The Design Lover’s Guide to Mexico City
American design icon Kelly Wearstler shares her top spots for aesthetic awe.
With the publication of her debut novel, the musician sings the praises of trying new things and giving yourself permission to take big risks.
OF ALL THE pop artists to leave their fingerprints on the culture of the 1980s, few did so quite as memorably as Susanna Hoffs. As the lead vocalist of California dream-pop band the Bangles, Hoffs’ image — giving the side-eye in the video for the song “Walk Like an Egyptian,” singing on a candlelit beach for “Eternal Flame” — would permanently imprint on the psyche of a generation of kids coming of age with MTV. With over 20 million records sold, the Bangles would establish themselves as both trailblazers and standard-bearers, and Hoffs would later find success on her own as well with a string of celebrated solo releases and a deeply beloved series of collaborative “Under the Covers” albums with songwriter Matthew Sweet (their version of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” is a thing of pure beauty).
This year, at 64 years old, Hoff introduces an unexpected turn to her career trajectory with the publication of her debut novel, “This Bird Has Flown.” A knowing look inside the mechanics of the music business, the novel is a deliciously well-tuned portrait of Jane Start, a fictional woman in her 30s at a professional and romantic crossroads for whom the creative fuel of being a musician and a performer has been largely reduced to fumes. And while Start is in no way Hoffs’ stand-in, the breezy, compulsively readable book explores many of Hoffs’ creative anxieties. She reports that relating to Start’s disconnect with her career helped inform the character’s journey. Hoffs wonders, “Am I meant to recapture the ’80s version of myself? Am I allowed to age in a different way and feel more myself?”
Of the writing experience, and perhaps of all creative concerns, she says, “It’s about loosening those shackles and just thinking, ‘God, we have this one moment to seize the day, so why not?’ I always push for that because this book would not exist had I not just given myself permission to write it.”
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You’ve obviously released many records over the years, but did this endeavor feel different?
I had so much fun working on this book. Reflecting back to the younger me that was just graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, and being very triggered — in the best sense — by seeing Patti Smith at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, and later the Sex Pistols, then coming home to Los Angeles and just working in a kind of DIY indie spirit making music. I sort of revisited that feeling with this project. I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but I had this moment of “If not now, when?” It was also my son, Jackson, who gave me the great prompt that really started me moving: “Mom, start writing, stop talking about it. Do it.”
A lot of people are still riding a post-pandemic wave of feeling that basically boils down to “life is short, so you might as well just do whatever you want while you can.” When I spoke with Michael Stipe recently, he mentioned that he’d taken up painting but was a little hesitant to tell people because of what they might think. But at the end of the day, why not? Write a book.
I love that Michael Stipe is doing that. That’s exactly right. You just have to try and not find a million reasons why someone else might go, “Oh, how dare she try to do something different?”
It doesn’t begin and end with “I’m a musician, and that’s the only form of art I’m interested in.” What I’ve found in the course of my life is I’ve been interested in every form of art. I was an art major at Berkeley. I painted. I did sculpture. I was in the dance department. Every form of art that speaks to me, I have tried. That’s what finally led me to write a novel.
We make art because it is a way to connect with other human beings. We strive to figure out what matters. I think that love matters. Connection matters. That’s why I crave art, and I use it as a drug, admittedly. And it’s a safe one, I would say. There aren’t any real side effects.
I love a little bit of bad behavior. I love books about people being bad. I love fraught characters. I love characters that we “love to hate” or that are just annoying in some way that is also endearing and somehow delicious.
It’s also OK to do things just for the sake of doing them. I taught myself how to knit, and it was funny how many people said, “You knitted scarves? You should sell them! New career!” Whereas, I was thinking, “Can’t I just make them?” We are conditioned to think that our creative work should always be monetized.
Exactly. You know, I love to dance. I studied dance as a girl, and ballet, which is a very strict form of dance, but I just like freestyle dancing, and I find any reason to do it. I don’t mind dancing with myself, by myself. You just have to develop a practice of doing things that make you happy when you can because everybody obviously has to take care of many things in life and keep up with all the things that are expected of you, but you can also find ways to sneak something joyful into your day. You must.
