Essex author Zoë Howe is coming to Foyles in Chelmsford to talk about her debut novel. She tells Darryl Webber about the book, her rock ‘n’ roll biographies and her creative life
Writer Zoë Howe has a long list of acclaimed rock ‘n’ roll biographies to her name but for her latest book she turned to fiction to write a story about a woman in the music business trying to find her place in it.
Shine On, Marquee Moon is engaging, insightful and very funny and was shortlisted for the Virginia Prize For Fiction. Zoë is coming to Foyles bookshop in Chelmsford on Thursday, February 2 to discuss Shine On, Marquee Moon and her other books in a special event which will also feature a live set from Paolo Morena and free wine and nibbles.
First of all, tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into the writing game…
I come from a family of theatre folk, so acting was very much in my life up until my mid-20s, but writing was something I’d always enjoyed and independently did a lot of as a kid, thumping away on my dad’s old typewriter. I used to make surreal little books and magazines which were generally quite rude and silly (my first ‘book’ – made from stapled-together bits of scrap paper – was about bottoms, for example. I surreptitiously placed it in the local Waterstone’s and never saw it again, as if I was sacrificing my first-born to the book gods. It was probably my finest work and its loss still rankles).
But music came first for me – I played drums and piano from an early age and was obsessed with rock ’n’ roll and vinyl. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to put the two together earlier, really, but when I did, things just seemed to click for me, and when I wrote my first book, Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits, which came out in the late Noughties, life changed completely.
There’s still plenty of the chaotic circus carny in me too, which is why my few years of trying to be a journalist and working in an office never really worked for me. It felt like I was pretending to be someone else! But it got me established with the writing thing, gave me lots of practice when it came to turning things around quickly and interviewing people, and led me to writing books, so everything happens for a reason. To paraphrase something erstwhile PiL guitarist and all-round legend Keith Levene said, it’s important to work out what you don’t like, as much as what you do.
You’ve written biographies about Wilko Johnson, Jesus & Mary Chain, Florence And The Machine and The Slits among others. What draws you to these rock and roll stories?
Well, I just have always loved rock ’n’ roll – and rock ’n ‘ rollers – with all of my heart! To me it represents freedom and creativity and fun, and a life dedicated to music is a life dedicated to something that has the potential to be quite magical and transformative. It’s a brave life and not always an easy one, and demands commitment and often courage, and that’s something that deserves respect, I think.
With the Slits book, it was really a mission, I was outraged on their behalf that no one had written a book about them, I knew they warranted one, as one of the more interesting and exciting, not to mention creatively courageous bands to come out of the British punk scene. Back when I started working on the project, really not that many people were talking about them at all – they were treated as a footnote in history, so I’m glad and proud to have had a part in changing that, and that book really sparked off or reignited lots of adventures and connections, and not just for me; it was such a thrill.
But with other books, sometimes it’s a case of a publisher thinking of you when an idea comes up at a commissioning meeting – the Florence book was one that was presented to me by a publisher and it was a mission I gladly accepted. On the other hand, sometimes a book will emerge just because of circumstance, because you’re friends with an artist or something like that. Generally speaking though, I have to feel that there’s something that needs to be written or put right – and certainly with the JAMC, Lee Brilleaux and The Slits, for example, I wanted to celebrate them and draw attention to them in a positive way, as I felt they hadn’t received the credit they rightly deserved. Apart from anything else, it’s so important, I think, to get those inspiring stories down – you never know when it’s going to be too late. I had no idea that, one year after the publication of the Slits book, Ari Up would pass away.
On the other hand, you could say that Stevie Nicks (my biography Stevie Nicks – Visions, Dreams & Rumours is coming out in paperback and audiobook next month via Omnibus) has never been short of attention, but I felt that she was a) the most irresistibly eccentric rock ’n’ roll icon to write about, b) completely creative and multi-faceted and c) people often forget just how important she was within the Mac firmament. Yes, she was a hugely charismatic sex symbol. She also wrote a lot of their biggest hits. Just because a women is sexy or beautiful does not mean people should assume that is all there is to them.
