John Shors discusses his third novel, Dragon House
What inspired you to write Dragon House?
For a long time, I've found Vietnam fascinating due to its
historywhich is dominated by its external conflicts as well as its
internal ones. In part due to this fascination, I've been fortunate
to travel extensively throughout the country. While exploring
Vietnam I felt quite connected to its citizens, who usually went out
of their way to make me feel welcome. I talked about peace with a
man who once dug tunnels that were used to attack American bases. I
listened to stories from people who endured tremendous hardships.
Most important, at least in terms of Dragon House, was the
fact that I interacted on a daily basis with some of the thousands
of street children who are so visible in parts of Vietnam. I felt
like the stories of these children needed to be brought to life on
Can you describe your trips to Vietnam?
I first went to Vietnam in 1993. Only recently had the country
opened itself back up to American tourists, and it felt almost
surreal to explore the landscape. I was only twenty-four, and often
thought about young men my age being sent to Vietnam to fight in the
war. One thing that amazed me at the time (and to this day) was that
the Vietnamese were thrilled to discover that I was American. If I
met someone who fought with the United States, that person would
shake my hand and tell me how delighted he was to have Americans
back in his country. If I met someone who fought against the United
States, that person would nod his head and say that the past was the
past, and that he was glad Vietnam and America were normalizing
their relationship. I felt almost no malice during my entire trip.
I returned to Vietnam in 1999 with my wife. The two of us rode in a
van with a leaky roof all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. It
was an amazing experience, one that exposed us to a diverse
landscape and people who made the hardships of our trip worthwhile.
During this trip I sensed my connection to Vietnam growing stronger.
To research Dragon House, I traveled to Vietnam in 2007. I
was amazed at how much things had changed. Fourteen years before, it
seemed as if everyone rode a bicycle. In 2007, everyone appeared to
be on a motor scooter. Moreover, Ho Chi Minh City was full of fancy
hotels and restaurantsthings I didn't recall from my earlier
visits. Of course, the people were still the samewarm and friendly
You've written several novels set in Asia. What fuels
your passion for this part of the world?
I lived in Japan for a few years after graduating from college,
and quickly fell in love with the region. I am a big fan of Asia's
history, people, food, natural beauty, and weather. Driving a
scooter around, I've been able to cover vast areas, experiencing
cultures that have thrived for thousands of years. I've felt
welcomed by people all over Asia. Strangers have brought me into
their homes, taken the time to brighten my day. For me, traveling
around Asia has been a wonderful adventure. As a writer, it's
gratifying to bring that adventure to life through my novels.
In your experiences with street children, what did you
find most compelling?
I've spoken with hundreds of street children throughout Asia, and
what I've been most impressed with is the children's optimism.
Though they sleep on the streets, sell trinkets for money, and dress
in rags, the children haven't given up on life. They yearn for
simple thingsto go to school, to have a safe place to sleep. They
know that these things aren't impossibilities, and they try, with
the very few resources at their disposal, to make such things become
realities. These children are bright and eager and quick to laugh.
They're strong. They would rather work than beg. One time, when I
was about to leave Vietnam, I had a bunch of Vietnamese coins in my
pocket. I offered them to a young boy. He told me that he would
rather work for them. So I asked him to find me a newspaper written
in English. This was 1993, and such newspapers weren't exactly
sitting on every corner. Nonetheless, he returned thirty minutes
later with an old USA Today in his hand, grinning from ear
to ear about his accomplishment.
The Vietnamese characters in Dragon House all
seem to have unique and compelling voices. How did you create such
By meeting such people in real life. I never base a character on
a particular person, but rather on memories of encounters, on bits
and pieces of people I've interacted with. The characters in
Dragon House were resurrected in my mind long before I sat down
to try to put them on a page. I find giving life to such voices to
be extremely rewarding. At first characters are tough to write. They
are one-dimensional and bleak. But after many edits and a lot of
thought, the characters start to speak for themselves. I love it
when this transition occurs.
Why did you decide to have Noah be an Iraq War vet?
Vietnam was a land torn apart by war, and that history is a big
piece of the fabric of the country today. I wanted Noah (as well as Sahn) to have experienced such strife. Somehow Vietnam has managed
to find peace, and I wondered if my characters could find peace as
well. I wasn't honestly sure when I started writing the novel if
they would. As far as Noah goes, I felt that because of his past
suffering, he'd be better able to connect with and help the street
children. I wanted him to understand their pain. I did the same
thing to Iris, to a lesser degree.
