January 28 2016
What connects a young Cardiff-born writer with 13th century Sri Lanka, Sanskrit, and a court poet of that time by the name of Asanka…our correspondent discovers…
By Tasha Mathur
www.asianculturevulture.com (ACV): What is your novel ‘River of Ink’ about?
Paul Cooper (PC): River of Ink follows the life of ‘Asanka’, a poet who finds himself working for a maniacal and tyrannical king. The story’s based around historical events in Sri Lanka around the year 1215. This poet is forced to translate an epic poem from Indian mythology, but small changes he makes to his translation lead to him becoming a reluctant and unlikely revolutionary.
ACV: Where did the idea of ‘River of Ink’ originate from?
PC: The character of Asanka is loosely based on the English poet Thomas Wyatt, who found himself in a similar position in Henry VIII’s court, translating ‘Petrarch’s Sonnets’ from Italian.
At the time I wanted to find a different setting for the story, and my interest in classical Indian poetry led me to this part of the world. When I discovered such a fascinating, dramatic and neglected period of Sri Lankan history, I was determined to go to Sri Lanka and write this novel. It took between five and six years to write.
ACV: How did you come up with the title?
PC: The title refers to a twist within the story, so I can’t give too much away! But rivers and water form a strong motif throughout the book, and it’s the way Asanka thinks about the story he’s writing – a kind of natural and unstoppable force over which he has little control.
ACV: What drew you to Sri Lanka in particular?
PC: I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of islands in fiction, and since ‘The Ramayana’ is older than Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, Sri Lanka might well be literature’s first island! The meticulous records kept by the Buddhist monks throughout the centuries have also left behind an incredibly detailed record that gives a historical novelist a huge amount of insight into how people lived and spoke and thought at this time in this part of the world.
ACV: What shocked or surprised you when you first came to Sri Lanka?
PC: How nice people were! It can be hard to be a foreigner alone in a strange land, but the people of Sri Lanka were at every point incredibly kind to me – and once they found out I could speak Sinhala, they were always very thrilled. What also struck me is how much tragedy has hit this small country over the years: between the tsunami and the war, and the civil unrest before, it seems everyone has a tragic story somewhere in their life. What seems to differentiate Sri Lanka is that everyone wants to speak about their stories, and be heard.
ACV: How much of ‘River of Ink‘ has been inspired by your own experiences?
PC: The book is set in Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, which has been in ruins since the thirteenth century. I lived and taught in Polonnaruwa, and much of the book was written in the library there. I spent a long time exploring the ruined palaces and temples and audience halls, and all of the places mentioned in the novel are places around the city that I felt a kind of connection to. Of course it takes a lot of imagination as well as research to bring a ruined city back to life, but my picture of Polonnaruwa is based as closely as possible on my observation of the site itself.
ACV: Can you tell us more about the main character, Asanka?
PC: Asanka is something of a composite character. I became fascinated by the position he finds himself in: that of the artist beholden to a tyrannical power. I read a lot about people who find themselves in a similar position, from the poet Ovid who was exiled from ancient Rome by Augustus, to Wyatt and more modern examples like the composer Shostakovich who struggled beneath Stalin’s whims, and Russian poets such as Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam. Asanka is quite a morally compromised character who justifies a lot of his compromises to himself, so there are even strains of less sympathetic historical characters in there. He’s also a little vain and loves gossip, so I based this part of his character on the diaries of the tenth-century Japanese court lady known as Sei Shonagon, and some of his poetic sensibilities on Basho. So quite a mix!
ACV: What were the main challenges (if any) of writing this book?
PC: The research was obviously extensive and challenging. By the time you’ve been writing a book for five to six years, you’ve probably done at least a PhD’s worth of studying into the particular setting and historical context for your story. And that’s before you even get down to writing an enjoyably and exciting story for your readers!
ACV: How much research did you actually end up doing for River of Ink?
PC: I read everything about Sri Lankan and Indian history, and read a lot of contemporary literature too. I also read a lot of the Mahabharata (which weighs in at a hefty 1.8 million words) and other classical Indian poems, as well as seeing a lot of the film and television versions of these tales.
I began to get strange looks from people when my reading on the train began to get as obscure as ‘The Boundary Stones of Medieval Sri Lanka’ or ‘The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity: The Tamils in Sri Lanka’. I also became very interested in the sangam tradition of Tamil poetry, segments of which appear in the book. I didn’t restrict my research to Sri Lanka, though: I read a lot about similar feudal societies in different parts of the world, including in Japan and South America.
ACV: What are your thoughts on the literary market for novels of this kind?
PC: I don’t pay that much attention to the market – that’s one of the luxuries of being a writer. By the time you’ve finished your book, the market will have changed anyway, so it doesn’t make sense to chase it! I really just try to write the books I wish existed.
Just as a reader of fiction, there’s been a resurgence in historical novels recently that I’ve greatly enjoyed, and it’s nice to see more international and diverse voices taking centre stage.
ACV: What kind of reception have you received since the book’s release? Was it what you expected?
PC: The reception has been great so far: people have been so positive and encouraging, and some kinder than I could ever expect. I was particularly delighted when I went to The Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka, and the people there seemed just as enthused about the prospect of the book as people back home.
ACV: What’s next for you?
PC: I’m working on another book, but it’s too early to talk too much about it. All I’ll say is that if you like ‘River of Ink’, this will be right up your street.
- For tickets to today’s event at Asia House with Paul Cooper and Arifa Akbar (Literary Editor at The Independent) please visit: http://asiahouse.org/events/sri-lankas-river-ink/
- ‘River of Ink’ by Paul MM Cooper (Bloomsbury Publishing) is out from today…
- ‘River of Ink’ – http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Paul-M-M-Cooper/River-of-Ink/16537775 http://www.amazon.co.uk/River-Ink-Paul-M-Cooper/dp/1408862220