Cormac James: how to choose between Bartleby and Brer Rabbit, Marlowe and Molloy?

‘I think we read largely to have clarified and confirmed ideas we already sympathise with, rather than the reverse’

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

As part of Mass, probably the Bible, although as a child I didn’t think of it as a book so much as a voice or embodiment of some kind, of a strangely cryptic authority. This was the deadpan Revised Standard Version, with none of the King James glories.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

"Favourite" does too much disservice to the rest. But I have soft spots for Babel's Red Cavalry, James Salter's Solo Faces, Jean Rhys's early novels, Penelope Fitzgerald's Innocence, Out of Africa, Mohamed Choukri's For Bread Alone...


Who is your favourite fictional character?

All these Sophie's Choices. Recalled for a final audition might be: Bartleby, Brer Rabbit, Philip Marlowe, Valmont, Molloy, Rose from The Beggar Maid...

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Elizabeth Bowen and Desmond Hogan both deserve much more regard.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

I like books as objects.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

I have a 19th-century “travel” edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, about the size of a smartphone, and a very lovely thing.

Where and how do you write?

I try to write every day. In the shed, where the internet can’t reach me.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

I think this works by accumulation, more than any one revelation. The important thing is to have preconceptions shaken up regularly. Claude Simon's The Flanders Road was certainly part of that many years ago. More recently, Lydia Davis's work, and DeLillo's The Body Artist and Point Omega.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

I did a few years for The Surfacing.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

It would have to be horses for courses. Jane Austen or Raymond Chandler are two good possibilities.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

I just generally wish I’d read a lot more.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

I’d try not to. Everyone finds their own way.

What weight do you give reviews?

It’s always disappointing to see someone eager to agree – or disagree – with an opinion not their own. I think a reader has to be careful not to let reviews set the terms.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

In the big publishing houses: more collegial decision-making, rather than eccentric or committed personal preference. What’s interesting will be coming from the wings.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

I think we read largely to have clarified and confirmed ideas we already sympathise with, rather than the reverse.

What has being a writer taught you?

The value of tenacity.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

At Swim-Two-Birds is packed with them. The scene in Fr Rolfe's Hadrian The Seventh where the hero is proposed for the papacy is all kinds of delirious.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

The futile search for Franklin is the context for The Surfacing. The complicated infatuation of Hazlitt with the much younger Sarah Walker could make an interesting book.

What is the most moving book or passage you have read?

I've just reread Tadeusz Borowski's The Man With The Package, about a condemned prisoner clinging to a little bundle of possessions though he knows well what will happen to him in a few minutes. I always find something very affecting in that.

If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?

My four-year-old boy loves anything with punishment, revenge, disaster... Books for that age group often feel like they were written with good intentions, and that gives me the pip. I like reading him Beatrix Potter (Peter Rabbit’s father in a pie – great!). He loves a surreal French author Claude Ponti (translations, please), who does brilliant literal renderings of children’s fears and fantasies. Art Spiegelman (of Maus fame) also has some anarchic children’s books that we both get a great kick out of.

Cormac James is the author of The Surfacing