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Des Moines native’s book getting strong reviews


Four years ago, it was with a firm resolve that aspiring author John Shors II stored a large bottle of champagne in his refrigerator. Until the first crate containing copies of his maiden novel, “Beneath a Marble Sky,” arrived at the Des Moines native’s Colorado Springs home, the wine would continue to age.

At times, Shors almost opened it as an antidote for the frustration that comes with trying to break into a field in which only about 200 authors actually make a living at their craft. At others, the pragmatism of fatherhood told him that, logically, the shelf space could be put to better use and he might as well drink the wine.

But he was patient, a virtue he developed during the arduous process of honing his prose. For four long years, he researched, wrote, rewrote, tinkered with phrases and rewrote and honed a total of 45 times. The cork remained on the bottle through restless nights, when Shors gave in to his fears. “I was terrified every day I was writing the book that I would open The New York Times and read about a book similar to mine,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I had. When I promoted early drafts to an agent, I was terrified they would send it to a big-time author and someone would steal the idea.”

Earlier this month, the box finally arrived from his publisher, McPherson & Co., and he toasted the future with his wife, Alison, who’d been with him when he’d backpacked across Asia and began researching the little-known love story behind the creation of the Taj Mahal, the most magnificent of India’s architectural gems.

“Wow,” Shors recalls thinking, “I’ve finally gotten there. It was a moment of relief, but there was also a moment when I realized the journey was no means complete. This was just another step. There’s still a lot of work.

“It is an amazing thing,” he says. “I feel, without sounding arrogant, that this has the potential to be a best seller, but it’s kind of on my shoulders to make this happen. I have one small window of opportunity. I’ll be a flash in the pan if it doesn’t take off. People forget you very quickly. But there are a lot of advantages to being previously unpublished. If an author had written six books and they all sold OK, nobody would be very excited, but this is my first book, I’m getting good reviews and it has the potential to go further. Or it could totally fizzle. It’s on my shoulders.”

As Shors told the story of the creation of the alabaster edifice in 1632, he remained true to the major historical facts, but fictionalized certain details of the interpersonal relationships. The result, he believes, is a story that has as much relevance in today’s world as it did centuries ago.

In 1632, Hindustan (India) Emperor Shah Jahan was consumed by grief over the death of his empress, Mumtaz Mahal, and ordered the building of a grand mausoleum to symbolize the greatness of their love. Interwoven in the story are tales of wealth and power, murderous sibling rivalry and cruel despotism.

“There’s a lot of relevance in what’s happening today in the world,” Shors says. “Without giving away too much, two brothers started a civil war after the Taj Mahal was built, one of them a fundamentalist Islamic, the other also a Muslim, but very tolerant and accepting, modern and forward-thinking, like most Muslims are.

“In one of the reviews, the militant brother was compared with Osama bin Laden, while the brother he was warring against was a complete opposite who welcomed other religions and was very compassionate. Unfortunately, when people think about Islamics today, most think about the militants and the fanatics, while 99 percent o the people who follow that religion are not like that at all. Showing that different side has really kind of opened some eyes.”

Less than a month into its official release, “Beneath a Marble Sky” is already getting critics’ attention, and there’s talk of it being adapted into a feature film. Publisher’s Weekly: “(A) spirited debut novel. … With infectious enthusiasm and just enough careful attention to detail, Shors gives a real sense of the times, bringing the world of imperial Hindustan and its royal inhabitants to vivid life.”

India Post: “‘Beneath a Marble Sky’ is a story which literally speaks to you. In his first novel, John Shors brilliantly recounts one of the world’s greatest love stories, narrated against a backdrop of hatred and violence.”

William Day, San Antonio Express-News: “‘Beneath a Marble Sky’ is a tale of exquisite beauty … rich in detail, ambition and vitality.”

Shors, who got his start as a writer at the Des Moines Business Record and now is a vice president at a Colorado Springs public relations agency, thinks he’s found a niche with historical fiction. He’s the first author to tell the story behind the erection of the Taj Mahal, which he first heard from his younger brother, Luke, who was studying in Mysore, India, at the same time Shors and Alison were backpacking around Asia.

“The more I learned about the history of the mausoleum, I was dumbfounded that no one had done a book,” Shors says. “As I was researching, I kept uncovering wild information and thought, ‘This can be an amazing book if I can fictionalize some of the elements.’

“When you look at historical fiction, Cleopatra is compelling, but it’s been fictionalized 20, 40 times. What’s new and exciting is that the Taj Mahal story is every bit as compelling, but no one had ever done a book.”

The author’s parents, John and Patsy Shors, are planning a reception in their son’s honor when he comes home to Des Moines July 17 for a day of book signings.

“He was always a dreamer, always traveling either in his imagination, and then when he could read, the National Geographic, until he got old enough to travel in real life, and then the more exotic the place, the better,” Patsy Shors says. “He was always willing to be a real risk taker in his travels. When he was 13 and went to camp in Florida, he was the only camper to regularly swim with the sharks. He was never fearful, and that, combined with an observant nature, made the story of the Taj Mahal a natural progression. He’s a romanticist at heart, no doubt about it.”

“He was always very adventuresome, very motivated, and certainly has worked to get his book published,” said John Shors Sr., a partner at Davis, Brown, Koehn, Shors & Roberts. “He once said to us, ‘It’s easier to play professional baseball than to get published.’ I suspect that’s right.”

The ink barely dry on his first novel, the younger Shors is letting another plot line simmer in the back of his mind. Like “Beneath a Marble Sky,” it’ll be historical fiction. But that’s all he’s saying.


Des Moines native John Shors will be in Des Moines July 17 to do two book signings. He’ll be at Franklin Avenue Library starting at 10 a.m., and at Border’s Booksellers in West Des Moines from 2 to 4 p.m.

For more information about the author and his first novel, visit www.beneathamarblesky.com.

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