Purple Daze by Sherry Shahan, a novel-in-verse that follows six friends during the Vietnam era, just came out in paperback. For those who missed the 2011 hardcover publication, Purple Daze was well-received by literary critics around the country. VOYA gave this young adult book an impressive 5Q4P (5 being the highest score possible/ Q for Quality and P for Popularity). The novel indeed hooks the reader into the lives of these teens and their lives in the 1960s.
I first became interested in Sherry’s work when I was writing a column about good outdoor survival read-alouds. I was particularly interested in locating books featuring female protagonists. I found exactly what I was looking for with her book Death Mountain (Peachtree, 2005). I was surprised to recently learn from Sherry’s website that Death Mountain was based on an actual personal experience. Purple Daze is also based on the author’s life. Sherry was kind enough to respond to my questions about herself and her work.
Q: Why did you decide to write the story in verse format? Along with that, why did you decide to go with multiple perspectives?
A: While cleaning out my office closet, I found a shoebox filled with letters from a friend who served in Vietnam in the late 1960s. I spent hours pouring through his gut-wrenching accounts. It was disturbing to watch a close friend turn from a carefree teenager into a calloused soldier. I knew I wanted to do something with his letters; after all, I’d kept them nearly 50 years.
Since my friend’s letters inspired Purple Daze I thought it made sense to use letters as a form to portray his life in Vietnam. I then began writing sketches about my other high school friends. Once I began scribbling, memories assaulted me twenty-four-seven.
Each character required his or her own story arc—with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end—yet I had to weave each story smoothly into the whole. To me, this was the most effective way to give readers access to the inner most thoughts of all six characters.
Q: Alongside the story of the six friends, you have several poems about events going on during this time. Besides drawing upon your own personal experiences of growing up in the 1960s/having a friend in Vietnam at that time, what kind of research did you do?
A: Research included reading newspaper accounts and other books about the tumultuous 1960’s. Talking to Vietnam vets gave me details I hadn’t run across in secondary material. One guy told me about a soldier who painted a peace sign on one side of his helmet, and F.T.A. (Fuck the Army) on the other. Another guy said he put a condom over the muzzle of his rifle to keep out moisture. Those details had to go in the book.
I was constantly reminded of the blatant hypocrisy in our government during that time. In 1965, for instance, the Pentagon had requested bids from chemical companies for Napalm, a rolling flame of jellied gasoline that causes mass destruction. Around the same time, President Johnson gave his famous “Prayer for Peace” speech, calling for permanent peace in Southeast Asia.
Ultimately, though, Purple Daze is a story about six high school friends and their sometimes crazy, often troublesome, and ultimately dramatic lives.
Q. How does this era connect with today’s teens?
A: The difficulties facing today’s teens aren’t that different from those faced in the 60’s. Issues with parents, relationships, love and loss. Young people are still breaking away from authority and convention, still forging their way into an unknown future.
Free verse is itself a type of breaking away, since the form breaks free from traditional metrical poetry. Likewise, novels in verse depart from traditional prose. Most teens are emotional and self-absorbed. To me, condensed metaphoric language on a single page mirrors their dramatic, tightly-packed world.
Q: Do you have a particular writing routine?
A: Since my brain is freshest in the morning, I hit my office first thing with a steamy mug of coffee. That’s when I’m most creative. Afternoons are spent with busy work, such as returning phone calls, responding to emails, etc.
Q: Your web site shows that you are very active with your books (research/inspiration). Would you mind sharing what you’re working on now?
A: I just finished a quirky young adult novel, Skin and Bones (working title). Here’s the logline: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” meets “Love Story.” It’s set in an eating disorder hospital in which an aspiring ballerina and a quirky nerd boy fall desperately in love only to become each other’s next deadly addiction.
Note: The above photos were graciously sent to me by Sherry. The first submitted photo shows an actual letter Sherry received from her friend in Vietnam. The next photo shows the real “Phillip,” a character from the book. The final picture is Sherry in high school. (You can see several cool current photos of Sherry on her website.)
I gladly add Purple Daze with other strong YA novels about the Vietnam era, including Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers, Sonny’s War by Valerie Hobbs, and Too Big a Storm by Marsha Qualey.