Zibby interviews beloved songwriter, Bangles frontwoman, and debut author Susanna Hoffs about her clever, sexy, and riotously funny rockstar redemption romance This Bird Has Flown. Susanna compares book-writing to songwriting, reveals she used music to sharpen her mind and stimulate her imagination while writing, and shares how she got here in the first place (it all started with a childhood surrounded by books in a bohemian, art-loving household). She also talks about her beautiful cover art, the changes her manuscript went through, the books she read and re-read for inspiration, and her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Susanna. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss This Bird Has Flown.

Susanna Hoffs: It’s great to be here with you.

Zibby: Yay. Your book was so fun and so great. I’m obsessed with the voice in this book. It’s so awesome. Congrats. I loved it. Really loved it.

Susanna: That thrills me. It makes me so happy. It was such a joy to write and a pleasure to channel Jane’s voice as this first-person narrator of the book. I found it endlessly fun. I know that I would hear her thoughts in my own head. I was obviously thinking those thoughts. The experience of that, it’s so different writing a novel than writing a song, even though both channel some aspects of experiences that you’ve lived, but also just things that spring to life in your imagination. It’s a kind of psychosis in a way. The character’s talking to you. You need to quickly catch what they’re saying. That was a big part of the process that I found somewhat expected. Now I realize in talking to other authors that’s sort of what the process is. Some people have different ways they go about things. For me, a lot of times, I like to grab a walk in the morning to just get my mind sharpened. I always play music. The music would really stimulate the characters to start talking. The story, I kind of had a sense of what I wanted the themes of the book to touch upon. I studied the books Jane Eyre and Rebecca, the Daphne du Maurier book, a lot because I liked the idea of, ghosts of our past could haunt us or might haunt us or might ruin our chances of ever making a deep connection with another person, like a love relationship. I was playing around with those things. The characters would just go and start chattering. It was fun.

Zibby: I love it. I just wrote a novel myself that’s coming out in March. I was just talking to my editor before this. I was like, “What if we did a continuation book next? I really miss writing in this voice.” I finally just got it down by the time the book ended. Now what do I do with that skill?

Susanna: I’m in the exact same moment as you, then. I have just started the beginnings of — it’s not the formal — I haven’t opened a Word doc or a doc and started page one, but I’ve been collecting — I’m feeling a related universe in mind. Not universe, but a related — I’m not ready to give up my characters. I’m not ready to stop hanging out with them. I’ve started to conceive of this next book. Man, it’s so fun. I spoke with my editor too. She was like, “Great.” Sarah Burnes, who was the one who my friend Margaret Stohl, who’s a novelist, insisted I send my big, fat manuscript that I wouldn’t let anyone see but I finally had let her see it — it’s a whole new career for me, I guess you could say. I love it. You’re right in that same moment too.

Zibby: I know. What do you do with the voice? I started an Instagram account with the character’s name. Now I want to start posting as her, but I’m running out of time.

Susanna: The only thing to keep in mind is not wanting to give spoilers away.

Zibby: I know.

Susanna: Her voice could just be running that page. That’s her Instagram page. What a fabulous idea.

Zibby: You can totally take the idea and run with it.

Susanna: I love that.

Zibby: You can make an Instagram page too. They can be friends. They could be friends and hang out in cyberspace.

Susanna: In some universe, they’re connected. That’s terrific. I love it.

Zibby: It’s almost amazing because you’re — most people are super talented in one big way. For you to be talented on the music side and then just dabble in the literature side, which some people spend their whole life just trying to accomplish — you’re like, this sounds like fun. I know it’s all related, music and — I know it’s all related. Tell me about crossing genres more. Did you ever, as a little girl, want to write a book? Was it always about music or what?

Susanna: It was always all of it, both of those things. As a young girl, I was an obsessive reader. My mom would take me to the Brentwood library. I’d sit on the floor. They were almost stories about female witches or girls who had magical powers. I have some memory. I can’t think of the names of those books. It always seemed like there were lots of those kind of stories. I think for kids, there is something in that where you feel so helpless as a child. You have no power. You’re at the mercy of whatever your parents or adults tell you to do, teachers, parents. I don’t know why I have some memory of sitting on the floor at that library and just going through these books that had something to do with magical powers for young girls. I may have just invented that memory, but it always comes back to me. It was somehow like that. Then I feel like songwriting, to pivot to that, the differences between novel writing and songwriting, they are very different to me. We love stories. We connect, as humans, through stories. I think that there are stories in all art forms.