The transition from music to writing is more obvious than it may seem if you’re an avid reader. I think being a reader is really the most important training for being a writer. If you’ve read many novels, you know how narratives work from decades of absorbing them.
Exactly. That’s what it was for me. In the years that I was writing the book, I looked closely at the language in the books I was reading. I looked at sentences that would just thrill me. I was always reading a lot, and I would go back to certain books over and over again because there were things about them that spoke to me — just the pure beauty of a phrase, but also beyond that, I love a little bit of bad behavior. I love books about people being bad. I love fraught characters. I love characters that we “love to hate” or that are just annoying in some way that is also endearing and somehow delicious. I started to become extra aware of the conflict between people at all times. I thought about Mike Nichols, the great director, who said that every scene has to be a seduction, a fight, or a negotiation.
People will often say of bands that there is a kind of creative safety in being part of a group. You’re all up on that stage together. I wondered if there were a contrast between that and the feeling of being a writer, doing this thing completely on your own. Does it feel more vulnerable in some way?
Yeah. It does, though this book has also been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as an artist — not to sound pretentious. Also, being in a band is, oh, my gosh, it’s the exponential version of that Mike Nichols quote because it also becomes familial. And just like in families, there are different alliances that are constantly being built and then eroded during the course of the time you’re in a band.
As for writing, somehow my drive was so strong, and my joy was so fueled by the actual work, that I found it really fun, actually. I couldn’t believe it. As for it being more solitary or vulnerable, there were points where it was hard, but I also found it liberating to be able to write through the thoughts of this character. I don’t know why I liked being in her head, but I did. I liked creating these predicaments. I also liked being in this weird flow state with writing. It’s really, really addictive.
What do you suspect the next year will be like for you? Do you feel like you will immediately start to write another book, or — dare I ask — are you already writing another book?
Well, I haven’t actually opened a Word document and set foot in it yet, but I have been amassing ideas. I think some characters from the first book will continue on. The characters have been talking to me. It really is like a form of psychosis. It's wild when you’ve made up these imaginary people, and they just start doing stuff and saying stuff.
I now have a notepad by the bed. I already have a practice of sending myself emails because the notion that this great idea will be there in five minutes from now has not proven to be the case. I’m going to have a lot of homework, to take all these things and turn them into something, but I’m excited. I feel buoyed by the response to “This Bird Has Flown,” so I feel a certain permission to keep going.
Has taking this writing sojourn changed your perspective on what it means to be a musician?
That’s interesting to think about. I think what this has done, most interestingly, is that it has made me want to write songs again.
I find songwriting difficult, and I’ve developed a little bit of a block about it. I’ve had moments where I feel somewhat dejected about the experience of it. I always continue to make music by covering other people’s songs, which is fine. You know, Elvis never wrote a song. Frank Sinatra, I don’t think did either. There is an art to interpreting songs, for sure.
Still, there is something so miraculous about people who write their own music and perform it. It’s like the whole package. I essentially taught myself to play music, and I wanted to be a musician because I fell in love with music. I would sing along to records, and that became a kind of bliss. I’d have people show me the chords so I could learn how to do it. I just want to get back to that feeling of it. I love to play and sing, but I have a desire to find a way for the music writing to be as transporting as the fiction writing.
Well, it’s good to shake up your own process, even when it’s something you’ve been doing for years. I hope you’ll write more books and more songs.
Thank you. Gosh, that’s so meaningful. I want you to do all the things that are on your list too. Everyone, just do your thing. Don’t wait. Really, sometimes it just takes that little spark of inspiration wherever you find it to get you moving again.
Susanna Hoffs' new album, The Deep End, is out now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
T. Cole Rachel is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media. He is currently an editor-at-large at Departures.
Sean Sullivan is a Los Angeles—based photographer, curator, and art director.
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