Sarah Davis-Goff was born and lives in Dublin. Her writing has been published in the Irish Times, the Guardian and LitHub. Last Ones Left Alive is her debut novel and she recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for Last Ones Left Alive?
I’m fascinated (and revolted) by how the patriarchy functions, and I wondered what a society would look like if its characteristics were taken to even further extremes. The great thing about the monster I created for the novel, the skrake, is the particular pressures they put on the communities trying to survive them. A post-apocalyptic world in which there’s a community essentially under siege seems like an effective way of exploring extreme patriarchy.
At the same time, I have begun to feel very frustrated by the mining of women’s trauma for our reading or watching "entertainment"—so although there’s physical violence (almost entirely woman vs skrake) described in Last Ones Left Alive, and some sort of abstract nods to sexual violence, you won’t have to subject yourself to descriptions of any kind of sexual assault here.
Are Orpen, Muireann, Maeve or any of the characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?
Maeve and Muireann are definitely inspired by real people, although their personality traits would be spread out over maybe half a dozen individuals; there are a couple of Irish actors I was imagining when I wrote them, plus a healthy dose of a PE (physical education) instructor I had at school, and some very straight-talking friends! Orpen is a little different in that she’s so much a product of the world she grew up in, she sort of just turned up and was herself.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
The novel changed so much as I wrote it—the first few chapters I wrote years ago had an entirely different world with different characters, and only the themes and the questions I’m asking have stayed the same. I was so lucky in the editorial and publishing processes in that the professionals I was working with made everything about the work sharper and better—there’s nothing lost that was needed.
How did you come up with the word “skrake”?
‘Skrake’ is a kind of anglification of the Irish word for "screech" which is "scréach". I don’t speak Irish to my shame, but I love the way English is spoken in Ireland, it’s so influenced by Ireland’s native language. It was important to me that Last Ones Left Alive is very much an Irish novel.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen. I haven’t read it in a couple of decades and it’s much richer than I remember—as so many books are when you reread them. I love "big-house" novels, they’re something I keep returning to. I usually have an audiobook on the go too and right now that’s Dawn (the first book in the Xenogenesis trilogy) by Octavia E. Butler. I haven’t read her before and I’m loving it. There’s also the latest issue of Banshee, which is a new-ish Irish literary journal publishing some great work.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Firestarter by Stephen King, though I guess I was closer to being a teenager when I first encountered it at as a twelve-year-old. I read a lot of the books you’re supposed to as a kid—Mallory Towers and that kind of thing, so coming across a telekinetic girl and a voice which was so clearly distrustful of the government was life-changing.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
My parents were pretty liberal and permissive when I was growing up—they were very much about bestowing responsibility and independence rather than trying to curtail it, which for me was very smart as it was made it so hard to rebel! They never banned any books in our house and I don’t think they’d ever be shocked by anything I was reading. My father did try to ban my big brother and me from watching that movie Se7en—I wasn’t sure if I’d heard of it at the time but naturally, I made sure to see it at a friend’s house at the earliest opportunity.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Oh fun! Here are some writers I keep returning to for inspiration on voice, structure, and narrative:
What is a book you've faked reading?
Ha I’m very guilty of nodding along in a knowledgeable fashion as if I’ve read something I haven’t! I’m pretty sure I’ve done that fairly recently with Crudo by Olivia Laing, which I still have not read. I am not proud of myself.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
I bought Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island mostly for its beautiful jacket a couple of years ago. I’m a sucker for buying those fancy reissues from Penguin Classics, I have beautiful copies of Frankenstein and Persuasion, two of my favourite books ever.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Apart from Stephen King’s Firestarter maybe Twilight by Stephenie Meyer? It’s not fun to dunk on something that’s already been through the mill (not that Ms. Meyer particularly cares I bet!), but it was when I was reading that it first occurred to me that I could just have a go at writing a novel. (The first book I did write, incidentally, was a vampire novel, and it’s still very much still in a drawer, on its way to the bin. So Meyer 1 Davis-Goff 0.)
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
I’m an utter evangelist for The Notebook by Ágota Kristóf, which was published by a small London-based press called CB Editions. It’s the best classic work of fiction you’ve never heard of—but it’s really not for the faint-hearted and absolutely not for kids, so maybe not for everyone.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
I’d love to meet the His Dark Materials trilogy again for the first time. It’s so compelling, exciting and rich and there’s nothing else like it. I don’t usually cry reading books but I bawled my eyes out at the end of that one.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
A late brunch with Margaret Atwood please where we discuss how best to dismantle the patriarchy. I’m getting married next week to Dave Rudden (author of the Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy and the latest Dr. Who book, Twelve Angels Weeping), and he’d be there too, partly because he has great ideas about the destruction of harmful societal norms but also because he always shares his fries. We’d walk it off with a gentle stroll with Stephen King and his dog, and then go for a drink with a bunch of great Irish writers I love—I’m actually not going to start naming them for fear of who I’d leave out, we are surrounded by greatness, but my business partner Lisa Coen would be there for sure. We’d stumble home then, to eat Chinese food and watch Steven Universe.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
I think the best question you could be asked as a writer is, "Would you like a ton of money plus a great, quiet place to live for a year somewhere warm and by the sea? And also would you like the rest of the world put on pause while you do that?"
I’m actually disgusted nobody has asked me that yet.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a second novel, which is slated for 2021 I think so I better get my skates on. I’ve a secret TV-related project also (honestly very unlikely anything will happen there but I can dream!). Like most writers, I also have a day-job, and in my case, I’m really lucky to have one I absolutely love as co-publisher at Tramp Press. Books! I like them.