August 25, 2008
John Shors’ Beside a Burning Sea isn’t a romance novel; it’s historic fiction set in World War II, but it features strong romantic elements. The book is set on an island in the South Pacific during a three-week period in 1942 when a U.S. hospital ship is torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese. Although the captain and crew were unaware, a traitor onboard conspired with the Japanese, and he’s among the survivors who make it to a small island. There’s a substantial cast of characters, and other than the villain, who is simply eveeel, they are three dimensional. And while the villain is simply a black hole of bad, his pure menacing presence makes up for his lack of subtlety.
What stood out most as I read this book was its lyricism; the prose, even when describing the horrors of war, is hauntingly beautiful. That beauty reaches its apex during scenes involving two of the main characters: Akira, a Japanese prisoner of war, and Annie, one of the ship’s nurses, both of whom survived the ship’s sinking. Akira, once a college professor, teaches Annie the art of haiku, and his gentleness and encouragement helps her grow strong and self-reliant. In return he begins to awaken internally after having shut down during what he did and didn’t do at Nanking.
Another two survivors are the ship’s captain and his wife, who is both the ship’s head nurse and Annie’s sister. Though they love each other, they’ve grown distant as a result of their 24-hour-a-day responsibilities. The change in environment on the island, and their change in duties, gives them the opportunity to assess themselves and their relationship.
A third relationship is also explored, between Jake, the ship’s black engineer, and Ratu, a young Fijian stowaway. The prejudice Jake has always experienced certainly doesn’t end during the war, but his innate dignity, sense of morality, kindness and humor help him act as surrogate father to Ratu, who stowed away to find his father, who’s aiding the allies somewhere in the Pacific theatre. Though there was not a deliberate attempt on the author’s part for Jake to have a “Jim” quality, my mind flashed to Huckleberry Finn more than once.
Beside a Burning Sea isn’t a book I’d have chosen to read on my own, but I’m immensely glad I did. While its ending isn’t as cut and dried in some respects as a romance novel, the rich history, strong characterization, and building of relationships are something any reader of historical romance would find engaging. And the World War II setting is a great backdrop; like many Americans who came of age long after the war, my knowledge of the Pacific theatre in comparison with the war in Europe is limited. Those of you who have not seen it might consider renting Ken Burns’ The War for additional context, particularly as regards the fight-to-the-death attitude of Japanese soldiers, who vowed never to surrender.
I sought out John Shors on Facebook and began an email conversation with him, resulting in the following interview, which is interspersed with his responses to our version of the Proust questionnaire. He was gracious and, for want of a better word, earnest, something you don’t often hear anymore, at least in a positive, non-ironic context. I think it comes across in the interview, which I hope you all enjoy.
–Laurie Likes Books
Where did the idea come from for this story? What were your themes?
I came up with the idea for Beside A Burning Sea after spending several years in Japan. I was intrigued with elements of WWII and how those elements pertained to Japan. For one, I think the reason of why the Japanese went to war is almost unknown in the U.S. The Japanese might be able to make an argument defending their military action in Asia. However, it’s also clear that the Japanese military committed unspeakable atrocities in China, Korea and other places. And these incidents are almost unknown to people living in Japan today. These issues aren’t even mentioned in textbooks – as if they never happened. In terms of how Americans think about WWII, we tend to think of the war in Europe against Hitler. And while Germany was the more dangerous of our enemies, the battles that were fought in the South Pacific against the Japanese were ferocious. I wrote Beside a Burning Sea, and decided to have one of my main characters be a Japanese soldier because I wanted to show the different sides and faces of the war in the Pacific. And I had this Japanese soldier fall in love with his American nurse, to elaborate on different perspectives of the war.
Can you elaborate on the three “couples” at the core of your book, and your decision to write Roger, the villain, as simply evil incarnate?
I wanted my novel to be more than the story of Akira and Annie. I prefer to write novels that have a variety of characters and themes, and Beside a Burning Sea is certainly such a book. It’s a story of love found, of old love being rekindled, and the love that might exist between father and a son. So, there are really three separate stories of love within the book. Those stories represent some of the highs and lows of this complicated emotion. And the stories speak of what love can make people do – the risks people are willing to take, the sacrifices they make, and so forth.
