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"You can't change the world..." — Adam, responding to a question about "one truth that isn't true"

#Zero the Hero. An Interview with Neil McCormick

@U2

Neil with Book and Promo Cover

(Editor's note: Aaron Govern contributed to McCormick's crowd-funding campaign for #Zero.)

The British Library in London is one of the largest libraries in the world, so what could be a better setting to meet Neil McCormick, whose first novel, #Zero, has just been published? The reading room is silent, however, with way too little privacy to hold a conversation, let alone an interview with the chief music critic of the UK broadsheet The Daily Telegraph. We decide to move to a hotel lounge, where the clink of bar glasses offers a suitable rock ’n’ roll setting.

McCormick will be familiar to followers of U2. In 2006, he was the author of the best-selling authorized biography U2 By U2, a review of the band’s formation and subsequent 30-year history. This was preceded in 2003 by another nonfiction work, a memoir of McCormick’s life as a (failed) pop star, known in the UK and Europe as I Was Bono’s Doppelganger and in the USA as Killing Bono. The latter title was retained for a film starring Ben Barnes as Neil and Robert Sheehan playing the role of his younger brother and bandmate Ivan (a founding member of Feedback in September 1976, before their metamorphosis into U2 by early 1978). Last year the book-turned-film found new success as a play in London, this time known as Chasing Bono.

McCormick has been a journalist for nearly all his adult life. Upon leaving school in 1978 — Mount Temple Comprehensive in Clontarf, where classmates included Bono — Neil joined the team at Ireland’s Hot Press music magazine, where he worked for several years before moving to England in 1983. There he combined the role of aspiring pop star (in conjunction with brother Ivan, he had formed Shook Up!) with that of freelance journalist. When the band broke up, he became a full-time writer. For five years starting in 1991, he was a contributing editor at GQ magazine in the UK before joining The Daily Telegraph in 1996.

McCormick has interviewed many people in the music business, and continues to attend and review concerts several times each week. In recent years he has also been the presenter of the Vintage TV program Neil McCormick’s Needle Time, interviewing many of his favorite musicians.

So following our podcast interview with Neil McCormick in 2017 that covered the genesis of #Zero, we’re here to discuss his critically acclaimed new novel, recently published via Unbound in the UK.

So Neil, why write a novel?

Like most writers, I have always wanted to write a novel. Books are at the heart of my life. I’ve defined myself as a reader ever since I was a small child, and I always thought I’d be an author someday, but I kind of allowed myself to be hijacked by all these other dreams of music and performing. I think in terms of stories, and I have started many novels over the years; this is just the first one I have finished! As a journalist, I write nonfiction essentially all of the time — and I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years. I really enjoy it, and I enjoy being part of the conversation about music that is going on in the world, but in journalism you are always bound by the restraints of the factual. You can’t just make stuff up. That is the nonfiction challenge: to create narrative out of things that actually happened. But with fiction there are no limits at all, and writing with that sense of freedom has been incredibly rewarding and great fun.

I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and back in my band days I was working on a novel called The Cannibal Sheep-Eaters, an apocalyptic romantic comedy. It was the name of a made-up punk band in Ireland. I got quite far into that, but when you are young, I think you are still growing very fast, and writing a book takes a long time, and I had a feeling of constantly outgrowing the work. All the books I started fell by the wayside, and maybe I needed to mature and just slow down before I was ready to return to fiction.

The world of journalism has been very good to me, and I have made a good living from it. But I don’t define myself as a journalist. I write songs, poetry and fiction, for my own pleasure. I’ve scripted some short films and sold a screenplay in the mid-’90s that I was very proud of, but it never got made. Those are all tough places to make a living. I think it’s something like only one in 20 books make a profit. That’s not why you take on something like this. Writing a novel for me has been a long time coming, but it is a chance to try my hand at perhaps the highest form of the writer’s art.

You grew up in Dublin, and went to Mount Temple Comprehensive. Did you study the works of the great Irish writers such as Joyce, Yeats, Wilde, etc.?

