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 the page.
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 and welcoming.
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 memorable characters?
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 uplifting.
Do you consider Dragon House to be an antiwar novel?
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 centuries.
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 today?
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.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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