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Publication Date: August 6, 2019
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.
A poignant coming-of-age tale, Ziggy, Stardust and Me heralds the arrival of a stunning and important new voice in YA.
I’ve been really intrigued by Ziggy, Stardust and Me ever since the beginning of the year when I was scrolling through upcoming YA debuts. Between the cover and the synopsis, I was super excited to read it, and I’m thrilled to bring you an interview with the author today!
Thank you so much to Penguin and James Brandon for making this post possible!
Between acting, producing, becoming a certified yoga instructor, and the different committees you belong to, you’ve had a really interesting life! Can you talk a little bit about the process of adding “published author” to that list?
Well, how’s this for an answer: astrologers have always told me I should be writing, but I resisted it my entire life for some reason. Maybe the thought terrified me. (It still does even after I’ve become published.) But I’d been mulling on the idea of Ziggy for almost a decade when my agent, who also happens to be my best friend, encouraged me to write it. After taking some classes, immersing myself in craft books, and reading a thousand more YA novels, I finally decided I had the tools to start writing. So I did. Over a hundred and fifty drafts later (a number that I assure you is not exaggerated), I turned in the manuscript and within three months it sold to Stacey Barney at Penguin. (My #1 Top Choice Editor, by the way!) Because I come from an acting background, and the immense amount of work I do to dive into each character I portray, it was surprisingly easy for me to transfer my knowledge of character building onto the page. And it was such an enormous thrill to create the words rather than speak someone else’s.
I haven’t seen a lot of YA historical fiction set in the 1970s. What inspired you to write this book?
After a friend brought me an episode of This American Life, titled “81 Words,” the seed for Ziggy, Stardust & Me was planted. The episode documents the moment in time—December 15, 1973—when homosexuality was officially removed from the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, otherwise known as the Big Book of Mental Illnesses), and suddenly all those who identified on the LGBTQ+ spectrum were cured. This, after coming on the heels of the Stonewall Riots, birthed the modern-day LGBTQ+ movement as we know it today. And I knew nothing of this time.
Queer history isn’t taught. Currently only four US states require it in public high schools and even then it’s taking a long time to implement exactly how it will be included in curriculum. So my main goal in writing the book was to educate readers of all ages about our history, and to honor those LGBTQ+ peoples who’ve struggled, survived, and pioneered our paths so we can live out and proud today.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
There were many, but one stands out as the most challenging on a personal level. After Stacey Barney (my editor at Penguin) bought the book, we worked on two major rewrites together. Every character must have an arc, a personal journey of internal and external change they make through the course of the narrative. One of the notes Stacey gave me was that she didn’t believe Jonathan’s journey to self-acceptance. This was painful to acknowledge and incredibly hard for me to hear. Out of all the facets of the novel, and being out for over half of my life, I thought for sure I’d at least mastered this aspect of his character. But upon deeper reflection, I started to question how much I actually accept my self. Self-introspection is never easy, but this one hurt because I realized how far I have yet to go in this arena. In subsequent drafts, I wrote a line for Jonathan that says something like, “Once a seed of shame is planted within it never goes away.” This is true for anyone who’s ever been told they’re wrong for something they innately know is right. But once I discovered this truth, and embraced the complexities behind it, I was able to unlock the key to Jonathan’s journey, and maybe more importantly, my own.
I won’t make you choose which of the characters in this book is your favorite, but is there one that you relate to or connect with more than the others?
I suppose there’s a small piece of me in every character, but I think my protagonist, Jonathan, is the one I’m most connected with. He’s not me, but we definitely share some similarities. I purposely set the story in St. Louis because it’s my hometown, and growing up gay in St. Louis came with many emotional complexities I knew I could more easily attach to in his character. I also have had asthma my entire life, and although I never considered it a disability, it certainly limited my activities as a child. And because of it, because I grew up an only child and had to mostly play indoors, I developed a wild imagination. (Which you’ll note is quite prevalent to Jonathan’s character.) There are many “wishful thinking” moments I’ve incorporated into Jonathan’s voice: things I wish I was brave enough to do then, things I wished I’d said, believed, or understood. I guess in many ways writing him was a personally cathartic experience for me, one I’m incredibly grateful I had the opportunity to explore.
What are some songs that you feel fit well with your book?
Well, if you aren’t listening to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album while reading this book, you’re definitely missing out. This goes for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Roberta Flack’s First Take albums as well. There’s an entire soundtrack written throughout the narrative and I created a Spotify playlist so you can listen to each song that’s talked about for a fuller immersion into the story. You can find it on my website or linked in my bios on Twitter or Instagram.
Are there any books that you’ve read recently that you’d recommend checking out?
So many, it’s hard to know where to start! I’ll name my top recent fab five: Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian, The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante, Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay, The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg, and okay, six, The Whispers by Greg Howard (MG title), and fine, fine, fine, seven: River of Royal Blood by Amanda Joy.
What’s your all-time favorite book?
How dare you.
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 Co-Founder 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. He’s also a certified Kundalini Yoga teacher, spent a summer at Deer Park Monastery studying Zen Buddhism, and deepened his yogic practice in Rishikesh, India. Brandon is a contributing writer for Huffington Post, Believe Out Loud, and Spirituality and Health Magazine. Ziggy, Stardust, and Me is his first novel.
Have you read Ziggy, Stardust and Me? What’s the best YA historical fiction you’ve read recently? Let’s talk in the comments!
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