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.
Hi, James! Can you tell us 3 random things about you?
I have an unhealthy obsession with popcorn.
And Jelly Bellys.
Bonus round: I actually go by “Brandon.”
Tell us about the inspiration behind Ziggy, Stardust and Me?
There are several, but I’d say the seed that planted the main storyline came from a friend who sent me an episode of the national radio program, This American Life, titled “81 Words.” The story is about one psychiatrist who helped changed history when in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association officially removed homosexuality from the DSM as a mental illness, effectively “curing” millions of queer people across the country. (I didn’t know this moment in time even existed, so it was important for me as a writer, and a human, to learn more and dive deeper into our queer history.) The psychiatrist spoke about one boy he met who changed his mind, and I started imagining who this boy might be.
Let’s talk about your main character, Jonathan. What are some of the biggest challenges facing him?
The story is set in 1973 and Jonathan lives in a time when being gay was still considered mentally ill. He believes it to be true, that he is sick, and fights this internal battle throughout the narrative. When he meets Web, everything intensifies: his feelings, his sickness, his fears and hopes. He’s thrown many obstacles along his path that try to stop him from ever loving himself…
What did you find most relatable about Jonathan? And what about Web?
Certainly the struggle to love myself was something I most identified with in both of these boys. And growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, I honestly didn’t know being gay was a real-life possibility. The only whispers I ever heard of being “that way” were from my priest who said it was a “sin that I’d go to hell for,” and from my dad who said I wasn’t allowed to “swish my butt” a certain way or I’d get beat up. The anxiety, shame, and fear instilled in me at an early age is not something that can easily be shaken to this day. But I infused a sense of bravery in these boys I wish I’d had then. Maybe for a piece of my own healing from the pain I still feel.
Do you have a character who was your favorite to write?
I know it’s a cop-out, but I fell in love with all of them as they continued to evolve on the page. Even the “antagonists.” (Which I put in quotes, because who isn’t their own antagonist in life?) No one character was easy to write, but all were my favorite. I tried to hone in on an internal strength and weakness in each character, even the minor ones, to (hopefully) give them a real sense of complexity and relatability.
Do you experience books differently now that you’ve written one?
Without a doubt. It’s like acting for me. I spent the first part of my career as an actor, and once you’ve done it long enough it’s easy to start viewing other performances from a perspective of craft. (Not to mention the simple miracle of anything ever getting produced and seen by the public.) Same goes for writing. I’m much more aware of craft now, and the real magic for me happens when I’m reading a book and forget everything I’ve learned. Also, having been through the querying, then editing, then first-and-second-pass paging process, I find it a miracle a book is ever published. It truly does take a village. There are so many wonderful cogs in the machine I was totally unaware of before entering this business that I have a much more solid respect for.
What do you do when you’re not writing or reading?
I love cooking and entertaining. My partner and I are pretty spectacular hosts, if I do say so myself. Our home is classically mid-century modern, so we love to entertain in that style and period. Holidays at my house are pretty immersive with tons of food, drinks, and games.
I also love to travel and spend my free time in nature. When traveling, I love absorbing myself in other cultures. At home, I spend my free time hiking through the Redwoods and meditating by the ocean, escaping the world of computers and phones every chance I can get.
What projects are you working on now?
“Book Two” has recently been turned into my editor, so now I’m slowly imagining Book Three while I take this time to enjoy the proverbial “calm before the storm” when Ziggy launches in August. Also, there’s talk about bringing Corpus Christi back on tour, the Terrence McNally play I recently performed in for a decade (as “Gay Jesus”) before becoming a writer.
What are your favorite books of all time?
The list is unbelievably long. But a few that stick out for various reasons connected to personal life events: 1- James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. It was the first book I purchased from a bookstore when I was little, and it was my sole fantastical escape from some pretty shitty childhood things happening to me at the time. 2- Dangerous Angels by Francesca Lia Block. It entered my life when I was coming out, and to see a gay character figuring himself out in Los Angeles (like I was at the time) hit me at my core. 3- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Not only because the structure, the craft, and the writing are genius-level, but because this is a Christmas tradition I share with my mom. When it was decided I was “too old” to have Breakfast with Santa, (side note: who, really, is ever too old for this?) we started seeing some play or film version of A Christmas Carol every year since.
Which books would you recommend for our YA readers?
I have SO many on my current TBR list right now it’s an embarrassment of riches; Queer YA feels like it’s having a Renaissance Moment and I am so here for it. For purposes here, I’ll choose five Queer YA books that have stuck with me the longest after first reading them:
- I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (I personally feel her voice is so sublime.)
- The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg (Or any book by Bill. He has an incredible way of creating characters and stories with depth and authenticity that I LOVE.)
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz (Damn is it a good book. A classic, I’d say, if I might be so bold.)
- The Grief Keeper by Alex Villasante (Out June 11, I read an ARC of this book and was blown away by its haunting beauty and quite timely narrative.)
- We Are Okay by Nina LaCour (I instantly fell under Nina’s spell, was swept away by her writing, and came floating back feeling like I really might be okay.)
INTERVIEW : YA SH3LF