Photos: Singer-songwriter Susanna Hoffs, of the The Bangles, during an appearance on American Bandstand, May 10, 1986 in Los Angeles. (Lester Cohen/Getty Images); Leopard fur pattern (Fidan/Getty Images)
The Bangles Front Woman Susanna Hoffs Finds a New Calling as a Romance Writer
'This Bird Has Flown' mirrors the author's own experience in the music industry / BY Nathalie Atkinson / March 31st, 2023
For voracious reader Susanna Hoffs — musician, actor and co-founder of ’80s pop rock group The Bangles — writing a novel was a lifelong dream. She finally started writing a few years ago and the result is This Bird Has Flown (April 4), a smart and flirty romantic comedy set in a familiar milieu: the music industry.
It’s a busy Monday when we chat and publicity is ramping up ahead of the book’s release. The Bangles’s catchy version of “Manic Monday,” a song written by Prince, is one of the hits that propelled the group to fame in 1986, yet I somehow manage to stop myself from making an allusion.
Hoffs co-founded the band in 1981 by putting up flyers at clubs around Los Angeles and taking out want ads. Back then, she didn’t know how to read music, and taught herself how to sing and play guitar. Decades later, she took a similar DIY approach to writing. “I just did it on spec,” the 64-year-old tells me from her home in L.A., where she lives with her filmmaker husband of 30 years, Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Bombshell), with whom she has two sons, now in their 20s. “I’ve always just thrown myself into the deep end.” So, it’s no coincidence that The Deep End is also the name of her new album of covers, produced by the legendary Peter Asher, and comes out the same week as This Bird Has Flown. The first single, “Under My Thumb,” reverses the power dynamics of the Rolling Stones song.
Like her creator, the novel’s heroine, Jane Start, is a petite Jewish musician and bibliophile from L.A., who’s fluent in pop culture and music history, and the novel is peppered with meaningful references to everything from classic literature and Anaïs Nin to Columbo, film noir and new Hollywood auteur cinema. Unlike Hoffs, however, Jane is romantically and professionally dispirited; she feels washed up at 33, in need of a second chance at both love and in her career. Her one major hit was a cover of another artist’s song that forever cemented her in the public imagination as a pouty pop siren.
As the Bangles’ front women, with masses of curly hair and million-watt smile, Hoffs understands the scrutiny and dismissive attitudes endured by women in music. “Jane is very aware of what people expect her to project and be or look like,” the author says of the book’s opening scene, where Jane is performing at a demeaning but well-paying private gig at a drunken bachelor party in Las Vegas.
Not only is Jane a musician, but as the title — a lyric fragment from The Beatles song “Norwegian Wood” — suggests, music plays a pivotal role in the plot, just as it inspired Hoffs while she was writing it.
Chapters are named after the songs (like Sexual Healing and Wild Horses) that influenced the writing, and there’s even a Spotify playlist to accompany the book. When Jane meets a dashing English professor on a working vacation in London, music from the Byrds, Fiddler on the Roof and The La’s become their love language. Since this is a courtship between millennials, they text song links back and forth — the modern version of the mixed tape.
This Bird Has Flown more than holds its own on the shelf alongside the genre’s breakout stars like Emily Henry and Lily Chu, so I ask if she chose romantic comedy because she’s a fan. “Well here’s the thing,” Hoffs admits before letting loose peals of laughter, “I didn’t know it was a comedy!” Only later did she realize it was inadvertently funny, because Jane’s coping mechanism is humour, “even in her darkest moments, when she’s getting ready to go on stage to play for a drunken bachelor party — the ones who only want to hear The Hit, of course. They want the girl from the video from 10 years ago. I know what that’s like.”
Take, for example, the side-eye gifs from The Bangles’ music video for 1987’s “Walk Like an Egyptian” that are now memes.“I’m aware they exist, and I’m grateful that I have a moment that still connects with people all these many years later, but I also know there’s an aspect of grappling with identity,” Hoffs continues. “Am I that person now? I’ll always be that person, I’m still that person, at age 64 — sassy, who speaks my own truth about things and doesn’t hesitate to jump in.”
