The Following interview was contributed by: John Walsh
John Shors’s novel Beneath a Marble Sky tells a fascinating and romantic story of the creation of the Taj Mahal. I recently interviewed John about his love of Asia, the Taj Mahal and the roots of modern conflicts. The interview was conducted by email.
JW: The Taj Mahal is one of the less well-known wonders of the world. What sparked your interest in it and the region?
JS: I've spent about four years in Asia, first as an English teacher in Kyoto, Japan, and then backpacking across 10 countries. I absolutely love the region. I love its people, food, sights and history.
About five years ago, at the start of a four-month adventure across Asia, my wife and I took a trip to India to visit my younger brother, Luke, who was studying in Mysore. Luke had been in India for almost a year at that point. He spoke Hindi, and was very intimate with many aspects of life in India. Anyway, when I mentioned that Allison and I would be visiting the Taj Mahal after spending a week in Mysore, he told me of the wonderful story behind the Taj Mahal's creation. He said that he thought it would make a fabulous book, and of course, I agreed.
The story of the Taj Mahal is one that Westerners know vaguely. Many Americans, for instance, have heard that the emperor who created the Taj Mahal was later imprisoned in a cell where he could view the mausoleum from a distance. But Westerners don't know much else about the Taj Mahal's history, or what unfolded in Hindustan after it was built. I felt that by writing Beneath a Marble Sky, I'd be opening an entire new realm of culture and history to Westerners.
The story behind the Taj Mahal, after all, is one of the most magical stories the world has ever known. By sharing it with others, I felt like in some small way I'd be handing a gift to thousands of people who otherwise would have never known the full story behind the Taj Mahal's creation. Quite honestly, it was my privilege and honor to pass along this gift.
JW: What kind of research did you do to uncover and recreate the past?
JS: While writing Beneath a Marble Sky, I drew from three primary sources. The first such source was my own mind, as I'd spent a month in India, and had been to the Taj Mahal. The second source was a pile a books written about India's history, Mughal culture, Islam and Hinduism. Lastly, I found the Internet to be quite helpful. I was able to expand my research into areas like traditional Indian foods, clothing worn in 17th century Hindustan (what India was called at the time), the music and art of that era, etc. Through the Internet I was also able to track down experts on Hindustan all around the world, and ask them extremely specific questions. These scholars provided me with immensely helpful information.
JW: Which authors of historical fiction, if any, have you found most inspiring?
JS: To be honest, I think historical fiction is a genre that to some degree has been overlooked by Western authors. Recently, there have been several notable successes, books like Memoirs of a Geisha and Girl with a Pearl Earring. However, given all of the rich periods and places from which authors could draw upon, I'm surprised that we don't see more works of this nature. Quite frankly, I was amazed and delighted to discover that no one had ever fictionalized the story behind the Taj Mahal's creation. It's my opinion that the West is only now beginning to truly discover Asia. I spent several years traveling in Asia, and I didn't stumble upon many Westerners during my various journeys. It's my guess that there hasn't been a Western novel about the creation of the Taj Mahal simply because relatively few Westerners have been to India, and no writer discovered the story.
JW: Beneath a Marble Sky has many resonances for modern times. To what extent are you interested in using historical fiction to illuminate modern events?
JS:The Taj Mahal is certainly an enduring image of love. However, it is more than that. In many ways, it represents a turning point in world history. Immediately after its completion, there was a civil war in Hindustan between a Sufi philosopher-prince and his militant fundamentalist brother, which can be seen today as having resulted in what seems to be an almost irremediable split between Islam and Hinduism. So, in addition to symbolizing love, the Taj Mahal, in my opinion, symbolizes a lost opportunity, as the peoples of the vast Indian subcontinent might have made a mutual accommodation that could have altered the future course of events, had the open-minded brother won his struggle. After all, for generations the Mughal dynasty was much more enlightened than surrounding empires, and this enabled them to command the loyalty of a diverse population for much longer than would otherwise been possible. The whole enterprise began to unravel with the ascension of Aurangzeb. His anti-Hindu stance profoundly affected the future of Hindustan, and indeed drove a wedge between Hindus and Muslims that continues to cause problems today. One of the greatest troubles that the world faces today is an unwillingness of people to try and understand the views of different cultures. Today's conflicts have arisen because of this basic lack of understanding. What's interesting is that Dara, 400 years ago, understood this blindness and did his best to circumvent it. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to inherit the throne. If he had, I'd argue that we'd live in a more enlightened world.
JW: What is your next writing going to be?
JS: I've got an idea for a novel that in some ways is similar to Beneath a Marble Sky. This novel is set overseas during a fairly enchanted age. However, for the immediate future I'm focusing on promoting Beneath a Marble Sky.
Incidentally, I'm happy to field questions from readers, and can be best reached at email@example.com.
To purchase Beneath a Marble Sky Click on Image Below
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