Creatives in profile: Interview with Paul M.M. Cooper

Paul Cooper

Paul M.M Cooper was born in South London and grew up in Cardiff, Wales, in what he has described as a “house full of books”. He is a graduate of the acclaimed creative writing courses at both the University of Warwick and the University of East Anglia.

His book, River of Ink, was one of the biggest literary deals at the London Book Fair in 2014 and tells the story of Asanka – a 13th Century Sri Lankan poet forced to translate a piece of mythology for a tyrannical king. The book (you can read our review here) is set around historical events, and is based on years of research Cooper conducted during the time he spent living and working in Sri Lanka.

He has written for magazines and websites, and has also worked as an archivist, editor and journalist.

It’s an honour to introduce this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

COOPER

I’m a novelist and language enthusiast from Cardiff. I write books about art and history and the heroism that comes from ordinary people.

 INTERVIEWER

What was your childhood like?

 COOPER

It was good! I grew up in Cardiff since I was 6, which has left me with an affinity for rain and a distrust of places with flat countryside.

INTERVIEWER

Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to be besides a writer?

COOPER

I wanted to be a nature photographer at one point. I think being a writer is similar to that in a lot of ways, but you don’t have to go outside if you don’t want to, which makes it superior.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

COOPER

The likely people are authors like Orhan Pamuk, Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy, Teju Cole and Roberto Bolaño.

INTERVIEWER

Your debut novel, River of Ink, was famously the subject of a multiple-publisher auction in 2014 – could you tell us a little more about your journey from writing the first words of the book down through to getting that book deal?

COOPER

It took about 5 years between those two points. I lived in Sri Lanka for some time, I did two degrees and nearly lost my marbles. There were quite a few points when I wanted to give up, but the story really demanded that I finish it. I met my agent at an event showcasing some of the work by UEA graduates, and spent a few months frantically editing and re-editing the book to send to them. Once they offered me representation, we took the book to the London Book Fair. I was working as a reporter at the time, and managed to convince my employers that there were some stories that needed writing there – so I got to go there and meet the editor from Bloomsbury, who went on to bid against another publisher. I started fielding a lot of calls, and most of the deal was hashed out in the stairwell of the office I was working at, near Southwark Bridge.

INTERVIEWER

And what about afterwards – is it strange handing over your book to the editors and waiting for it to be published? What’s it like seeing your name on the shelves of bookstores?

COOPER

It is strange to have something that is a very private project suddenly pored over by scores of others. Publishing is quite a slow industry, though – so I’ve had some time to get used to the idea. It’s great to see the book on the shelves. I’ve only had one weird moment so far: while I was standing in a shop I saw someone pick up River of Ink, and my heartbeat shot up suddenly. I’m not usually prone to things like that, but I had to leave the shop because it freaked me out.

INTERVIEWER

Who are (and who have been) your most important teachers?

COOPER

I’ve had some great teachers over the years. Definitely Amit Chaudhuri and Rebecca Stott, who took me under their wing a little at the UEA, and Maureen Freely and George Ttoouli at Warwick. I also had a couple of teachers who really encouraged me to write in secondary school. I think behind every writer is a person who once said ‘that could be you’ – for me it was some great English teachers.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve studied writing at both Warwick and UEA – what is your view on the value of creative writing courses?

 COOPER

They are what you make of them. Like a music school or dance school, they can initiate you into a craft, but they can’t give you the final spark that makes you really great. For me it was good to spend time around people who took the craft of writing utterly seriously, and focus all my time on getting better at writing. Ultimately you have to do most of the ‘teaching’ yourself, but it’s a great place to do it. I think there’s a lot of valid concern going around about the idea of certain people being priced out of becoming writers, though – and it’s important that voices from outside the academies are getting the same opportunities as those within.

INTERVIEWER

You spent a year after graduating from the University of Warwick living in Sri Lanka – where River of Ink is set (albeit some 700 years earlier). How big a part did that year play in helping you craft the novel? And what was it like to come back to England and write and edit the novel with the inevitable distance away from a place that is so vividly brought to life in your book?

 COOPER

A lot of the book was actually written in Sri Lanka, and especially in the Polonnaruwa Library, which is in view of the old citadel wall and the palace across the canal. As well as the story, I’d also filled notebooks with notes and sketches, and I took photos and videos constantly, so I had a lot of raw material to work from whenever my memory failed me back in the UK. I couldn’t have written this book without spending large amounts of time wandering the ruins of Polonnaruwa and imagining how it once might have looked, the noise and colour in its streets – so it was very important for me. Part of Asanka’s struggle in the book is also about trying to write about a place distant and unfamiliar to him, so the distance fed a little into my character’s frustrations also.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘writing process’? What do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

 COOPER

Just getting words onto the page is important. I heard someone describe this recently as ‘piling sand into the sandbox to build things out of it later’ – this is usually how my first drafts work. I write a lot, fill scenes with everything I can, and then winnow things down later so it is light and strong in the final draft.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind as you write?