In terms of Roger, yes, he’s certainly a somewhat single-minded villain. But I think that his backstory within the book offers an explanation for how he became so evil. I know that many writers decide to have their villains also have a few good qualities, to kind of balance them out. People say, “No one is completely evil, or completely good”. And that’s usually true. But it’s not always so. The world has experienced a variety of people who are simply evil. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot. These are people who were happy to kill millions of others if it meant achieving their own goals. So, I don’t see how such people can have any trace of good within them, and if I’m creating a character in such a mold, I’m not really interested in trying to round out that character. Drawing from history, and from my own experiences, some people are simply bad. And to me such a fictitious character is as believable as a villain who has a good quality or two.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Several things come to mind, chief being a loss of love. This can come in many forms-the death of a spouse or a child. I haven’t experienced these, but can imagine how horrible they would be. The end of a relationship can also be painful, as can be health issues and such. But I would say that a terrible loss of love would be the worst, at least for me. What is your idea of earthly happiness? For me ultimate happiness would stem from three things, mainly. One, a wonderful family that I’m a major part of. Two, a career that I enjoy. Three, excellent health. On a selfish level, those are the things that I would like. Of course, I’d like the world as a whole to improve. I think we’ve got a long way to go in this regard. Who are your favorite heroes/heroines in real life? My real life heroes are people who are out trying to make the world a better place. So many people are simply–inspired. They are doing amazing things, and they are making a real difference. My third novel, In the Footsteps of Dragons, is a story of such people. I find them to be incredibly powerful and motivating. One day I hope to join this group.
Who is your favorite musician?
My favorite musician would have to be Bono. I love U2’s music, and I’m excited with how Bono is trying to deal with poverty in Africa–mainly through getting other countries to forgive massive amounts of debt that African countries owe. Bono is saving thousands of lives.
I’ve never fully understood why Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. Can you talk about the research that went into this book? How long did it take?
We went to war with Japan for a few reasons. First, the Japanese were very interested in expanding their empire. They saw China as a threat, and deemed it the right time to attack the Chinese. Japan also attacked several countries that the British had a strong presence in. In the minds of the Japanese, they were liberating such countries from Western rule. But America didn’t see it that way. And when Japan attacked China, the U.S. cut off all oil shipments to Japan (which the Japanese depended on heavily). When America cut off its supply of oil, the Japanese saw that as an act of war and attacked Pearl Harbor.
In terms of the research that went into this novel, that research was fairly basic. I lived for six months in the South Pacific, so bringing that part of the world to life on the page wasn’t too terribly difficult. Nor was creating Akira, as I lived in Japan for three years and have a good understanding of the Japanese. Of course, I certainly researched the conflict in the South Pacific, primarily focusing on why it happened. I read several excellent books on the subject. I also enjoyed The Winds of War and War and Remembrance – two wonderful novels.
Although the story ends before a resolution is reached for Akira, what do you envision happens to him? Did the U.S. ever “free” enemies if they “went over to the other side,” or does he end up a P.O.W. or perhaps in an internment camp in California?
In terms of what the future might have held for Akira, I decided to let the reader make her or his own interpretation of that. Certainly, with the support of an American naval captain, it’s doubtful that Akira would have been sent off to an internment camp. But that would also be a possibility. In a subtle way I present both such scenarios to the reader and then let the reader decide.
I’ve already mentioned the lyrical quality to your prose, which shines through not only in the haiku, but throughout. How important to you are the words, as opposed to the story itself?
I want all my novels to have a lyrical quality. That’s as important to me as the stories themselves. I could crank out a novel in a matter of months and the story would be fine. But I want to do more than that. I want my prose to be different, to really shine at the right times. That’s why I edit so much, going over a book time and time again, trying to elevate the prose. I avoid cliches and anything too easy. I’d rather suffer through thirty re-writes than take the easy way out. My first novel, Beneath a Marble Sky, has the same lyrical qualities as Beside a Burning Sea. And my third novel, which I’m in the process of writing, is the same in that regard. On the whole, I’d like to be known as a writer who brings exotic locales and people to life, while also having prose that is lyrical and perhaps at times, if I may say so, poetic. Luckily for me, I enjoy such writing, even if it’s difficult.
What is the quality you most admire in a man…and a woman?
What do I admire most in men and women? Mainly what I’ve spoken about already–trying to improve the lives of others. I don’t know what to call that. It’s a combination of vision and compassion and hope and hard work.
What virtue is most overrated?
Most overrated virtue? Perhaps ‘likeability”. For instance, personally, I don’t care if I could go spend three hours drinking a couple of beers with our next president. I would rather that person be incredibly smart, educated, insightful, etc., than a nice person who I could have a nice conversation with.
What do you most value in your friends?
