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!

Find me all over the internet: Goodreads | Twitter | Bloglovin’

Blog tour (+ interview!): Screen Queens by Lori Goldstein

Screen Queens by Lori Goldstein
Links: Amazon • TBD • GoodreadsB&N
Publication Date: June 11, 2019

The Bold Type meets The Social Network when three girls participate in a startup incubator competition and uncover the truth about what it means to succeed in the male-dominated world of tech.

This summer Silicon Valley is a girls’ club.

Three thousand applicants. An acceptance rate of two percent. A dream internship for the winning team. ValleyStart is the most prestigious high school tech incubator competition in the country. Lucy Katz, Maddie Li, and Delia Meyer have secured their spots. And they’ve come to win.

Meet the Screen Queens.

Lucy Katz was born and raised in Palo Alto, so tech, well, it runs in her blood. A social butterfly and CEO in-the-making, Lucy is ready to win and party. 

East Coast designer, Maddie Li left her home and small business behind for a summer at ValleyStart. Maddie thinks she’s only there to bolster her graphic design portfolio, not to make friends.

Delia Meyer taught herself how to code on a hand-me-down computer in her tiny Midwestern town. Now, it’s time for the big leagues–ValleyStart–but super shy Delia isn’t sure if she can hack it (pun intended).

When the competition kicks off, Lucy, Maddie, and Delia realize just how challenging the next five weeks will be. As if there wasn’t enough pressure already, the girls learn that they would be the only all-female team to win ever. Add in one first love, a two-faced mentor, and an ex-boyfriend turned nemesis and things get…complicated

Filled with humor, heart, and a whole lot of girl power, Screen Queens is perfect for fans of Morgan Matson, Jenny Han, and The Bold Type.

As a big fan of Morgan Matson and The Bold Type, I was really excited to get the chance to participate in a blog tour for Screen Queens! Instead of my usual review, I’m stepping out of my comfort zone and doing an author interview!

Thank you so much to Penguin Young Readers and Lori Goldstein for making this post possible!


What inspired you to write this book?

I love telling friendship stories. The core of my previous books is female friendship, and that’s one of the major themes of SCREEN QUEENS too. In SCREEN QUEENS I liked the idea of telling a story set in an environment that would be unfamiliar to all the main characters so they have to come together and navigate the landscape as one—it’s a precursor to what happens in college and of course also happens in summer camps, and intense friendships can form as a result despite the individuals being very different people. Obviously I was also heavily influenced by the #metoo movement, which had developed shortly before I started writing this book. Centering the story on the harassment that women in a male-dominated field like tech experience felt both timely and important, for technology and social media especially has such a strong impact on the lives of young adults.

You’ve previously written fantasy novels. What made you take the leap from fantasy to a contemporary about Silicon Valley?

I actually think it’s less of a leap and more of a gentle hop! With my BECOMING JINN series being a contemporary fantasy, it’s grounded in our normal, everyday world with a little bit (okay, more than a little!) of magic thrown in. But the foundation being in the contemporary world means that the transition to an all realistic story without a fantastic element felt entirely natural. While Azra in BECOMING JINN struggles with her magical destiny, it’s so tightly interwoven in the life she has in the non-magical world that she feels very much like any average teenager coming to terms with who she is and who she wants to be. Those issues are core for my main characters of Lucy, Maddie, and Delia in SCREEN QUEENS. And I think many would argue that Silicon Valley is a “fantastical” place all of its own!

I think it’s so great that you’ve written a book with such a feminist theme. Was there any reason that you decided to set this book in the male-dominated field of coding?

I’m inspired by all forms of entertainment and media, especially podcasts. One of my favorite podcasts is called StartUp by Gimlet Media, which chronicles the issues faced by new businesses, especially tech-based ones. The second season centered on two women trying to grow their dating app. The struggles they encountered as female founders, things their male counterparts didn’t have to, affected me. Such as offers of funding from venture capitalists coming with the strings of dinner, drinks, or more attached. This led me to books like Brotopia by Emily Chang and articles in places like The Atlantic that offered deep insights into what it’s like to be a woman in the field of tech. The harassment and discrimination is a big part of the reason women leave the industry, which happened to a very good friend of mine who left her career as a coder. And it is also a barrier—among many barriers—for women entering the field. We all know that jobs in the future will be those related to tech, and we need to encourage more young women to consider this option from a young age, something I never did.

Your book features three really different characters. Which one do you relate to most and why?

I loved the ability to create Lucy, Maddie, and Delia, three strong, smart women with very different backgrounds and personalities. Lucy is ambitious and ready to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals, including using connections and pushing the envelope. Maddie is a talented designer, but unlike Lucy, Maddie wants to be successful simply to be able to take care of her younger brother, the only person Maddie’s able to open herself up to emotionally. Delia is loyal and deeply invested in her family and best friend. Though wildly intelligent, she lacks confidence and constantly compares herself to others. I see myself in all of these characters. My younger self was closer to Maddie; I was shy as a kid, and friendships didn’t come easily to me. As I got older, that began to change, yet I had many of Delia’s issues of lacking self-esteem, confidence, and just trusting myself. Now, I have Lucy’s drive and determination, but it’s tempered by my history and the pieces of Maddie and Delia still lurking inside. As a team, the three young ladies form a whole, and that’s mirrored in my own life.

Unrelated to your book, are there any books that you’ve recently read that you’d recommend checking out?

Absolutely! One of my recent favorites is the YA contemporary NIGHT MUSIC by the incredibly talented Jenn Marie Thorne, which focuses on a young woman struggling to find her place among her musical prodigy family. Jenn has a way with words that always leaves me aspiring to do more with my own work. Another is just about to come out on July 2, an adult called WHISPER NETWORK by Chandler Baker, which is similar to SCREEN QUEENS in its themes of female empowerment. It centers on three lawyers in a corporate firm with a boss whose behavior crosses all the lines, and the women decide to take action. It tackles so much about being a working mom and dealing with sexual harassment and discrimination but with so much humor and skill that you can’t stop flipping pages. Finally, another summer release (August 6) that I was fortunate to ready early is the YA REMEMBER ME by Chelsea Bobulski. It’s Titanic meets The Shining, and it’s a swoon-worthy love story that goes back and forth between the 1920s and present day that’s the ultimate summer read.


About the Author

 

Lori Goldstein was born into an Italian-Irish family and raised in a small town on the New Jersey shore. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Lehigh University and worked as a writer, editor, and graphic designer before becoming a full-time author. She currently lives and writes outside of Boston. Lori is also the author of the young adult contemporary fantasy series Becoming Jinn (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan). You can visit her online at www.lorigoldsteinbooks.com.


Have you read Screen Queens? Can you think of any other books about young women in traditionally male-dominated fields? Let’s talk in the comments!

Find me all over the internet: Goodreads | Twitter | Bloglovin’