How I Write – Cormac James

Author Cormac James

Cormac James was born in Cork, Ireland. He has published short fiction in Guernica, AGNI, Phoenix Best Irish Short Stories, and The Dublin Review. He is author most recently of the novel The Surfacing. He lives in Montpellier, France, with his wife and son.

What are your earliest memories of writing?
It’s easy to think of things in the early years which might now be seen as propelling me towards the fuller engagement with writing that came later. But equally interesting to flip the question and ask if anything retarded or complicated that. My first memory of writing with anything personal at stake was when I was in first year in secondary school. In class one day I rewrote the lyrics of a pop song with as many crude, bawdy, anatomical, slang terms as I could. A stab at being transgressive, I guess. I was 12. The bit of paper on which it was written got passed around. The teacher intercepted it. With strangely zealous detective work, he traced it back to me. After class, he took me aside. That scrap of paper could ruin me, he said. If he showed it to the principal, I would be expelled. He said he was going to keep that piece of paper, and if ever in the future he heard of me doing anything wrong, he would produce it. I believed him. I thought he was being kind. I have another opinion now. (The fact that he later became an alcoholic and committed suicide muddies my feeling about him in quite another way.) The idea of your writing being stored somewhere indefinitely as potentially incriminating evidence was an interesting complication for me, I think, for a number of years.

You hold a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. How did you find the course and would you recommend it to other writers?
In retrospect, the most significant aspect of that was the removal of material restrictions: being ‘given’ a full twelve months which you were expected to consecrate to writing, daily. That was the real opportunity – to discover how you dealt with that possibility.

There were fourteen years between your first novel and your second The Surfacing. Can you tell us why and what changed in your writing technique or style in that time?
I was writing during that time, I just wasn’t getting published. I was also working at other jobs, putting the miles in. I did a fair amount of construction work during those years, learning on the job, and what I slowly learned was to trust my materials: where initially I might have put fifty screws, say, to hold up a sheet of plasterboard, now I know fifteen will do the job. Something like that happened with the writing too. What actually evolved, I suppose, was my idea of the reader.

The Guardian described The Surfacing as ‘an austere pleasure’ and the Irish Times ‘a highly original and poetic story’. How proud are you of the book and what inspired you to pick this story to write about? Have you always had an interest in historical fiction?
The ‘historical fiction’ genre has some outstanding exemplars. Hilary Mantel, for instance. But too often it tends to over-commit to period-specific detail and researched fact, and to present these with what feels to me like a pedagogical mission. Hearing them interviewed, writers of ‘historical fiction’ often seem to me suspiciously clear-minded about their writing process: they make it sound like a holiday taken to an exotic location, involving first research and deliberate planning, then relentlessly perceptive note-taking along the way, and afterwards studious collation and correction of first-hand impressions, done with a particularly fact-friendly audience in mind. It’s an engaging metaphor and an admirable method, both of which I’m envious of, but I was inclined to work in exactly the opposite way to construct the world of The Surfacing. This by:

1. Removing all but the most basic technology. (The book is set in 1850.) A disingenuous strategy employed to offer up characters who are obliged to depend mostly on psychological resources, and who appear less defined by social and historical context than ought to be credible.

2. Removing as many basic, reliable, and familiar comforts as possible. These include: a non-hostile climate and a civilian society. I did this by trapping my characters together in the High Arctic. A familiar device of putting ‘normal’ characters in an extreme situation, in order to accelerate and accentuate failings and strengths. It’s what a Materials Engineer (which my wife is) would call Stress Testing.

3. In that ‘alien’ context, re-creating a microcosm of the ‘normal’ world. Instead of a man alone in the wilderness, I created a little village there, with elements of the ‘home’ life I hoped surreptitiously to represent: various classes and backgrounds; all ages, men and women, and even a child; daily routines, duties and roles; meals and entertainments, births and deaths, and other familiar social opportunities, along with the hierarchies that facilitate them. I’ve taken this village (the Impetus, my novel’s ship) and like a wargamer bending over his board simply pushed it as far as possible to the top of the map, then contrived to give it the means to survive there indefinitely. It’s like covering a pot and turning the heat up (or down, in my case), then standing back to wait for it to explode.

Those restrictions were an integral part of the process of composition, which I’m now rationalising in retrospect. But the impulse (and the opportunity of the setting and situation) was certainly to take as much historically-specific detail out of the novel as possible.

Tell us about your short story work – do you have a preference in which you prefer to work, or do short stories and novels go hand in hand?
Comparison of these two different forms tends to focus on length, which is fair enough. But one factor which probably ought to be given more weight is the reading public concerned. The editors of magazines publishing short fiction tend, in my experience, to be particularly literary-minded, and very close—very good—readers. I think you tend to integrate that into your writing of short fiction. You expect a very keen reading intelligence and perceptiveness, and a deeply-felt appreciation of the conventions of the form.

