James Wilson photographed by Jürgen Bauer

photo © Jürgen Bauer

Biography

I was born in Cambridge, educated at Oxford (where I read History), and now live in south London.

In 1973, not long out of university, I wrote Canada's Indians for the Minority Rights Group — a transformative experience that gave me a lifelong commitment to North American indigenous people. Two years later, I was lucky enough to receive a Ford Foundation grant to research and write a companion report on US Indians, The Original Americans.

From 1976 — 1990, I was Director of Studies for the British and European Studies Group, a small, academically selective programme for US undergraduates in London. Rewarding though the job was, it left no time for my own work, and I eventually resigned and moved to Bristol to pursue my career as a writer.

During the next seven years, I worked as script-writer and consultant / associate producer on a number of television projects, including the award-winning two-part Timewatch, Savagery and the American Indian for BBC2 and the A&E Network (1991); The Two Worlds of the Innu (BBC2, 1994); and Byrd: Alone in Antarctica (PBS, 1996).

In 1996 I wrote and presented a five-part documentary series, Present Tense: The Enduring World of the Innu, for Radio 3. I also wrote a number of plays, two of which — Let's Do It (1990) and Rough Music (1996) — were premièred by the Show of Strength company in Bristol. My interest in theatre led to my becoming a founder member of the much-lauded Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, recently described by Jeremy Kingston in The Times as 'one of the most exciting theatre companies in the land'.

In 1994, I was commissioned to write The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America, which was published by Picador in 1998 and by Grove/Atlantic in 1999. It was the success of this book that finally allowed me, at the beginning of the new millennium, to fulfil the ambition I had cherished since childhood to write fiction. Four novels later, despite all the inevitable frustrations of being an author, and the seismic changes that are transforming the publishing industry, I am more passionately committed to the form — with its tremendous imaginative freedom, and its spell-binding power to magic us to other worlds — than ever.

Since 1986, I have been a member of the executive committee of Survival, an international organization working for the rights of indigenous peoples. I have been active in a number of campaigns and, in 1999, co-wrote a Survival report, Canada's Tibet: the Killing of the Innu, which attracted worldwide attention.

From 2010 — 2013 I was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, first at Exeter University and then at the University of Bath. I am now an RLF Consultant Fellow.