John Shors e-interviewed by Barbara Lingens (August, 2006)
John Shors is the author of the historical novel, Beneath a Marble Sky, a beautiful story of the lives of those most involved in the creation and building of the Taj Mahal. Shors studied creative writing at Colorado College before teaching and travelling in Asia for several years. He subsequently worked as a newspaper reporter in Iowa, before moving to Boulder, Colorado, where he currently lives with his wife and two young children.
Q: Beneath a Marble Sky is a story of tremendous scope, from the political aspect with the Mughal wars, the religious with the ever-present conflict of the Hindus and Muslims, as well as the palace intrigues. What sparked your interest in this period and how did you decide to manage all this material?
A: Initially I was solely intrigued with recreating the love story that inspired the creation of the Taj Mahal. After all, it is such a beautiful and legendary story. However, as I started my research, I quickly realized that Beneath a Marble Sky needed to be so much more than just a love story. The era in which the Taj Mahal was built was a period defined by wondrous arts, religious exploration, and intense conflict. In order to do justice to the characters who were behind the creation of the Taj Mahal, I needed to delve into issues such as the conflict between Hindus and Muslims, complex matters of the royal court, and the wars of that era. The characters my novel was based upon were very much caught up in such matters. So there was no question that my novel had to be deal with such complexities. And though I still consider Beneath a Marble Sky to be a love story at the core, the scope of my novel is definitely wide and complex.
Q: The Indian culture is not native to you. How did you imagine yourself into it?
A: 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. These images were the very reason that I was able to imagine what the world of Hindustan must have been like.
Q: Beneath a Marble Sky conveys a tremendous amount of information about the building of the Taj Mahal. How did you go about getting this material?
A: Well, I certainly did as much research as possible about how the Taj Mahal was built. But I didn't want to slow my novel down with too many facts. So the challenge was actually a balancing act – to give the reader enough information about the rise of the Taj Mahal without slowing down the pace of my novel. I think I accomplished this task. As far as how I gathered information about how the Taj Mahal was constructed, it wasn't easy. Surprisingly, there really isn't an abundance of such information.
Q: The bond between the father and the daughter in this book is unusually close. Is there something in your own background that sparked this?
A: No, this wasn't because of my own experiences, but rather because of the true story of Shah Jahan and his daughter, Jahanara. They were close in real life, and I felt that I needed to recreate that closeness. The royal family members that I based Beneath a Marble Sky on were remarkable people. Several of them were way ahead of their times, and Shah Jahan and Jahanara were no exceptions. They advised each other, they fought a civil war together, and they loved each other deeply. Like her mother, Jahanara was an amazing woman. Like her mother, she captured Shah Jahan's heart.
Q: Which of the brothers has been portrayed more realistically - Dara or Aurangzeb? Why?
A: That's a great question. They were such incredibly different people. Dara studied poetry, philosophy, and sought to bring the diverse people of his country together through a common respect for each other. Aurangzeb was a militant fundamentalist who used religion to drive a wedge between his people. It wasn't a surprise that the two brothers ended up fighting against each other – heading opposite forces during the civil war. As far as which brother I portrayed more accurately, I'm honestly not sure. In real life Dara was a hero and Aurangzeb a villain. That's how I portrayed them in Beneath a Marble Sky.
Q: Historical fiction can be treacherous when it comes to dialog because it is really hard to know how people of another time and culture speak. How did you solve this problem?
A: While researching Beneath a Marble Sky, it quickly became apparent to me that people in 17th century Hindustan spoke quite formally. I heard such voices by reading an assortment of memoirs.
I faced the challenge of recreating such voices, and an overall voice for the book. Moreover, Jahanara was my narrator, and let's just say that writing in the first person as a 17th-century Hindustani woman wasn't completely natural to me. I wanted to give life to Jahanara's voice, and the other voices within my novel by staying true to the manner in which people spoke. But I was careful not to get too carried away with the formality in which people conversed. The last thing I wanted to do was to slow my novel down with tedious dialogue.
People often ask me why I was able to effectively write from Jahanara's perspective. I wish that I had some sort of wise answer that indicated I was a brilliant writer. The truth of the matter is that within Beneath a Marble Sky Jahanara came to be simply through a great deal of hard work. 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.
Q: What made you decide to tell the story in flashbacks?
A: That's another good question. I felt that the flashbacks were a nice change of pace. Plus, I wanted the reader to see and understand Jahanara as an old woman. Most important, with all of the dangers and suffering that Jahanara endured, I wanted to let the reader know that she survived. I felt like the reader would be drawn to Jahanara; would be connected to her and care for her. And I felt like I owed it to the reader to let it be known that Jahanara didn't die at the hands of her adversaries. People around her did die, including those she loved very much. I wanted to move the reader (hopefully to tears) with such deaths, but having done so, I felt compelled to let the reader know early on in the book (via the flashbacks) that Jahanara ultimately persevered.
Q: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
A: I am about 90% done with my next novel. It's a very different book set in modern-day Nepal. I like it quite a bit. However, I've put writing on hold so that I can work on promoting Beneath a Marble Sky. People seem to really enjoy my novel. My last challenge with this novel is simply letting people know that it exists. Fortunately, it's selling very well, and a grassroots buzz is building.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: 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 to set up a time. This is a free service.Find out more about John Shors, his background, and his novel at his website, BeneathaMarbleSky.com.
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