20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
“But this is also why I write: I love the challenge. I love how it makes me think and question every facet of myself, how it makes me observe others more deeply and compassionately, how it opens me up to a deeper sense of connection to self and love.” James Brandon is an author, actor, and producer who co-founded the I AM Love Campaign and currently serves on the Board for Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) in San Francisco. After a decade-long adventure traveling the world to international acclaim playing the title role in Terrence McNally’s Gay Passion Play Corpus Christi, he co-wrote, produced, and directed a feature film documenting the journey, and co-founded the I AM Love Campaign.
Brandon’s debut YA novel, Ziggy, Stardust and Me, was named one of the best books of 2019 by numerous publications. His second effort, The Edge of Being, will hit shelves this October. He joins me on this week’s 20 Questions to talk all things writing, books, creativity, queer history, and more.
Growing up, did you always want to be a writer? Did you consider any other career paths?
I never considered writing as a career path. Ever. I went to school for acting, and spent a good two decades working in that profession. Then one day, my best friend, who also happens to be my literary agent, encouraged me to start writing. I had no idea what I was doing, and that was 1000% apparent from the first draft of whatever-the-hell-that-mess-was I turned into her. Still, she encouraged me to keep going. I took some writing classes, discovered my passion of teaching queer history through storytelling and the seed for Ziggy was planted within. (My agent has given me the prompt for every book I’ve written since.) (And side note: an astrologer friend always told me I would be a writer someday — it was “in my chart,” he’d say, and I never believed him. Maybe I didn’t want to…)
What inspired you to want to write books?
Queerness is rampant in YA books now, thank the gods, but it definitely wasn’t when I grew up. That was my first spark: I wanted to write a book that reflected me. And because I never thought or even cared about my queer history — mostly because it was never taught — I coupled this with my newfound passion for writing to create stories that reflected our past. I firmly believe the more we know where we come from, the more rooted we can feel in ourselves today. Knowledge is power. Knowing queer folks were an integral and instrumental part of U.S. and world history empowers and emboldens the self for a greater sense of purpose and connection, especially if you find yourself living in a state of question about who you are.
If you could pick one author that’s inspired you the most, who would it be and why?
Trying to pick one of anything is so hard for me, especially for a question like this, but for the purpose of this interview I surrender: Francesca Lia Block. I remember exactly where I was and who I was the first time I read the Weetzie Bat books, after I first moved to Los Angeles, and feeling so seen by these poetically complicated cast of characters for the first time in my life. She has a transcendent sense of prose that always (and still) provokes me.
Favorite book of all-time?
SO many, but again, I’ll pick the one that first pops in my head: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I’ve read that book every Christmas since I was little with my mom. And after becoming an author, I’ve grown to appreciate his brilliant and timeless storytelling and structure.
What’s one piece of advice that you would give to your younger self?
Don’t take anything personally. Other people’s opinions aren’t about you, they’re about their own projections of fear and insecurity. Live your truth, believe in yourself, and surround yourself with people who believe in you.
Your debut YA novel from 2019, Ziggy, Stardust & Me, is set in 1973 — the first year that homosexuality was no longer officially considered a mental illness in the United States. What inspired the creative process for the novel?
Once I decided this was the moment in history I wanted to focus on for Ziggy, I began diligently researching the time period. And that’s when I “re-discovered” David Bowie’s alter-ego of the ‘70s, Ziggy Stardust. Something hit me when I started listening to that album, like a firebolt cracking open the world of Jonathan and Web. His music became my creative catalyst every step of the way in the writing process. Like, when I’d feel uncertain about what to write next, I’d simply turn his album on and have a flash of a new scene to write. So, this is why I made Jonathan similarly feel inspired by Ziggy on his personal journey. Jonathan’s voice became so clear to me through Ziggy’s lyrics.
One movie that will always make you cry?
Love Actually. Don’t @ me, haters.
The last series you binge-watched?
Stranger Things. And I’m currently binging Westworld and For All Mankind — two brilliant shows.
If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?
Toni Morrison. She’d make me an iconic superhero with her words.
The best book you’ve read in the last year?
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Absolute sublime perfection.
One song that you will never be sick of?
Currently: “Carry On” by fun. But (and this should come as a surprise to no one), I’m still partial to anything in Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era. Anytime I hear one of those songs, I’m instantly taken back to creating Jonathan and Web’s love story and want to fly back into those scenes for the first time.
Favorite thing to do on a rainy day?
For me, rainy days are usually only in the winter, so I turn off my computer and phone, make a fire and a cup of peppermint tea, and read a good book under my grandma’s Afghan.
What’s the most challenging part of writing for you?
Honestly, every part of it presents a new challenge. Some days I absolutely hate it and want to throw my computer in the ocean. Some days I feel so alone, or that I’m some insane person talking to imaginary folks in my head, and miss connections with friends. Some days I wake up and wonder how I’m possibly going to be able to do this again today and my anxiety gets the better of me. But luckily, I have a team who understands and cares about me, I have friends who will listen to my anxious, repetitive calls with open hearts, and I have a partner who hugs me when I question everything.
I still feel like a novice at this, I still feel like I’m learning and growing as a writer (and good thing, too! We should never stop learning and growing). But this is also why I write: I love the challenge. I love how it makes me think and question every facet of myself, how it makes me observe others more deeply and compassionately, how it opens me up to a deeper sense of connection to self and love.
But really, the most challenging part for me is homing in on the story I’m trying to tell. It takes me several rewrites to get to the core of my true narrative, to get to the core of my character’s lives. I luckily have an editor who believes in me, and whom I trust implicitly with my work; whatever she tells me to do, I follow. That definitely helps. Like I said, find your people first. Everything else will fall into place.
You’re stuck on a long flight. Which world-famous musician would you want sitting next to you and why?
This is going to sound old-homo-cliché of me, but Liza Minnelli. I have SO many questions. And she just seems like a rip-roaring good time.
As a writer and artist, what would you say is the best way to rest or decompress?
It’s so important to be clear on boundaries and self-care habits as a writer. They can often get lost in the shuffle of deadlines and pressures from the industry, while also trying to please everyone in your circle, and your readers, and still stay social with friends and family. I’ve given myself a daily schedule of work hours, and once that’s over, I try not to work past it (unless I’m under an intensely strict deadline, which I HATE, but does happen). I’m lucky to live in a part of the world where weather is pretty temperate, so I can enjoy forest/ocean walks almost every day and through nature, I try to completely escape from the world inside my head, to reconnect to our purpose of being: gratitude and joy for the moment. For me, it’s so hard to separate myself from my work — I’ve been working on that for some time now — but that’s why rest and decompression is so important. Our work, like anything we do in life, is an extension of who we are, but it does not define who we are. That’s an important lesson I’m continually learning.
Favorite social media app?
Instagram, but I’ve started an affair with TikTok. And that said, I could see myself deleting them all in a few years.
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, how would you describe the importance and significance of queer visibility in literature and media right now?
Especially now, as we continue to see our community attacked and under siege, it’s important for someone who may be questioning their life, their self-worth, their individual experience, to read a book (or see a show) in the privacy of their home that reflects a deeper part of who they are. Books are safe havens, even when they go to dark places. When we see ourselves, we can be ourselves. When we can fully be ourselves, without pretense or fear, without shame or judgement, we give back to others more freely and compassionately. And from this place, community can come together in a deeper sense of self-empowerment, and the world becomes whatever we want to make it. Together.
How would you describe the importance of storytelling, especially in an age of isolation?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Even with the world reopening, there’s still a great sense of isolation in society. Books are a wonderful escape from that isolation. But they can also be our confidants and friends, where we see and share our deepest secrets, fears, and truths. My books don’t shy away from traumas and intensely dark feelings, because for me, when we face our shadows, we can bring more lightness to the world. And sometimes storytelling is the flashlight we need to see through the darkness.
One thing that has been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
Gardening and cooking. That’s two things. Hiking nature trails. That’s three. And wine. Four.
Your next YA novel, The Edge of Being, hits shelves this October. What details can you share about it?
The Edge of Being is a very different journey than Ziggy. (Although, you may recognize a character or two!) Ziggy was a “first-love” story, finding yourself through the eyes of someone who sees you and your infinite possibility. Being goes deeper for me; it’s a journey of self-love. How we can sometimes hold onto something to keep us safe, while at the same time that thing prevents us from moving forward and being our full, loving selves.
Besides exploring another lost moment in queer history — the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in 1966 — Being dives into loss and grief in a way that’s very personal to me: my father will forever remain an enigma because of our fractured past, and when I was eighteen, I watched him die. Part of me wanted to explore the pain and loss of never feeling like I had a father in my life. And another part of me wanted to show how we can each hold onto something that keeps us from authentically being in this world. How we can only be there for others, when we first learn to be there for ourselves.
And how this is the thread that connects us all. Each character in the novel has a journey of their own, a struggle or inner demon they’re facing that holds them back. As the story progresses, these truths begin to unravel until the slow realization that the interconnectedness we have to each other, and to our past, is rooted in one singular thread: love.
Follow James Brandon on Twitter and Instagram, and find his new YA novel The Edge of Being on October 11th wherever you buy books.