Born in Dungannon, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, James worked as a glassblower, weaver and soldier. He came to England with his family around 1990, partly to study, and partly to escape the bigotry and violence that was Ulster in those years. The IRA had already shot him through the left arm. That seemed a close enough call.
In Norwich he worked in gardens, factories, the Post Office, and in supermarkets. He also wrote the short stories that won him competitions and gained him an Arts Council Award. But it was when he focused exclusively on the novel that he found his metier. He also began to visit British Columbia, at first to find his long-lost brother, then purely because he loved its wildness and beauty.
‘I began writing by reading, of course. How could it be otherwise? Enid Blytons, Richmal Cromptons, Biggles books, Sherlock Holmes, Dumas, the Brontes, great volumes of Walter Scott. And watching the wordless movies that Ulster television showed on Saturday mornings, most of all those of the great Buster Keaton of the stone face: the minimum gesture for maximum effect. Eventually the reading became Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, John Cheever, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S Thompson, Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski. Some I outgrew; some still not. There was emotion and often humour, but in all of them I saw lyricism with precision.
I followed my wife and children to England, and there attempted plays that the Maddermarket in Norwich were kind enough to give script-held readings to. And the first novel got finished. Or rather a novel length work, eighty or ninety thousand words that I printed out, hardly revised, and put on a shelf. It had taken about three months. Time for another. I didn’t even print out the second, but moved on to a third immediately. And another. I joined a University of East Anglia writing class and fled from it quickly. I joined Lynne Bryan’s master class, my one complete writing class experience, held in her kitchen over eight evenings, and discovered that I had better learn to rewrite. Thanks, Lynne. Rewriting has taken up a lot of my life since.
I entered my first short story competition, partly because it was Irish. I won it, and 2000 euro, most of which I spent taking my family to Kerry to receive the prize. I won an Escalator Award from the Arts Council via the Writers’ Centre, Norwich, and from that a reputable agent who tried, and failed, to sell my first re-worked (and re-worked and re-worked) novel, set in the terrorism of Northern Ireland. But the addiction to language remained, for while writing was hard not writing was harder still. I began another novel,
I applied for a Free Read at the Writers’ Centre with a novel I hadn’t been able to wait to write. It was set in British Columbia, a place I loved and visited every year, at a crucial time in the history of the British Empire, something else that had fascinated me for years. I got the Free Read. I entered the novel, now called The River and The Sea, for the Rethink Press New Novel Award.
And I think you know the rest.’
To buy the book: The River and The Sea
James is a media-friendly author, and is available for talks, book signings, interviews, workshops and public appearances. Contact him directly using the form below or connect on Facebook.