Author John Shors's debut novel brings the romantic backstory of the Taj Mahal to paperback for the first time. Interview by Violet Kane
Please join us for an Interactive Q&A with John Shors starting today on ARWZ. Check out our Q&A Details for more information.
In his debut novel, Beneath a Marble Sky, John Shors combines poetry, love and history for a tale captivating to alternative reality and mainstream readers alike. The success of the hardcover release of Beneath a Marble Sky took Shors on a virtual tour of the world, emphasis on virtual. Shors lent his time to numerous book clubs in person, by phone and internet in order to touch base with his readers and respond personally to their questions after reading his book. It's not only in making contact with readers that he is so ambitious. Shors is also an experienced world-traveler. He lived in Japan to work as an English teacher for several years and has traveled throughout Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It is the flavors of his travels, the affectiveness and aesthetic of his experiences that he brings to the craft of novel writing. Inspiration, aesthetic and craft were only a few of the subjects I wanted to discuss with Shors. I was curious to hear his thoughts on how historical fiction fits with "alternative reality" genres, and what his plans are for future novels.
V: Your debut novel Beneath a Marble Sky is released today in paperback. You have been very active in getting in touch with your readers by participating in online discussions. What has reader reaction been like so far? Anything that has surprised you?
JS: I have really enjoyed chatting online with people about my novel. Outside of cyberspace, Iíve met with many book clubs in person, and have spoken with more than 100 book clubs over the phone (groups typically put me on speakerphone). In some ways, Iíve enjoyed the exchanges online the most, as itís been really fun to chat with people from all over the world about my novel. One group that I dealt with had members from more than a dozen countries, and all of these unique people had different perspectives on Beneath a Marble Sky. It was a fun and compelling exchange.
In terms of reader reaction, I think that readers have enjoyed these exchanges quite a bit, as well. Itís fairly rare that readers have the opportunity to pose questions to an author. I think there is a great need for this, and yet most authors donít do a very good job of making themselves available. I think that Iíve been able to provide an unusual experience for readers in that Iíve given them the opportunity to ask me all sorts of questions. For instance, topics of conversation range from Beneath a Marble Sky to the movie deal to getting a novel published in general. I believe that people enjoy chatting with me within all of these areas.
V: Now that Beneath a Marble Sky is out in paperback, what future projects can your readers look forward to? Do you currently have a new novel or novels in the works?
JS: Well, for the immediate future, my job will be to promote the trade paperback version of Beneath a Marble Sky. People seem to really enjoy my novel, and I feel compelled to let more readers know about it. And as a first-time novelist, it will be much easier for me to get my second novel published if Beneath a Marble Sky sells well.
Having said that, I am working on a new novel. This book will again take place in Asia but is set during contemporary times. Itís a very different book than Beneath a Marble Sky, but I think that it will appeal to the same readers. Iím quite excited about it.
V: Your first novel is historical fiction. While the editors here at ARWZ put historical fiction under the auspices of "alternative reality fiction", it is not normally grouped with science fiction, fantasy and horror, but rather with mainstream fiction. Do you see your novelóor historical fiction as a wholeóhaving appeal for readers of more traditional alternative reality (i.e. science fiction, fantasy, horror) genres? What elements or themes would such readers connect to in your work?
JS: Well, I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy. The first book I wrote, actually, was a fantasy novel (I wrote it at the age of 15 and thankfully it was never published!). So, I have always been a big fan of these genres. To me, historical fiction (especially my novel) is not that different. For instance, in Beneath a Marble Sky, I take readers to a world that they have likely never encountered. I let them experience this world in a very intimate and compelling way. And I think that this is what good science fiction, fantasy and horror does. These books take readers to new and exciting worlds. Beneath a Marble Sky takes readers to 17th century India, and lets readers experience the lives of the royalty, of warriors, of builders. So in this very powerful regard, I think that my novel will appeal to readers who tend to favor these other genres.
V: You open Beneath a Marble Sky with a quotation from Jalal al-Din Rumi, the medieval Sufi mystic. Rumi is well-known for his poetry about love, both for human friends and for God. How, from his vast collection, did you manage to narrow it down to one verse to set the tone for the love story in your novel?
JS: I wish I could say that there was some brilliant strategy behind finding such a great quotation from Rumi. This wasnít the case, though. Essentially, I just combed through scores and scores of poems until I discovered the verse that is quoted in the beginning of Beneath a Marble Sky. So many of Rumiís musings are so profound. Yet the words that he used to describe love hit home with me on an even deeper level than his other thoughts. His words really symbolized how I felt that Shah Jahan must have felt about Arjumand (for whom he built the Taj Mahal). Theirs was a rare love story, and Rumiís words seemed quite appropriate and moving.
V: What was your inspiration for choosing to write about the particular historical figures and eventsónamely the building of the Taj Mahalóin Beneath a Marble Sky?
