Published in 2004, John Shors' debut novel, Beneath a Marble Sky, was a major hit with critics from the start. An ambitious romance chronicling the lives of Emperor Shah Jahan the creator of the Taj Mahal, the wife for whom he built the legendary palace, and their daughter who falls in love with its architect, Beneath a Marble Sky was hailed as a major debut by publications ranging from the Des Moines Register to the India Post. Still, Shors' labor of love was not exactly soaring off of bookstore shelves. That's when the young author devised a radical, and radically personal, method of generating the kind of sales Beneath a Marble Sky deserved.
"I came up with the idea of putting the letter in the back of the paper back, with my e-mail address, and inviting book clubs to invite me to their evenings," Shors told CBS News. Soon enough, Shors was receiving scores of requests to visit local book clubs and speak about his novel. He also discovered that sales of Beneath a Marble Sky were on the rise. By November of 2006, Shors had visited over 200 clubs and was booked for many more through 2008.
Such ambition may be unusual in the world of publishing, but it is hardly new to Shors. Prior to penning Beneath a Marble Sky, he had traveled to Asia after years of studying creating writing and English at Colorado College. For three years, he taught English in Kyoto, Japan, but never able to remain still for long, he decided to exit his teaching post to backpack across the continent. Shors tramped through ten countries and scaled the mythic Himalayas in Nepal, but it was a 1999 sojourn in India that really altered the path of his life. "Seeing the wonder of the Taj Mahal, and understanding that a man built it for his wife -- a woman he cherished above all else in life -- was uniquely inspiring," Shors confided to Washington Independent Writers.org. "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."
Words such as "vivid" and "colorful" have been used to describe the epic that Shors' visit to the Taj Mahal inspired. Beneath a Marble Sky follows the life of Shah Jahan as he has the palace built for Mumtaz Mahal and they raise a bright girl named Jahanara, who not only learns the ins and outs of political thought from her father but also inherits is sense of romance. She ultimately falls in love with Isa the architect in charge of constructing the Taj Mahal and a man she is forbidden to wed.
Now that Shors is on the road again (of course, this time he is traversing America rather than exotic Asia), Beneath a Marble Sky is steadily becoming as much of a hit with readers as it had been with critics since its publication. The novel went on to average sales of 1,000 copies a week. Although he has quite a full plate with his numerous book club obligations, he is still managing to find time to begin work on his second novel. Despite such a daunting schedule, the ever-energetic Shors is marching ahead with typical gusto, enthusing to CBS News: "I'm excited to do so."
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Shortly after its publication, Beneath a Marble Sky fell into the hands of actor Eriq La Salle, former star of TV's E.R. and currently head of a production company called Humble Journey Films. Shors told Washington Independent Writers.org. that La Salle's company "is very serious about making Beneath a Marble Sky into a major movie. They are making great progress and I'm cautiously optimistic that they'll pull it off."
Beneath a Marble Sky is both a book about world culture and a book that encourages world culture in a very practical way. Shors has arranged to donate a portion of the sales of his novel to the Children's International Summer Villages (CISV) a nonprofit organization promoting cultural understanding among people around the globe.
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Shors:
"I've been lucky enough to travel to five continents and many countries."
"While I am a perfectionist when it comes to my writing (I edited Beneath a Marble Sky 56 times), I am a bit of a slob around the house."
"I cannot stand the feel of cotton balls, and our little girl constantly torments me by rubbing them against my skin."
"I'd like my readers to know that I sincerely and profoundly appreciate their support. The success of Beneath a Marble Sky has given me a great gift, and I hope to repay this gift by creating powerful novels for years to come. Additionally, if any reader has a particular question for me, I'll be delighted to answer her or his question. I can be reached at email@example.com and I'll happily write back to anyone who contacts me."
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In the winter of 2007, John Shors took some time out to talk with us about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I would have to say that Shogun by James Clavell most greatly influenced my life in terms of motivating me to become a writer. I read it in high school, and at the time I was thinking that I might want to try and become a novelist. I wanted to write novels set overseas, and prior to reading Shogun, I wasn't really sure if people would be interested in such stories. Shogun, which experienced great commercial success, showed me that in fact there was a market for such novels. Furthermore, I simply loved the book. I appreciated how Clavell was able to create a page-turning, heart-wrenching novel that had some real depth to it. Unlike the characters found in most page-turners, his characters were complex, and even his villains were multi-dimensional. After reading Shogun, I felt as if I'd been immersed in ancient Japan.
