#Zero: A first look at Neil McCormick’s new book

Original Story by Harry Kantas (2017-10-08)

Neil McCormick’s newest book, #Zero, tells the autobiographic tale of a fictional popstar: Zero.


Zero is the latest craze. Young, sexy, smart and brilliant, a 24-7 #genius and multi-hyphenated (singer-songwriter-rapper-producer) next level superstar for the digital generation. According to his publicist at least.

He’s also an obnoxious, narcissistic, insecure, hyperactive, coke-snorting, pill-popping, loud-mouthed, oversexed, misogynistic, misanthropic maelstrom of contradictions skating over the thin ice of terminal self-loathing. But that is all part of the attraction.

The book is finished, but has not been published yet. Publishing is being handled by Unbound in London, where each book goes through crowdfunding.
Different pledge layers are available, some of which include some U2 collectibles.
Head over to the Unbound site, for more info on #Zero, as well as the various pledge packages.

Bono appears to be making a guest appearance in Zero’s world. He also suggested the hero’s name, Zero, as the book’s title, when Neil was trying to come up with one. Bono had also suggested “Killing Bono” as the title for Neil’s “I was Bono’s doppelganger”, which eventually became the title of the book’s adaptation to film.
The latest update, tells exactly this story.

We reached out to Neil, with a few questions about #Zero, and he was kind enough to respond:

Harry: “I was Bono’s Doppelganger” came out in 2004, and you’ve been toying with the idea of “#Zero” ever since. Is it almost there, is it finished, is there still writing to be done?

Neil: It is finished … but there is always writing to be done. Like Edge in the mastering suite, I will be tinkering until the last possible moment.

Harry: Does the shift to writing fiction feel liberating after years of reporting facts, or offering an opinion? Has it taken you out of your comfort zone, was it challenging to write?

Neil: It was sheer pleasure to write, as it would have to be, because no one was paying me to do it. I am writing all the time for a living, so there has to be something exciting and personally rewarding to get me back on the computer, banging away, on my own time, long into the night.

The shift to fiction does feel liberating, which is not to denigrate non-fiction and journalism. Capturing the truth of events, expressing critical opinion about works of art, boiling things down to their most efficient essence and yet still remaining thoughtful and entertaining, all this is the work of my daily writing and it makes me feel part of an on-going conversation with the music loving public. It is where I have honed my writing skills. But I love fiction, I read a lot of it, and it offers different paths to deeper truths, where you are not bound by the facts but liberated by the imagination.

So rather than taking me out of my comfort zone, it put me in a different comfort zone, where I felt free to run wild. It is probably true that it was harder for me to have a sense of its overall shape and relative merit, but it was an absolutely giddy thrill to write. Whenever I got the chance, that is.

Squeezing it into my busy working and family life was the biggest challenge. I did start thinking about it as a follow up to Bono’s Doppelganger … but then Bono called and asked me to ghostwrite U2’s autobiography, which swept me away on other adventures for a couple of years. My novel was actually written in huge intermittent chunks rather than steady accretions.

Harry: Zero sounds like a modern-day pop star. Is their story taking place in the present, or an alternate timeline? Does it take place exclusively in NYC?

Neil: It starts off in New York City … and then travels further afield. New York is one of the most densely intensely electrifying places on earth, where there is really no escape from the multiplicity of other people and the in-your-face attack of modern media, so it seemed a good place to conjure a crisis in someone who is starting to find fame oppressive. But the book is an odyssey of sorts, involving journeys both geographical and psychological. I’m a big of Homer, the Greek bard not the Simpson’s character. Though him too.

The story takes place in a projected present, maybe five minutes from now, which presented challenges of its own. Because it took me so long to write, I was very conscious that the music business was changing radically and dramatically even as I was writing. Between conception and completion, CD album sales died, whilst downloading and then streaming came in. The nature and methodology of pop underwent so many structural changes, events kept forcing me back to new beginnings, to consider how they might affect my narrative. So it has been through several iterations over the years.

Harry: #Zero is “featuring guest appearances by Sting, Sir Elton John and Bono.” Should we expect Zero’s character to have some traits, or stories, familiar to us? Could Zero connect to any of the guest stars, or one of the Undertakers, or say members of Shook Up, in a parallel universe perhaps?

Neil: In my original draft, the narrative was very “meta”, set in a pop landscape almost entirely populated by real stars, apart from Zero himself. Which was fun writing but, on reflection, presented ethical problems. I tend to feel it is taking a liberty fictionalising a living person’s life. Plus, I don’t think I could afford the legal fees if they objected. I put it aside for a while, and when I returned, it dawned on me it would actually be even more fun creating a whole cast of imaginary pop stars, and it would allow me to explore themes with complete inhibition, which was hugely liberating.

