Right after Susanna Hoffs received her March 27th rave review from The New York Times for her debut novel This Bird Has Flown (“smart, ferocious rockstar redemption romance you didn’t know you needed . . . a total knockout”) she was, unsurprisingly, “slammed” with calls from thrilled well-wishers, according her lifelong best friend Mary Petrie Lowen. But Hoffs didn’t have time to bask in the sun because she was embarking on a national tour (to New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and San Diego) for the book and for her imminently released album, The Deep End.
The reviews were well deserved. The cofounder of the delicious pop-rock girl group The Bangles, Hoffs is a guitarist, singer, songwriter, actress, and screenplay cowriter with 10 albums and seven singles to her credit. “She’s not afraid of hard work,” says Lowen. The review—which is a harbinger of others to come—is also proving that Hoffs’s most recent birthday (64), for which she briefly shed a tear (“but not for sadness; rather, for reflection”), might be her best yet. And that’s a lot of bests.
I had spoken to Hoffs a week before the Times rave. Ridiculously enough, when she called me for our interview, she started by telling me how much she had loved a book of mine that had been published 15 years ago. That book, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation, had been, she said, partly the inspiration for the Bangles’s 2011 album Sweetheart of the Sun.
We spoke for 45 minutes about her book, her album, and her life, and I had a long talk with her lifelong best friend, Lowen, as well.
A Sexy Musical Heart
This Bird Has Flown, which took her “years to write, but was fun,” is the sweeping saga of a one-hit wonder, Jane Start, who, after being dumped by her boyfriend Alex, has an opportunity to play the Royal Albert Hall along with a superstar rocker—Jonesy—with whom she had worked 10 years earlier.
The character Jane evinces in the book is the kind that Hoffs herself has gained and nurtured through a life of hard work.
The delightful novel is a literary feel-good story with a sexy musical heart. At its outset it presents us with a Jane Start who is broke, living out of garbage bags in her parents’ home, and doing karaoke shows in Las Vegas. Jane’s initial tacky (but charming) rock-bottom-ness is at odds with Hoffs’s upbringing and experience. The daughter of a psychoanalyst father and writer/director/producer mother, Hoffs grew up in Pacific Palisades in a house full of paintings, books, and music.
She attended UC Berkeley majoring in art, went on to her burgeoning creative career, and married filmmaker Jay Roach (known for Meet the Parents and Bombshell, as well as the dramatic films about recent political issues: Recount, about the Bush v. Gore election; Game Change, about John McCain’s 2008 Presidential campaign, and All the Way, about events during Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency). They are the parents of sons Jackson, 27, and Sam, 25, both Stanford graduates.
Still, the character Jane evinces in the book is the kind that Hoffs herself has gained and nurtured through a life of hard work, despite her privilege.
Friendship in Art and Life
The book also depicts the intensely close friendship of Jane and her manager Pippa, who guided Jane to her comeback. Friendship—getting it and, especially, giving it—has been a major touchstone of Hoff’s life, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the song she loves best in her new album—the eponymous “The Deep End,” by British composer Holly Humberstone—can be construed to be about two friends saving one another’s lives. (I’ll be your medicine / if you let me.) “Susanna has been a lifesaver for me for all of these years,” says Lewin. “She’s been there for me in every way. If I were to call her at two in the morning and say, ‘I need you,’ she’d come right over.” Lowen’s ex-husband had ALS for 10 years before he died of it, and she says, Hoffs “helped me through that every day.”
“And I think I’m that kind of friend to her, too,” she adds. “Her brother’s son was dying of meningitis in Tennessee—a 12 year old!—and Jay was in the middle of his first feature film, and he couldn’t go with her. So I went with her down to this little town in Tennessee. She needed me.”
The song can be construed to be about two friends saving one another’s lives.
“Oh! Yes!” Hoffs says, a sob in her throat. “My nephew’s death was the saddest thing that ever happened to me and my family. And Mary came with me!
Lowen figured in the journey of the book as well, Hoffs reports. “She was grappling with all these things that were happening in her life, but she would schlep over—we lived a pretty big distance from one another—and I would read aloud to her from my 400-page book. Reading aloud, I discovered, is very important.”
Hoffs sent the finished draft to her agent, Sarah Burns, who loved it. “I flew to New York, staying in the apartment my parents have there, and got all dressed up for my meeting with Sarah because I felt like a character from the 1950s, walking in the building and seeing all these book-lined walls,” she says.”Then we went to lunch at a restaurant writers and agents go to.” Universal has optioned her novel.
