While a song can tell a story in just a few minutes, novels are thousands of words long, which can make writing one a daunting task. But there are plenty of musicians who were up for the challenge. Here are some of them.
1. Jimmy Buffett
Known for creating hit songs that celebrate laid back living (see “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise”), Jimmy Buffett branched out into book writing in 1988 with the children’s book The Jolly Mon, which he wrote with his then-9-year-old daughter, Savannah Jane Buffet. He released the bestselling short story collection Tales From Margaritaville a year later, and published his first novel, Where Is Joe Merchant?, in 1992. Buffet has written seven books total (including two with his daughter), and is one of the few authors to top both the fiction and nonfiction New York Times bestsellers lists. (He’s in good company: Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Dr. Seuss are among the other authors on the list.)
“I think I was driven to write because I wound up living in Key West, which was a literary town when I went there,” Buffett explained in an interview given when Joe Merchant was released. “The short-story book was successful. I couldn’t leave it there. I didn’t try to write War and Peace. I tried to write something you could take to the beach. I wanted it to read easy.”
2. Woody Guthrie
House of Earth, the story of a poverty-stricken couple during the Great Depression, is believed to be the only novel ever written by folk music icon Woody Guthrie. Author Douglas Brinkley came across a mention of the novel—which Guthrie got the idea for in the 1930s and wrote in 1947—in the course of some research. He ultimately found the book, which was finally published by the HarperCollins imprint Infinitum Nihil (run by Brinkley and actor Johnny Depp) in 2013. The book may have never made it to print due to its explicit sexual content and Communist themes.
3. Nick Cave
After publishing a book of lyrics and plays called King Ink, the lead singer of the bands The Bad Seeds and The Birthday Party wrote a novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, in 1989. (It was reissued by Penguin with a cover illustration by Banksy a year later.) “It was a very solitary project,” Cave told Bomb magazine in 1990. “I was primarily concerned with the language. ... I wanted the book to have a voice that was recognizable in the same way as Nabokov has his. I wanted the style to be quite unique.”
In 2009, he released The Death of Bunny Munro, which was accompanied by an iPhone app that included both the e-book and the audiobook (which was read by the author), a soundtrack by Cave and Warren Ellis, and videos featuring Cave reading passages of the text. Cave has also published books of lyrics, musings from tours, and more in the years since.
4. Gil Scott-Heron
When Gil Scott-Heron died in 2011, The Guardian referred to him as a “poet, jazz musician, and rap pioneer”—but he was also a novelist. Scott-Heron released both his first of more than 20 albums, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (the live recording featured “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a song that led to him being dubbed “The Godfather of Rap”), and his debut novel, The Vulture, in 1970.
Scott-Heron left Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University in 1968 to write the book, about the murder of a teenager in New York City, with plans to return to his classes by early 1969—but that’s not what happened: When January rolled around, he had little more to show for his novel than when he had left school. Thankfully, later that month he had a breakthrough; he soon took a job at a dry cleaner’s, where he also slept, and asked his friends to read pages of the novel.
“The experience of writing The Vulture was my way of doing the high-wire act blindfolded,” he later wrote, “knowing that if it didn't work, if it wasn't published, there was no safety net that I could land on and no hole that I could crawl into, no way to face the other folks at Lincoln and no money to go anywhere else.” The book was eventually bought by World Publishing. A second novel followed two years after that, as did a book of poetry and a memoir.
5. Dolly Parton
“Backwoods Barbie” and country music star Dolly Parton needs no introduction—after all, she’s released 65 albums, starred in several films, helped fund a vaccine for COVID-19, and sent nearly 200 million free books to kids around the world via her Imagination Library. She’s also written cookbooks, children’s books, autobiographies, and collections of poetry and lyrics. So perhaps it feels inevitable that she’s turning her attention to fiction: Parton teamed up with James Patterson to co-write Run, Rose, Run—about a talented singer who arrives in Nashville desperate to leave her past behind—which was released in March 2022 as well as an album of the same name.
“Any time you work with anybody, whether it’s a song or book, it’s a very creative process,” Parton said in an interview. “You have to think about the subject matter; where this should land and where that should land. So it’s very similar, but you just don’t have to rhyme so much. Your mind is allowed to be a little freer as you go, because you don’t have to keep it down to two and a half minutes for radio or that sort of thing. So you have more freedom in writing a book than you do a song.”
6. Leonard Cohen
Unlike most of the musicians on this list, Leonard Cohen was a published writer before he released any music. As an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, Cohen published poems in Canadian magazines and won the Chester MacNaughten Literary Competition for two of his poems, “Sparrows” and “Thoughts of a Landsman.” His first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was released in 1956, and was followed by another poetry collection called The Spice-Box of Earth a few years later. Cohen’s first novel, a coming-of-age story called The Favourite Game, was published in 1963; he released his second and final novel, Beautiful Losers, in 1966.
“I’d published two novels and two or three books of poems,” he later said. “I didn’t expect to make a living out of the poetry, but I thought that I could make one writing novels. But there were only maybe 3000 copies of Beautiful Losers worldwide … I was playing a lot of guitar and I thought, ‘It’s all right being a writer—I always want to be a writer—but I think I’d like to go to Nashville and make some country-western records. … I decided, ‘That’s going to build me up.’ I had some songs sketched out.”
Cohen moved to New York City in 1967 in hopes of launching a songwriting career. He eventually turned to performing and released his first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” that same year. Cohen died in 2016; six years later, McClelland & Stewart published A Ballet of Lepers, a collection of previously unreleased fiction that included short stories, the titular novella—which was actually written before The Favourite Game—and a play.
7. Rupert Holmes
Best known for writing and recording the yacht rock classic “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” Holmes has had an incredibly diverse career that includes penning plays and musicals (including The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a Tony Award-winning musical based on the novel by Charles Dickens, and a musical version of the movie The First Wives’ Club) and creating AMC’s first original television series, Remember WENN. Holmes is also a novelist: His first novel, the mystery/thriller Where The Truth Lies, was published in 2003, and was adapted into a film two years later; he also wrote Swing, a multimedia project that combines a mystery novel with a CD of music that provides clues to the mystery in the book.
8. John Darnielle
John Darnielle founded folk rock act the Mountain Goats while he was a student at Pitzer College, where he double majored in English and classics. His first book, Black Sabbath: Master of Reality—penned for the 33 1/3 series, in which writers focus on a single album—was published in 2008. While most of the books in the series are nonfiction, Darnielle’s novella was a series of journal entries written by a young man in a mental hospital to his psychiatrist in hopes of getting his Black Sabbath tapes back. Darnielle’s first novel, the critically acclaimed (and best-selling) Wolf in White Van, was released in 2014.
“I had wanted to be a writer long before I wanted to be a musician, and I became a musician kind of accidentally,” Darnielle told The New Yorker. “Once I got into writing Wolf in White Van, I found that pleasure in writing a big book, and in actually seeing the project through to a satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t give you the giant adrenaline hit you get from a song. You can never get that from writing books, as far as I know. But you get the sense you get when you build a house: ‘Well now, here’s a whole place you can go live.’” Wolf in the White Van was followed by Universal Harvester (2018) and Devil House (2022).
9. Bruce Dickinson
Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson’s first book The Adventures of Lord Iffy Boatrace, a comic novel about the British upper class inspired by the work of British satirist Tom Sharpe, was published in 1990. Dickinson wrote the book while on tour with Iron Maiden, and eagerly shared his work with his bandmates. Drummer Nicko McBrain recalled that “He was unbearable, because you’d be doing something on the bus and he’d have just finished writing a new chapter and he’d want to read the whole fricking story to you!”
Dickinson followed up Boatrace with another satirical novel, The Missionary Position, two years later, and has since written a screenplay (2008’s Chemical Weapon) and released an autobiography (What Does This Button Do?, published in 2017).
10. Richard Hell
Like Leonard Cohen, Richard Hell (who was born Richard Lester Myers) was a published poet before he was a recording artist—he even took his pseudonym from 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud’s collection A Season in Hell. Hell moved to New York in the mid-‘60s to become a poet; he created his own independent press, wrote poems for publications like Rolling Stone, and formed the band that would become Television.
At the same time, Hell and Television front man Tom Verlaine (whose name came from the French poet Paul Verlaine) created a persona called Theresa Stern to write together under. They gave the persona a back story and released a book of poems called Wanna Go Out? in 1973. After releasing multiple collections of poetry, a collection of journals and even a novella, Hell’s first full-length novel, Go Now, was published in 1996, and was followed by his second, Godlike, in 2005. “I think it might be the best thing I’ve done, though at other times I’ve looked at it and been mortified,” he said of the latter in 2023.
11. Ray Manzarek
The Doors peppered their songs with references to books, plays, and poems (and even took their name from the title of an Aldous Huxley book, which itself came from a line in a William Blake poem), so it’s no surprise that one of its members became a novelist. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek released his first novel, The Poet in Exile, in 2002. It’s the story of a rock star named Jordan who fakes his death, playing into the long-standing rumor that Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors, faked his death. Manzarek went in a different direction with his second novel, 2006’s Snake Moon, a ghost story set during the Civil War.
12. Colin Meloy
The front man of folk band The Decemberists has writing in his blood: He is the brother of novelist Maile Meloy and nephew of the late nature writer Ellen Meloy. He is also married to illustrator Carson Ellis. Colin got into the family business in 2004, writing a book about The Replacements’ album “Let It Be” for the 33 1/3 series. In 2010, he released a limited edition short story called The Grievous Demise of Mr. Whitley Rackham with illustrations by his wife. A year later, Wildwood, the first book in Meloy’s young adult fantasy series, was released, with other books in the series following in 2012 and 2014.
“Even though they involve the same kind of creative work—writing—they really couldn’t be more different in the way that you do them,” Meloy told Kirkus of writing books versus writing songs. “Writing a novel feels to me like chopping wood. You’ve got a huge stack of unchopped logs and you need to chop it into firewood, you just have to keep going and keep going. Whereas songwriting is a little more of an unknown quantity—you’re building something that can happen in a spark, and you really don’t know when that spark will happen.”
When the Smiths frontman announced that he had written his autobiography in 2013, it created a frenzy, with multiple publishing houses bidding on the chance to publish the memoir. Ultimately, Penguin won after agreeing to release it under their “Classics” imprint.
Penguin also published Morrissey’s first foray into fiction, List of the Lost, which The Independent summarized as being “about a 1970s relay team who accidentally murder someone—who happens to be a demon—and are thereafter cursed.” The 2015 novel was met with negative reviews and even received the Literary Review “Bad Sex in Fiction” award that year thanks to a passage in which characters “rolled together into one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation … in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation.”
14. Pete Quaife
A founding member of British band The Kinks (which was at some points called The Pete Quaife Quintet), Quaife was originally a guitarist, but played bass after losing when the band members drew lots. He quit the band in 1969, later saying, “We just never played anywhere, so most of the time we just sat around at home collecting our royalty cheques. It was an easy life but not a very fulfilling one.”
After forming another band called Mapleoak, Quaife left the music industry for good and worked as a graphic artist and cartoonist (he even published a cartoon collection about his experience with renal failure called The Lighter Side of Dialysis). Quaife’s novel, Veritas—about a fictitious rock band not unlike The Kinks—was released less than a year after his death in 2010, but was pulled from stores after a legal dispute over its cover photo in 2012. It was re-released in 2021, along with a sequel.