Mott The Hoople Is Alive And Well

FEATURE BY Willard Manus

I published my novel MOTT THE HOOPLE in 1966 and didn't get a single request for an autographed copy until twenty-five years later, when the orders suddenly poured in and still persist to this day.

Originally released in a hardbound edition by McGraw Hill, MOTT THE HOOPLE was a comic novel about a larger-than-life character named Norman Mott who was very much a child of the 60s: rebellious, irreverent and anti-establishment. Mott thought of himself as a hoople, as in Major Hoople (of Our Boarding House comic-strip fame), or as in the old American slang expression, meaning buffoon or sucker. Hence the book's odd, puzzling title.

MOTT got some excellent reviews. Life Magazine's critic, for example, said the book "should be approached like a trip to the amusement park: one goes to have fun, and the rides and the freaks, the cotton candy and the hot dogs, are all there now for one's ready pleasure. It moves at a Marx Brothers' pace and is one of the funniest I've read in years."

The Chicago Tribune called Norman Mott "a gargantua. A clown, but not without nobility. Here is Willard Manus' achievement." Publisher's Weekly said, "This bawdy comedy is a wild one, combining elements of the black and the slapstick. Mott is 240 pounds of Bronx Jewish male in hot pursuit of a seemingly frigid WASP girl friend...Manus writes with a yeasty zest for life but underneath all of the sometimes surrealistic razzamatazz of his plot lies a kernel of somber tragedy."

It looked as if the book might become a best-seller until the high-and-mighty New York Times Book Review weighed in with this opinion: "Manus, it seems, is having a snigger at excess and phoniness and everyday knavery. But he is pretty tedious about it."

That killed the book's chances in the all-important New York market. McGraw-Hill ended up selling ten thousand copies but declined to go back to press. There was no paperback sale either.

A year later the British edition of the book came out. By then I was living in the Greek island village of Lindos, where I received a telegram from my publisher, Secker & Warburg: "Congratulations. Mott just received rave reviews in the Sunday edition of all three of our national newspapers. No other first novel has ever had such unanimous critical reception."

Visions of best-sellerdom once again danced tantalizingly before my eyes. But not for long: the book sold less than a thousand copies.

Not long after that MOTT came out in Italy. Same story: great reviews, no sales.

No matter, life went on. I started work on another novel, wrote travel articles, went spearfishing. MOTT was pretty much forgotten, except for the option money I received annually from one Hollywood film company or another. It usually amounted to a couple of thousand bucks, enough to just about live on in Lindos, where my rent for a six-room villa was twelve dollars a month.

Then in late '69, a British friend arrived with an album in hand. It featured the work of a new rock band which called itself MOTT THE HOOPLE and was headed by Ian Hunter and featured such musicians as Morgan Fisher, Mick Ralphs, Overend Watts, Verden Allen and Dale Griffin. The news took me by surprise. No one had asked permission to exploit my title; nor was there any mention of the novel in the album's liner notes.

Friends suggested that I sue or at least threaten to make a fuss, but I decided to treat the occurence as something of a joke. But when the band became famous over the next five years--one of its albums, All the Young Dudes, hit the top of the rock charts--I did write to Secker & Warburg, suggesting that it should try and sell copies of the novel at the band's concerts. No go. "We're not equipped to do such a thing," came the lame excuse.

MTH disbanded in 1974, after the release of its fourth album. End of band, end of people asking, "Is it true you wrote all of the band's songs?" End of me replying, "Not only that, but I have written all of their music as well. It's made me quite wealthy."

Flash forward eight years. I was now living in Los Angeles, where I met Patrick O'Connor, a New York editor who had just relocated to the West Coast to head Pinnacle Books. "I'm a big fan of MOTT," he said, "and if the rights are free, I'd like to bring it out again in paperback."

The book came out. More good reviews...and modest sales. A few more years went by. O'Connor died, Pinnacle went under, but not before I bought the thousand-odd remaining copies of the novel. Reason being the hardbound edition was fetching as much as a hundred dollars in the used-book market. Some people out there liked it, even considered it an "underground classic." Maybe they'd start finding their way to me.

They soon did. Came a phone call one day, and a plummy English voice. "Hello, is that Mott the Hoople?" It was Morgan Fisher, the ex-keyboard player in Ian Hunter's band. He too was now living in L.A. He invited me to a party and told me about the vast network of Mott the Hoople fans that now existed round the world.

The network included appreciation societies, magazines, fanzines, internet chat groups, books, videos, documentaries and conventions. "Inevitably the talk gets round to you," said Morgan. "Rumor had it that you were a recluse, living on a mountaintop in Greece from which you had not come down in years."

Morgan put me in touch with Keith Smith, editor of Two Miles From Heaven, The Magazine of the Official Mott the Hoople Appreciation Society. (The "two miles from heaven" reference, by the way, was taken from the first line of my novel). Smith did an in-depth interview with me and when it was published in 2001, it was followed by a deluge of letters, faxes and e-mails requesting signed copies of the book.

Here are a few typical missives that came my way: "I received a copy of the Pinnacle first printing a few years ago as a gift, and would like to add a signed copy to my collection...Look for my personalized license plate "Mott Man" next time you're on the 405, and give me a hoot!"

"I was so pleased to hear via the 'net' that you were still alive and kicking! The 'net had been my last hope of ever finding your book and I had given up hope of ever finding it...The story goes that Ian Hunter read the book while in prison. I was going to try the Prison Library Service although I wasn't sure if I had to be imprisoned first! I would like two signed copies of Mott the Hoople, one for myself and one for my friend who is not on the 'net'...Thanks for all the info that you posted to the Mott list."

"...yes, I'll have a signed copy. I thought I'd never get to see your novel Mott the Hoople...The impression I always had, from reading band biographies, was that Mott was a one-off dime-store novel...but then rock journalism is rarely thorough in research outside of its own little world."

The Mott the Hoople band gave birth to such cover bands as British Lions, Bad Company and Widowmaker, to name but a few. The name is also kept alive by tribute albums, repackaged CDs, television specials (mostly in the UK), updated discographies and biographies. Mott is a minor cottage industry which also offers T-shirts, posters, photos and other memorabilia for sale, some of it signed by the musicians. My novel is only a small part of those transactions, but I'm grateful for the attention nonetheless, if only because the market value of the McGraw-Hill and Pinnacle editions has tripled and quadrupled in recent years. Also, it led to Amazon agreeing to publish it as an E-book.

As I told my wife recently, LONG LIVE MOTT...AND MOTT THE HOOPLE FANS!