To you, what does the relationship between Iris and Sahn symbolize?
Well, I think that the partnership they ultimately make is
symbolic in some ways of the relationship that Vietnam and America
now have. Initially Sahn hates Iris and all that she stands for. But
he comes to understand that she is good, and he grows to admire her.
I don't think that is so different from what has happened between
Vietnam and America. Five million people died in the war, which
occurred only two generations ago. Craters and unexploded bombs
still litter the landscape. And yet, when one is in Vietnam, the war
can seem like ancient history. It's a thing of the past that is no
longer dwelled on. I found the capacity of people to forgive very
Do you consider Dragon House to be an antiwar
I was born during the Vietnam War, so I can't honestly say
whether or not I think the United States should have sent troops to
Southeast Asia. It's sometimes hard for me to judge history if I
wasn't alive during the event in question. I will say that I believe
war is often rushed into, which I view as rash and naive. I think
war should be entered into only as a last resort, when diplomacy has
failed and the welfare of good nations is in immediate danger. In
terms of how such thoughts are expressed in Dragon House, I
show the suffering that the Vietnam War created on both sides of the
conflict. And my character, Noah, speaks at length about how he
believes the Iraq War was a mistake. Readers may or may not agree
with Noah. I don't expect everyone to share his thoughts. I've
certainly spoken with brave and good soldiers who support one side
of the argument or the other.
What messages do you hope to pass to readers?
I don't write novels to try to pass my personal thoughts along to
readers. Perhaps I have a few musings that I share during the course
of a novel, but I don't write in an effort to spread my beliefs.
That would be incredibly presumptuous. I will admit that through
Dragon House I want to expose readers to the sufferings of
street children. This problem, which is massive in scope, doesn't
get the attention that it merits.
What will your next novel be about?
I'm working right now on an outline for my next book. The story I
want to tell is of a father and a daughter who travel the world
together, guided by the words of his deceased wife, her mother. The
father and daughter will embark on this journey to once again find
joy, and will experience pain and beauty, sadness and salvation.
Through the landscape they travel, and the people they meet, I want
to bring a series of countries and cultures to life, creating
experiences that will shape the father and daughter into what the
dying woman hoped that they might become.
John Shors discusses his first novel, Beneath a Marble Sky
Can you tell BookBrowse about Beneath a Marble Sky, and give us an update
as to how it's doing?
Beneath a Marble Sky is a work of historical fiction and is based upon the
remarkable story behind the creation of the Taj Mahal. My novel is a love story
at its core, but it's more than that, as the era in which the Taj Mahal was
built was a period defined by wondrous arts, religious exploration, and intense
conflict. Beneath a Marble Sky gives life to the characters and events that
defined this beautiful but volatile era.
My novel is narrated by Jahanara, the daughter of the emperor and his wife.
Jahanara witnessed her parents' legendary love affair, and was at her father's
side when he dedicated the rest of his life to the creation of the Taj Mahal a
structure that was built to forever honor his beloved wife. Within Beneath a
Marble Sky, Jahanara provides readers with a first-hand account of her parents'
tale. She also shares the story of her own forbidden love with the celebrated
architect of the Taj Mahal. Additionally, Jahanara is very much caught up in the
civil war that consumes her country after the Taj Mahal's completion.
Beneath a Marble Sky was first published as a hardcover in the summer of
2004. A small, but very high-end end publishing house produced the hardcover. We
received excellent reviews, hit bestseller lists, and ForeWord Magazine named
Beneath a Marble Sky as a Book of the Year. After we won that award, Hollywood
came along and bought the movie rights to my novel, and is currently developing
Beneath a Marble Sky into a major motion picture. And finally, Penguin Books
bought the trade paperback rights to my novel, and this summer, Penguin produced
a beautiful trade paperback version of Beneath a Marble Sky that is available in
about every bookstore in North America. This version is selling quite well.
What inspired you to write Beneath a Marble Sky?
I've 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 I've wanted to write
a novel set somewhere in Asia but waited to find the right storyor 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 wifea
woman he cherished above all else in lifewas 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.
What impressed you most about the Taj Mahal?