Because I was raised in a bohemian household where my mom was an artist and my dad was a psychoanalyst, there was some way in which those influences kind of freed my own way of thinking about things and wanting to find ways to express those things and connect with other people that way. Songwriting, I actually find, in some ways, and particularly lyric writing, really challenging. I found the freedom, even though people think, oh, my god, a novel, that’s a huge commitment — you can sit down with someone, or just by yourself, another cowriter, and write a song fairly quickly, but there’s a kind of constraint due to the fact that you tend to want to have rhymes and rhythms. It feels more like a puzzle you’re working on. How do I fit this idea into this couplet here and then put a melody to it? It’s a bit tricky. Whereas I found with the process of writing, once I started to get the arcs of the overall predicaments and arcs that I thought were the overarching arcs in the book, the characters would sort of take over my brain. I would start envisioning everything that would be going on in the book.

I had to have post-it notes by the bed, or my phone, to throw the idea in there because I did learn early on that if you think something’s a great idea and you’re convinced you’ll never lose track of it, it goes, poof. It goes out of your brain. It gets pushed aside by another idea. You have to store them. You have to catalog them somehow. That was a big part of my process. It was fun. You know being a writer, I had to give myself a pep talk. I really stopped touring and stuff like that. Then there was the pandemic, so that gave me a lot of time at home. I had to kind of give myself a, “Okay, let’s do this thing,” and pace around. It was permission to stay in my pajamas most of the day because I did a lot of writing during the pandemic. I just would figure out where I was in that moment or what my task was. Then finally, as you know, having an editor, then when a publisher gets involved with the process, that was just really fun to have another human being who’s really invested in your story commune with you about it. You know this too. It’s a very solitary act, writing a novel. That was so interesting, that part of it, when that happened.

Zibby: Yes, also welcome. Although, every time I got edits back, I was like, should I open the document? I don’t know if I can face this round. I don’t know. How much time do I have to budget? My eyes would be half-closed. You’re just peeking.

Susanna: I know. What about the moment when they send you the book jacket artwork? Did you have a moment with that?

Zibby: I haven’t gotten the cover art for the novel yet. I got that for my memoir. Actually, that took a little bit because I didn’t like the first covers at all. I was crying. I was like, it’s never going to be right. This isn’t me.

Susanna: Oh, so you have yet to have that with your novel?

Zibby: Yeah, I know.

Susanna: It’s really exciting. I got really lucky. Apart from the smallest, smallest little thing that got tweaked and slightly changed, that’s the cover. That was the cover. It was just momentous because you really have no idea what your publisher’s art department will come up with. This reminds me now, I had a few conversations with my editor just — you have some kind of nebulous vision in your head about it, but it’s sort of hard to articulate. You don’t want to impose something because you want to see what an outside — you’re so invested in your book. You’re so deep in it that you need a little perspective. I found that that was an interesting moment of seeing what someone else would do with it.

Zibby: Yes, very true. Your cover’s amazing, though. It’s so cool. It’s art. It could be coasters or something. I feel like it should be more places than just on this book.

Susanna: Thank you.

Zibby: Very cool. When you were in the flow of a writing day or whatever and you’re in your jammies, how long could you write for? Was there a certain number of hours? What were your days like? How did you know you were done?

Susanna: There were long hours. I could go from, say, ten AM to six PM with a snack break or a lunch break. Then when I was at that point where you’re supposed to turn in a draft after some notes or editorial notes, there were times where I just went even longer. That was when I felt like, this has to be sent so they wake up and have the draft in New York. I live in Los Angeles. I really got lost in it. I lost track of time when I was — I describe it often as it’s almost like I went through a portal into another universe. Then I get to be with these people that are imaginary, but they feel so real, as you probably feel in your novel-writing experience too. You really feel like you’re somewhere else. You’re with them. Once I would be in that mode, it’s a magical place to be. It’s been a while because then you get to the phase where you’re on these very, very detailed line edits. You’re going through revisions. It’s all minutia kind of stuff, mostly, at that point.

