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15 October 2015

Reclusive novelist Dominic Cooper: what do writers do when the words no longer come?

In 2013, a local paper reported on a strange script chiselled into a stone that had baffled not only historians but US code-breakers for decades. The mystery was solved when Cooper stepped forward and said that he was the secret poet.

By Benjamin Myers

Down a narrow track on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, in the westernmost part of the British mainland, you’ll find the writer Dominic Cooper in his Norwegian-style log house. He built it himself three decades ago, 300 feet up, perched above the sea. Looking north, one can see 60 miles up the coast to the Outer Hebrides. The nearest town is a two-hour drive away. There are no neighbours visible.

“Nobody can see me, either,” Cooper says, laughing. “All I see at night are the little lights of the houses on the islands. When the sun comes out, the wood creaks and pops like a boat. For me, this place has a feeling of peace . . . apart from when I get a force-ten [gale] in February, of course.”

Now 71, Cooper published four novels between 1975 and 1987, the first of which, The Dead of Winter, won the Somerset Maugham Award alongside Ian McEwan’s debut, First Love, Last Rites. All could be considered forgotten classics of contemporary literature.

Cooper came to writing after being thrown out of Oxford in the 1960s. He worked first for the classical music department of Decca Records and then as a teacher in Iceland. “I planned on becoming an Icelander,” he says. “I was going to change my name to Dominic Martinsson. God, the naivety.”

His second novel, Sunrise (1977), tells the story of the forest worker Murdo Munro’s escape into the wild after burning down his family home. Like The Dead of Winter, it is a novel of pursuit but, unlike John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps or Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, which it resembles superficially, Sunrise favours poetry and landscape over plot.

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The only reason he hasn’t been hailed as a figurehead of the renaissance in nature writing over the past few years is that he exists so far below the radar (a contact at his former publisher Faber & Faber confessed that he hadn’t heard of Cooper). Perhaps this is because he simply walked away from writing. “Actually, writing walked away from me,” he says. “After my last novel, The Horn Fellow in 1987, which I wrote over two intense and wonderful years up a mountain, I ran out of words. The capacity for words is still there but I’ve lost the track.”

This raises the question: what do writers do when the words no longer come? “Early on, I realised to make a living was near-impossible,” Cooper says. “I trained as a clock- and watch-mender so that I’d always have an income. The idea that it was easier for writers back then is basic sweet bollocks. It’s always been precarious being a ‘serious’ writer. Some contemporaries, like McEwan, became extremely successful but I accepted I was to be the poor cousin. Would I want to be him? No. I’ve never done a single thing specifically for money. I’ve done precisely what I wanted in life. When I sold a film option for £25,000, I worked at giving it all away.”

But the writing didn’t stop. In 2013, a local paper reported on a strange script chiselled into a stone that had baffled not only historians but US code-breakers for decades. One theory suggested that it had been crafted by commandos during the Second World War. The mystery was solved when Cooper stepped forward and said that he was the secret poet. The five-line script, written in Icelandic in 1986, was a tribute to his recently deceased father, translated again using the Elder Futhark: the runic alphabet favoured by Vikings and ancient Saxons.

“Of course I chose bloody granite, didn’t I?” he says. “Five strikes and your chisel is blunt again. It took ages.” One way or the other, Cooper’s magnificent writing will endure. His reclusive commitment is that of a true and pure British poet.

Sunrise” will be reissued by Thirsty Books on 9 October

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis