James was born in Manchester and played guitar in various band before becoming the accordion player with The Pogues. His book ‘Here Comes Everybody’ was reviewed on Roseland online last month. He and his family live in Los Angeles.
I started by asking James what made him decide to write about what has been described as ‘the story of strangers who became a family’. He explained that he’d “been writing this book since I first joined the Pogues. I started keeping a diary on my 27th birthday, in 1981, just five days short of a year before the first Pogue Mahone gig at the Pindar of Wakefield. ‘Here Comes Everybody’ is largely made up from that source, as well as from letters, recollective writing, etc. It was serendipitous to start keeping a diary within a year of the Pogues’ starting. It’s a happy coincidence that the process of getting the manuscript finished and edited, copy-edited and proof-read should end with its publication during the year of the Pogues’ 30th anniversary.”
“I dedicated the book to my mum and dad. My mum died in May 1991, my dad in November 2004. My mum wanted me to do anything that made me happy. My dad used to say to me, ‘Every day I wait to hear the flap of the letterbox followed by the thump of your manuscript on the hall carpet. Does it come? Will it come? It hasn’t yet!’ If anyone’s my target audience, it’s those two people. I’m just sorry they didn’t last long enough to read it.”
I wondered if he had ever been to Cornwall. “In the summer of 1998, the day after the solar eclipse, the family and I drove to a house near Falmouth to stay for a week. It had an orchard and ‘beach access’, though the beach was a salty swamp of rocks and slime. Our kids were two and five years old. It was an unfamiliar house, with foreseeable perils like long staircases and sharp corners. We spent a miserable day on a beach at St Ives, cringing behind a rented windbreak which the wind sprayed sand against and waited for the day to be over. I had hoped the spirit of my mum and dad’s honeymoon in St Ives forty-five years earlier might have blessed the day somehow. But it didn’t.”
What about triggers to start writing or to give him an idea? “The alarm clock is often a good one; actually, at both ends of the writing period – to start you off and to stop you going on. Besides that, it’s a war of attrition: if you go away, the writing’s not going to write itself.”
James works in his office, slightly away from the house, “sufficiently apart to give me the idea that there’s no one around. I put headphones on, play BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime concerts, the Proms, etc., though I pay no attention to the music at all. Sometimes I go to the public library.”
He also writes at his Writers’ group where they get 40 minutes to come up with something which has to be read out loud.
“My writers’ group came most of the steps of the way with me. For the first couple of chapters, I had a kind of mentor, a novelist and short story writer called Marisa Silver, to whom my wife insisted I give my material, and by a particular deadline.”
And what did the other members of the Pogues think about the book? “I handed copies of the manuscript to each member of the band a year ago. The responses to the book came as early as 24 hours later and as late as three weeks before going to the printers. They ranged from delight to fury to puzzlement – Shane MacGowan* took the package, wrapped in brown paper, and, as he does when he’s confronted with something he’s not sure about, weighed it in his hands, tapping it. ‘It’s not very big,’ he said. ‘It’s printed on both sides,’ I said. ‘Hm,’ he said.”
Given the unusually erudite nature of this particular rock memoire I wondered what writers James admired and who his influences were. “James Joyce. And Gerard Manley Hopkins who was on to something similar, I think. I recently read Henry James though I wished the plot of Washington Square could have got going; it just seemed to wade on and on. Some of James’s sentences though are lovely, sinuous, complex things. I enjoyed what I could get through of Proust. I’m getting a kick out of David Foster Wallace just now, but I have to admit a bit of a disappointment to find out that I knew I would, if that makes sense. One of the most exciting and bewildering and challenging books I ever read was Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’. One of the damn best books I ever read was Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’.”
As a longstanding Pogues fan and an admirer of his writing, I was keen to know which he preferred – writing or music.
“I have always enjoyed tracking stuff with a pencil on a piece of paper – which sounds like drawing. They’re not dissimilar. Music’s easier, more accessible to me, somehow, though the challenges it presents by way of collaboration are frustrating. I get a whole different charge from writing. It can be more satisfyingly representational, but the regions music can get to are more satisfyingly mysterious.”
So, what next?
“I’ve started work on a book peopled by my family and a handful of others. It takes place in a sort of fictional Manchester in the year Winston Churchill died.”
And finally, anything you’d like to tell readers about yourself, your life, your books, reading in general?
“That’s a hard question. I’m just a guy that can’t say no.”
*Sometime lead singer of the Pogues