In Conversation With… Susanna Hoffs
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Growing up, our house was always full of music. My mother claims that, even when I was in my walker as a child, I would be hypnotised by the likes of Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick and moved my walker across the room in time to the beat. Another early memory is going to see The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl – my brother even found footage of the concert on YouTube recently; he’s convinced he can see the row we were seated in!
Both of my parents were academics, so going to university was expected. In 1980, I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in art. My mother had been hand-selected to study art at Yale and that’s where she met my father who was in med school there. Luckily, my parents never saw academia and culture and arts as mutually exclusive – we listened to so much music across all genres, we went to see the ballet and we read all sorts of books.
That said, I knew I was on my own when I wanted to start a band. I’d done some very early, very rough recordings on cassette at Berkeley with my friend David Roback – who went on to found Mazzy Star – but I landed in LA pre-internet and just started putting up flyers in record stores in the hopes that someone would respond.
The 1980s were a complete whirlwind – so exciting, but there were aspects of it that were challenging too. In a band situation, you’re creating but you’re also collaborating, so there’s bound to be euphoric moments where you love what you’re doing and then moments when that’s not the case. It’s like being in a family – no relationship is just one on one, they all intersect. It’s wonderful to commune together, but as four singer/songwriters, you’re bound to have a little bit of conflict from time to time – even though we were very good at resolving those conflicts.
I was a part of The Bangles from my early 20s through to turning 30. And by the time you’re getting a bit older, you start to think about other things life might have to offer – especially when you’ve been living on a tour bus for months at a time, year after year. Touring is a tough life; I look at bands that are on the road right now and I know what it takes to keep up with the pace. Me? I like being at home and sleeping in my own bed. I remember taking over 100 flights in a single year (and bear in mind I was a nervous flyer at that time) and I was just constantly on the move. I started finding it hard to remember where my hotel room was – everything had started to look the same. I can’t say I miss that pressure.
As the 1980s were winding down, I knew I wanted a break from the band. I wanted to go solo, start a family – I met my husband Jay in 1991. I realised there were other things in life and that it might be okay to slow down a little bit and find other ways to be creative. What’s interesting is it wasn’t the end for The Bangles – we had other chapters and made more records. But stepping away from music and towards writing was the right thing to do – it’s made me so happy.
It took me until my 50s to realise my dream of writing a proper novel. It also took me years to make it a reality. Around 2014, I’d collaborated on a screenplay which was then shelved by the studio, and I was feeling pretty bereft when my eldest son Jackson suggested I try writing something of my own. I’ve always been an avid reader but reading and playing with your imagination is very different to putting pen to paper. People often ask me how I knew I had the ability to write, but the truth is I didn’t. I just had a passion and forced myself to be brave and give it a go. I opened my computer and looked at the blank screen. I wrote the first three pages (which are completely different to what ended up in the book) and I forced myself to read them aloud to my family. I wanted witnesses to prove that I’d at least tried. After that, I found I just couldn’t stop.
I was very keen to set a large swathe of the novel in the UK. So, suddenly I had permission to immerse myself in British culture. I watched endless episodes of Inspector Morse to study all the accents and mannerisms, and even took myself on a research trip to Oxford. Jane Eyre was also another big inspiration for my character Jane’s love interest, Tom. I didn’t want him to be a Mr Rochester-type exactly, but the idea of British restraint really intrigued me – I thought it would add a lot of frissons to their relationship. If you’ve never listened to Juliet Stevenson read the audiobook of Jane Eyre, I suggest you do – she has an incredible way of making these characters feel real and modern.
In a lot of ways, the book is about being at a crossroads. While it wasn’t a conscious thing when I was writing it, I can certainly relate to that idea in hindsight. Lots of people are intrigued as to why I started writing now – part of it was about getting older and that thought of, ‘If not now, when?’ but also a collaboration on this screenplay which hadn’t gone anywhere despite a year and half’s work. I also wanted to explore something I’d never done before and to take a risk. It might never have seen the light of day but here I am talking about the book!
No matter whether it’s a book or a song, art is about connecting with others. It’s honestly like a form of mental therapy and it’s saved me many times. Life is fraught with unexpected turns and highs and lows, but these things give us something to commune about. I’m gathering ideas for book number two at the moment – the post-its and voice notes have started and I’m sure I’ll be opening the laptop any day now…
With this book, I’m aiming to get a better sense of the story arc early on. I have plenty of ideas for the opening and the second part, but the rest is still a work in progress. I don’t mind that because it gives me permission to dive into research – which is almost my favourite part. I know that by planning it all out a bit better, the process will be a bit faster this time.
One author I really admire is Taylor Jenkins Reid. We’ve been out to lunch a few times and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know her as a person and as a writer. She’s so prolific, so she’s a real inspiration. Most people know her for Daisy Jones & The Six, but if you haven’t read Malibu Rising, I highly suggest you put it on your list. Another author high on my radar right now is Maggie O’Farrell. I just finished The Marriage Portrait and the writing is so sumptuous. I love her craft and how rich and deep her narratives are. I also loved Hamnet. It’s incredible how well she captures a period – it’s clearly all in the research.
These days, I’m more of a Kindle reader. I love the idea of physical books but because my eyesight isn’t as good now that I’m older, a Kindle is more flexible. The most recent book I finished on there was Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders, which won the Booker Prize in 2017. I also really enjoy an audiobook – it’s like being read to, and who doesn’t like that? It’s great for on-the-go, or even when you’re doing housework or cooking. You’re never alone if you have your books with you.
Even though I’m a Kindle reader, I still love a good bookstore. If you’re ever in LA, you have to check out Diesel and Zibby’s Bookshop. There’s nothing that compares to walking into a bookstore – especially an independent one – with great staff who are willing to share their recommendations and chat about books. The digital revolution has tried to replace them but, so far, it’s failed.
One book that really changed my life was John Updike’s Couples. It was released in 1967 but it’s still as relevant today. I heard on the grapevine that it reflected the Massachusetts community Updike lived in a bit too closely – and people who were part of his social circle were a bit annoyed about it! But you write what you know, I guess. It’s a long book but the writing is second to none. There’s something quite voyeuristic about reading about a group of people behaving badly. His Rabbit, Run series is also really worth reading.
I have a real affinity for anything set in the 1960s. I think it probably stems from my childhood and watching bands like The Beatles – British invasion music shaped so much of my early life and taste, and it’s probably why I’ve so enjoyed watching shows like Mad Men. I’m lucky enough to be able to call the creator Matthew Weiner a friend.
For anyone out there who’s thinking about writing book, I’d say just dive in. Age didn’t hold me back – I never went to any writing classes (some people are surprised to hear I don’t read music to this day) because I was too impatient. I just wanted to give it a go. My studying was reading, which is the best way to learn in my opinion. Also, once you catch the writing bug, you’ll notice things in books that you didn’t before – the structure of certain sentences, for example, and why they make such an impact. My tip is to keep a running list of things that impress you or catch your attention. Work on breaking things down. You’ll quickly learn how to incorporate these things to develop your own craft.
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