Author Interview: James Brandon

About the Author: James Brandon produced and played the central role of Joshua in the international tour of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi for a decade, and is co-director of the documentary film based on their journey, Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption. He’s the cofounder of the I AM Love Campaign, an arts-based initiative bridging the faith-based and LGBTQ2+ communities, and serves on the Powwow Steering Committee for Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) in San Francisco. Brandon is a contributing writer for Huffington Post, Believe Out Loud, and Spirituality and Health Magazine. Ziggy, Stardust and Me is his first novel.

Hello James

Thank you so much for taking your time to talk to me about your debut novel Ziggy, Stardust, & Me.

Let’s start by hearing a little about Ziggy, Stardust, & Me, how would you describe your book to someone who hasn’t read it?

James: Ziggy, Stardust, & ME is set in St Louis in 1973 when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness and crime. Jonathan, the protagonist, is working really hard to fix his illness and believes he has fixed himself. He believes that he has fixed himself until Web comes into his life. The story then becomes about these two boys discovering love in a time and a world that won’t let them.

What was your inspiration behind Ziggy, Stardust  & Me?

James: A friend of mine showed me the episode of This American Life- 81 Words which tells the story about how the American Psychiatric Association (APA) decided in 1973 that homosexuality was no longer a mental illness. It was about a moment in time in queer history where the APA and the Gay Liberation Movement were fighting each other because the APA had classified homosexuality as mental illness. The Gay Liberation Movement was fighting because they insisted that they were normal and they didn’t need to be treated. In December 1973 the APA removed homosexuality from DSM, and now LGBTQ+ people were suddenly cured from this illness. I didn’t know anything about history after being out for such a long time and this woke me up. I think that without being taught our history LGBTQ+ people don’t feel a sense of rooted ness and they feel loss without that. I want to help teach our history and give sense of connectedness to LGBTQ+ people.

What are your 10 favorite books and why?

James:

Ari and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz- is my classic go to.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson- has beautiful transportive writing

Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian- is another beautiful queer historical documented piece of history

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi- is about a black trans girl and is a beautiful book.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong- is a spectacular book that has prose that is out of this world.

The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante- is a beautifully written book.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens- is a beautiful book and extraordinarily written. It is a book that inspired me as a writer.

River of Royal Blood by Amanda Joy- is her debut novel that is coming out in late October.

The Stand by Stephen King- his version wasn’t edited and is where I learned how to write character because his characters are so defined, rich, and full

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera- creates an immersive world that I loved getting lost in.

From those 10 books would you say that any one of those influenced your life greatly or is there a book you didn’t mention that has influenced you life?

James: I would have to say that all have to some degree. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was the first queer book I read. Before this I was not aware of queer books and I didn’t really seek them out but when this one came to me it inspired me to want to write a book. It really showed me the importance of having queer protagonist in a book, and gave me validity for someone who didn’t see that growing up. I would say that this book influenced my writing in a way too.

What would you say was the most surprising thing that you learned while writing your novel?

James: My editor, Stacey Barney is a genius, one thing she worked really hard on this book for a couple years, was pushing me on not believing the journey that Jonathan takes to self acceptance. After being out for over 20 years, this caused me to question my own journey towards self acceptance and question how much I really accept myself now. There’s a quote in the book “once the seed of shame is planted within it never goes away” that really is the journey into Jonathan and his soul, we have a choice to let that seed grow, strangle our soul and become miserable or acknowledge that seed and become better people because of it. This was a surprising realization to make and a beautiful surprise. Due to this realization and Stacey Barney’s notes, I am a more humble and awakened human.

What was something about Ziggy, Stardust and Me that you struggled to write or come up with?

James: There wasn’t anything easy about it, the struggle was really and something that me and Stacey worked on a lot was honing in on Jonathan and Web’s relationship. I wanted to create this bubble that their relationship stays in while the chaos of life goes on around them. I wanted to keep this bubble of love safe, pure, and for this to be their escape while they were not allowed to be gay and every faction of society was screaming to get their voice heard. It was important to pay attention and listen to the two boys and what they needed and wanted to make their relationships thrive.

