Author Interview: James Brandon

Ziggy, Stardust and Me by James Brandon
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
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 PostBelieve Out Loud, and Spirituality and Health MagazineZiggy, 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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Let’s Talk About: Books I’ve recently removed from my TBR

In case you missed the five hundred times I talked about it, I recently moved. It was a big move — all the way from New Jersey to Tennessee, or about 800 miles. I had already done a huge unhaul a few months ago but still ended up bringing about five big boxes of books with me. When I got here, though, and was given the opportunity to trade in some books for cash, I made some hard decisions. Was I really going to read all of those books? Probably not.

Hence, The Great Book Unhaul of 2019, Part Two. Otherwise known as Books I’ve Recently Removed From My TBR. I am a little bit sad to say that I did not keep track of all of the books I got rid of. It wasn’t as many as earlier this year, but it was still a big pile!

I’m not including books I got rid of that I’ve already read on this list. This is just books that I bought that, for whatever reason, I don’t think I’m actually ever going to read.


Nothing against any of these books, of course! I think I probably would have enjoyed a lot of them if I’d actually sat down to read them. But most of these were cheap impulse buys (or I got them for free) and they just weren’t anywhere near the top of my TBR. I’m just telling myself that I can always check them out from the library if I really get a burning desire to read them.

I’d like to say this is the last big unhaul for a while, but my next pile is already started.


What are some books you’ve removed from your TBR? Have you done any big unhauls recently? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Tag: The Productivity Book Tag

Thank you to Siobhan for tagging me to do the Productivity Book Tag!


Rules:

  • Answer the prompts.
  • Tag some friends.
  • Link back to this post, and be sure to mention the creator (Sam @ Fictionally Sam)
  • Have fun!

Planning: A Book That Is Completely Thought Out

To quote my boyfriend, “The Name of the Wind, considering it takes him like seven years to write each book.” I 100% agree.

Focus: A Book That Kept Your Undivided Attention

The Story That Cannot Be Told. I probably could have finished this in a day if I hadn’t had other obligations.

Delegating: A Book That Should Have Been a Series

I usually go the other way and think that some series should have just been standalones. It’s really rare for me to finish a book and think, “wow, I really wish this author would drag this out into even more books.”

Small Goals: Name a Book Below 150-Pages That You Loved

Revival! Something about zombies in my hometown really does it for me.

Peak Hours: A Book/Series You Can Only Read at a Certain Time

I don’t know about a book or series, but I can only listen to non-fiction audiobooks when I’m doing something else. I’ve been listening to a lot of them while I work recently and it’s been a really good experience! I feel like I’m learning a lot while I earn a paycheck. There’s no way I’d be able to just sit down and read through a lot of these books, though.

Lists: A Book That You Finally Crossed Off Your TBR

I’ve been wanting to read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson for a very long time, and I finally crossed it off my list!

Proactive: A Book That Is/Was Ahead of Its Times

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray was really ahead of its time! It was published in 2011 but I feel like it has today’s attitude toward diversity and inclusiveness.

Declutter: A Series You Wish You Could Unread

I’m not even going to dignify this with a picture of the cover: the Montague Siblings series. I enjoyed The Gentleman’s Guide and I guess I didn’t hate The Lady’s Guide (but I didn’t much enjoy it, either), but I can’t support an author who treats her fans as poorly as Mackenzi Lee does.

Multitasking: Books That You Read at the Same Time

I’ve been doing a lot of this lately! Right now I’m reading Proof of Collusion and Permanent Record. I have to do very different genres or it doesn’t work.


Please feel free to steal this tag if you want to do it! What do you wish you could unread? What’s the last book you crossed off your TBR? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Book Review: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff
Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: October 20, 2015
Source: Borrowed

This morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she’d have to do. This afternoon, her planet was invaded.

The year is 2575, and two rival megacorporations are at war over a planet that’s little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe. Too bad nobody thought to warn the people living on it. With enemy fire raining down on them, Kady and Ezra—who are barely even talking to each other—are forced to fight their way onto an evacuating fleet, with an enemy warship in hot pursuit.

But their problems are just getting started. A deadly plague has broken out and is mutating, with terrifying results; the fleet’s AI, which should be protecting them, may actually be their enemy; and nobody in charge will say what’s really going on. As Kady hacks into a tangled web of data to find the truth, it’s clear only one person can help her bring it all to light: the ex-boyfriend she swore she’d never speak to again.

BRIEFING NOTE: Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents—including emails, schematics, military files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more—Illuminae is the first book in a heart-stopping, high-octane trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.
 

In case you didn’t see my rating up there, I’m going to say it here: I did not enjoy this book. I know it’s a well-loved book and this is probably heresy or something, but this book was just not for me, and here’s why.

The characters: Did I care about even one single character? No. They were roles, not characters. We have the Strong Female Protagonist who’s ready to save the world. We have the Charming Love Interest who… doesn’t really have much more of a function than that. We have some Fun Side Characters whose only purpose is to die for shock value.

