Purple Daze: A Far Out Trip, 1965 by Sherry Shahan
Purple Daze is story about love, friendship, and rock and roll. It’s a story about a group of high school friends and their sometimes humorous, often painful, and ultimately dramatic lives. And it’s a story that plays out on a stage shared by riots, assassinations, and war in the City of Angeles, 1965. Six unforgettable characters’ experiences and feelings are expressed in highly personal journal entries, notes, letters, and interconnected poems. This innovative novel in verse captures the all-too-real perspective of teens during a time when they are all breaking away from authority and social convention, and forging an unknown future.
How Unearthing a Shoe Box of Letters Inspired a Novel in Verse
by Sherry Shahan
My novel in verse Purple Daze: A Far Out Trip, 1965 was inspired when I found an old shoebox in my closet. Inside were letters from a friend who had served in Vietnam during the 1960s. I remember sitting on the floor and rereading the gut-wrenching accounts of his time in that living hell. I still can’t believe I’d kept his letters more than 50 years.
A short time later, I began writing character sketches about other high school friends. Once I began scribbling, memories slammed me twenty-four-seven. I let myself tap into the emotions triggered by that crazy time—from happiness (our wild antics) to rage (over a senseless war) and sorrow (teen angst). It was like being in a constant flashback.
Since my friend’s letters inspired the novel, I decided to use that form of expression for his character. I experimented with other styles for other characters—notes, journal entries, free verse and traditional poetry. I wanted the story’s emotional layer to be as true to life as possible, although I never considered portraying events as they really happened.
Experimenting with a nontraditional form definitely had its challenges. Each of the six viewpoint characters required his or her own story arc, yet I had to weave the individual stories smoothly into the whole.
I suddenly became aware of ‘white space’ and its role in shaping emotional context. In certain instances, white space reflected the power of a thought or idea in a way that solid text could not.
This piece is only four lines:
Love is like sticking
your car keys in a pocket with
your sunglasses and thinking
your glasses won’t get scratched
In later drafts, I added descriptive entries about historical events in 1965, such as the Pentagon’s authorization of Napalm, the assassination of Malcolm X, and the FBI’s all-out war to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These pieces are juxtaposed against musical references: rock concerts and the true story behind Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Ultimately, though, I wanted Purple Daze to be a story about six high school friends and their sometimes crazy, often troublesome, and ultimately dramatic lives. To me, verse mirrors the pulse of adolescent life. Condensed metaphoric language on a single page is an apt reflection of their dramatic, tightly-packed world.
A Conversation Sherry Shahan, author of PURPLE DAZE
Q: Purple Daze is a story about love, friendship, and rock and roll. It plays out on a stage shared by riots, assassinations, and war. Why did you decide to focus on this particular period?
A: While cleaning out my office closet, I found a tattered shoebox filled with letters written by a friend who was in Vietnam in the 1960s. I spent hours pouring through gut-wrenching accounts of his day-to-day life in that living hell.
It was heartbreaking to watch a close friend turn from a carefree guy who just wanted to hang out with his friends into a hardened soldier. I knew I had to do something with his letters; after all, I’d kept them all this time.
The more I researched the 1960’s the more I realized I needed to narrow the book’s timeline. I chose 1965, in part, because of the Watts Riots in Los Angeles. By the time it ended, 34 people had been killed, another 1,032 injured, and 3,438 were arrested. Nearly 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.
My friends and I snuck out in the middle of the night, driving the freeways, looking for a break in the National Guard barrier. We were such adrenaline junkies!
Q: What stumbling blocks did you encounter writing a novel in verse?
A: What began as a stream of consciousness had to be shaped into a story with a compelling beginning, middle, end. Each character demanded his or her own story arc. Yet each story had to be woven seamlessly into the whole. Talk about a challenge!
I became obsessed with metaphor, assonance, startling imagery, rhythm and cadence. Even white space—meaning the negative space on a page—played a role
in shaping my characters’ emotions. Example:
Fat tits + quick wit
does not = stupidity
if that’s what you think.
Pages of the new testament fill my pillow,
gospels on a recon in search of a soul.
These two poems are short—yet I think they say volumes about the characters. Even more than if I’d filled a page with margin-to-margin prose.
To me, verse mirrors the pulse of adolescent life. Condensed metaphoric language on a single page is a good reflection of their tightly-packed world. Emotions are where teens live.
Q: What do you hope your readers will take away from Purple Daze?
A: While I never consciously write with the intent of hitting my readers with a message, the difficulties facing today’s teens aren’t all that different from those faced in the 60’s. Issues with parents, relationships, love and loss.
Teenagers are still breaking away from authority and convention, still forging their way into an unknown future. And, unfortunately, our country is still engaged in a war of choice on foreign soil.
From Author’s Website:
My True Story:
Some readers have a weird idea of what it means to be a writer. They think I’m locked away in a dingy room with only a computer to keep me company. It’s true. I have calluses on my fingers from typing more than 30 fiction and nonfiction books on a plastic keypad. (Okay, so a few titles were tapped out on a typewriter.) But that’s only part of the story.
As part of my research, I’ve ridden on horseback into Africa’s Maasailand, hiked through a leech-infested rain forest in Australia, shivered inside a dogsled for the first part of the famed 1,049 mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, rode-the-foam on a long-board in Hawaii, and spun around dance floors in Havana, Cuba. True!
My adventure novel DEATH MOUNTAIN (Peachtree) is based on a true story. While attempting to hike to the highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney in California, my group was caught on an exposed ridge in a deadly electrical storm. The pack horse and mule were struck by lightning and killed. Three women in my party were airlifted off the mountain by helicopter and flown to a nearby hospital. Thankfully, they were released shortly after a doctor examined them.
For my middle-grade novel FROZEN STIFF (Random House), I spent a week kayaking to the largest tidewater glacier in North America, Hubbard Glacier in Alaska. Like my main character, I battled renegade icebergs and had a close encounter with a bear. Again, true.
When I decided to write and photo-illustrate DASHING THROUGH THE SNOW: THE STORY OF THE JR. IDITAROD (Mondo), I stayed with a family of mushers in Alaska. Everyday, I followed them with my camera while they trained their dogs. You know that’s a true story since DASHING is nonfiction.
When I’m not traveling around the world or dodging lightning bolts, I like to dance. Sometimes I even enter contests at dance conventions. Even though I’ve never won one — at least not yet — it’s fun to wear clothes that sparkle and glue on false eyelashes. True story.
Okay, now it’s time to plop down in my writing chair….