My imaginary pop world became one of the most entertaining elements of Zero’s second draft. But I did want to keep the patina of a real and recognisable pop culture in place, so I created small walk-on parts for a few big household names who, I figured, were smart enough to enjoy the meta-frisson, humorous enough to see the funny side and, perhaps more importantly, were friendly enough not to sue me. Zero does indeed interact with them. I was a bit nervous about telling Bono he was in my novel as a fictional character. But the Bono that the world sees is a kind of a fictional character anyway. He knows he can trust me to give him good lines.

Harry: For what it’s worth, I loved the working title (“Motherless Child”). But Bono convinced you to name the book after the main hero. And it does pack a punch to it. “Zero” has found a place in music too throughout the years, not just math. The Smashing Pumpkins immediately come to mind, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. There’s a line in the unreleased demo of U2’s Mercy, “we’re binary code, a one and a zero”, which is among my favourite lyrics for its simplicity, and direct meaning.
Does your Zero come from a similar place?

Neil: I wanted a one word name, which has become increasingly common form of branding in pop music. There was a time when Sting, Prince, Madonna and, of course, Bono, were exceptions rather than the rule. Nowadays, it seems surnames have become almost as superfluous as musical ability. Of course, a lot of the best names have been taken by now. But I arrived at Zero pretty quickly, because I was struck by the idea of someone who was all front with nothing behind, a hero to his fans who (like so many stars) felt worthless inside.

The actual full name of the character is Pedro Ulysses Noone, the Ulysses of course creating a connection back to the Odyssey. But I think there might have been another book of that name before. Noone (or No One) makes another Homeric connection. Odysseus escapes Polyphemus the Cyclops by telling him his name is Nobody (or No Man, or No One depending on translation), so when Odysseus blinds Polyphemus, the other one eyed giants rush to his aid and ask who has done this to him. To which he replies “Nobody.” So they leave him unaided. You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy my novel, it is, first and foremost, a big, juicy, funny romp, but this is the kind of web a writer’s mind constantly spins. I really liked the idea of a superstar who amounts to nothing. Plus, Zero is a cool word. I have, ever since, nervously watched the charts for someone to come to the same conclusion.

Harry: #Zero will also come with a soundtrack, recorded by Zero and friends, is there anything you can tell us about that? Has it always been your intent to dictate the music your story is set in, or did that just come about organically, as the story evolved?

Neil: It’s a book set in the music business, filled with musical characters, so inevitably there were song titles being thrown around, and bits of lyrics dropped in, and just as inevitably I started to flesh those out. I was a songwriter before I was a journalist, and it’s a form of expression I love. For me, the combination of lyric and melody has an emotive power no other writing can really get close to. So I still write songs, for an audience usually limited to friends and family. It seems a fun idea to conjure up music for all my imaginary pop stars, and I thought it might be interesting to flesh them out, with help from some of my musical friends. It is still in its early stages. I haven’t asked Bono to bring round his kazoo yet.

Harry: Will the original soundtrack lineup be also present at the book launch party? Will we actually get to see/meet an incarnation of Zero?

Neil: Zero is so supernaturally handsome and talented in my book, I am not sure I know anyone who could fill his shoes. But I do know a lot of talented musicians, and we will certainly be taking a stab at it.

Harry: Would you consider selling the film rights to #Zero? “Killing Bono” (the film adaptation to “I was Bono’s doppelganger”), was probably too close to home, and the wrong example for you to form an opinion to having your work adapted to film, but what about a fictional story like this one?

Neil: The Killing Bono movie was pretty traumatic for me in some ways, because it created a fictionalised version of my life that is more real to many people than my actual life. But it’s a funny film, and I’m flattered it exists.

I was interviewing Ellie Goulding once, and we were about half way through when she mentioned U2, I said “I went to school with them” and she suddenly started screaming – “You’re him! You’re him!” Turns out she and her then boyfriend Skrillex had just watched the film. It was quite difficult to get the interview back on track, cos she was asking more questions than me. I’ve had a few funny experiences like that. Lars Ulrich of Metallica is a fan of Killing Bono. I went to interview him, and he wound up interviewing me for Metallica’s fan magazine.

Of course, I would sell the film rights to Zero. This is how I make a living. The only problem is that my imagination ran riot, and as I conjured up ever more ludicrous scenes, I would think, that would put another ten million on the film budget. But I wrote them anyway, because that is the wonder of print. You can create the most mind blowing special effects with words alone.

Harry: The U2 collector in us can’t overlook the ‘Killing Bono’ package from the pledge tiers. There are 4 of these packages available, and they each include “one valuable hand-picked item from Neil’s treasure trove of U2 memorabilia” amongst all the other cool things in there. Any chance we can get a teaser on those 4 items?

Neil: To be honest, I haven’t decided yet. But it will have to be something good, won’t it? I have got a lot of interesting things over the years, from lanyards and back stage passes to rare records and memorabilia, but not much of it is signed, because I am always too embarrassed to ask my friends for autographs. But Bono has been fantastically encouraging about this project because he knows me, and he really thinks fiction is the way I should be going. “Whatever you need, I’m in,” he foolishly promised. So I may have to hold him to that.

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