Interviewed by Melissa
Avid traveler, former journalist, and author of a bestselling book based in India, author John Shors' newest novel is Beside a Burning Sea, the tale of a Japanese soldier and several Americans who are stranded on an island in the Pacific during World War II. He was more than gracious to be interviewed via email for ER while on vacation recently. You can find more about Shors and his books at his website, and read a review of the book here.
MF: I'm not aware of many World War II books that are set in the Pacific front (that may just be me; there is probably a lot out there!). Why did you decide to set your book in that time and place?
JS: For the very reason that you mentioned--there just aren't many contemporary novels about World War Two that are set in the South Pacific. Everything seems to always center on Europe. After spending three years in Japan, I was intrigued with why Japan went to war with the U.S. The thought of having both Americans and Japanese stranded on an island and being forced to rely on each other to survive was really appealing to me as a writer. I should also say that Beside a Burning Sea isn't just a war story. It's a novel about relationships.
MF: Why did you decide to make haikus such an integral part of the story? Tell us a bit about writing them, if you can.
JS: My Japanese character, Akira, is poet, and as his relationship with Annie, an American nurse, evolves, he begins to teach her about his love of poetry. Specifically, his love of haikus. I start out each chapter in Beside a Burning Sea with a haiku written from Akira's perspective--on what he is musing over at a particular moment. I did this for several reasons. One, to provide a change of pace to the reader. Two, to provide greater insight into Akira's character. Readers seem to enjoy these poems, and I've had many people send me emails with haikus that they've written. I've enjoyed reading these creations.
MF: Which character in the book do you relate to the most?
JS: I probably connect with Akira the strongest. I'm really happy with how he turned out. I also enjoyed creating the relationship between Jake (the ship's engineer) and Ratu (a young stowaway). The process of creating this sort of father-son relationship was really rewarding for me, as I think that these characters' voices are unique and strong.
MF: Is there anything you hope readers will get out of your book?
JS: I don't consider Beside a Burning Sea to be an anti-war novel, but it certainly does contain a few messages that I think are important to remember. War is often depicted in a glamorous manner, and I've long had a problem with that. There was nothing glamorous about World War Two. The conflict between my characters and the conflict that surrounds them reflects my thinking.
MF: One of the unique things about you -- and your books -- is your willingness to connect with readers through bookgroups and email exchanges. Tell us a bit about why you decided to reach out to readers this way. Has this affected the way you look at your books or your writing process?
JS: I wanted to give something back to the readers who support me, and created a book-club program, through which I call into book clubs (via speakerphone). To date, I've spoken with about 1,300 book clubs. I've enjoyed these experiences quite a bit, as I think have readers. Anyone interested in my program can simply email me at email@example.com to set up a call. Through my program, I've learned how important books are to readers. I've been asked thousands of very insightful questions.
MF: You've been a journalist and worked in public relations; how does writing novels compare to those writing-based professions? Better, worse, easier, harder?
JS: Being a novelist is harder in some ways, because you're doing almost all of it on your own. You don't have a team. You have a project, and the success or failure of that project squarely sits on your shoulders. That can be quite stressful, especially as deadlines approach.
MF: Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
JS: All of my novels are set overseas. Beneath a Marble Sky tells the story of the Taj Mahal. Beside a Burning Sea is set in the South Pacific. My third novel, Dragon House, will come out in September of 2009 and is set in modern-day Saigon. I love to travel and my travels inspire my writing.
MF: Do you have a special time or place to write? Any writing rituals?
JS: I wish I had giant chunks of time in which to write, but as the father of a pair of toddlers, my day has constant interruptions. Of course, this has great upside as well. I don't haven't any writing rituals, other than sometimes I prefer to write longhand.
MF: What writers have influenced you the most?
JS: Novelists who have tackled multi-layered works set abroad. James Clavell would be a good example.
MF: So, if you don't mind telling us, what can we look for from you next?
JS: Well, I'm working on the back cover for my upcoming novel, Dragon House. Here's what I have so far:
Set in modern-day Vietnam, Dragon House tells the tale of Iris and Noah—two Americans who, as a way of healing their own painful pasts, open a center to house and educate Vietnamese street children.
Iris and Noah find themselves reborn in an exotic land filled with corruption and chaos, sacrifice and beauty. Inspired by the street children she meets, Iris walks in the footsteps of her father, a man whom Vietnam both shattered and saved. Meanwhile, Noah slowly rediscovers himself through the eyes of an unexpected companion.
Resounding with powerful themes of suffering, sacrifice, friendship, and love, Dragon House brings together East and West, war and peace; and celebrates the resilience of the human spirit.
MF: Thanks for your time, John.