‘Write what you know.’ It’s a well used and oft quoted piece of advice for aspiring writers. But consider the role of historical novels, sci-fi sagas and fantasy fiction. How do writers approach these genres and produce work that is set in spaces and places far removed from their experience, yet manage to build narratives that connect and resonate with a modern audience.
Paul Cooper is the author of River of Ink. His debut novel is based on a poet to the King in 13th century Sri Lanka, who tries to use poetic words to unite two warring factions. Working as journalist in the city, and not a king, living in the 13th century, or au fait with the Sri Lankan world of this time, he was still able to write a compelling, resonant and highly emotive narrative that speaks to audiences of all ages. Much of this success seems to be about combining things you do know – the experience of being a human and its vicissitudes of experience, emotion and life – with those more remote aspects of the period and age.
After hearing his story at the LSE Literary Festival I spoke to him to find out more about how he did this…
How long did River of Ink take you to write, and what was the process like?
River of Ink took the best part of five years to write, from conception to publication. I began with the germ of an idea – the situation of a poet translating a poem for a tyrant King, and finding through the act of translation a kind of rebellious artistic freedom. I spent a lot of time living in Sri Lanka and researching for the novel, and it underwent a great number of rewrites along the way.
Was it Sri Lanka, the historic aspect or fantasy of the stories that drew you in?
I began with that idea for a story, and through writing the novel I fell in love with the ancient Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. They are such incredibly rich stories, full of love and tragedy, and I felt a lot of their power draw me through the writing of River of Ink. I’m also an amateur historian, and there’s nothing more alluring to a historical fiction writer than a blank spot on history’s map. The book is set during the reign of a notorious king known to history as Kalinga Magha. During this time, the monks who had for centuries meticulously recorded Sri Lanka’s history were subject to brutal repressions, and so the period is something of a question mark. The mystery of what happened during this time became something of an obsession. I think historical fiction writers can sometimes exist as a kind of ‘god of the gaps’, thriving like a vine between the cracked bricks of history.
You eventually went to Sri Lanka – what made you decide that it was time to go there?
I went to live in Sri Lanka as soon as I could, once I’d graduated. I don’t believe it’s possible to write authentically about a place without ever having been there. There are so many details and imperceptible atmospheric concerns that are absolutely crucial to writing a believable and surprising setting, without relying on tired orientalist tropes. When I arrived, I’d studied a great deal about the country, and found it incredibly stimulating to finally visit. In some cases, I found myself in quite remote areas, and had to learn to speak Sinhala, the majority language of the island. I was able to explore the ruins of Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital of Sri Lanka, and the setting for River of Ink. Being actually able to walk those ruined streets, and wander through the crumbling rooms of the palace, where pieces of the original plaster still cling to the walls, gave me shivers. It was as if I was walking in the footsteps of my characters and seeing what they might have once seen.
Have you any plans to write another novel?
I am currently finishing my second novel. Hopefully anyone who liked River of Ink will find something to love in this one too!
Were you always creative or literary?
I’ve always loved to read, and I’ve been writing seriously for about 12 years now. I used to enjoy telling stories when I was a child, though sometimes it can be too easy to trace back your current situation to early memories. I’m sure if I was a biologist, I’d trace it back to all the time I spent in the woods near my house, fishing tadpoles from the lake. But I think I have always been in awe of the power of storytelling.
You worked as a journalist for a number of years. How did this way of writing prepare you for your novel, or differ from it?
Journalism is an art I’ve never had much talent for. It’s a job that allows you to travel a lot, which was my primary reason for staying. However it tires out the muscle that allows you to write, and I also find some of the more commercial and quasi-corrupt practises of small-publication journalism to be in some way damaging to the soul. At anything other than the highest levels of journalism, you are often beholden to powerful corporate partners, and feel yourself to be something of a cog in the PR machine.
How can you write about and relate to the experience of a Sri Lankan king from 1215? Your life is very different to this – can writers write about things they have never experienced?
The reason we invented literature is so we can imagine the lives of others – how people might have lived in other situations, other places and other times. Of course to achieve this level of literary empathy, you have to conduct a great deal of research. I would say it is also essential to learn the language of the country you are setting your story in, and develop an understanding of the idioms and metaphorical systems at work. Ultimately if you want to write outside your own experience, you need to approach your work with a great deal of open-heartedness and understanding, and begin from the assumption that despite all out differences of language and culture, humans are very similar once you get down to the level of the soul.
Paul Cooper’s first novel, River of Ink was published in January 2016 by Bloomsbury Ink.