promoting literature in Ireland and he encouraged her to submit to us. The moment we read her manuscript we got excited. We knew it was real literature.” For writers the more places to send your fiction the better.
Opening a publisher two years ago was a brave move, many in the know would’ve scoffed at the viability of doing so but Sarah and Lisa maintain, “There’ll always be a market for excellent fiction. Irish territory is a great little book market too. Irish readers are really loyal to Irish writers and they buy and support their work. We’re lucky in Ireland in that sense: dedicated readers, dedicated buyers and accessible support from the arts council.”
By April 2014 Tramp had secured arts council funding, selected their first author and done the grunt work essential to launching a book, “it takes about a year to prep a book properly.” In The Workman’s Club on the quays Oona Frawley’s novel Flight was launched and so was Ireland’s newest independent publisher.
The name Tramp Press comes from John Millington Synge’s early twentieth century plays. His tramp characters are artist vagabonds who shake up the community with their words.
Tramp are a year on from the launch of their first title and their catalogue is made up of four books: Flight, Dubliners 100 (a centenary collection of modern short stories mirroring Joyce), A Struggle for Fame by Charlotte Riddell (a rediscovered 19th century Irish novelist) and Spill Simmer Falter Wither.
The rights to SSFW have recently been sold to Heinemann making it eligible for British prizes such as the Man Booker Prize, “They [Uk prizes] go out of their way to make sure we (Irish publishers) can’t submit, which I find charming. But Heinemann can submit the novel now.” Tramp are also in the process of having SSFW translated into Dutch, Spanish and German while Dubliners 100 was recently brought out in Italian. These are all done by way of what are known as ‘publishers partnerships’.
Their first and latest titles are new novels by debut authors. Dubliners 100 is a reimaging of Joyce’s Dubliners, which was originally published after much well-documented difficulty in early 1914, thereby making the centenary a fitting time for modern authors to re engage with his mean spirited stories. 2012 saw the copyright lifted on the Joyce estate and this triggered a glut of projects on Joyce and his writing.
Thomas Morris, editor of The Stinging Fly magazine, had the genesis for the project and Tramp were happy to do it to coincide with the centenary in 2014. They approached writers such as Paul Murray, Eimear McBride, John Kelly, Peter Murphy, Patrick McCabe and Donal Ryan and were supported by newer writers such as Michèle Forbes, Sam Coll and Elske Rahill. They set about the daunting task of reinterpreting Joyce’s lauded short stories with Morris as the editor.
The turnover of interns wasn’t the only thing that these two picked up on during their decade in publishing, “Lilliput is a great place to work. So it’s not what you’d take as an example of something to improve on as such, but in publishing in general we were noticing things. Things like publishers tend to be lead by the market and they’d say, ‘This is a great manuscript. I agree it should be published. But it won’t sell so I’m going to turn it down.’ And that’s a crying shame…any commercial concerns applied to literary fiction are problematic. It’s no longer worth running a publishing house like a business because publishing doesn’t really work on paper, pun intended. But if you run it like an arts organization that’s a smarter way to go, so we get funding from the arts council.” Sarah and Lisa are both the editorial and marketing department in Tramp Press.
Tramp also have a Recovered Voices series which looks to take an author who is out of print and republish their work. Oftentimes, for reasons unknown, some great novels go out of print. “We were looking at Charlotte Riddell, she’s like an Irish Jane Austen, and we were wondering why she wasn’t on the syllabus. She was a bestseller in the 19th century; we wanted to bring out one of her Victorian style three-volume novels. The last time it was in print was from the British Library in the 70s. We have a list of potential likely candidates for this series that we keep adding to. Stoner [by John Williams] in 2013 is a major example of this. There are others out there, other classics that are waiting to be rediscovered by readers.”
The day I meet Sarah and Lisa for a chat they were on their way to an event to set up a Tramp Press stand. It was the end of an academic conference on the short story and the public were allowed in for readings at the Irish Writers Centre on Parnell Square. All of these events are opportunities for publishers to meet their readers and ensure they stay at the forefront of book buyers’ minds. Sarah worked out that Tramp are attending almost one event or festival a week this year.
Amongst the authors reading their work was Tramp’s editor on Dubliners 100 Thomas Morris. Morris is releasing a short story collection called We Don’t Know What We’re Doing in August. Sara Baume in her acknowledgments section of Spill Simmer Falter Whither says her novel probably wouldn’t have been published if it wasn’t for Thomas Morris’ putting her in touch with Tramp.
When it comes down to it there aren’t that many brilliant writers out there, writing literature is difficult but with Tramp it has gotten just a little easier to get that writing published in Ireland.