Novelist John Shors on Bringing History to Life

John Shors's new novel is based on the legend of Fan and Meng.
John Shors's new novel is based on the legend of Fan and Meng. Courtesy of the author
John Shors is a Boulder-based novelist, but he — and his fiction — sure get around. He’s set novels in such distant locales as the Taj Mahal, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Vietnam, Thailand, the South Pacific, and most recently, sixteenth-century China. His latest novel, Unbound, reimagines the legend of Fan and Meng and the love they shared separated by war and the Great Wall itself.

I'll be talking with Shors at the Jaipur Literature Festival, where he’ll read from his first novel, Beneath a Marble Sky. Consider this a sneak preview of our conversation about setting, story and writing about world history from 21st-century Colorado.

Westword: Let’s start with the upcoming Jaipur Literature Festival in Boulder. Aside from our conversation on Sunday, September 23, what are you most looking forward to at the event?

John Shors: I've been interested in participating in this festival ever since it became a part of Boulder's literary landscape. For many years, I've had a special connection to India. In 1999, my wife and I backpacked across Asia, and one of the highlights of our trip was exploring the Taj Mahal. I was so captured by the magic and majesty of this extraordinary mausoleum that I spent the next five years writing a novel based on the remarkable love story behind its creation. That novel, Beneath a Marble Sky, went on to become an international bestseller. I've been traveling to India ever since, and each adventure is extraordinary. In terms of the Jaipur Literary Festival being in Boulder, I'm honored to be one of the speakers, and I'm really looking forward to interacting with attendees, as well as other writers.

Your latest book, Unbound, is a romance set in sixteenth-century China. Can you talk a little about what inspired that book?

For quite a while, I've wanted to create a work of historical fiction centered on the Great Wall. But I had to find the right story to reincarnate on the page. And it took me several years of searching to find that story. Once I discovered it, I traveled to the Great Wall and walked on it for many miles, just trying to get a sense of what is really a unique and complex and beautiful place. In terms of writing Unbound, the opportunity to bring ancient China back to life was a challenge that I really enjoyed. I was able to honor what is a famous Chinese legend, but I also added my own characters and plot twists to that tale. I just sold the movie rights for Unbound to Hollywood, and hopefully in a few years my story will be on the big screen.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR
Courtesy of the author

Drawing from history — whether it's empirical data or apocryphal legend — must be something of a double-edged sword, in terms of the writing. How much does it limit your creativity, and how much does it serve as a stage upon which to move the players?

All of my novels are works of historical fiction. My methodology has always been to research my subject matter and setting as much as possible. I spend months reading everything that I can about a period, a culture, and a wide cast of historical figures. But once that research is finished and I have a comfort level with the subject matter, I feel at ease and can begin writing. And while I try to be historically accurate, I'm certainly not completely tethered to history. I'm writing historical fiction, after all, and occasionally take certain liberties with facts in order to create even more compelling stories.

So is research, the necessary first step in the construction of a historical drama? Or do you start with story first, and invent the characters and their situations, and then back-fill the real details?

First I need to understand the story, on a deeply emotional and historical level, before I even entertain the idea of doing research. The story has to work, from start to finish, before I spend a second on the research. The thought of spending months researching a story that ultimately proves to be not worth the time invested in it is a very real fear to me. And because of that fear, I always make sure that I'm really connected and inspired by the story.

Many readers remember your debut novel, Beneath a Marble Sky, which was a love story centered around the construction of the Taj Mahal. What did you learn from that first book, in terms of the writing itself?

When I was working on Beneath a Marble Sky, I had a rather busy job in the world of public relations. Because of my day job, I could only write in the evenings, and on weekends and vacations. As a result, the writing process was slowed down dramatically. I wrote a scene at a time. I was patient. I knew that because Beneath a Marble Sky was my first novel and that I would only have one chance to make a splash, the story needed to be as compelling as I could make it. So my story evolved slowly, and I wrote it without caring about time or deadlines. I actually read and edited Beneath a Marble Sky 56 times, and with each read the book improved slightly. I think my patience with the story is one of the reasons that the book went on to find great success, and I've tried to embrace that same patience with my subsequent novels. Of course, once I experienced commercial success, publishers gave me far tougher deadlines. But I learned to push back and to ask for more time.

click to enlarge John Shors finds inspiration in travel. - COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR
John Shors finds inspiration in travel.
Courtesy of the author

The travel must be amazing, just in terms of capturing local flavor. What are the things you do when you're abroad for the purposes of future writing, to soak up all that ephemeral stuff — the feel of a place, the taste of the air, the sound of the hum of a foreign city?

Fortunately, I love to travel, and have been blessed to see much of the world. My books have allowed me to explore places that I've wondered about since childhood. All of my novels are set in Asia, and it's a part of the world that I know really well. I'm infatuated with the region. The on-site research that I do to support my novels is incredibly important. I want to know what an area smells and sounds like, how its food tastes, and what I find most visually striking. I always take hundreds of photos, and then tape these photos to the walls of my office, so that as I write, I'm able to look up and be reminded of the heart and soul of a place. It's important to me that the settings of my novels become characters in my stories, and my on-site research allows that to happen.

What future travel do you have planned, for potential story purposes?  Do you sometimes just plan a trip with the thought that maybe something might come from it and see what inspires you when you arrive?

Sometimes I'll take a trip just looking to find a story. But I usually don't find one. I only have the opportunity to write a finite number of novels in my life, so in order to set aside a few years to create a novel, a story really has to move me. Over the past few years, I've started taking small groups of readers on literary tours to the settings of my novels and beyond. I do a few of these trips a year, and even during these busy days, I'm always looking for my next story. But usually it's a very elusive prey. Actually, right now I'm working on a young-adult science-fiction trilogy that's set in many different locations around the world. It's been an extremely enjoyable writing process for me and is an epic, original story that I'm quite excited about. My plan is to release all three novels, at the same time, about a year from now.

If you were going to set a book in Colorado, when and where might it be?  What part of Colorado would you want to dive into headfirst?

I think Colorado is wonderful and feel blessed to live in such a beautiful state with people that I really admire. But because there are so many good, local writers who set their stories here, I've never really been tempted to do so. But if I had to, I'd search for a historically rich and compelling story that I could re-create – maybe something from the point of view of the Navajo or Apache or Ute tribes. I don't feel like enough of their stories have been told, and I'd certainly enjoy thinking about life through their eyes.

John Shors will be at the Jaipur Literature Festival at 1 p.m. Sunday, September 23. The festival runs from Friday, September 21, through Sunday, September 23, at the Boulder Public Library, 1001 Arapahoe Avenue. Find the complete schedule for the fest here.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen