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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Let’s Talk About: How I write my book reviews

Once upon a time, Gerry wrote about writing book reviews. I left a little summary of how I write my reviews, Bibi commented on it saying she’d like me to expand, and I thought… hey, why not. So here I am today, telling you all about how I write my book reviews.

This is not a post about what you should or shouldn’t do in your own book reviews. I always get a little annoyed when I see a post talking about what you should always or never do in a book review. However you personally want to get your thoughts and opinions out is fine, whether it’s one sentence, five thousand words, or anything in between. You can choose not to review books you didn’t like or you can rant forever about why you hated a book. Your blog is your own.

I’m going to talk about my three main types of reviews in this post:

  • my standard review
  • my “number of thoughts” review
  • my mini-review

the standard review

I’d guess that at least 90% of my reviews fall into this category. In this kind of review, I give my general thoughts without going into (too many) spoilers. I’ve tried a bunch of methods for writing this kind of review over the years, from taking meticulous notes while reading (too time-consuming) to typing my thoughts in a draft of the review every night before bed (I kept forgetting) to just winging it when I finished (the usual). What I’ve found the most helpful is talking about the book while I’m reading it.

You see, I have a pretty great boyfriend and he almost always asks me what I’m thinking of the books that I’m reading. He’ll ask me how many stars the book has so far, what’s keeping it from being a five-star read, or what I’m loving about it. This helps me start a review in my mind while I’m reading because I know I’ll more than likely be answering those questions. When I sit down to write my review, I already have a pretty basic idea of what I’m going to say. Then it’s just expanding on those thoughts (or, sometimes, cutting them down to a more reasonable length).

In my standard review, I try to include, at the very least, what I liked and disliked about the book. I don’t have any set formula for my reviews, but I do try to talk about anything that I think could be controversial or surprising (without giving away too many spoilers, that is). Aside from that, sometimes I include quotes and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I do bullet points and sometimes I don’t. Most of the time, I really just do whatever I feel like and hope for the best.

Examples of this type of review:


the “number of thoughts” review

This is, by far, the most time-consuming type of review to write. It usually takes at least a couple hours, so if you see one of these reviews, you know that I either really loved or really hated the book. (Really hated is more common.) That said, it’s actually my favorite type of review since I feel so much better after ranting about a book for so long. These reviews are all FULL OF SPOILERS.

So, how do I write this kind of review? If it’s an ebook, I make a lot of notes and highlights on my Kindle. If it’s a physical book, I fill it up with sticky notes so that I’ll remember quotes I want to use. I’ll usually write at least a word or two on the sticky note to remind myself of my thoughts. That’s time-consuming on its own, but then I have to transcribe all of those thoughts into my review! 😅

These “number of thoughts” reviews usually get a ton of interaction, which I love! If it wasn’t so time-consuming, I’d do it for every book I read.

Examples of this type of review:


the mini-reviews

When I don’t have a lot to say about a book, or when it doesn’t really fit into my usual reading tastes, I tend to do a mini-review. These are usually just a couple of sentences touching on what I liked or disliked about the book. I did these a lot more when I first moved to WordPress than I do now, but they’re nice because they’re quick and easy.

Examples of this type of review:


So, there you have it — three ways that I write my reviews. I hope that this was at least a little bit helpful. If you want me to expand on anything, please feel free to leave a comment! ❤


What style of review do you usually write? What’s your favorite to read? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Let’s Talk About: The lowest-rated books on my TBR

I recently posted a list of books with low average ratings on Goodreads that I actually enjoyed. Today I’m going to flip that around and talk about the books on my TBR with low average ratings and why I want to read them!


Meternity by Meghann Foye

Goodreads average: 3.04 stars

I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway about three years ago and I still haven’t read it because of that average rating. It’s probably the only book on this list that I don’t actually want to read, but feel obligated to because the publisher sent me a free copy. I’m hoping to read this at some point this year, but… I’ve also been saying that for the last three years.


Providence by Caroline Kepnes

Goodreads average: 3.37 stars

This book might not have the best ratings, but I know that Caroline Kepnes can write. You was the best book I read in April and I’m planning to read Hidden Bodies soon. It only makes sense to see what else she’s written.


There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins

Goodreads average: 3.38 stars

I’m a big fan of Stephanie Perkins’ fluffy YA romances. Anna and the French Kiss, Lola and the Boy Next Door, Isla and the Happily Ever After… I loved all of them. Mostly I want to read this book to see how she handles a thriller.


Lucky in Love by Kasie West

Goodreads average: 3.51 stars

I’ve liked and disliked books that I’ve read by Kasie West. I never quite know what I’m in for with her, but this one sound cute!


The Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams

Goodreads average: 3.53 stars

I loved The Babysitters Club books when I was younger, and now we’re adding witches to the mix? PLEASE. I’m not sure why this book has such low ratings, so I’m still pretty excited to read it.


Have you read any of these books? What did you think? What are the lowest-rated books on your Goodreads TBR? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Let’s Talk About: BookCon 2019!

In case you missed all of my yelling (and my giveaway post from a couple days ago), I went to BookCon! You might remember from the giveaway post that I attended with Daniel from Page to Page. We somehow ended up with VIP passes and, overall, at least, I had a much better time than last year!


Day One

Look at me all awake and alive and excited! I did not look like this by the end of day two, that’s for sure. Even though I went to BookCon last year, I didn’t really know what to expect this year with the VIP badge and attending on both days.

The number one priority for day one was meeting Rainbow Rowell. I’ve read everything she’s written and she’s one of my favorite authors. Once those doors opened, we hurried to the Macmillan booth for tickets to her signing party and luckily, we made it in time and got our tickets!

Another thing we wanted to make sure to do was attend Rainbow Rowell’s panel about Wayward Son. I loved Carry On and was so excited to hear Rainbow talk about the sequel.

In general, Saturday was a lot busier than Sunday with a lot less going on. Only seven of the nineteen books I got for free came from Saturday’s events, and five of them were just because of my VIP badge. One of the others, Permanent Record, wasn’t even one I got for myself. I had been talking about how much I love Mary H.K. Choi while I waited in line for a chance to win a Simon & Schuster ARC, and although I didn’t win anything, someone who had been in line with me won that ARC and wasn’t really excited about it, so she just gave it to me! (If you’re reading this, thank you so much! You made my day!)

Saturday was also the day that I met Sarah Dessen! I’ve loved her books since I was in middle school and took my copy of Someone Like You to be signed. I was too nervous to really talk to her, but she commented on how cute that edition of her book is and how YA covers don’t look like that anymore.

We had tickets for Leigh Bardugo’s signing but ended up giving them away because the line was crazy and we didn’t want to miss the Rainbow Rowell party. Hopefully our tickets made someone else’s day since her signing had been sold out.


Day Two

Here I am, nearing the end of day two, absolutely exhausted and waiting in line to meet Marissa Meyer. (And still very excited.)

Sunday was definitely a lot calmer than Saturday, and it seemed that there were a lot more opportunities to get ARCs and do fun events.

When the doors opened, everyone rushed to the Macmillan booth for tickets for that day’s signings and to the Hachette booth for The Bone Houses, while I went to the Lion Forge booth so I could get tickets for the Mooncakes and No Ivy League signings later that morning. Everyone was still waiting in the Macmillan line when I got those tickets, so I just wandered around for a little bit to see what was going on. I found out that Scholastic was giving away piles of ARCs of Technically, You Started It and Tarnished Are the Stars, so I was able to get those really easily.

After that, we did a trivia game with Epic Reads, where we had a ton of fun coming up with huge lists of books (one of my favorite things, honestly) and answering multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions. Our team won and we each ended up getting an ARC of Serpent & Dove, a yoga mat, and some fun swag.

Sunday’s VIP signings were Meg Cabot and Sarah MacLean. I was definitely excited about Meg Cabot since The Princess Diaries was one of my favorite series when I was younger! I think I have a conversation about the spelling of my name with every Sara(h) I meet, so that’s what I talked to Sarah MacLean about.

That afternoon, we had signings for Marissa Meyer and V.E. Schwab, so a lot of our time was spent waiting in lines. By the time Schwab was done, BookCon was pretty much over, but a lot of publishers had swag sitting out on tables or were offering huge discounts. We had won tickets to Romance Candy Crush but had to miss it because we were in the Schwab signing line, but luckily, we ran into the people hosting that event as they were leaving and they gave us the books anyway!


The Haul

FREE

  • The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez (ARC)
  • No Judgments by Meg Cabot (ARC, signed & personalized)
  • Technically, You Started It by Lana Wood Johnson (ARC)
  • Tarnished Are the Stars by Rosiee Thor (ARC)
  • Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett (ARC)
  • Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi (ARC)
  • Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker & Wendy Xu (ARC, signed & personalized)
  • No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant (ARC, signed & personalized)
  • A Danger to Herself and Others by Alyssa Sheinmel (signed)
  • Misfits by Jen Calonita (signed)
  • Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean (signed & personalized)
  • Project Duchess by Sabrina Jeffries (signed)
  • As Good as the First Time by K.M. Jackson (signed)
  • The Fresh New Face of Griselda by Jennifer Torres (ARC)
  • I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn (ARC)
  • Hired by Zoey Castile (signed)
  • Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin (ARC)
  • Queen of the Conquered by Kheryn Callender (ARC)
  • Swipe Right for Murder by Derek Milman (ARC)

PURCHASED

  • Crazy Cat Lady by Agnes Loonstra & Ester Scholten (so that I could get a cute tote bag)
  • Wires and Nerve by Marissa Meyer (at her signing)
  • The Rest of the Story by Sarah Dessen (at her signing)
  • I also preordered both Pumpkinheads and Wayward Son at Rainbow Rowell’s signing

Signings!

I am not very good at talking to people that I admire, so I mostly just mumbled a lot and smiled. But that’s still more than I did last year! Here are some pictures of me with Rainbow Rowell, Sarah Dessen (my childhood hero), V.E. Schwab, and Marissa Meyer!


Tips, Tricks, and Plans for Next Year

  • Bring your lunch! We packed food, water, and snacks and it was so much less stressful than wasting time and money for food that’s not even good.
  • If you can only make to BookCon on one day, go on Sunday. I was honestly a little bit disappointed with Saturday, but Sunday more than made up for it.
  • Do your research! There were so many events that weren’t announced anywhere other than Twitter, and we missed a few authors that we would have liked to meet. I ended up turning on post notifications on Twitter so that we’d be more likely to know what was going on, but even then, you have to be in the right place at the right time.
  • I think VIP was worth the extra money, but I’m not sure that I really need to experience it again. Next year, I think we’ll try to go to BookExpo and maybe just attend one day of BookCon.

Did you go to BookCon this year? Do you plan to go in the future? Do you have any additional tips or tricks? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Let’s Talk About: Books I loved with low ratings on Goodreads

A few weeks ago, Kristin @ Kristin Kraves Books shared a list of books she’s loved with low ratings on Goodreads. I thought this was such a fun and interesting idea that I had to check my own shelves to see which books I’d loved that had low overall ratings.

I decided to only share books I’ve read in the last five years, because I will openly admit that I had questionable taste in books before that. I also tried to exclude books that have low ratings because of bad author behavior, since, while I may have enjoyed the book, I don’t want to condone their problematic actions.

So, that said, here are four books that I really enjoyed with average ratings below 3.5 stars.


My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel by Kitty Curran & Larissa Zageris

Goodreads average: 3.36 stars
My rating: 4 stars

If you like sarcastic humor and books that make fun of their genre, you’ll probably love this interactive romance novel. Yes, it’s full of cliches, but that’s because it’s making fun of the cliches. The love interests are laughable because it’s making fun of the characteristics of classic romance love interests. If you’re looking for a serious, historically accurate romance, this isn’t it. If you’re looking to have fun and laugh, this might be a book for you.


We All Fall Down by Natalie D. Richards

Goodreads average: 3.41 stars
My rating: 4 stars

I just scrolled through the negative reviews on Goodreads and they all seem to be along the lines of “this was clearly written for teenagers.” To be fair, it is YA. It’s not meant to scare the pants off of you or anything. I liked this book because it had a spooky vibe without actually being scary.


Arrows by Melissa Gorzelanczyk

Goodreads average: 3.44 stars
My rating: 4 stars

I understand the problematic behavior in this book that a lot of reviewers have brought up, but… that was kind of the point? In this book, a cupid-in-training accidentally messes up his arrows and hits only half of his target. The result is a girl who’s head-over-heels for a boy who couldn’t care less about her, and that boy definitely takes advantage. His behavior is despicable, but what would this book have been if it wasn’t? (Boring, probably.)


The Last Boy and Girl in the World by Siobhan Vivian

Goodreads average: 3.46 stars
My rating: 4 stars

One of the things that I liked most about The Last Boy and Girl in the World is how realistic the characters were. Keeley was an incredibly realistic teenage girl who has no idea how to handle her whole town going underwater. She’s not always likable. In fact, a lot of the time, she says or does the wrong thing. I guess I can understand why a lot of reviewers couldn’t connect with her, but I think this book would have been incredibly boring if everyone in this book had known what to do in this very strange situation.


What are some books you’ve loved with low ratings on Goodreads? Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Let’s Talk About: My favorite book covers

One of the prompts for my Romanceopoly reading challenge is “post pics of your favorite cover,” so I figured I might as well just talk about a bunch of book covers I love!

I definitely have a type when it comes to book covers, and that type is usually colorful drawings. Seriously, put a cover like this on a book and I will most likely read it.


We Are Lost and Found by Helene Dunbar
★★★☆☆

Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
★★★★☆

Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan
★★★☆☆ to ★★★★☆

The Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams
on my TBR!

We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra
on my TBR!

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera
★★★★★

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
★★★☆☆

The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg
on my TBR!


#romanceopoly: cover beans


What do you like in a book cover? Have you read any of these books? Let’s talk in the comments!

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