You’re a musician and play in bands too, does that give you a different perspective to a writer only seeing things from the outside?
I suppose it does, maybe there’s an understanding there of the process a bit more. I also don’t tend to see or approach artists from a starry-eyed ‘fan’ point of view, although I like to write in an honest but celebratory way which is sometimes interpreted as fandom. I know that I am ultimately writing for the fans of that band, so I keep that in mind and think that’s important, but there’s a balance to be hit. I think if you approach people in this job from a super-fan’s perspective, while you may know every tiny bit of trivia about them, you might not be collected enough or objective enough to do your job properly, and also you run the risk of creeping your interviewee out! Never ideal.
Your latest book is your debut novel, Shine On, Marquee Moon. What made you turn to fiction now?
I’ve been working on the book for about seven years, and I started it as I got the yen one day to work some of my own experiences in and around bands into a story which could, hopefully, make people laugh, and maybe bust a few cliches into the bargain. I think I prefer fiction as a process – it’s more creative. I also find the responsibility of handling the life stories of others can weigh heavily; it can be hard to keep a lot of people – many of whom remember the exact same things completely differently – happy, amongst other things, but I do love it too and saying that, most of the artists I have worked with in that capacity have been brilliant, generous and not divas at all! I’ve met some wonderful people through writing non-fiction.
The novel has been called ‘rock chick lit’. How would you describe it?
Haha! Well, that was me being cheeky, really, playing on the ‘chick lit’ thing, but while I suppose it does fall into the women’s fiction bracket, I definitely don’t think it excludes male readers, and I’ve had lots of messages from male readers who have enjoyed it.
I know you have to categorise things for your algorithms and what have you, but ultimately it’s a mad rock ’n’ roll love story which lifts the veil on life on and off the road. There’s romance, there’s drugs, there’s pop music, there’s guy-liner… it’s also relatively short and quite cheap. What more could any discerning reader want?
What was the starting point for the characters and story?
My life, basically, and many of the people in it from over the past 20 years! Or rather, some experiences and characters provided a seed of inspiration, jumping off points, if you like; ultimately it is made up, but some of the plot points, such as (spoiler alert!) the drug storyline and the stalking plot point, are based on situations that did happen, and I suppose I wanted to get them into the light and look at them.
The reality actually was rather worse than what ends up in the book, but I suppose the fiction process was also a cathartic way of dealing with those subjects and transforming them into something new. And if you can transmute them within a story which is ultimately full of humour and colour and ridiculousness, then so much the better!
There are also a few conversational exchanges that have gone in almost exactly as they were (mainly if they made me laugh), but I haven’t stitched anyone – or myself – up! And while many of the characters are indeed inspired at least in part by people in my life, they have all very much become people in their own right now to me.
Why did you want to reference Marquee Moon, the debut album by US band Television, in the book’s title?
I listened to it a lot during a difficult time in my 20s – a difficult time that has now been depicted, in a veiled way, in the book! It’s all material… And I really felt it had healing properties, especially the songs Venus, Guiding Light and Marquee Moon. I took a lot of comfort from it, and felt it was a powerful record.
The book itself is underscored with a great love of records, and I liked the idea that the female and male protagonists, while from quite different worlds in some respects, bond over this album, almost escaping into it from all the madness that surrounds them.
Nick, the troubled pop star at the centre of the story, loves it, especially as he is essentially very much a square peg in a round hole – he has excellent musical taste and is a gifted musician, but somehow, in his late teens, he was swept up into a New Romantic band in the early 80s, made a lot of money and now, here he is, older, richer, unfulfilled and thinking to himself, to quote Talking Heads, ‘how did I get here?!’ When he’s not pouting onstage and plonking away on a keyboard in a Byronic shirt, he’s holed up in the dark listening to Marquee Moon or something by the Cocteau Twins to try and balance himself out.