When you’re just freewriting and you kind of know where you’re meant to be or you’re right in the moment of the earlier phases where it’s all just happening, you don’t know what it is and how the story is unfolding. That’s, at least, the way I did it. I had a basic idea of the arc of the story. During the course of the book, some things changed. New things inserted themselves. It’s somewhat of a fish-out-of-water story with a girl from LA who ends up in England and has to work her way into this whole new universe of human beings and people who are academics at Oxford. There was a lot of scenes that I had in my mind. How do you connect these moments and scenes into something that flows properly? There was that. In a couple cases, I moved some chunks around. I’m sure you’ve encountered that in your work too. It was all new to me. A song can live in a three-minute space of time. It has to be so concentrated. Whereas a book, it unfolds like a movie, in a way, or a series.

Zibby: Did you have any insecurities or doubts about trying it?

Susanna: Just throwing myself into trying to be a novelist?

Zibby: Yeah.

Susanna: You know what? The passion just knocked all that stuff aside. I found such pleasure in it. I found that I loved the challenge of it. I did a lot of reading, as I always do. I went and did a lot of rereading of books that, in some ways, because of — the style of the prose was very compelling to me. I would return to certain books.

Zibby: Which ones?

Susanna: Rebecca and Jane Eyre. Although, Rebecca’s more modern. It’s still an older book, but Charlotte Brontë’s writing in Jane Eyre is what we think of as somewhat more antiquated language. There are so many classic books like Madame Bovary and those books that are older books. I also revisited — I’m really a big John Updike fan, which most people have — he’s sometimes seen as someone that not — how do I say this? I love his writing. It’s lyric and beautiful, extraordinary to me. There are some women I’ve encountered in my life who’s like, “He’s too macho,” or something like that. I love his writing, and Nabokov and Fitzgerald and Thomas Hardy, who wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Some of those books where the writing is somewhat — I sometimes describe it as voluptuous or delicious. It’s not Hemingway, by the book, very plain, but beautiful and moving. I tend to go for the slightly more voluptuous.

Zibby: Now I’m sort of feeling ashamed because I mostly read contemporary fiction and memoir. I don’t go back to the classics. I read them in school and all that. My go-to is, what’s coming out? What helps me make sense of my world today based on how everybody else is living it? As my guideposts, if you will.

Susanna: I aspire to that, to be honest. During the writing of this book, I focused so much on a few pieces that I felt were helpful, let’s say, in how I approached This Bird Has Flown. Now that I’m in book world, I’m literally going on Kindle and buying books and having the physical copies and just amassing a great collection of new authors that I’m discovering. It’s so fun to be part of the community after those years of study. It was so much like studying those old books. Somehow, the ones from my childhood had sparked a connection. I just kept being drawn to those as it relates to This Bird Has Flown for whatever reason.

Zibby: That’s interesting. Did you know at all how it would end? Did you know some of the twistier elements and all of that? Did you know that was coming?

Susanna: I don’t want to give any spoilers away for readers.

Zibby: I’m not giving any spoilers. I’m just saying, did you have it all planned out?

Susanna: Yes. I can’t remember at what point in the journey of years that it took to write the book that I conceived of the ending. Then I conceived of a little postscript bit too. I was organizing my computer. I stumbled upon some really early drafts. The evolution was massive to get to where I ended up, just for people who are daunted in some way by the idea of taking on writing something like a novel, like something with a commitment of a novel versus a short story or something. For me, because I’d never done it before, I had to work through many iterations of the story and even the tense. It used to be in present tense, for example.

Zibby: Oh, interesting.

Susanna: It used to be in present tense. First-person present tense can be difficult, in a way, more so than in past tense. There was a point where, a couple years in, actually, I was like, okay — I got a note from someone I really trusted, my literary agent who had come from editing and edited The Lovely Bones, a book that I had loved. I said, okay, I’m up to the task. I just went through the whole thing. There was something a little more grounded in it. I love first-person present tense. With my character’s level of how fast her mind works and how she’s constantly processing things so tangibly — everything’s so at the surface in her emotions. It just felt a little more grounded to read it in the past tense.

Zibby: Yes, I think that works. I think sometimes first-person present — by the way, I experimented with this too. I was like, I’m going to write in first-person present. I’m walking in the room. I see this. I do that. I feel like after a while, it becomes more of a literary novel, in a way. You’re so focused on the words because you have to be. I think in the past tense, it’s just an easier consumption as a reader.

