Just as Cormac James began publicising his superb novel, The Surfacing - set in 1850 on board a British ship searching for survivors from polar explorer Sir John Franklin's lost expedition - it was announced that Canadian divers had found one of his ships entombed at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

So, smart timing for the marketing of a new book, albeit an exceptional one? Or is the gifted Irish-born writer clairvoyant? Or has he simply tapped into the zeitgeist?

All of the above, laughs James, who lives in France with his French-born engineer wife Laetitia and their four-year-old son Cian. Actually, he jokes, it's all part of a cunning plan to sell more copies of his book. "For sure, it's serendipitous!" he agrees.

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Nonetheless, James, a quiet-spoken, reserved man, points out that, unlike so many other works of art, from songs, films and books to paintings based on this baffling maritime mystery, his compelling novel is not actually about the doomed expedition led by Franklin, who with 128 men on board HMS Erebus and HMS Terror set sail from Aberdeen and Orkney in May 1845 seeking the elusive Northwest Passage. They disappeared in September 1846.

"Indeed, although it's set in the 1850s, I don't think I've written an historical novel at all," says the 43-year-old, who was born in Cork and educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he read English before gaining an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The Surfacing tells of the voyage of a fictional ship, The Impetus - over a decade dozens of Admiralty vessels were despatched in the desperate hunt for Franklin - and its motley crew. They include an aged, incompetent captain, his second-in-command, the ship's doctor, chaplain and cook. An all-male world, then, until an angry stowaway is found - Kitty Rink - and she is pregnant by second-in-command, Richard Morgan.

Already late at the rendezvous point with a dozen other Admiralty ships, from where they would disperse to various points in the archipelago, The Impetus can't turn back. Soon, the pack ice holds the ship fast in its cruel embrace as winter sets in. Kitty's baby must be born within the claustrophobic confines of the ship into this unforgiving wilderness.

Morgan is from Cork, a remote man whose emotions appear on the surface to be as frozen as the unsympathetic landscape that James describes so brilliantly. Indeed, it's impossible to picture him writing at his Montpellier home, where summer temperatures top a sweltering 30ºC, while so vividly recreating the terrors of the Arctic in such menacing, chilling detail. Surely he voyaged to the Arctic?

"You're joking!" he exclaims. "You've read the book. Why would I want to go there? Although Montpelier can get too hot for me as an Irishman. Sometimes, during the day I have to stay inside." Still, I don't believe him, I tell him. His astonishing descriptions of those lonely, white wastes must come from personal experience?

"No, I assure you," he protests. "They come from research - and imagination. I read many accounts of ships going up there. There was enormous interest in the mystery so men came back, wrote memoirs and journals, all of which were best-sellers and are now available online. But I don't really have a huge interest in the Franklin story itself. Where known facts have not suited my narrative, I have ignored them. I need to know facts, then leave them out. It was more the setting which appealed to me and to my characters, who thought that they were going into an heroic space, an all-male space where they could get away from the complicated nature of everyday domestic life at home. Then I drop an intelligent woman into their very masculine, codified, enclosed world. Which is problematic, but I hope the reader will make the leap of faith in accepting that a woman could stowaway on such a ship.

"Some people have said they find Morgan unlikeable, but I think he's very withdrawn. What changes him is fatherhood." Indeed, James writes tenderly and with great insight about the child. Morgan moves from being one type of man to another, hence the surfacing. "Something shifts in him. In fact, a lot of the book was written during my wife's pregnancy and the first year or two of our son's life, much of it is from notes I made at the time."

James's story is told in lean, cool, poetic prose and is utterly compelling, winning advance praise from Rose Tremain, Colum McCann and John Boyne. It's taken him 14 years to produce this, his second novel. His first, Track And Field, set in Ireland during the Civil War, told another strange tale, about three brothers bringing the body of their fourth sibling home from Dublin to Cork for burial, an almost Homeric journey that is slow and fraught with danger. "Pure joy to read," wrote one reviewer. So what kept him from writing anther novel?

"Well, I didn't spend 14 years writing The Surfacing," he replies. "I actually wrote three other novels, none of which will ever be taken out of the drawer. I'm a useless perfectionist! A French publisher was interested in a translation of Track And Field, however, and I wanted to put in a little scene at the ending. I read about the explorer Shackleton, an Irishman, then found out that many Cork men had joined the searches for Franklin. The idea of the searcher getting lost appealed, as well as the psychological world and the hermetically sealed ship. People trapped in space far from civilisation - almost like astronauts. That sparked something in me."

Life itself also intervened, acknowledges James, who has two brothers. His father was in sales, his mother a housewife. "It wasn't a bookish household. I certainly wasn't a great reader when growing up. I had no secret ambition to write until I did the UEA thing," he confesses. He began writing short stories while doing a series of "dead-end jobs" - teaching, translating, then property renovation. For the past five years he's been coaching youngsters in rugby, after taking up the sport on moving to France.

Born Cormac McCarthy, James changed his name lest he be confused with the American novelist, playwright and screenwriter and, most notably, author of The Road. "It didn't make any sense to use my own name. Ironically, he actually changed his - he's actually Charles McCarthy. For me, it's nice to have a little mask."

The Surfacing by Cormac James is published by Sandstone, £8.99. For more information and archive photographs, visit cormacjames.com