What is your writing routine? Do you write every day?
There’s a shop on the corner not too far from where I live. Any time of the day or night you can buy roasted chickens, beer, cigarettes, a tin of tomatoes… There’s a bar opposite. Beside it, a Black hairdressers where the girls hang out, an early-morning bakery, a strip club, a low-end Greek restaurant in a basement. You hang around that corner long enough, you’re going to see or hear something interesting. And that’s pretty much how I feel about writing: I just try to hang around my brain, as it were, as long as I can, and sooner or later I can expect to spot or ‘overhear’ something interesting. So I try to spend as much time as I can at the desk. Most days, if I can. But even when I’m ‘off the job’ I try to keep the radar on, and keep a pen and notebook handy.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I’ve honestly have never heard a writer talking about this phenomenon. I do, however, hear them bitching all the time about the endless life-mess that prevents them from getting to the desk. But I would also say that when you’re writing but feel you’re banging your head up against a glass wall, you’re in an interesting place, mentally or emotionally. You write and rewrite a scene and try it from another angle or ten other angles and if it’s not working, there’s usually a very good reason for that, and it would be stupid to ignore the information contained in this difficulty. As I’ve said above, I’m wary of any book that sounds, in its composition, like a well-planned and well-executed campaign.

I have occasionally heard myself giving interviewers accounts of the writing process that sound so coherent and definite that it makes me long to believe them, but absolutely sure they’re incomplete at best, certainly misleading, and in all likelihood totally false. Writing, I don’t make and then follow a plan. I rewrote the last draft of The Surfacing as much as I wrote the first. The word-by-word process was tentative in almost every way, contradictory and confused in its intentions, muddled and inconsistent in its means and procedures, and generally disingenuous in its expectations of the reader. If that sounds amateurish, it is and was, but deliberately and persistently so; because I’ve found that the best stuff magically materializes when you’re flailing around, distracted by your own sense of limitation and failure. That’s the zone you want to work in, devoid of any impression of coherence, confidence, or perspective.

What projects are you working on at the moment?
A new novel. I occasionally get diverted into a shorter prose piece.

Are you currently working with an agent and do you think aspiring authors needs one to be successful?
‘Successful’ rings a few alarm bells. I have a wonderful agent, Isobel Dixon at BFLA. But the writer who’s focused on getting an agent rather than on the writing has, in my opinion, got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

What has been your writing highlight in your life so far?
A reading last year on Whiddy Island off Bantry, as part of the West Cork Literary Festival. They’d set up a marquee in a field. As the writer ahead of me finished up, a chicken wandered in and down the aisle, cool as you please, scrounging for grub. Up she came to the front, spent a few minutes poking around, then headed for the door again, unimpressed. It was my turn to read. So you’re standing there with the mic in your hand and your precious book in the other, and, in the whole tent, not one single person’s mind is on anything but that chicken. A nice lesson.

What do you like to read?
Books I’ve read in the last few months I’ve appreciated: The Collected Stories of Lucia Berlin and of Sylvina Ocampo, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (again), Logue’s War Music, Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, the ferociously tactful US novelist Tom Drury (various novels), the neglected Irish writer Dorothy Nelson, John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous Clouds and Renata Adler’s Speedboat.

Where do you write?
At home mostly. Out and about. Anywhere.


Find out more about Cormac James on his website at


LadyNicci comment:
I was writing, I just wasn’t getting published. I love this line from Cormac. It sums up the writer’s life in just a few words – how many of us spend our time working away, regardless of whether we have a publishing project on the go? For aspiring authors, getting published at all, may be the one and ultimate goal. But when you are published, how long until you are published again? As a historical fiction writer myself, I like his take on bringing a story back to basics, to create the setting, conflict and characters. His points make for the basics of any good writing and plot development. I like that Cormac talks about writers finding their best work emerging from the struggles – the point where you think you can never complete an articular sentence again. I have certainly found this in my own writing – sometimes you need to push through the doubt to find out why you are writing in the first place. I’m not sure if I’d agree though that no writer has ever spoken about writer’s block – I guess we experience it in different ways. As for chickens – well, maybe every literary festival needs one?


How I write is a blog post series published on that aims to explore the craft of writing. If you have any comments please email with How I Write in the subject line.

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1 Comment on How I Write – Cormac James

  1. Hi, Lady Nicci.
    Thank you for sharing this insightful interview with Cormac James. As a historical researcher, writer, and speaker, I appreciated Cormac’s thoughts about the writing process.

    I identified with the following words: “The best stuff magically materializes when you’re flailing around, distracted by your own sense of limitation and failure. That’s the zone you want to work in, devoid of any impression of coherence, confidence, or perspective.”

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