Susanna: That was the thing that my editor had mentioned. There was a breathy energy to it. There was this sense in my character that she’s sort of running through all these things because her mind is always clicking and whirring. Whirring. Not worrying, but whirring. It felt like the book settled in a little bit for people who weren’t having five cups of coffee and reading it. She was on massive caffeine, it felt like, when it was the present tense. It’s so interesting how just changing the tense — it took me a second. I just did the first chapter. Then I read it aloud to my best friend, who is the novelist who helped me connect with Sarah Burnes. Her daughter happened to be in the room. I read it out loud. I would just do that to see, does this work? I would often read while my kids were still in high school. Actually, my younger son was still in high school at this point. His friends would come over. I’d just be like, “Want to hear some stuff?” “Oh, you’re writing a book?” Actually, one of the high schoolers that I read the book to — this was one of the best moments ever in the experience of the book. She read the book and loved it. She ended up going to Yale, very bright, worked really hard in high school and was really dedicated to her studies. Just to get that feedback from a twentysomething kid now made me feel so exuberant, so happy. That’s the thing about books and stories. They connect us. It’s so fun, isn’t it?

Zibby: It’s so fun. I’ve literally started this whole company based around this notion because I’m so obsessed with books and how they connect people and everything. Yes, I could not agree more. A hundred percent. Preaching to the choir. Love it. If you had to pick something that was most like you and most unlike you about Jane, what would those things be?

Susanna: Most like me would be her determination to believe in love despite all the things she’s gone through, all the heartbreaks, and to love music despite being a washed-up one-hit wonder, despite how awful the music business has been in her experience. Those two things. That’s why I think I just one day came up with the dedication for the book. “To music lovers and lovers everywhere.” Those two core things, I relate to. Music is the best and safest drug in the world, or whatever form of art you want to take in, whether it’s looking at a painting or listening to a song or watching a movie. Communicating the human experience through art, massive to me, massively important, and also just the human connection, all ways in which we try to connect and how it is when we can’t and when it doesn’t happen.

Zibby: Yes. Wow. Everything you’re saying, I’m like, yes, that. Yes. Yes. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Susanna: I would just say that the thing that’s worked out for me in my entire life that I’m really now at age sixty-four recognizing, whether it was just something internalized, but I would say don’t wait for permission to do the thing you love. If you want to write a book or a short story or whatever it is — I didn’t take classes in it. I just learned by reading or by doing. You can if you want. You can study in any fashion that you want. If you really want to do it, don’t tell yourself you can’t. Just jump in. Jump into the deep end. You’ll figure out how to swim somehow. You’ll figure out. It may take a while, but you can learn. There’s so many ways to learn, by reading, by starting to see the craft in things, starting to notice things that maybe you just took for granted. You love this movie. You don’t break down, what was it in that movie, in that storytelling there that made your heart flutter or made you cry or made you laugh or made you feel like when you next saw your parents you were going to give them a hug and hold them for a long time or whatever? Whatever it is.

Zibby: You’re not really sixty-four, though, right?

Susanna: Yes, I am.

Zibby: You can’t possibly be. Seriously?

Susanna: I am.

Zibby: No. You look so young.

Susanna: Thank you. I think it’s just having the great luck of being able to do these things and to feel happy about them.

Zibby: I feel happy. I’m doing these things. I’m forty-six. I look much older than you. I need your dermatologist or something. I don’t know. I need to do something.

Susanna: I post about it on Instagram. It’s just things in your kitchen you can use to moisturize your skin, like a drop of olive oil. I put a drop of olive oil on. I’m probably really greasy.

Zibby: No, it looks amazing. I can’t believe your skin. That’s amazing. I was all over your Instagram, but I did not notice anything about dripping olive oil on your face. I will go back.

Susanna: I think it’s post that I put up.

Zibby: I didn’t look today or yesterday, maybe. I guess I got a little behind. I’ll check it out. I’m glad you’re in LA. I have a bookstore that I opened in Santa Monia.

Susanna: What?

Zibby: Yeah. It’s called Zibby’s Bookshop on Montana Avenue and 11th.

Susanna: Oh, my god. Right on Montana? Incredible.

Zibby: Yeah, it’s on Montana and 11th. If you want to do an event there sometime, I would love to have you.

Susanna: I would love to.

Zibby: Want to do it?

Susanna: Yeah.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you so much. Thanks for this fabulous, fun, entertaining, awesome read. I really was so taken with it and your voice. Really, really. Great job.

Susanna: Thanks so much. To be continued.

Zibby: To be continued. Bye.

Susanna: Bye.

THIS BIRD HAS FLOWN by Susanna Hoffs

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