JS: Iíve been lucky enough to spend a great deal of time in Asia and have been powerfully influenced by its history, as well as the sights, sounds, smells, and customs found today in that part of the world. For a decade Iíve wanted to write a novel set somewhere in Asia but waited to find the right storyóor rather to have the right story find me.
In 1999, my wife and I were traveling in India and of course made it a point to visit the Taj Mahal. We arrived at the mausoleum as soon as it opened to the public and were the first people there that day. Walking within its chambers, hearing our voices echo in the same manner as voices did hundreds of years ago, and touching its sculpted walls was an overwhelming experience. Seeing the wonder of the Taj Mahal, and understanding that a man built it for his wifeóa woman he cherished above all else in lifeówas uniquely inspiring. Indian poets have been writing about this love story for centuries. And yet, not many people in the West know the tale. I realized that I had to tell it. Quite honestly, I was amazed and delighted to discover upon my return to America that no one in the West had ever fictionalized the story.
V: How did you approach researching this historical time, place and its people? You are a world-traveler as well as a scholar and writer, so I imagine you drew from many sources in formulating this novel. What particular sources and experiences fed into your research for this story?
JS: Spending five years in Asia was crucial in terms of my ability to understand that part of the world, and therefore write about it convincingly. In terms of diving into various texts, I spent about a year researching 17th-century Hindustan (India). A fair amount of this work revolved around reading religious texts, memoirs, and historical accounts. Surprisingly, the written word was not my greatest aid in terms of research material. Instead, hundreds and hundreds of period paintings provided me with a rich sense of the time and place that my novel is set in. Mughal paintings are exquisite and offered glimpses of life within the harem, of how battles unfolded, of how people ate and celebrated and loved. I could not have written Beneath a Marble Sky without such visual aids.
V: Historical fiction, while based upon real events and often at least some real people, is ultimately fiction. Despite the historical milieu and a frame of recorded events, much of the everyday experience of the characters must be fictionalized by the author. How did you approach balancing fiction and non-fiction in Beneath a Marble Sky? How much non-fiction is needed to give a historical novel a sense of reality? How much fictionalization is required to create a memorable story?
JS: I get asked this kind of question a lot. After reading Beneath a Marble Sky, people always wonder what was true, and what wasnít. My answer is that my novel is about a 50/50 blend of fact vs. fiction. For instance, all of the royal characters in my novel were real people who, for the most part, I portrayed quite accurately. The ancillary characters, however, were figments of my imagination. In terms of how much fact needs to be in a work of historical fiction to create a memorable story, I think that the kind of blend that I just described is appropriate. I think authors in this genre tend to give readers enough accurate information so that readers really get a feel for the times and locales portrayed. I think authors in this genre owe it to readers to do this. Of course, the genre is historical Ďfictioní so I think itís also fine for authors to take certain liberties during the writing process. I definitely created some of the storylines within my novel.
V: Were you a reader of historical fiction before you wrote this novel? If so, what do you consider some of the "classics" of historical fiction? What fiction, whether historical or not, has been most influential to you as a writer?
JS: I grew up reading (my father literally had an electronic lock for our television!), and I would read three or four books a week. I read within many different genres and was inspired by all sorts of different writers. Having said that, Iíve always enjoyed historical fiction. I like this genre, because if done well, it takes me to new places and expands my horizons. The author who has probably influenced me the most is James Clavell. Heís famous for Shogun of course, but he also wrote some other wonderful books such as Tai-Pan. What I like about Clavell is his ability to write a story that combines so many thingsólove, war, intrigue, etc. His books are page-turners, and yet they are defined by memorable characters, compelling plot lines and solid writing.
V: Have you noticed any recent trends in historical fiction? New directions that contemporary authors are taking? Which ones, in your opinion, are some of the most exciting? The least?
JS: In terms of trends, I see writers getting carried away with a particular area. For instance, after Memoirs of a Geisha came out and did so well, many writers crafted novels set in Japan. I lived in Japan for four years and found the country and its history to be very fascinating. I was interested in writing a novel set in Kyoto (where I lived). But after seeing the market flooded with books set in Japan, I stepped away, as I thought that readers would at some point get a bit indifferent to novels set in Japan as such novels so saturated the market. So, yes, I think that writers of historical fiction tend to look for an area of the world that people seem currently interested in, and try to capitalize on that interest.
V: Do you plan to continue writing historical fiction? If so, what other times or places would you be interested in exploring? If not, what other modes or genres or fiction would you like to write?
JS: I definitely want to write more historical fiction, and have an epic sort of tale in mind. For the meantime, though, I am writing a novel set in contemporary Nepal. I am excited about this book, and am looking forward to seeing where things go with it. After Iím done with this project, Iíll likely circle back to historical fiction. Itís a difficult genre, though, as the research involved adds another layer of work to crafting a book.
V: Any closing comments?
JS: I'd just like to thank everyone for their support and wish them well.
Violet "Violanthe" Kane is the Webmaster and Founder of ARWZ.com. She is an editor of ARWZ Literary Zine and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Medieval studies.