Writing the novel “in some ways was linking me back to my childhood,” Hoffs explains. “I was a big reader. I’d burrow through my mom’s paperbacks; Fear of Flying is in my library now. My friends and I would read the same book.” A book club a deux. She and Lowen read Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird together. “I read, and I read, and I read,” she says of her childhood. “I still do. I listen to audiobooks constantly. I always read one or two chapters of a book before I go to bed and when I take long walks—just to get my brain working—I have my playlist from Spotify. And, way earlier, I listened to audiobooks on cassette.”
She has close friends who are writers, including Helen Fielding, the author of the Bridget Jones series. Hoffs has begun a next novel, which she says is “almost a prequel to Daisy and the Six,” the rock-and-roll bestseller by Taylor Jenkins Reid.
Mick Jagger, Undone
Hoffs’s fiction is, of course, based on her own reality as a working rockstar. Her latest chapter in that part of her story is the album The Deep End, which consists of covers of songs by Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran, and others. But the track that is getting the most attention is the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” Hoffs did a feminist role reversal on Mick Jagger’s macho brag that a woman was so deeply in the male singer’s control. “I had an epiphany when I really thought about what the song is about, and it ignited this idea to do my own spin on it,” she has said. “To flip it on its head, or on its ass. It’s a sassy, irreverent song, so it was extremely pleasurable to turn the tables.”
‘I had an epiphany when I really thought about what the song is about, and it ignited this idea to do my own spin on it.’
Her rich but girlish, emotional voice is powerful in the new interpretation, as it also is on “You Don ‘t Own Me,” the 1963 Leslie Gore hit that struck such a powerful feminist note years before second-wave feminism was a reality. Covering songs, rather than singing her own songs, was a whittling-down process. “It’s like trying on dresses,” she says. “Some are just right and some are, like, ‘No! It’s too tight around the waist. Shit, I can’t move.’”
Peter Asher, the legendary record producer who worked with The Beatles and discovered James Taylor, produced the album, and her backup musicians include the fabled sidemen who accompanied the likes of Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Linda Ronstadt. Waddy Wachtel is on guitar, Leland Sklar on bass, and Russ Kunkel on drums. Hoffs says she was “grateful” to sing with this level of talent and got a kick out of playing tambourine on some of the cuts.
Getting Older, Getting Better
It was her love of punk and old ‘60s music, including The Beatles, that got Hoffs into music in the first place. Right after getting her BA at Berkeley, she formed The Bangles with her friends Debbi and Vicki Peterson in 1981. Their top 10 hits—throughout the ‘80s—included “Manic Monday,” “Walk Like an Egyptian,” and “Hazy Shade of Winter.”
“I remember when we started The Bangles,” says Hoffs. “We were so young—I was 22. I thought, ‘What’s going to happen when I get into my 30s? Rock ‘n’ roll seems focused on 20-somethings.’ Then I turned 30—the music industry accepts you at that age. But later? I was worried. But now it’s so great. Women in their 70s are everywhere. Joni, and Carly, and Linda Ronstadt: whether with books or music,” says Hoffs. “Joni, especially, is having such a well-deserved moment now.” (And a big moment it is: Joni Mitchell is a recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and it has been revealed that she has been working with Cameron Crowe for two years on a movie about her life.)
Love and Trust
In addition to her success as a musician and an author, Hoffs has enjoyed success in a way not often seen among stars: a long and happy marriage. She says their long marriage has been built on trust from the very beginning. “I clapped my eyes on Jay and thought he was very kind and trustworthy,” she says. “Trust was very important to me at that juncture in my life. (I’m sure that that feeling seeps into the novel.) I had an instinct about him. Maybe that’s why Jay and I have made it almost to our 30th anniversary—next month.”
I’m gonna throw myself into the deep end there, too. I might as well show up in a bathing suit.
She recalls the first time they met (on a blind date): “I had such a strong intuition about him, I called my mom from a hardwired phone in my car—and that’s really telling.”
Over the years, she has had the pleasure of working with her husband. Roach directed an Austin Powers movie, International Man of Mystery, and Hoffs played and sang with the movie’s star, Mike Myers, in the faux-retro band Ming Tea.
Hoffs will soon be off to London and Oxford to go to the Tate Museum and to attend a music festival. As an Anglophile, she’s excited to be taking her first international flight since before the pandemic. Jackson and Sam are coming with her.
When I tell her how impressed I am with her dynamism and can-do-ness, Hoffs says, “I have a lot of anxiety too. Reading fiction and looking at art are antidotes to my anxiety. If I don’t keep moving, I tend to ruminate like crazy.”
She’s taking her guitar to all her readings—which start this week at the Strand bookstore in New York—and that, she says, “is making me nervous. I’m gonna throw myself into the deep end there, too. That’s the kind of mode I’m in; I almost might as well show up in a bathing suit.
“And if I fuck up, I fuck up.”
Somehow I don’t believe she will.