For Cayucos author Sherry Shahan and her friends, the 1960s left a memorable legacy.
“If you lived through that time, it was so tumultuous and volatile that it made an impression,” she said. “Vietnam was the first war that was in our living rooms. We watched them loading bodies into the helicopters.”
Shahan draws on her memories of that turbulent time in “Purple Daze,” a young adult novel that takes place against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.
“I didn’t want to make it history book-y,” she said of “Purple Daze.” “Ultimately, I wanted it to be a story about teens and their lives.”
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A Central Coast resident for more than 30 years, Shahan is a prolific writer whose articles and photographs have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The Los Angeles Times and Backpacker, Country Living and Westways magazines.
Her books include the adventure novels “Death Mountain” and “Frozen Stiff,” several nonfiction children’s books and a series of picture books inspired by Latin American culture. (Paula Barragán, the illustrator of “Spicy Hot Colors,” “Cool Cats Counting” and “¡Fiesta! A Celebration of Latino Festivals,” lives in Quito, Ecuador.)
According to Shahan, the inspiration for “Purple Daze” came during her stint as a graduate student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
“They really encouraged us to push the envelope,” she recalled. “About the only thing I hadn’t done in my 30-year career is a novel in verse.”Around the same time, she discovered a shoebox of letters written nearly 50 years ago by a friend stationed in Vietnam.
“They just blew me away,” she said. “He was just this carefree teen Slowly you could watch him turn into this hardened soldier because of the experiences he had in the war.”
She spent three or four years working on “Purple Daze.” Running Press Teens, an imprint of Running Press Book Publishers, published the book in March.
Set in 1965 in suburban Los Angeles, “Purple Daze” follows six high-school friends – Cheryl, Don, Mickey, Nancy, Phil and Ziggy -- as they experience love, loss and cultural upheaval.
Phil is drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps. Mickey enlists in the Navy. As they witness very different wars, their friends back home launch peaceful protests and experiment with sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.
Their shared narrative takes the form of letters, notes, poems and journal entries, interspersed with factual asides about the assassination of Malcolm X and Arlo Guthrie’s famous song, “Alice’s Restaurant.” Shahan even includes a helpful timeline.
It’s only appropriate that “Purple Daze” relies on the characters’ own words to tell the story, she said.
“We didn’t have cell phones. We didn’t have an answering machine at our house,” she said. “We sat in class and wrote each other letters all the time. That was our form of texting.”
Much of “Purple Daze” draws from Shahan’s own experiences growing up in Southern California. She compared the writing process to a “constant flashback.”
“Like Cheryl, I was the one crawling out of my window at night” for an early-morning joyride past the Watts riots, she said.
She also had friends whose military experiences mirrored those of Phil and Mickey.
“It was amazing to me that (one friend) was virtually on a cruise through the entire war,” the author recalled. “He was getting drunk and chasing women at the same time (another friend) was going through incredible hell.”
To refresh her memories of that time period, Shahan read contemporary newspapers and books and conducted interviews with several Vietnam War veterans.
“One guy told me that they put condoms over the muzzles of their rifles” to keep them from rusting, she said. Another shared how soldiers would stuff Kotex maxi-pads in their helmets for later use as bandages.
Intended for high school students and older teens, “Purple Daze” contains graphic references to warfare, bloodshed and abortion, as well as adult language and depictions of drug and alcohol use.
“For me, it’s just telling the truth about what went on at the time,” Shahan said. “Today’s adolescents and teens still have issues with school, with parents, with love, with loss.
“Their parents and grandparents were going through the same things that they’re going through.”
In fact, she said, those older readers might get just as much out of the book as her target audience.
“Some of the best feedback I’m I’ve had is from people in their 60s,” Shahan said. “They’re actually upset (the book) is described as a YA novel.”