People always think about the Taj Mahal from a macro level. That is, they
envision it from afar and are moved by the image that arises. And while the Taj
Mahal is certainly one of the world's most striking buildings from a distance,
it is equally as remarkable up close. Most impressive is that millions of
semi-precious stones adorn its walls. Lapis, jade, quartz, amber, emeralds, and
onyx are set into the white marble in ways that defy reason. Marvelously
detailed arrangements of these polished and shaped stones form garlands of
flowers; timeless and impossibly exquisite. Such flowers are as beautiful as any
that grace a garden, and they have thrived on the Taj Mahal for three-and-a-half
What was the hardest thing about writing Beneath a Marble Sky?
Let's just say that writing in the first person as a 17th-century Hindustani
woman wasn't completely natural to me. Additionally, not only did I need to
write convincingly as a woman from another place and another time, but I had to
re-create the way in which Hindustanis spoke in general. Upon reading memoirs
from that time, I quickly realized that the manner in which people spoke was
much more formal than how people converse today. I wanted to capture some of
this formality without getting carried away.
So, a great deal of work went into Jahanara's voice, as well as the other
voices within Beneath a Marble Sky. I edited my novel fifty-six times. This
number did not always sit well with my wife, as I was forever editing at night
or during a much-needed vacation! However, I think that all of these edits
allowed me to create consistent, unique voices within my novel.
How were you able to so effectively research your novel?
I spent about a year researching Beneath a Marble Sky. A fair amount of this
work revolved around reading religious texts, memoirs, and historical accounts
of 17th-century Hindustan. 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.
Whom did you model your characters after?
When possible, I based the characters in my novel on what is known about the
people who were responsible for the creation of the Taj Mahal. Much of Beneath a
Marble Sky is steeped in truth. Of course, elements of fiction also are present
in my novel. I created several of the ancillary characters, and took a few
liberties with members of the royal family. At the core, though, the royal
family was much as I depict: headed by a couple very much in love and sent
toward destruction by a son bent on increasing his power.
How is Beneath a Marble Sky relevant to what is going on in the world
Beneath a Marble Sky is extremely timely in that most of the main characters
are Muslims. The two characters who are the most religious play large roles in
my novel. One is a great man who tries to use Islam to bring people of all
faiths together. His brother, who becomes his dreaded adversary, is a
fundamentalist who uses Islam to drive a wedge between the people of his empire.
These two men are Jahanara's brothers. Through the actions of these two men,
Beneath a Marble Sky depicts the good and bad sides of this complicated
religion, and many readers have told me that they very much appreciated learning
of the good side of Islam, the side we rarely hear of today.
What do you like most about writing?
I'll be honestmost of the time writing is without question extremely hard
work. Having said that, moments of clarity exist that are profoundly enjoyable.
For me, during such moments, characters seem to speak of their own accord, and
scenes unfold as if I've already lived them. When I am in such a groove, I type
as fast as I can, not caring if words are spelled properly or if everything
makes perfect sense. As I type, the outside world simply disappears. I don't
think about what might be happening over the weekend or bills that need to be
paid or house projects with my name on them. I'm simply consumed with writing as
much as possible during this rare moment of clarity. What's best about these
moments is that as I write I experience a remarkable sense of
contentednesslikely because I know that I am creating something that most
people will find enjoyable. When reality inevitably chases me away from the
computer, I always depart with great regret.
Why did you decide to write within the historical fiction genre?
I have always loved reading novels that both were page-turners and taught me
something of the world. To me, historical novels have provided escapes into new
realms that I have always departed feeling a bit richer from the experience.
Additionally, having encountered the wonder of the Taj Mahal made me want to
share this experience with as many people as possible. Beneath a Marble Sky is
my attempt at doing so.
Is there anything that you would like to share with your readers?
I am grateful for their support, and I look forward to creating other novels
that they may enjoy. Readers might be interested in learning about my national
book club program. Through this program, I have called into book clubs (via
speakerphone) all over the U.S. and Canada. I've spoken with more than 200 book
clubs so far. I created this program in an effort to give something back to
readers. So far I think the program has been quite successful in that readers
really seem to enjoy our chats. I do as well. If anyone is interested,
additional information can be found at the back of the trade paperback version
of Beneath a Marble Sky. It's really quite easy to participate. All people have
to do is email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a time. This is a free service.