James was born near Llandysul in Carmarthenshire, and attended the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. She is a Fellow of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Glamorgan. She is a Fellow of the Welsh Academy. She has twice won the Yorkshire Post Prize, and her third novel, A Small Country, has come to be regarded as a classic of Anglo-Welsh literature. In 2006, A Small Country was made into a Welsh-language TV series (Calon Gaeth), which won the 2007 Bafta Cymru award for Best Drama/Drama Serial for Television.