Surviving Conversion Therapy with the Power of Bowie | James Brandon on his debut YA, “Ziggy, Stardust and Me”

James Brandon's debut YA novel Ziggy, Stardust and Me is set in 1973, when being gay was considered a mental illness. Sixteen-year-old Jonathan undergoes conversion therapy but finds comfort in music and in Web, an American Indian boy who isn't ashamed of his sexual identity. Brandon talks to SLJ about David Bowie's queer legacy, overcoming shame, and how the events of 1973 echo in our world today.

It’s 1973. Soul Train and the Watergate hearings play on TV, the Vietnam War continues, and in a small Midwestern town, 16-year-old Jonathan Collins is undergoing painful electric shock treatment as conversion therapy for homosexuality, which is considered a mental illness. He finds comfort in music—Roberta Flack, Pink Floyd, and especially David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, who becomes an imagined mentor. He also finds Web, a Lakota boy who expands his world and shows him that who you love isn’t a sickness.

Ziggy, Stardust, and Me is about a time of change, personally and nationally, and looking to the stars for guidance. An actor by trade, debut author James Brandon talks Bowie, his own journey for self-acceptance, writing outside his lane, and how little has changed since 1973.

 

Congratulations on your debut novel! Can you tell us about your path to publication?

Thank you! It’s been a wild roller coaster ride, to be sure.

Ziggy had been percolating in my head for the better part of a decade, and although my agent (who also happens to be my best friend of many years) encouraged me, I didn’t have the tools to write it the way I knew it should be written. So I took some writing classes, read tons of craft and YA books, and after a year of researching and outlining, began drafting the story. Eighteen months later, I presented her a draft of The Choice Between (my original working title). Two months later, she called to tell me she loved it and I cried.

We worked on another draft together before she started submitting to publishers that summer.

Three months later, on September 21, 2017, she called me to say Stacey Barney (who was my Top Choice Editor) had officially made me a published author. I cried again.

Stacey lovingly eviscerated my novel twice before we entered the final phase of editing, and throughout those revisions I basically questioned every moral fiber of my being. But coming out of it, I’m proud of the work we achieved together, and more than anything, feel a deep sense of humble gratitude that this story is finally out there navigating our wild and wonderful world.

 

James Brandon headshot
Photo by David Zaugh

Your background is in theatre, acting and producing. What was it like to take up another creative pursuit in novel writing?

Although I never imagined I’d be a published YA author in this lifetime, it has surprisingly felt like the next logical step in my career. As an actor, I proudly deem myself a “Research Geek.” I love falling down a rabble hole of books and personal interviews to intimately know any character I’m portraying. I carried this background of character study into my writing. Each one of my characters has their own spiral notebook filled with backstory (with only an infinitesimal part of it ending up in the final book). Because I knew each character as a living being—their flaws and strengths, secrets and passions—it was fairly easy to write dialogue and put them in conflicting situations to move the story forward. And it was a fun challenge to create those words, rather than fit myself into someone else’s.

 

Why did you decide to set this story in 1973 St. Louis?

On December 15, 1973, the American Psychiatric Association changed history when they officially removed homosexuality as a mental illness from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. This historic moment in queer history, one that literally changed millions of lives, was something I embarrassingly knew nothing about. I started to research my queer history and was soon inspired to write a narrative around this time. The story is set six months prior to the APA’s decision.

In order for me to intimately connect with my protagonist, Jonathan Collins, I felt I needed to set the story in my hometown of St. Louis, and specifically Creve Coeur. Living in a predominantly conservative city bubble is full of emotional complexities—especially growing up gay and being told you’re wrong for something you know is right. This is Jonathan’s internal conflict throughout the story.

One of the trickier parts of writing the narrative was Jonathan’s journey to self-acceptance. Stacey (my editor) was particularly pointed about this issue not being fully realized in my edits. This was hard for me to hear, because even after being out for over half of my life, I realized how little I still fully accept myself. At one point Jonathan says, “Once the seed of shame is planted within it never goes away.” That’s a line direct from my heart.

 

What kind of research did you do?

Tons. As mentioned earlier, I love research. Almost obsessively so. I spent a year researching various elements of this novel before I sat down to write it. I immersed myself in the late sixties/early seventies: watching television shows, reading magazines, listening only to that era’s music, and diving into literally hundreds of books from the library. I also became a member of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. I’m such a sensorial being, so spending time in their archives to read a man’s actual love letters to his secret lover, or flipping through someone’s scrapbooks full of personal memoirs and pictures, I was immediately transported and felt a deep connection to a history that was once lost on me.

Also, for true authentic connection to character, I think it’s important to really know the people you’re writing about. Besides interviewing individuals who lived during that time, who endured the treatments Jonathan endures, I also took classes with the “Writing the Other” workshop series—something I highly recommend for anyone who’s writing a character outside of their own lane.

 

Web is Lakota Two-Spirit. Why was it important to you to include a character who identifies with this part of the LGBTQ+ experience, as well as the historical moment of Wounded Knee?

Almost 10 years ago now, while touring with Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi in San Francisco, I met two individuals who identified as Two-Spirit after the show. I was embarrassed to admit I’d never heard the term before, and they kindly explained in a very general sense it’s the LGBTQ+ term some Native peoples use as part of their identity. I realized in that moment how much of a white, gay, cis-male bubble I actually live in. I thought, How can I expect others outside of our community to fully embrace us, when I don’t even know who we are ? So I set out to change that for myself.

A few years later, at a time in my life I was feeling particularly lost and alone, I attended my first Powwow with Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits. I was so moved by the experience—to see community coming together like that, to be allowed into their space with open arms and an open heart, and to feel a sense of spiritual reconnection from witnessing it—I began volunteering on their Powwow Steering Committee to support their inclusive mission for the community. Web had been forming in my head since meeting those two individuals years ago, because I wanted to create a love interest for Jonathan that would help burst the bubble he lives in; someone who represents an integral part of our LGBTQ+ community that is quite often overlooked.

In my research, 1973 was a tumultuous year; every faction of marginalized society fought for change. The American Indian Movement was no exception. The Occupation of Wounded Knee was a historic moment for Native peoples for several reasons, and it caught the attention of the national news media; for the first time, maybe ever, people all over the country were able to witness and understand the plight of American Indians.

I wanted Web, who’s a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, to have his own struggles with identity (outside of Jonathan’s), so their stories could be seen in each other’s experiences. And because the Occupation ended a few weeks prior to the start of the narrative, it felt like a natural and important event to further explore as part of his journey.

 

Even though the book is set in the ‘70s, many of the themes and Ziggy, Stardust and Me coverscenes will be familiar to young readers today—activism, war, political corruption, racism, and homophobia. Can you discuss the resonance of those topics across decades?

As humans, our purpose is to expand thought beyond what it is, to continue to create more. Modern technology has proven that to be true. And with that, every generation has faced contrast to make the expansion possible; out of political fights, spring uprisings; out of wars, spring activism; out of fear-mongering and hate, springs love. These are lifetime themes that anyone can relate to. I knew I wanted to write a story that reflected my personal feelings about what’s going on today, but I didn’t know how eerily connected it would be to the events of 1973. We’ve obviously progressed since that time, but the similarities between what was happening then to what is currently happening in our societal and political climate are freakishly frightening. They say “History has a way of repeating itself,” but writing this story made me actually see the truth in that statement.

 

For young people especially, music can be a part of one’s identity and a way of expressing themselves. For Jonathan and his best friend Starla, it’s literally church. What did music mean to you as a teen?

Music was one of my many escapes growing up an only child. I think music has the potential to unlock doors within the soul we’re too scared to open on our own. Without fully realizing it at the time, it definitely helped me process feelings and fears I was dealing with and made me feel less alone in the world. Music is one of those special art forms that can simultaneously transport while evoking memory and visceral emotion. I wanted to create a narrative that reflected this; not just a soundtrack of the time, but an immersion into Jonathan’s world to fully experience his story on a personal level.

 

Unsurprisingly from the title, David Bowie specifically has a large presence in this book. What’s his influence on Jonathan, and on culture today? I wonder if, for contemporary readers, it’s grown in the few years since his death.

David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust as an alter-ego character that was revolutionary for the time and absolutely reflected the changes in the world, especially with the younger generation. Ziggy Stardust is a bisexual alien rockstar who comes down to Earth to save all the lost children of the world. But he’s eventually consumed by people’s constant need and obliterated into bits of stardust. I thought this was a perfect metaphor for the book and Jonathan’s journey. When Starla (Jonathan’s best friend) takes him to the Ziggy Stardust concert, his life is transformed: the genius lyrics and Bowie’s otherworldly voice cut through the barriers he’s put around his soul, and for the first time he sees a piece of himself he’d been too scared to face.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what his influence may be today, but if I had to guess, he was one of the first artists to explore gender fluidity and sexual identity in a public forum. His costumes and make-up reflected an unapologetic sense of being that I think is so beautiful to see prevalent in today’s youth culture.

 

In addition to music, the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull plays a part in the story. What does that book mean to the characters?

I’d already named Jonathan before finding out about this book, so this was one of those rare and fun moments of discovery during my deep-dive research phase. The early seventies were deemed “the Me Decade,” because so many people were awakening to their human potential. Jonathan Livingston Seagull beautifully captured the essence of this time and sold millions of copies. It told a story about a seagull discovering the meaning of consciousness, one I found to be a direct metaphor to Jonathan’s own journey to self-discovery. If you read the book, you may even see some characters reflected in Jonathan’s world through a few seagulls...

 

The narrative takes places just before homosexuality was removed from the DSM and no longer considered a mental illness. Can you talk about how this watershed moment affected the queer community?

The Chicago Crusader ’s bold title-page headline read “20,000,000 GAY PEOPLE CURED!” after the APA’s decision. Suddenly, after generations of abuse and shame, torturous “therapies” and people being jailed or deemed criminally insane, queers were no longer considered “sick.” Imagine the feelings of freedom that moment encapsulated for so many. For those who fought in the Gay Liberation Front, coming just on the heels of the Stonewall Uprising, it marked the beginning of the modern-day LGBTQ+ movement. I obviously can’t speak for the entire queer community, but I know for me, as I read more and more about this time in history and how it impacted every person who identified on the spectrum, I feel a deeper sense of connection and reverence to my queer family, and a rootedness in my ancestral history I’ve never experienced before.

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Katy Hershberger
Katy Hershberger (khershberger@mediasource.com) is the senior editor for YA at School Library Journal.

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