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When I had the chance to interview Sherry Shahan, author of Purple Daze, for the Figment.com blog, I jumped on it. Figment is a website that gives young adult writers a place to experiment, write and share their stories with each other. It’s pretty cool, and you can join even if (like me) you aren’t quite a teenager anymore.
Purple Daze is a novel comprised of interconnected poems, letters and journal entries, and tells the story of six teens in an LA suburb throughout 1965. One of my favorite aspects is how she weaves the characters’ personal stories into the broader story of the year: Malcolm X’s assassination, race riots in LA, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Rather than just contextualize the characters’ stories, it allows us to see how their experiences truly represent the time, and the difficulties young people faced coming of age in that era.
Since Figment is a site for writers, I based many of my questions around that theme. Some of them, though, also speak to the themes I often address on this blog: those of storytelling and how to put a story together. Many of the questions I asked about how she wrote the book, and in what order, didn’t make it into the final interview cut, so I’ve included them here. Please read the whole interview first over at Figment: Interview with Sherry Shahan.
Sherry Shahan Interview “Outtakes”:
Q: Which poem was the hardest to write?*
A: 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.
Q: The easiest?
A: This haiku appears about three-quarters of the way into the novel. It’s from Cheryl’s perspective, after she learns that her boyfriend (Don) has had sex with her best friend:
HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE
HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE
I HATE DONALD DUCK
This was particularly gratifying to write since my boyfriend really did sleep with my best friend.
Q: Which poem was the most fun to write?
A: Downtown L.A. was burning (Watts Riots), Vietnam was raging, peaceful protesters were being attacked with billy clubs. At the same time, these kids had the pressure of high school, expectations of parents, and relationship issues. Amazingly enough, they still had an absolute blast. I wrote the rock concert poem while listening to Jefferson Airplane.
Q: Which poem did you write first?
A: I don’t remember which piece came first. I began by scribbling notes on a lined pad. Sketching characters and playing around with ideas. I sometimes wrote letters from the viewpoint of my characters. I let them ramble on and on. Later, I highlighted passages that showed insight into their innermost thoughts and feelings.
A: The manuscript had been accepted by the editor when I found an article about Norman Morrison, a devout Quaker and father of three young children who set himself on fire in an act of self-sacrifice to protest the Vietnam War. I knew this had to go in the book.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
A: When I began I didn’t have a support group or know any other writers. Today it’s much easier to connect with like-minded people online. Check the local newspapers for events that include writers, such as poetry readings. They’re usually free and you’ll meet such interesting people. Writers are generous. We’re willing to share information, just ask.
*This question and answer did appear in the original interview, but I wanted to include it here for completeness.
For more information on Sherry and to check out her other books (she’s written more than 30!), visit www.SherryShahan.com.