I have read them all, but not in school. We didn’t study the Irish curriculum in that way; our reading list was actually more modern literature such as The Great Gatsby, 1984 and Lord Of The Rings. We did do a lot of Irish poetry, so I became very familiar with Yeats, who I read to this day, and you can certainly hear his influence in U2’s songs. I was a voracious reader all through my school days but unfortunately I was always a bit of a rebel, and didn’t particularly like to read what I was told to. I remember smuggling a copy of Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall into the classroom. I would stick it inside whatever book we were supposed to be reading but I was giggling so much it gave the game away, resulting in having that book confiscated for two weeks. Much to my frustration. 

You describe novel writing as taking a long time. So how long did it take you to write #Zero?

It probably only took me a few weeks of actual writing … but spread over nearly 15 years. The procrastination-to-writing ratio was particularly bad with this one.

The book is set in the music business, which has changed so much in the last 10 years, especially with streaming and social media. Did that influence the content of the book?

Absolutely. In fact, that was driving me crazy. Things changed so rapidly that if I put the book down for a year to work on another thing, the next time I’d look at it everything would be out of date. When I started it, Myspace was a new thing, then virtually took over the music business, then disappeared without a trace. You write a draft in the age of CDs, then return to the draft and downloading has taken over. So you make changes to incorporate downloading, and suddenly everyone is streaming. But the constant thing at the center of the story is the corrosive power of fame, and the way that was changing actually fed into my narrative. Fame has always been a tough thing for individuals to cope with, but it’s probably worse now than it has ever been.

Examining fame was a big element of my memoir, although I was really looking at it from the point of view of not becoming famous. This is about fame from the inside. I started to dream this up as a follow-up to Bono’s Doppelganger back in 2003, and I wrote three chapters for my agent, none of which have survived to the finished draft. Then in 2004 I was asked to write the U2 biography, which was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I thought that would take a year, but actually it took two years. So when U2 By U2 was completed in mid-2006, I went back to the novel, but the internet was changing music and I realized I would have to rethink my story.

The trouble is, the internet was changing the face of journalism, too, and work demands became pretty intense. I really had to change the way I worked, and there was a period of several years where I was very absorbed by that. Like a lot of writers, I was a terrible procrastinator! But the internet demands speed, it demands instant reactions, and it is voracious for copy whilst simultaneously undermining the economics of journalism, so I focused on just getting the words on the page, becoming an instant responder. Write first; edit later.

I have become a very fast writer — I found processes that helped me really write with focus and intensity. Ultimately that has helped me so much in writing the book. But it took me a while to come back to it, and by then, of course, everything had changed again and I kind of had to start from scratch. I went back to completing the book in 2010, and stayed in a cottage in Wiltshire where there was no phone signal, and no internet, and no interruptions at all, and experienced a miraculous epiphany of writing and rapture — so much so that the book went through changes that I hadn’t planned on. I effectively completed the first draft of the book in isolation, writing like a demon, 80,000 words in two weeks. But even that is not the same as the book that is in the shops now. That version had my hero Zero operating in a meta-fictional world populated by real pop and rock stars. But therein lay another pitfall …

What happened?

Amy Winehouse was featured in the book, as one of many walk-on parts interacting with my lead character, Zero. I knew Amy a little bit, and I figured I could ask her permission. And after she died in 2011, I was confronted by the danger of fictionalizing real lives, and I just had to rethink that whole concept. I mean, she died from the very kind of things that haunt Zero — the intense glare of fame opening up fissures in unresolved emotional issues dating back to childhood. I saw her just a month or so before she died, and I really thought she was back, that she was going to make it. Such a talent, such a tragedy. Anyway, that necessitated another rewrite, which was actually to the benefit of the book, because I got to make up a whole galaxy of imaginary pop and rock stars, and I had so much fun doing that. So we’ve got a lairy Scottish diva called Amber Smack in there now

There are still a number of guest appearances by famous music stars who interact with Zero.

Just a smattering of superstars to give it a bit of a real-world spine. It’s a bit of an in joke really. It’s Bono, Elton John and Sting, because I get along with them all and I was confident they wouldn’t sue me!

Why did the novel take so long to appear?

