Paul Cooper was first published in 2016. After graduating from university and teaching English in Sri Lanka, he studied creative writing and took up several internships and placements at literary magazines. He now works as a journalist as has a particular passion for languages. His first novel, River of Ink was published in January 2016 by Bloomsbury. He is currently working on his new novel.
With his poetic historical fiction and focus on the art of language in all its forms, Paul Cooper is a writer to watch and a future voice of interdisciplinary fiction.
River of Ink (2016)
Literature Works caught up with Paul to discuss the importance of language and the written word in historical fiction as well as why reading is so important.
We’re seeing resurgence in the popularity of historical fiction in publishing at present; River of Ink is set in a time of Kings and courtiers, what was significant about this period of history for the story?
At the time River of Ink is set, the island nation of Sri Lanka underwent a massive upheaval. Traditionally Buddhist, it was overwhelmed by the forces of a Hindu King known to history as Kalinga Magha, renowned for his cruelty towards his subjects. River of Ink imagines what the life of the previous King’s court poet might have been like, if he were absorbed into Magha’s precarious inner circle.
What’s fascinating about this point in history is that we know a lot about the periods directly before and after Magha’s 30-year reign, since Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monks kept fastidious chronicles about the Kings who ruled, the palace intrigues, the massive building projects. But under Magha, these same monks were subject to brutal repression, and so we have a blank spot in history’s map. – something that proves irresistible to the historical novelist! The period is arguably also the genesis for much of the ethnic conflicts still plaguing Sri Lanka today, so people looking to understand the situation today would do well to study it.
The novel explores history through an enchanting use of languages and art and explores the power that words can have. Why were these important themes in the novel?
One of the things that I love about the exploring the past is realising how much people treasured the written word. It’s something we take for granted today, swamped as we are in the internet and a constant bombardment of text in adverts, newspapers etc. But to the ancients, the ability to read was tantamount to a magic power, and gave access to hidden knowledges and sacred experience. I have always been fascinated by the ongoing tensions between art and power, and I find it makes fertile grounds for stories.
The Reading Passport is a project based in libraries. Do you have a memory of a book you discovered at the library?
River of Ink would not exist at all if I had no access to libraries. From the countless books on Sri Lankan history and art, to other historical novelists who inspired me, libraries made the novel possible. The story of River of Ink follows Magha’s court poet, who is ordered to translate an ancient poem for his new king. The problem I quickly encountered was that no English translation of the poem exists. Luckily I was able to find an old 1927 copy of the German translation in the Bodleian Library, which I could then work from.
Apart from this, I’ve loved libraries since I was little. The particular smell of the fern that used to sit beside the reception of the library next to my school is still irrevocably associated with adventures in books. My favourite writer growing up was the Welsh author Diana Wynne Jones, and I took all of her books out of this library.
Can you say, to what extent reading played a role in your decision to become a writer?
A huge amount! I don’t know if I ever made a decision to become a writer, but I’ve been writing seriously since I was fifteen or so, and the books I was reading at the time were a huge inspiration for that. I get a lot of joy from books, so I think that naturally progresses to wanting to make them yourself. Writers that have inspired me include Orhan Pamuk, Margaret Atwood and Arundhati Roy.
If you could offer one piece of advice to a writer looking to enter the historical fiction market, what would it be?
Write a book you would want to read. You’ll be your own toughest critic.
Thank you Paul!