James Brandon: Ziggy, Stardust, and Me
Hello, August! Are you (or your kids) going back to school? Well, here are a bunch of books to cheer you up!
Ziggy, Stardust, and Me
by James Brandon
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.
August 6th, 2019
Introduce yourself and your debut novel!
Hello! My name’s James Brandon and my Queer Historical YA, Ziggy, Stardust and Me, debuts August 6 from Putnam/Penguin. Set in St. Louis circa 1973, when homosexuality was still treated as a mental illness, sixteen-year-old Jonathan Collins is currently trying to “fix” his “illness” and escapes life through his imagination, including talking with his best friend, Ziggy Stardust. When he meets Web, a Lakota Two-Spirit, and the two boys fall in love, they struggle to retain their identities in a world that constantly threatens to tear them apart.
What’s the most surprising part about your debut journey so far?
There have been many, but I’d say the most surprising part so far is connecting with readers. I suppose in the back of my head I knew someone would eventually read this book, but it’s been swimming in my brain and on the computer screen for so long it’s easy to think it will live there forever. The book hasn’t even released yet, but I’ve already met some amazing, enthusiastic and hopeful humans from around the globe sharing their personal stories with me, and I look forward to connecting with so many more as the journey unfolds.
Give a shout-out to a fellow debut!
I wish I could name 100 because I’ve met some fantastic debut authors on this journey so far. But to name just one I’d have to give a shout-out to Alex Villasante and her debut, The Grief Keeper. It’s gorgeously written, timely, and beautifully captures love and grief in a careful, compassionate and masterful way. I highly recommend.
Who is your favorite character?
Impossible to answer for me; I love them all equally.
How long did it take you to write this book?
The idea was planted in January of 2015 and after spending a year researching and outlining, I started writing the book on January 10, 2016—the day David Bowie died. Not even kidding. That story is for another blog post entirely. Needless to say, I spent the first few chapters in tears.
What’s a cool thing about your book that isn’t in the blurb?
Among other lovely things, Publisher’s Weekly recently said it was “psychedelic in tone,” and that readers would be “immersed in the first-person narration.” I love that. I wanted to create a visceral experience for the reader, to not only educate on a lost moment in queer history, but to create a full sensorial adventure for the soul. While drafting, I also found this musicality to Jonathan’s voice that I feel deeply reflects the time and his state of mind.
What inspired you to write this book?
A friend passed along an episode of This American Life titled “81 Words,” which details how the APA officially removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the Big Book that classifies all the various “mental disorders”). As a queer person myself, I knew nothing about this time and I realized how little our history is documented in literature. This became the initial impetus and inspiration behind Ziggy...
Describe your main character in 3 words.
Compassionate. Honorable. Brave.
What was the hardest scene to write?
All beautiful, gut-wrenching sixty-one of ‘em.
What advice would you give to a new writer?
These will all sound cliché, but they are important mantras along every step of the journey: Keep going. Never give up. And write something you’re passionate about, not just what you think readers (or agents or publishers) want to read. That passion will eventually be the sole thing carrying you through your three-hundredth revision. Most of all, do it because you have to, because you love it, because you know inside you have a story you need to share.
Describe your writing space.
I used to need Nag Champa burning and sandalwood candles lit and total silence sitting next to my altar. But that disappeared quickly when I was swept up in a deadline over the holidays. (I was re-writing an entire scene next to screaming babies and a grandfather Face-timing his grandson at a ridiculous decibel level, while waiting in the airport after my millionth delay.) I felt invincible after writing that scene, because it poured out of me even amongst all those in-the-wild elements, and I can pretty much write anywhere, anytime now.
How do you develop your plot and characters?
My background is in acting (I spent years studying, honing, and performing the craft), so I tackled writing a character the same way I would to perform one: thorough research and a free-written bio that fills a 300-page spiral notebook which covers everything from childhood scars to their favorite kind of pizza. Hardly any of it ends up in the manuscript, but everything that’s said or happens to my characters comes from knowing them intimately and understanding the depth and complexities of their lives.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I believe research is the golden key to unlocking all of your plot’s mysteries and character’s secrets. Obviously for historical novels, this is a must. But I think for any novel there needs to be an element of research in the work to create an authentically layered and complex story. For this novel, I spent over a year researching the time, the treatments, and the people, before outlining and drafting, and continued to research as I revised again and again and again. Also, when writing a character outside of your own lane, it’s important to do so with responsibility and respect. You can’t write from your lens, you need to write knowing the community you’re writing about. If you don’t have friends in that community, you shouldn’t be writing about them. Go out and make some new friends. And don’t do it from a selfish place; do it because you genuinely want to know someone who’s not like you. I think that’s the greatest thing we can do as humans anyway right now: to bridge that seemingly divisive gap and burst that comfortable bubble we can easily get stuck in. And before writing, ask yourself: What am I going to do to give back to the community I’m writing about?
How do you select character names?
When I understand what the novel’s going to be about, I find names that support the themes and various storylines in the narrative. And sometimes it’s just by accident. When I was at the Hollywood Bowl to see Grace Jones one summer, my partner (Ernie) and I picnicked next to a woman named Starla, and I turned to him and said, “That’s Jonathan’s best friend.”
What is your favorite word, and why?
Voracious. It’s the one word that means exactly what it feels like to say aloud. And it’s how I approach everything I do in life.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
Honestly, writing’s a rather new trade for me so I don’t have many “author” friends, but since diving into the Novel Nineteens group last year, I feel so fortunate to have met a supportive group of people from all over the world going through the same ups and downs and twists and turns I’m going through. More than anything, writing can be an isolating experience, and knowing you’re not alone in this journey has sometimes been the life raft I’ve needed when I felt like I was drowning.
What book or author has most influenced your own writing?
I think Jandy Nelson’s writing is sublime, Benjamin Alire Saenz’s hauntingly beautiful, Francesca Lia Block’s otherworldly, David Leviathan’s profound and prolific, and Bill Konigsburg’s deeply authentic.
If you could only buy one book this year, which book would it be?
This question is blasphemous.
What are two of your favorite covers of all time?
I don’t think it’s selfish of me to say I love my cover sooooo much. Is it? I mean I had absolutely nothing to do with it, besides giving a little feedback, and I just think the artist, Tomasz Mro is an absolute genius. Also, Kristie Radwilowicz at Penguin designed it and she blew me away when it was first presented to me.
And I know it’s probably cliché, but I still really love all the Harry Potter covers. Each time a new book came out, I was so excited to see the cover, find the Easter eggs, and try to figure out what adventure we were about to experience.
Share a favorite recipe!
Lucious Lemon Bars (always a staple at my house because we have lemon trees in our yard). And like “voracious,” they taste just as good as they sound: https://www.onceuponachef.com/recipes/luscious-lemon-squares.html
Share a music playlist!
Ziggy, Stardust and Me’s Official Spotify Playlist! To add to the layer of “full reader sensorial immersion,” once you see a song mentioned in the narrative, click the playlist to hear what Jonathan’s hearing: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/477lx4RRdyv3Qse0laMLte?si=zTXSSwxmRQCsVTdChFZ9-w
Now, how to include scratch-n-sniff stickers in the book!
Share a favorite song!
Share an aesthetic!
Thanks for interviewing, James! Research is awesome!! I can't wait to check out your book on 8/6/19!