Now that she’s had some time and distance away from the writing process, Hoffs finds the novel’s themes, like Jane breaking free of the idea that she has to deliver that persona forever, resonate with her own life more than she’d realized at the time. After the ’90s, she stepped back from touring and moved away from being a Bangle. She’s acted with comedian Mike Myers as Gillian Shagwell in Austin Powers’ band Ming Tea, and was half of Sid and Susie, a cover band with Matthew Sweet, a collaboration that produced two albums. And now her debut novel has earned a rave New York Times review by none other than beach reads queen Beatriz Williams.
“I mean, I know that getting into your 60s is generally a time for slowing down a bit,” Hoffs suggests with a laugh, “but I’m on this treadmill and I don’t want to get off! It’s such a festive time, meeting novelists. And now, [there’s] the film adaptation. I couldn’t be more psyched and excited.”
The enthusiasm for the new career is infectious, as is the romantic longing that leaps off the page. Although she did it by instinct, Hoffs certainly picked the right genre: according to Publishers Weekly, romance novels were the runaway fiction hit in 2022, with a whopping 52.4 per cent increase in sales.
“There’s a whole group of us, a sub-genre who write fiction about musicians and music. It’s been so fun,” she enthuses. After reaching out through Instagram, she’s gotten to know others like Emma Straub (Modern Lovers) and Jessica Anya Blau (Mary Jane), and is meeting Daisy Jones and The Six author Taylor Jenkins Reid for lunch the day after our interview.
This Bird Has Flown catalogues Jane’s disappointing early experience in a music industry shaped by men and, like Daisy Jones, critiques the image-making process whose sole purpose is to service the male gaze. But the themes of female ambition and sexism in rock, as well as her love of the Linda Ronstadt and Fleetwood Mac albums that inspired Jenkins Reid’s novel, aren’t Hoffs only connection to the TV show: in the ’80s, the costume designer for Daisy Jones series, Denise Wingate, was also The Bangles’ stylist when they were on tour.
Hoffs has an ear for dialogue and lyrical description that take readers — particularly those among us who are not musicians, let alone performers — straight into the physicality and emotion of songwriting and performing: “I think when Jane can get past her hammering heart and her anxiety, it’s kind of like a switch she had to flip to give herself permission to be that other person,” Hoffs says, adding that sometimes her experience of writing the novel felt similarly instinctual.
“At this point I was writing at the kitchen table and Jay would walk in and say, ‘Why … you’ve been sitting there for so many hours and you’re laughing. What’s so funny?’” she recalls. “Well first of all I was giddy. I was writing about romance and that was so fun — you sort of feel like you’re in love when you’re writing about being in love. I had endorphins going on! But I was also giggling, because [I thought], ‘Do I dare write this?’ And then clack, clack, clack on the keys, I did.”
“Everything I do is DIY,” she adds with a laugh. “I self-finance, I do everything myself.” That can-do attitude extends not only to Hoffs forthcoming album The Deep End but also to her social media. Her Instagram has authentic indie energy thanks to the homespun promos, glimpses of her kitchen routine (as she wears a Marimekko apron and matching oven mitts) and other charming glimpses into her life. “I’ve embraced social media because when it’s social it’s great,” Hoffs enthuses, “especially when it comes to connecting with authors and musicians. It’s community.”
Award-winning author Susan Orlean — who wrote the 1987 Rolling Stone cover story of The Bangles, will be doing an onstage Q&A with Hoff during her book tour. “Full circle,” Hoffs observes, adding that there have been other callbacks from the past, like recording a cover of The Mamas & the Papas’ “Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” with Chris Stills and Sheryl Crow (for Rufus Wainwright’s upcoming album Folkocracy) at Sunset Sound, “the same studio where Prince gave me the [demo] cassette of ‘Manic Monday.’”
There’s a little of Prince in the novel’s charismatic superstar, Jonesy, who wrote the song that made Jane famous, and Leopard Pants (Jane’s moniker for an entertainingly over-the-top older rocker) seems like a cross between Robert Plant and Rod Stewart. A direct nod to Hoffs own rock image is the faux-fur leopard jacket that appears on the cover and makes a cameo in the story. It mirrors one from Hoffs’ closet, an iconic look from The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” years. “I’m kicking myself for giving away the one from the ’90s,” she admits. “I don’t know what possessed me, but they’re some of my favourite costumes now, looking back.” But after seeing an advance copy of the book, a dear friend bought her a near-identical one. It’ll be in her suitcase for the book tour, along with her guitar.