How I Write: John Shors and his Temple of a Thousand Faces

How I Write: John Shors

Best-selling author Noah Charney interviews great writers about the writing life.

Most recent book:

Temple of a Thousand Faces

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa.

Where and what did you study?

I attended Colorado College, and graduated with a degree in English. I’d always enjoyed reading and writing, so the decision to study English was quite natural.

Where do you live and why?

About ten years ago, my wife and I moved to Boulder, Colorado. We love the open spaces of Colorado, the “college-town” atmosphere of Boulder, and the proximity to Denver. I’d be happy to call a lot of places around the world home, but for now, Boulder gives us everything that we want.

You seem to be inspired by places.  In Beneath a Marble Sky you wrote about the Taj Mahal.  In your latest novel, you write about Angkor Wat.  Do you begin with the story, or with the place?

In 1999, my wife and I traveled to the Taj Mahal. I was so enchanted by the majesty and the magic of the site that I spent the next five years writing Beneath a Marble Sky, a work of historical fiction based on the remarkable story behind the creation of the Taj Mahal. Fortunately, Beneath a Marble Sky went on to become an international bestseller. Since its publication, many thousands of readers asked me to write a similar book. Yet I didn’t want to jump into a comparable project until I had the right subject. So I traveled the world (and wrote contemporary novels), looking for a site that inspired me as much as the Taj Mahal had. Finally, I visited the temple of Angkor Wat, which is located in modern-day Cambodia. Angkor Wat is the largest religious site on Earth. It is an awe-inspiring, majestic, and unique place. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to write a novel about it, and was thrilled to discover that no other Western writer had done so. Temple of a Thousand Faces is the outcome of that trip, and that inspiration. It’s a novel that I’m quite proud of.

You also seem to set each novel in a different country.  Is this intentional, or did it come about more organically?

After I graduated from Colorado College, I decided to live abroad, and with $700 in my pocket, flew with my best friend to Tokyo. I had heard that one could make good money teaching English, and though I didn’t have a job, couldn’t speak Japanese, and had nowhere to live, landing in Tokyo seemed like a great idea at the time. Luckily, I found an excellent job, and after several years’ worth of hard work, I saved up enough money to backpack across Asia. I climbed the Himalayas, explored the ancient wonders of India, and managed to survive sleeping in $2 a night “hotels”. It was a wonderful, life-changing adventure in many ways, and I became enchanted with Asia. Since I felt it was an area that many Western novelists tended to ignore, I decided to have my first novels set in the region.  I sensed an opportunity.

For avid travelers like you, I always wonder what makes for a good holiday?  Since you are inspired by places in your writing, are you actively “collecting” data as you travel, or is it a more laissez-faire approach to trips?

Well, once I have settled on a site upon which to base a novel, I travel to the location with very specific goals. For instance, during a recent trip to Angkor Wat, I took hundreds of photos of the temple, which I later taped to my office walls. I also explored Angkor Wat on foot, getting to know every carving and stairwell, terrace and tower. I made it my mission to become an expert not only on Angkor Wat itself, but also on the jungle that surrounds it, the climate in which it endures, and even the animals and insects that call its crevices home.

Describe your morning routine.

Once our children are off to school, I basically lock myself up in my office. I either write or edit, staying very focused, until lunch. Then, after that break, I shift gears, and concentrate on the business side of being a full-time novelist. I answer emails, look over contracts, reach out to followers via Facebook, etc.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

At this point in my life I have time for little other than my family and my writing. A few years from now, I’m sure that I’ll do more traveling, and perhaps get into photography.

What is your favorite item of clothing?

A rugged pair of sandals that work for the beach as well as for exploring jungles and ruins.

Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers.

Shogun by James Clavell. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung.

Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?

I wish that were the case, but for me, writing is a solitary pursuit. Of course, I’m friends with various writers and admire them greatly. But I have to seek out inspiration within the stories that I try to bring to life.

What is a place that inspires you?

Though it has become over-commercialized and is no longer a secret, the island of Ko Phi Phi (in Thailand) still takes my breath away.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

At first I get to know the location, then I daydream about a plot. Once the story has started to unfold, I populate it with characters. I create a scene-by-scene outline, which could end up being 20 pages long. Then I research the place, the era, the people. Only when I have a strong comfort level with both the subject matter and my story do I actually sit down and begin to write.

Some author-to-author advice: what has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

I’m not sure that there is a formula that works for every book. What I try to find is unique and compelling subject matter. I don’t always try to hook the reader on the first page, as to me, sometimes that can almost feel like a cliché. But I know that within the first ten pages I need to make a case for why a reader should continue with the book. There needs to be intrigue, foreshadowing, and plenty of drama.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I don’t often get writer’s block, but when I do, usually it’s because I haven’t thought a scene through ahead of time. At that point, I’ll go out and talk a walk, visualizing how the scene should unfold. Usually upon returning from these walks or hikes, the scene will simply write itself.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work spaceBesides the obvious, what do you keep on your deskWhat is the view from your favorite work space?

My office is highlighted by wooden masks from Indonesia, a large Japanese map of the world, the art of my children, and an exercise bike that I ride (though not nearly as often as I should).

Describe your evening routine.

My nighttime activities usually revolve around my children—making sure that their homework is getting down, cleaning up their spilled juice, trying to make them laugh a few times. I also always tell them a new nighttime story. After about 3,000 stories, I’m finally running out of ideas.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

My brothers. They make me feel younger and more carefree.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

When my writing is good, it can make me cry. That’s what I always aim for. If I get teary-eyed, I know the story is working.

Do you have any superstitions?

I want to always stay humble. Otherwise, I know that I’ll come crashing down.

What is something you always carry with you?

My iPhone. This is a blessing and a curse.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

A religious figure—someone like Jesus, Mohammed, or Buddha. I’m a spiritual person, but I don’t adhere to a particular organized faith. Still, I’d like to spend time with one of these great leaders, and try to understand how they see the world.

What is your favorite snack?

Ice cream, with a doubt.

What phrase do you over-use?

Being a writer, I try to avoid repetition.

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

The success of Beneath a Marble Sky was largely due to book clubs. In an effort to give something back to readers, I put a letter in the back of the book inviting book clubs to invite me to their events. I included my email address. Over the course of five years, I spoke (via speakerphone) with 3,000 book clubs around the world. I continue to talk with book clubs, and am now arranging talks for Temple of a Thousand Faces.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

That moment probably arrived when The CBS Evening News did a story on my book club program. The next morning I had 800 emails in my inbox from various book club leaders!

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

If I’m working on a rough draft, I try to write one good scene per day. If I’m editing, I try and read through twenty to fifty pages a day, depending on how clean the copy is.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

When Beneath a Marble Sky was first published, I flew to Houston to participate in “I-Fest”, an international festival that happened, in that year, to focus on India. The organizer asked me to do a reading, but when my time came to read, not one of the fifty folding chairs was occupied. This was an outdoor event, and thousands of people were passing these chairs, ignoring me. I started to read anyway, felt like the world’s biggest fool, and quickly got an unshakable case of the giggles. I couldn’t stop laughing, provoking many stares from strangers. Soon people began to sit down, probably to participate somehow in my breakdown. I ended up getting though the passage and sold about 200 books!

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Edit, edit, and edit. I edited my first novel 56 times. That’s why it was successful.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

That I was a good husband and father.

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I can’t stand the feeling of cotton balls. Pulling them out of a vitamin jar is among my most unpleasant experiences.

What is your next project?

First to promote the launch of Temple of a Thousand Faces. I’m also working on a novel set on The Great Wall of China.

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