The novel has had a fantastic reception; that must be very gratifying now but did you find it hard to write fiction after working on memoirs?
Thank you! It has been exciting and so heartening, particularly as there were many times, prior to its release, that I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?! Cancel everything!’ so it’s just beyond thrilling to know people like it and have found it entertaining. To see it listed in NME as one of their ‘objects of desire’ was such a lovely surprise, as was, of course, being included on the shortlist for the Virginia Prize for Fiction. I still can’t believe it really!
I find it easier, in some respects, to write fiction as I have just myself to rely on; that has its challenges in itself, of course! But I enjoy being able to create something out of the air and have fun with it.
I do like the process of writing the memoirs too and working with artists, and I always feel honoured when someone entrusts their story to me, but it’s hard, if not impossible, to get it absolutely right. You weren’t there, and even if you were there, you weren’t there all of the time, with everyone involved.
You do your best and put your heart into it, you’re trying basically to do a positive thing, but there’s always something, some mistake that slips through the net – or even a mistake inserted by an editor who believes they know better – someone who feels left out, someone who takes something the wrong way… those things keep me up at night!
And of course, lest we forget, we can find plenty of reality in fiction, and plenty of make-believe in ‘non-fiction’! 😉
Who are the writers and musicians who have particularly inspired you?
Too many to mention, but Patti Smith, of course, Flann O’Brien, Betty White, PG Wodehouse, Pete Townshend, Led Zeppelin, Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem… actually the band I’m in at the moment, Platypus, are rather like them, she says proudly.
What are the most difficult parts of leading a creative life? And what are the best bits?
Judgey people or people assuming you can or should only do one thing – most creative people can and want to stretch themselves and do lots of things at different times in their lives, and it doesn’t really matter whether those things ‘work’ or not!
At the end of the day you should do what you do for you, and no one else. It’s harder than ever not to care what other people think, but that is the way to freedom and happiness! And when you find like-minded people, there’s nothing like it.
And the best bits – creating something from nothing (sounds like magic to me!) or making music with kindred spirits. And the places and people a creative life can introduce you to are diverse and exciting – it’s a life of surprises! There’s also always something new (even if it’s not really new, just new to you) to discover. I take so much joy in that.
Art and music give us everything from an escape route to a wake-up call. We won’t live long enough to hear all the music we’ll potentially love or read all the best books ever written, but we can give it a good try – and remembering that can remind us in turn to drop negativity and criticism: what’s the point in expending time and energy on that? It’s time and energy none of us have to spare. I love and respect people who just try things, at any age, and see where it takes them.
As Prince Buster would sing, ‘Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.’ Last year was certainly the ultimate reminder of that.
You always seem to have plenty of things on the go, what’s in the pipeline for 2017?
More dates around the UK and Europe promoting the novel, which will be fun. And the paperback and audiobook of my biography, Stevie Nicks: Visions, Dreams & Rumours, is out next month to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Rumours, plus there’s a B-format edition of Lee Brilleaux – Rock ’n’ Roll Gentleman coming out, for all you Feelgood fans! That is a book that is particularly close to my heart.
Other than that, Platypus have a vinyl release coming out this year with Ship Full Of Bombs records, and I’ve got a few art bits coming up too (I do lots of weird collages – it keeps me out of trouble, arguably). I’m going to be involved in the Leigh Art Trail again this year, which is always great fun, and I think the Winter Open at Annabel Dee’s gallery on Leigh Road is still running if you’re in the area and want to nab some affordable art!
I also work with Wilko Johnson, and there’s a busy year ahead, so watch this space!
Zoë Howe will be talking about Shine On, Marquee Moon and her other books with Darryl Webber at Foyles Chelmsford on Thursday, February 2 from 6.30pm. Live music will come from Paolo Morena and there’ll be free wine and nibbles.
Shine On, Marquee Moon is out now, published by Matador.