Sunday, 20 December 2020

Author Interview: Question & Answer with Sherry Shahan



Today I would like to welcome author Sherry Shahan to The Burgeoning Bookshelf.

Sherry Shahan lives in a laid-back beach town in California where she grows radish and carrot tops in ice cube trays for pesto. As a travel journalist and photographer, she’s hiked a leech-infested rain forest in Australia, ridden inside a dog sled for the first part of the famed 1049-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, and snorkeled with penguins in the Galapagos. Her travels inspired Alaskan-based adventure novels Ice Island and Frozen Stiff (both Random House). While sheltering in place, she’s taking ballet classes in her tiny kitchen via Zoom.

 Sherry Shahan is the author of Young Adult verse novel PURPLE DAZE: A Far Out Trip, 1965.


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?

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!
The characters in your story are faced with difficult issues: abortion, drugs, war. Did writing the story using an unconventional form help you tackle these issues?

After reading my friend’s letters, I started messing around with other writing styles. Journals, notes, poems. I wrote character sketches about my crazy friends in high school. Once I began scribbling, it was a constant flashback. Memories assaulted me twenty-four-seven. Bam, bam, bam.

I knew I wanted to be inside the head of each character to explore their innermost thoughts and feelings, not just describe them from the outside looking in. I could have done this with an omniscient viewpoint--but bouncing in and out of some many minds could confuse readers. Instead I chose journal entries, letters, free verse and traditional poetry.

What stumbling blocks did you encounter writing a novel in verse?

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.

How did you go about researching Purple Daze? Was your approach different from your other work?

Because Purple Daze is set in a real time and place I read countless accounts of the 1960’s, including The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I talked to dozens of Vietnam vets.

One guy told me he put a condom over the muzzle of his rifle to help keep out steel-rusting moisture. Yet he could shoot through it. Another guy told me it was common to remove tobacco from packs of cigarettes and replace it with marijuana.

During that same time, one of my friends had enlisted in the Navy. He spent his days cruising the Caribbean, getting drunk, and chasing women. Such vastly different experiences expressed the utter craziness of the times. I knew these details would go in the book too.

Amidst the poetry you have inserted certain—for lack of a better term news reports—about what was going on in the world, e.g., assassinations, riots, etc. With so many events to pick from, how did you select what would go in the book?

When I read about Norman Morrison, father of three, who set himself on fire to protest the war, I sat at my computer crying. His piece was included late in the copyedit stage.

Norman Morrison

(December 19, 1933--November 2, 1965)

A devout Quaker and father of three young children pours

kerosene over his head and sets himself on fire outside

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s office at the

Pentagon in an act of self-sacrifice to protest United States

involvement in the Vietnam War.

The narrative pieces were chosen because I thought they were fascinating or horrifying or both. I added the story behind Arlo Guthrie’s famed song “You Can Get Anything You Want At Alice’s Restaurant” as a light-hearted anecdote. I could have added more history, but I didn’t want Purple Daze to be ‘text-bookish.’

Ultimately, it’s a story about six friends and their sometimes humorous, often painful, and ultimately dramatic lives.

The book feels very intimate. It made me wonder, is the character Cheryl really you in disguise?

There are still small holes outside my bedroom door from a hook-and-eye. That was my mom’s attempt to keep me from sneaking out at night. Like the character Cheryl, I simply crawled out the window.

In one scene, Cheryl and Ziggy are piercing each other’s ears. They’re using frozen potatoes to numb them, sort of like an earlobe sandwich. The Animals are wailing, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

And, yep, just like Cheryl, I really did shave between my eyebrows.

Nancy's behavior toward her boyfriend at the end of the novel was interesting. But you don't apologize for her or justify her distance from Phil. Can you talk about that a bit?

Like most circle of friends mine was a jumble of diverse personalities. Nancy is based on one of them. She was much more mature than the rest of us. I guess it never occurred to me to try to justify her pulling away. To me, sending Phil a ‘Dear John’ letter showed a thoughtful decision to take her life in a different direction—a direction that was precipitated by his being in Vietnam.

What do you hope your readers will take away from Purple Daze?

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.

Thank you for stopping by and spending some time with us on The Burgeoning Bookshelf.


Purple Daze by Sherry Shahan can be purchased via the following links:

 About the book

Purple Daze is set in suburban Los Angeles in 1965. Six high school students share their experiences and feelings in interconnected free verse and traditional poems about war, feminism, riots, love, racism, rock 'n' roll, high school, and friendship.Although there have been verse novels published recently, none explore the changing and volatile 1960's in America-- a time when young people drove a cultural and political revolution. With themes like the costs and casualties of war, the consequences of sex, and the complex relationships between teens, their peers, and their parents, this story is still as relevant today as it was 45 years ago.



  1. Thank you Veronica for allowing me to share the story behind the story!

  2. I am not a young adult, far from it, but I very much want to read this book! Thank you for posting, it sounds fascinating.

  3. I have already purchased and read Purple Daze. Very interesting and entertaining. I was laughing one moment and crying the next. Thank you!

  4. This sounds like an adventure to read

  5. Great interview, she sounds lovely and her book very poignant and emotional.

  6. Replies
    1. Of all of my published books, this was the most difficult to write--both craft-wise and emotionally.

  7. Excellent interview. I would love this book, I can just tell.

    1. Hint: The antics of the main character "Cheryl" tie very closely to my own teen years in Southern California.

  8. Great interview. I really got a good feel for Purple Daze.

  9. Imagine--I still have all the letters from my friend. That's more than 60 years!