The publishing world is slow. And to be honest, my agent struggled placing the book. Publishers seemed to like it but they were confused by it. I have been in meetings being asked, “What is the genre?” I have no idea. I mean, it’s a story. It’s funny. It’s emotional. It’s exciting. But I don’t know where you stack it in a book shop. So eventually, we went to Unbound, which has been great because they have an independent mentality and don’t concern themselves with genres. It means the author has to do a lot of crowd-funding to make the first edition happen, but that has been interesting; it puts you in a very close and symbiotic relationship with your readers.

The original title of the book wasn’t #Zero, as I understand?

Yes, that’s right. I called my book Motherless Child, but my editor didn’t like it, and said it came across as a book title that only women would read! I hate that distinction. I kind of think it is in the Nick Hornby vein, who is like a woman’s writer for men. I have actually been in meetings where publishers have said, “We think this is a man’s book, but the problem is men don’t read books.” To which the only possible response is, “I’m a man, and I read books!” How did books become divided by gender? It’s nuts.

Anyway, the theme of Zero being a Motherless Child is at the core of the story. There are so many rock stars who grew up without their mother being present. John Lennon and Paul McCartney famously, and Bono, too. Is that absence part of the equation of fame? Over the years Bono and I have talked about the “God-shaped hole,” as he calls it — the need for love to replace the unconditional mother love most of us just took for granted. But Zero is certainly not Bono, as you will know if you can get past the sweary, obnoxious, drug-taking opening chapter!

Bono did give me the title #Zero, though. When I wrote I Was Bono’s Doppelganger, the American publishers didn’t like having the word doppelganger in the title. They thought their readers wouldn’t understand it. It was Bono who suggested calling it Killing Bono. He said, “There’s a lot of people who would wear that T-shirt.” And my publishers loved it. So similarly, when I had the same problem with Motherless Child, I was actually in Dublin with Bono, on the set of a video. I mentioned this to him, and he said, “What is the name of your character?” When I told him, he said, “That’s it — Zero — that’s the name of your book.” And I thought to myself, well this is someone who knows a thing or two about titles, and so I went with it. I added the hashtag though. So he can’t take all the credit.

Did Bono help with any aspects in the book?

I was writing about a young pop superstar, and I was intrigued how such a person would be able to pay for things. Bono told me about the American Express Black that features in the book, which is a kind of rock-star credit card. Just talking to him and being around his world gave me a lot of ideas, but there was one particular conversation about one aspect of the story that actually went on to become a major element of the narrative. He has a very quick-fire mind; he is always a good person to talk to about creative things. And he has always been very supportive [of] my writing and was very encouraging about my taking on a novel. He knows he’s in it. I sent him the offending chapter, and we’re still friends, so I will take that as a sign of approval!

I think Bono could write a novel. What do you think?

I believe he is writing his autobiography and that will be great. But the art of writing a novel is different to that of a memoir. It’s a whole other area of narrative and character skills. His thing is actually poetry; his lyrics stand up on the page. He often writes in character — The Fly being a good example, this devilish character dispensing bad wisdom. My hero’s manager, Beasley, has a bit of The Fly about him.

Bono is a great writer, and we’ve known that for a long time. Back in the 1980s he would sometimes write a journalistic piece and sent them to me via fax to give him an editorial opinion. And I’d look at them and they were depressingly brilliant! I’d just have to admit he didn’t need to make any changes. Maybe correct his spelling! He could definitely have been a critic; he has a very perceptive way of looking into art.

But he would have been really dangerous if he ever went into advertising or marketing. He is a great phrase maker. Imagine Bono trying to sell you expensive gadgets instead of saving the world. It doesn’t bear thinking about. His phrase-making is so good that when he quotes famous writers such as Sam Shepherd, more often than not he misremembers the phrases and actually improves them! I hope he is getting on with his memoir as it will be utterly rich and fascinating. I don’t think he needs a ghostwriter. But I’m available to correct his spelling.

How difficult was it to write U2 By U2?