One of my goals in Beneath a Marble Sky was to immerse the reader in ancient India, and I think I drew much of my inspiration from writers such as Clavell. I think that Shogun and Beneath a Marble Sky are similar on some levels. Both are page-turners, yet both possess a depth and, if I may say so, an elegance that is rare in such books.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad -- I love the language in Heart of Darkness. The writing is beautiful, and I find it amazing that Conrad wrote this novel in English, which was his third language.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernst Hemingway -- Though the prose of this novel is fairly simple, Hemingway's writing is beautiful and powerful. Furthermore, I like the themes found within this novel -- themes such as aging and mortality.
Tai-Pan by James Clavell -- Even though Shogun had a more profound influence upon me, I actually enjoy Tai-Pan more. Another Clavell page-turner that is complex and unforgettable.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck -- Brilliant dialogue. Beautiful writing. Power themes about one's place in the world. I can't think of a better example of American literature.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry -- I think this is a brilliant novel, one that is defined by a remarkable cast of characters. This is one of the funniest novels I've read, and definitely transported me to the Wild West.
First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung -- This first-person account of a young girl's struggle to survive the Khmer Rouge simply astounds me. Whenever I am having a difficult day, I try to remember what Ms. Ung went through.
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay -- This is another one of those epic novels that I tend to fall for. Its messages, which speak of acceptance and how one person can make a difference, resonate with me.
Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett -- Perhaps one sees a theme here. I think this is Follett's best book. I love its pace, its heroes and villains, its ability to take me somewhere new.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett -- I wanted to put a contemporary novel in this list. Though I didn't like the last five pages of this book, I thought that it was beautifully written.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien -- There are some things in this trilogy that I don't like, but still, I greatly admire the world that Tolkien created. He essentially started an entire genre with this series.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
As the reader can see from the list of my favorite books, I really enjoy larger-than-life epics. So, of course, movies such as Doctor Zhivago, Out of Africa, The Godfather, Dances with Wolves, and Gladiator appeal to me a great deal. I enjoy traveling to a new world via a movie, and being visually and emotionally teleported to a different time and place.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Well, I must say that I'm a huge fan of U2. I've seen them live three times in the last ten months. A few months ago, I was lucky enough to have a second-row ticket, and I kept asking myself if the evening was a dream.
I could never write while U2 was playing, as I get too caught up in the music. Typically I tend to write in silence. However, on occasion, I play music before I write, either to inspire me or to place me into a particular mood.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Probably The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I'm not sure if this novel is one of the year's best (as it's being hailed), but I do know that it is a very powerful novel that should be read. I have never read anything that is so completely void of hope. If you want to see what a post-apocalyptic world would look like, read The Road.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Well, it really depends on who the recipient is. But overall, I tend to give books that aren't well known. I like to surprise people by giving them the gift of an unexpectedly wonderful read. This year, I couldn't help myself, and gave out scores of copies of Beneath a Marble Sky. It's fun to share my novel with people who have positively impacted my life.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I wish that I had a perfectly quiet room within which I could escape into my writing for ten-hour periods of time. However, my reality is far from such a setting. My wife and I have two toddlers, so I either have to somehow try and write at home (they are forever interrupting me so that I can build them a fort or something) or I have to go across the street to a coffee shop.
Regardless of the environment in which I'm writing, I'll be honest -- most 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 contentedness -- likely 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.
What are you working on now?
I am about 60 pages into my new novel, which is very different from Beneath a Marble Sky in that occurs in a contemporary setting. The subject of my novel is fairly hush-hush. Basically, it involves a variety of people around the world (including America) who are bound together via a common theme. I'm extremely excited about this book, as it's something that has never been done before, and I think it will be very successful.
I'm also about to start editing the script of Beneath a Marble Sky, as Hollywood is making it into a movie, and I've been asked to edit the screenplay. I'm very much looking forward to this project.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've certainly had my share of rejection slips. Trying to get published for the first time is quite difficult. I think I persevered through sheer stubbornness.
Beneath a Marble Sky has experienced success in large part due to all of the wonderful book clubs that I've spoken with. As someone who grew up reading several books a week, I always wanted to chat with authors about their works, but never had the opportunity to do so. Thus, I promised myself that if a novel of mine were ever published that I would make myself available to book clubs around the country. Over the past year I have spoken (usually via speakerphone) with almost 300 book clubs. I think that book clubs have both enjoyed Beneath a Marble Sky as well as chatting with me, and consequently have been very vocal when it comes to telling their friends and loved ones about my novel.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
This is a difficult question, as there are so many talented but unknown writers out there. In all honesty, I'd probably want one of my friends to be published and discovered. I have several former colleagues from my days in journalism who are trying to get novels published. I know how hard these talented writers have worked, and I'd like to see them rewarded, and their books read.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Your job isn't finished even after you've sold your book to a publishing house. You have to be willing to constantly promote your book. Otherwise, it's likely to simply disappear.
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