Your story is set in 1973. Why did you choose that as the setting for your book? Do you think this book would have the same impact if it was set in a different time period?

James: If this was told in a different time period it would not have the same impact due to the APA decision occurring in 1973. In The American Life- 81 Words there is one doctor who changed his mind about homosexuality after meeting a gay boy who hugged him. I kept thinking about this and wanted to figure out who this boy was who was able to change the mind of an older males and this is how I created Jonathan. I wanted to show a time that younger people don’t recognize as an important part of our history. The Stonewall riots and this event marked a turning point for the current LGBTQ movement and more people of all ages need to know this was a real time and these are real things people endured just in their day to day existence.

How did you deal with the emotional impact the book might have had on you as you were writing the story?

James: There were intense moments in this book and intense moments when writing it. Jonathan experiences treatments that were experienced as a normality during this time period. I interviewed people who under went some of these treatments and I wanted to create a sensorial experience for the reader when Jonathan experiences these treatments. This was really the only way for the reader to feel some empathy as I felt empathy for these people. Because self-care and one’s own mental health is so important I was aware and clear of my boundaries when writing and made sure to separate my own identity from my characters. As I was immersing myself in these things, I let myself feel it and wrote through tears. Once words and tears pushed through I made sure to get away from the writing and come back to it later, allowing myself some space. It was important to feel those feelings, because as humans we have to do that in order to move through things we’re working on.

What do you hope your readers take away from reading Ziggy, Stardust, & Me? 

James: I want my readers to understand the importance of believing in yourself and embrace that which makes you different. The things that make you different, make you unique and that’s what we need in this world right now. Don’t be scared and don’t shy away from who you are and being you when people tell you you can’t, prove them wrong and be that. Recognize that uniqueness is why we are here.

Is there more in store for Jonathan or is there something else that you are currently working on?

James: There is currently no planned sequel to Ziggy, Stardust, & Me. I have written another book and what I do know is that each book I write will have some moment in LGBTQ history that has been lost or forgotten.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

James: There were so many times that could’ve given up and so many reasons why one could give up because writing is REALLY, REALLY, REALLY hard. If don’t go in knowing that it can feel daunting and overwhelming. It’s important to never give up, believe in what you need to say and don’t let anyone else tell you that what you are trying to say isn’t good enough because if you need to say it its important and we need to hear it.

About Ziggy, Stardust, & Me: In this tender-hearted debut, set against the tumultuous backdrop of life in 1973, when homosexuality is still considered a mental illness, two boys defy all the odds and fall in love.

The year is 1973. The Watergate hearings are in full swing. The Vietnam War is still raging. And homosexuality is still officially considered a mental illness. In the midst of these trying times is sixteen-year-old Jonathan Collins, a bullied, anxious, asthmatic kid, who aside from an alcoholic father and his sympathetic neighbor and friend Starla, is completely alone. To cope, Jonathan escapes to the safe haven of his imagination, where his hero David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and dead relatives, including his mother, guide him through the rough terrain of his life. In his alternate reality, Jonathan can be anything: a superhero, an astronaut, Ziggy Stardust, himself, or completely “normal” and not a boy who likes other boys. When he completes his treatments, he will be normal–at least he hopes. But before that can happen, Web stumbles into his life. Web is everything Jonathan wishes he could be: fearless, fearsome and, most importantly, not ashamed of being gay.

Jonathan doesn’t want to like brooding Web, who has secrets all his own. Jonathan wants nothing more than to be “fixed” once and for all. But he’s drawn to Web anyway. Web is the first person in the real world to see Jonathan completely and think he’s perfect. Web is a kind of escape Jonathan has never known. For the first time in his life, he may finally feel free enough to love and accept himself as he is.

Click here to find more about James Brandon and you can get Ziggy, Stardust & Me at Penguin Random House.