 COOPER

I have lots of readers in mind: they all sit on my shoulder in a little chorus. My favourite reader is the enthusiastic lover of stories, who likes things to be exciting and page-turning. My least favourite reader is the pedantic historian of thirteenth-century Sri Lankan history and culture, who caused me no end of headaches. I believe I’ve written a book both these readers can enjoy, however.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

COOPER

Yes – especially when depicting another culture and time. I have a horror of embodying the classic leering orientalist gaze, so I found a lot of tension between accurately depicting the time and place, the sensibilities of the characters, and avoiding the kind of otherising that often takes place in books written in South Asian settings. The book is rabidly anti-imperialist as I see it, and my villain Magha embodies a lot of what I see to be poisonous in the colonial and neo-colonial projects. I was determined that modern Sri Lankan people should be able to recognise their country in the pages of River of Ink, but also that the book should embody certain universal ideals.

INTERVIEWER

River of Ink explicitly deals with the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword” – and with the incredibly important role writers and artists play in holding leaders – and indeed society as a whole – to account. And yet we live in a world where writing freedom is increasingly restricted; not only through restrictive laws in countries where writers can actually be imprisoned, but also in supposedly democratic countries where writers like James Kelman and Julian Barnes have pointed out that it’s harder and harder to get novels published that are different or challenging to the establishment. Kelman even said the UK media establishment “colludes in censorship and suppression” – a view Noam Chomsky would probably sympathise with. What’s your take on writing and creative freedom?

COOPER

I think there’s a will to liberation that inheres in all writing and art, no matter what uses it’s put to, which is a big part of River of Ink. Artist around the world are currently struggling beneath autocratic regimes, and their art is often the mode they use to express their dissent. However even in democratic countries there’s a lot of implicit suppression involved in the publishing industry. This isn’t conscious I think, but more systematic by virtue of it still being a very white industry. That’s only now really beginning to change, and it’s great to see writers of all backgrounds beginning to get to speak. Even generally liberal institutions like the creative arts and publishing are necessarily self-perpetuating entities, and are therefore reactionary to some degree – so it can really be about the market forcing them to change. Go buy books from people whose voices aren’t being heard, in other words!

INTERVIEWER

Where does the power of literature come from?

COOPER

I’d say the way it allows us to imagine ourselves into situations wholly different to our own. People who don’t read novels miss out on some of the most profound acts of imaginative empathy, and I can’t help but think it makes you a more inflexible and dogmatic person – which is bad for the soul I believe.

INTERVIEWER

What is a writer for?

COOPER

Telling stories!

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?

COOPER

The novel has been on the verge of death for 100 years, and presumably will be for another 100. People in publishing can be pretty pessimistic, but I don’t see anything to be gloomy about. People are now consuming literature in more different forms, from a wider variety of sources, and countries of origin, than ever before. I think narrative television has replaced cinema as the dominant storytelling form at least in the North Atlantic – but the novel is still intricately bound to people’s desires to enter other lives and experience beauty.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

COOPER

It’s a little too early to talk too much about it, but people who enjoyed River of Ink will get a lot out of the next book too. I’m writing about a different setting, and even adding in a modern element to the historical story. But I hope to strike the same balance between storytelling and artistry that I think has struck a chord with readers of the first book.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

COOPER

The desire to make things no one else thought could exist.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

COOPER

  1. Read everything, and not just the things you like
  2. Stay playful, and write the books you want to write, not what you think people expect or would respect you for writing
  3. Stay humble and learn your craft: read about writing
  4. Learn about good stories, not just about good prose
  5. Stay in for the long haul. It takes most people (myself included) at least 10 years to go from beginning writing seriously to getting published
  6. Almost all who try disqualify themselves by giving up
  7. Show your writing to people and develop a thick skin as soon as possible. people will help you if you’re not sensitive about it
  8. If you get bored with a project, it’s probably because you wandered away from what you loved about it in the first place. it happens a lot
  9. Lots of people will tell you it will never happen
  10. Whatever project you eventually want to write, start right now!

 

One thought on “Creatives in profile: Interview with Paul M.M. Cooper

  1. Pingback: Professor Wu’s essential spring time reading list | nothingintherulebook

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