It wouldn’t describe it as difficult, although it was a challenge putting the historical narrative structure in place. The early stuff was easy for me to work on, as I had the advantage of being there! I used ATU2 a lot in my research. There is a fabulous amount of fan-based resources out there packed with day-to-day factual detail. Most bands don’t have this at all; probably only The Beatles and Bob Dylan have as much written about them. In addition, I carried out over 100 hours of interviews. One of the challenges was to construct a narrative, to get to the truth, by simply using the four voices of the band.

Actually, Neil, I noticed some anomalies in U2 By U2, such as Bono stating that he remembers his mother (who died in 1974) coming to his bedroom to tell him that Elvis had died (Presley died in 1977). Those quotes make a good story, but did you deliberately leave them in?

Does it say that? OK, I am going to claim I left it in deliberately. I did leave some anomalies in for the fun of it, but you’d think I would have spotted a ghost of Bono’s mother. From the start of the project, I wanted it to be first-person: It is actually an autobiography, not a biography. The book is called U2 By U2, and I thought it was important that it come from their perspective, their four voices, and also of then manager Paul McGuinness. But everybody remembers things differently. I came across many contradictions and if they were insurmountable then I would insist that it was so wrong that it didn’t happen and couldn’t be included.

Bono has a creative imagination, and he tells a story to dig out a bigger truth, but I frequently had to explain that he was misremembering the timeline of events. But in fact, the same kind of contradictions would come from all four members, so there is usually no definitive version of the truth, just subjective truths, and leaving them in actually helps form a multifaceted picture of events and how they subjectively shaped the band. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Writing the book was like conducting an orchestra of voices, and I had to ensure that the voices were balanced and it wasn’t all just Bono and Edge, who are the most talkative. Larry and Adam’s perspectives are just as valuable, and very unique. As time went on, and we got to the end, they became more and more involved and changed some of their contributions. Even when the book was on the printing press, I can remember band members saying they wanted to change something! And we did it, too. At the end, Bono said to me, “Now you know what it’s like to be a producer of our albums.”

You have been involved in the music industry and music journalism for almost 40 years. If you were 21 years old again, what advice would you give yourself?

Well, interestingly, I was recently at a reunion of the Mount Temple class of 1978, where all the men are getting grayer and balder and the women have mysteriously gone blond! Ali was there and Edge usually comes, but Bono doesn’t tend to come as he thinks it might disturb the balance. And really he was class of ’77; he just got kept back because he failed his Irish exams and became a member of our class. Which suited him because it meant he could stay in school and practice with U2.

Anyway, we were sitting around a table late at night, and I remember someone saying, “What advice you would give to your teenage self?” And there was a kind of ruminative silence as we all thought about this weighty question. Finally, I piped up with: “Join U2!” To much laughter, it must be said. The only problem with that is I fancied myself as a singer, so we’d have had to kick Bono out. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

If I was really to give advice to my 21-year-old self, I might have said, “Calm down!” I was in a big hurry to get on with life. I grew up to become a writer, a newspaper columnist, a musician who released albums. I have had a play and a film and a TV show. I don’t know if my younger self would have been satisfied with that though. I was bent on superstardom. But this is my life and I wouldn’t have changed much.

It might have been nice to have had a more substantial music career. Would it have made me happier? Who knows? It is good to get validation for your art, and to be able to explore the most creative parts of yourself. But I have written this book about a character who achieves enormous fame, fortune and success and it tears him apart.

Success can destroy some people — and may have done so to me, to be honest. I was a bit too wild, too ready to indulge in reckless behavior. In U2, I think the friendship and religious faith has been so important in helping keep the ship steady. There was nothing particularly steady about my younger self. So yes, keep calm and don’t panic! That’s good advice for any young person venturing into the world.

#Zero by Neil McCormick is out now and available from all booksellers, Amazon US, Amazon UK and Unbound

Neil McCormick links:

The Daily Telegraph profile

Twitter: @neil_mccormick

 Neil & Ivan McCormick at Zero Launch party

Neil McCormick and his brother Ivan (original member of Feedback in 1976) performing “Don’t Be Afraid” from the soundtrack of the book at the #Zero launch party.

(c) Govern/@U2, 2019