After college, Cormac went to Chicago, where he worked as an auto mechanic while writing his first novel, The Orchard Keeper.
The Orchard Keeper was published by Random House in 1965. Cormac's editor there was Albert Erskine, William Faulkner's longtime editor. The Orchard Keeper is set in a small, remote community in rural Tennessee in the years between the two world wars. It tells of John Wesley Rattner, a young boy, and Marion Sylder, an outlaw and bootlegger who, unbeknownst to either of them, has killed the boy's father. Together with Rattner's uncle Ather, who belongs to a former age in his communion with nature and his stoic independence, they enact a drama that seems born of the land itself. All three are heroes of an intense and compelling celebration of values lost to time and industrialization.
Before publication, Cormac received a traveling fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which he used to travel to Ireland. In 1966, he also received the Rockefeller Foundation Grant, with which he continued to tour Europe, settling on the island of Ibiza.