The plot: I’m sorry, what plot? There are two ships, okay. There’s a very contagious sickness on one of them. Some lovers who’ve been separated after breaking up but they’re still in love? There’s a war, I guess, but it’s not really explained in any kind of detail. I don’t even know what the plot is, really, aside from Kady and Ezra pining over each other for no reason.

The relationship: I’m a romance lover and even I can admit that the romance in this book was entirely unnecessary. If Kady and Ezra love each other so much, why did they break up at the beginning of the book? I couldn’t take them seriously.

The plot twist: I rolled my eyes. It wasn’t one of those “oh wow, that plot twist!!” kind of situations. It was one of those “really? are you actually serious? this is what I waited for??” kind of moments. The big plot twist was some nonsense.

I had really hoped to enjoy Illuminae since so many of my Goodreads friends and fellow bloggers love it, but I just couldn’t get into it. The format is fun, but that’s about all that I can say about this one. I love Jay Kristoff, but I’m not going to be continuing with this series.


Have you read Illuminae? Do you agree with me or did you love it?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Top Ten Tuesday: Extraordinary book titles

Happy Top Ten Tuesday! Today’s theme is extraordinary book titles. Because I can’t really think of ten “oh my goodness, what an amazing title!!” books, I’m going with ten unusual book titles instead.

One thing I’ve noticed is that, while the actual words in the title might not be unusual, I always think long book titles are a little weird, so there are a few of those here.


Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered


Turtles All the Way Down


Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too


How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You


The Secrets of the Starbucks Lovers


Airports, Exes, and Other Things I’m Over


The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried


The Inevitable Collision of Birdie & Bash


Forks, Knives, and Spoons


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy


Did you do your own Top Ten Tuesday post today? Feel free to leave your link in the comments and I’ll check it out! What are some unusual book titles that you can think of? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Tag: Reader Problems

Thank you to Consu for tagging me to do the Reader Problems tag!


You have 20,000 books on your TBR. How in the world do you decide what to read next?

I used to have this whole system involving release dates and a calendar, but now I just read whatever sounds like it’s going to hold my interest the most. I’ve never in my life been a mood reader, but I am now.

You’re halfway through a book and you’re just not loving it. Do you quit or are you committed?

I am COMMITTED. I will finish it even if it kills me, unless it’s the boring kind of bad and not the kind of bad that’s easy to write a sassy review about.

The end of the year is coming and you’re so close, but so far away on your Goodreads reading challenge. Do you try to catch up and how?

I definitely try to catch up with (1) audiobooks while I’m doing other stuff, and (2) graphic novels.

The covers of a series you love do not match. How do you cope?

It actually doesn’t bother me that much. I mean, matching is nice, but my shelves are always a mess anyway.

Every one and their mother loves a book you really don’t like. Who do you bond with over shared feelings?

My boyfriend. We have similar taste in most things, and even if he loved it, he’d listen to me rant about how much I hated it.

You’re reading a book and you are about to start crying in public. How do you deal?

I’d probably text my best friend and let her distract me. That’s what I usually do when I’m about to start crying, publicly or prviately.

A sequel of a book you loved just came out, but you’ve forgotten a lot from the prior novel. Will you re-read the book? Skip the sequel? Try to find a synopsis on Goodreads? Cry in frustration?

I’ll try to find a synopsis on Goodreads, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll just jump right in and hope that it all comes back to me.

You do not want anyone. ANYONE. borrowing your books. How do you politely tell people nope when they ask?

I’ve never really been weird about people borrowing my books. I mean, sure, there are some books I’ve lent out that I haven’t gotten back, but I’ll live. Am I going to let total strangers borrow my books? Not usually. Is my signed Starry Eyes going anywhere? No. But other than that… my world will not end if someone else gets enjoyment from one of my books.

You’ve picked up and put down 5 books in the last month. How do you get over your reading slump?

Mix up genres and formats. This has been my life for the last several months.

There are so many new books coming out that you’re dying to read! How many do you actually buy?

Either all of them or none of them. There is no in between.

After you’ve bought the new books you can’t wait to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf before you get to them?

Forever. Help.


Please feel free to steal this tag if you want to do it! How do you get through a reading slump? Do you let people borrow your books? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Weekly Update

In case you missed it, here are this week’s blog posts:

I’ve been reading:

Recently acquired:

  • my preorder of Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell finally came!

3 things this week:

  • I went to the release party for The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer and it was so much fun!
  • I started listening to audiobooks at work and first of all, I’m happy to have books in my life again, and second of all, it’s actually way less distracting than having fifty different conversations going on all around me.
  • I met Chelsea Jade!! I am still in disbelief.

Song of the week:

This song has been stuck in my head for like three days straight.


How was your week? What’s the best thing you read or listened to? Anything interesting happening in your life? Let’s talk in the comments!

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