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Novel set in Sri Lanka (a book full of mystical history) Plus author QA

23rd February 2016

River of Ink by Paul M M Cooper, set in 13th Century Sri Lanka.

“Poets always choose the worst times for everything”

IMG_3537A lovely physical book is just such a great opener to a good story! Paul’s book has a striking cover, an era-appropriate stylus (which he carefully researched for the period, see below), flowing ink, turning turquoise. The complementary colour to turquoise is the colour of blood and were they to be placed adjacent to each other, they would harmoniously balance. That is why we chose to set the book cover against a blood red (palm fringed) background, which really throws the book into sharp relief.

Blood. Already a veiled hint of what is to come in the book…..

Sri Lanka of the 13th Century. Kalingha Magha, the ruthless despot, arrives on Lanka’s shores and deposes the presiding ruler, changing the lives of all who live there, including Asanka, the court poet. The book brims with mysticism and symbolism, and opens with the twittering mynah birds in the city of Polonnaruwa – these are birds are deemed to be ‘brimming with happiness‘ but as the story unfolds, life is anything but happy.

Asanka is instructed by Magha to translate the ancient Sanskrit Shishupala Vadha, with the intention that it will be circulated amongst the populace and have a civilising effect, whilst aiding their subjugation. But Asanka’s love for Sarasi motivates him to insert subversive texts, skilfully done. Craftily Magha is depicted as the evil character. The pen of course is mightier than the sword – “if you can write, you can do anything”.

The exotic location magically comes to life in the hands of this talented author, the heat and dust, the smells of old palm leaves on the roofs, and the visual descriptions leave the reader reeling with colour, smell and feel of a city, whose place in Sri Lankan history dwindled from 1255. The author has clearly carried out extensive research into the period and into the life of a scribe – he details the kinds of oils used – dummala and kakuna oils – to mix the inks for writing; and that dried fruits skins were lit to keep evening insects away….

The quality of writing is elegant, lyrical and well crafted, full of mystical history, lore and legend…

Tina for the TripFiction Team.

Over to Paul who has kindly agreed to answer our questions and share some of his top tips for a visit to the country.

TF: Location drives TripFiction. The ruins of Polonnaruwa on the island of Sri Lanka have clearly been hugely inspirational for the story. Can you tell us a little more about them and what drew you to them?

PMMC: Polonnaruwa was the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, so it was essential that I spent time living in this area and researching as much possible. At the time my book starts, it was a city in the midst of a golden age of artistic achievement and with a flourishing literary culture. Some historians even think it was larger than London was at the time. But due to the events depicted in River of Ink, the city eventually faded from significance, and Sri Lankan kings never again ruled from a city in the lowlands, preferring the hill country that proved much easier to defend.

The ruins of Polonnaruwa are always a surprise, no matter how many times you see them. The carvings around the audience halls and old Shiva temples scattered around the 4km archaeological site are amazingly crafted, and you can still see the looming hulk of the old palace, once seven storeys high. In places the white-and-red painted plaster mouldings are still visible, and in the northwest corner there’s even see the sophisticated toilet system draining into an outside cistern. If you wander off through the trees, you can see the pillars of thousand-year-old temples jutting out of the ruin mounds, and statues of the Buddha tipped on their backs by treasure hunters looking for the trinkets beneath their feet.

It’s an amazing place, and it was so important for my book to spend time wandering these ruins and imagining what the city might have been like in the thirteenth century, when it must have been so busy and full of life.

TF:  I understand that you have lived in Sri Lanka and have learned Sinhala and you are able to read Tamil. This must have been very helpful to get under the skin of the culture, which really comes through in the story. Please tell us a little about this period of your life.

PMMC: That’s right – I spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka teaching English in a couple of schools and researching the novel. My first school was in the hill country, which was very beautiful and has a cool climate, but I was so keen to get down to Polonnaruwa. Eventually I managed to get a placement as a supply teacher in a Muslim school in the area, and lived with the school’s English teacher and his lovely family.

TF: The book has a very stylish cover. How much involvement did you have in the design?

PMMC: Thank you! The designer will love to hear that. We went through a couple of drafts – my involvement was confined mostly to making sure the stylus design was historically accurate, and some vague suggestions involving more of this or less of that. I liked the design from the beginning, and I’m actually pretty dense when it comes to that kind of thing, so I mostly left it to the experts.

TF:  What are you working on now, and will location be a strong feature?

PMMC: I can’t say that much about my next project, but yes – it will be a different setting but I think anyone who enjoyed River of Ink will get a lot out of the next book too.

TF: What was your journey to publication?

PMMC: Well I met my agent at an event, and she asked to see more of the book. I then spent a few months frantically editing and polishing while they drummed their fingers. When they read the whole thing, they called me up and offered me representation. I worked with them to do some more edits, and come up with the title it has today. It was about 6 months between signing with them until we took the book to the London Book Fair, which is where a lot of publishers are looking to pick up new deals. I was working as a journalist at the time, and managed to convince my employers that there were sufficient stories to be reported on at the LBF, and they let me go along. There I met an editor at Bloomsbury who’d read some of the book, and it really went from there. It has been over a year since – publishing is quite a slow industry!

TF: What are your top tips for anyone visiting Sri Lanka?

PMMC: Definitely visit Polonnaruwa, and try to learn some Sinhala. It makes people so happy to hear foreigners speaking their language, and makes people very positively disposed towards you. Also make sure to climb Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) – it is an incredible experience. You start climbing the mountain at about 3am (the lighted path looks like a staircase into the sky) and reach the top just in time for sunrise over the hill country. There’s even a point when the mountain casts its own shadow against the cloud behind it. At some times of year, the Sri Pada is covered in moths or butterflies, which is where it gets its old name, Samanalakanda, or butterfly mountain! I love to go down the Ratnapura route, but it is very arduous and takes at least 7 hours and more than 10,000 steps.

Thank you to Paul for is wonderful responses.

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