by Kelly Lynn Thomas
Although Sherry Shahan set her latest book, Purple Daze, in 1965, the relevancy of its themes to my own teen years in the early 2000s left me stunned.
The book follows six friends from an L.A. suburb through the tumultuous events of that year: continuation of the war in Vietnam, the assassination of Malcolm X, race riots in Los Angeles. Add to that the intense and very personal struggles of each character as he or she comes of age, and you have a novel worth reading and returning to again and again.
Shahan achieves such a high level of intensity through the use of letters, journal entries and interconnected free verse that gives the reader a direct window into the thoughts and feelings of each character.
I had the pleasure of virtually “sitting down” with Shahan to talk about Purple Daze and her writing habits. To learn more about her, visit her website at www.sherryshahan.com.
Kelly Thomas: Purple Daze is somewhat unique in its use of interconnected poems and free verse to tell a story. Why did you decide to use this format?
Sherry Shahan: I wanted to be inside the heads of each character, not just describe them from the outside looking in… To me, condensed metaphoric language on a single page is a good reflection of each character’s tightly-packed world.
KT: What challenges did writing in this format present?
SH: What began as scribbles had to be shaped into a story with a beginning, middle and end. Each character needed his or her own story arc, and each individual story had to be woven seamlessly into the whole. I concentrated on metaphor, assonance, rhythm and cadence. Sure, all good writing should have these elements. But I became more aware of them when I was thinking like a poet.
KT: Which poem was the hardest to write?
SH: While cleaning out a closet I found a shoe box jammed with letters from a friend who was a Marine in Vietnam. I’d kept his letters more than 40 years. The character Phil in the novel evolved from them. Developing his story arc was quite painful, since I had to be inside his skin while during the living hell of Vietnam. Even now, after years of writing and revising, I have a hard time reading the poem about Phil’s friend getting shot.
KT: How much did you draw on your own experiences growing up in an L.A. suburb when writing Purple Daze?
SH: Don’t tell my kids, but like the character Cheryl, I used to sneak out in the middle of the night to meet my friends. And, as in the novel, a girlfriend and I cut school one day. We “borrowed” a friend’s car without permission. (He left his keys in the ashtray!) Neither one of us had a driver’s license.
In another scene, Cheryl and Ziggy are piercing each other’s ears. They’re using frozen potatoes to numb them, sort of like an earlobe sandwich. They’re sipping Sloe Gin while rock ‘n’ roll blasts in the background. That really happened too.
Once I began scribbling in my notebook, memories assaulted me twenty-four-seven.
KT: You’ve written more than 30 books. That’s pretty incredible. How long does it take you to write a book?
SH: Many of my books are short (for instance, picture books)! I worked on Purple Daze for several years, taking breaks to let the story rest. Then I’d come back to it with fresh eyes and work on problem areas. In an early version I had 8 characters, but people found it too confusing. Along the way, “readers” (writer friends) offered feedback, including a friend who was in the Army in Vietnam.
KT: Could you describe your writing habits?
SH: I’m definitely a morning person. I hit my office first thing with a steamy cup of java, responding to emails as a warm up. I spend endless (no kidding!) hours with my butt in the chair; thankfully I can see the ocean from the window.
KT: What do you hope teens will take away from reading this book?
SH: I was more interested in presenting an all-too-real perspective of teens during a tumultuous time than to convey a message. Unfortunately, we’re still sending our sons, brothers, fathers, and friends to fight a war on foreign soil. I hope readers will realize that their opinions and actions matter and how important it is to take a stand.
Sherry Shahan is the author of more than 30 books, fiction and nonfiction. As a photo-journalist, she’s ridden inside a dog sled for the first part of the 1,049 mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, hiked a leech-infested rain forest in Australia, and snorkeled with penguins in the Galapagos. When not writing, she goes to dance conventions, and sometimes enters contests. She hasn’t won, but it’s fun to wear sparkly clothes and glue on false eyelashes.
Kelly Lynn Thomas is a writer obsessed with storytelling, tea, and Star Wars. Her day job is newspaper editor, but fiction and travel writing are her first loves. Read more at http://kellylynnthomas.com.