I want my friends to be honest and trustworthy. Good friends can be like family members. And friends should always look out for each other’s best interests.
What is it you most dislike?
I dislike it when politicians don’t study history, when they make the same mistakes that have been made for hundreds of years. To me, that’s incredibly frustrating.
Beside a Burning Sea is your second published novel, following Beneath a Marble Sky, which I understand was set in India. I know you’re at work on a new novel. What is it about, and when will it be published?
My third novel, In The Footsteps Of Dragons, will come out in Sept of 09. The novel is set in modern-day Saigon, and is the story of two Americans who decide to open a center to educate and house street children. Much of the story is told through the eyes of the street children. It’s really a tale of despair vs hope, war vs peace, east vs west. One of the Americans is an Iraq war vet. The other’s father fought in the Vietnam war. It’s really a story of redemption – but it has some painful moments along the way. I’m quite excited about it.
All three of your stories are literally on the other side of the world, in Asia and the South Pacific. What draws you specifically, and are there poetic elements – like the haiku – in your other two books? And, can you compare and contrast the cultures in which your books are set, both with each other, and our culture here in the U.S.? Is there something similar about those other cultures that is missing in ours that draws you specifically?
As far as what draws me to the other side of the world, well, I spent three years of my life in Asia and The South Pacific, and I love each area. I know Asia well, having traveled all over a dozen or so countries there. Spending about two years in Japan gave me an appreciation for haikus, which embody the simplicity that ancient Japan seemed to be all about.
I think that all of my novels due have poetic elements. Perhaps those elements are more over in Beside a Burning Sea with all of the haikus, but my first book was lyrical at times, and so will be my third.
I’m fascinated with the cultures of Asia. I think the developing countries are the areas that interest me the most, places like India, Vietnam, Nepal, Thailand, etc. There is a certain kind of excitement that permeates these countries. The countries can be practically lawless, but yet people seem to get along. One is more in control of one’s one life, in some ways. For instance, I arrived in Thailand having never ridden a motorcycle. When I landed there and got acquainted, I simply rented a big motorcycle and off I went, no courses, no instructor. Just me and an adventure before me. Somewhat dangerous to be sure, but also somewhat liberating. I think that’s what I like most about Asia – the combination (at least for me as a Westerner) of freedom and excitement and adventure.
My goal as a writer is fairly simple. I want my “voice” to be one that blends good old-fashioned, page-turning storytelling with changes of pace, lyrical elements, with exotic locales. That’s the kind of writing that I enjoy doing, and hopefully people will enjoy that combination.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I would say that I am known as a dreamer. I’ve always dreams of wonderful things. Some of these dreams have come true. And some haven’t. But I continue to dream and hope. What is your principle defect? I am quite unorganized and can be sloppy. My clothes can litter a corner of the room. Sticky notes can cover my computer. My unorganization has cost me dearly before, but I’ll probably never get beyond it. What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes? My greatest regret would be if I felt that, on my deathbed, I hadn’t really experienced life. By that I mean experienced relationships, challenges, meaning, etc. What natural gift would you like to possess? As far as a natural gift, well, perhaps the unending optimism and hope that seems to define certain people. I have those feelings at times, but, perhaps because of my perspective as a writer, I also tend to look at the darker side of things.
Describe to our readers what your writing process is like. How long you research a book, whether you create a detailed outline or wing it (more or less), etc., and if your characters take on a life of their own and the story ends up moving somewhere differently than you might have intended (while still getting to the end).
Now that I’m a full-time writer, I tend to write mainly in the morning and the early afternoon. I work quite hard for five or six hours either writing or editing. Then I tend to answer all of the book emails I get. Once the early evening rolls around I speak with book clubs (via speakerphone) all over the country. I do seven or eight of these calls each night. To date, I’ve done more than 1,200 of them.
I create outlines and character sketches for my novels, and am always excited about them. But then a funny thing happens – once I start writing, my stories take on a life of their own. The characters just come to be, kind of like the ultimate shape of a bush that one decides to trim. And the story is the same way. I may have an outline, which I follow to a certain degree, but once I’m deep into the story, it tends to write itself, and I go off in directions that I never imagined while working on my outline. This is one of my favorite parts about writing, that is, these unexpected discoveries that lead to a richer, better book.
My intended audience for the book? I haven’t thought very much about this question, to be honest. I’ve tried to write a novel that will appeal to a variety of people; both women and men, young readers and more experienced readers. I hope that I’ve succeeded, though I won’t know until I start receiving reader feedback.
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