Tours with a complex monster
The prospect of writing his second novel filled him with dread, but however lonely and destructive the process, it’s still much easier than making a record, Bad Seed Nick Cave tells SINÉAD GLEESON
IT’S A SWELTERING afternoon in London and the sun barely registers in a hired room containing paintings, busts, antique books and, over by the window, Nick Cave. Tall, whippet-thin and younger-looking in person, Cave is notoriously wary of journalists and even though he’s here to talk books and music, it is well-known that he views publicity as a necessary evil. The book in question, The Death of Bunny Munro, comes two decades after his debut novel and Cave believes he couldn’t have written this book before now.
“I had such a terror of the whole process of writing a novel after the first one [1989’s And the Ass Saw the Angel] that I just avoided it,” he says. “It was really difficult and took a long time. The whole process felt really destructive in some way that I didn’t want to go back to it. I had locked myself in a room for three years and manically worked away on it, so the idea of another novel sent shivers through me.”
While many artists hit dry spells later in their careers, Cave’s creative output has consistently increased. When not making music with The Bad Seeds or Grinderman, he and Warren Ellis of The Dirty Three collaborate on film soundtracks. Then there was his lecture tour on The Secret Life of the Love Songand his written introduction to The Gospel of St Mark.
Now, added to the long list of characters in his songs, is his most hedonistic creation yet: Bunny Munro, a womanising salesman who listens to Woman’s Hour. A consummate ogler with addiction issues, he is left to bring up his nine-year-old son after his wife commits suicide early in the book. The antithesis of the model father, Cave’s booze-quaffing, vagina- imagining “cocksman” is as vivid as characters come, and the inspiration for him, bizarrely, is based on someone well-known. It was while he was working on The Proposition(2005), John Hillcoat’s bloody, brooding Western that the first image of Bunny Munro began to form in Cave’s mind.
“The initial idea I had for Bunny came from sitting with Ray Winstone on the film set,” he says. “I’d listen to him talk, and he’s this hugely compelling person. I wanted to write a character who was a monster of some sort and figured that no matter how monstrous the creation, if Ray played him, you couldn’t help but love him. He’s a hugely endearing man, very primal and physical and he has this magnetic pull.”
Given the genesis of the character, it makes sense to hear that the book originally started out as a screenplay. Part of the reason for this was Cave’s long-held fear of the novel. Having abandoned the script, he picked it up again with no intention of writing prose.
“I started a chapter on the tour bus, and then wrote another, and it occurred to me that maybe I was writing a novel,” he says.
HIS APOCALYPTICSouthern Gothic debut was written against a backdrop of his own addiction and it’s clear that, even in the most uncompromising circumstances, the singer is disciplined when it comes to creativity. In Brighton, where he lives with his wife and twin sons, he has an office a short stroll away, where he goes to write and keeps nine-to-five hours. In spite of that schedule, this book was written in a peripatetic way, something that mirrors Bunny’s episodic, on-the-road adventures.
“I wrote the book on tour – in hotel rooms, late at night, on the bus, backstage, all by hand in a notebook,” he says. “If I’d sat down quietly on my own to write a novel, I probably wouldn’t have done it. Within the chaos of the tour, it was something to do, and I didn’t take it seriously as a novel. After a while I thought it read okay, and was enjoying it, so the pen didn’t stop after that.”
Both biblical ranter and funereal crooner, Cave’s musical ventriloquism has given voice to numerous characters. St Huck and Henry Lee live and breathe, and Bunny Munro is no different. Nick Cave’s success with Bunny, though, is in making something more complex out of a character who at first glance seems simply a flawed rogue. Making house calls on women in dreary coastal towns, Bunny lives in a fug of unreality, a cross between Walter Mitty having a midlife crisis and a Brighton-based Pat Mustard (the libidinous milkman in Father Ted). But for all the saucy-postcard humour, the darker side of his character emerges through these encounters.
“I didn’t want to make him lovable, and at some point the reader is shocked at their allegiances to this character,” Cave says. “He lacks any understanding about himself, but knows that at some point he’s going to have to pay the piper – and he finds that reassuring in some way.”
He references a graphic scene – one of many in the book – where Bunny masturbates in a Portaloo at his wife’s funeral and feels comforted that he’s going to die soon. As in Cave’s classic song, The Mercy Seat, there’s a sense that his creepy salesman is “waiting to be done with all this measuring of truth”.
“It’s true – he’s in agony and wants it to be over,” says Cave. “He’s on a flight from love and isn’t even interested in sex. All he wants is to find a woman he can crawl inside where love can’t actually find him.”
To illustrate this, Cave recounts part of the story where his protagonist has “a moment of near intimacy” when he is with a woman, but instead imagines the vagina of singer Avril Lavigne. Kylie Minogue’s genitalia also feature, as do her legendary gold hot pants, and both highlight Bunny’s emotional disconnection from life. “The celebrity vagina has a plasticity,” says Cave. “Celebrity is so unreal that it’s a turn-on for Bunny.”
There is an apology to both women (Lavigne and Minogue) in the book’s acknowledgements, but Cave believes that Kylie, a collaborator and friend, will see the funny side. He doesn’t know Avril Lavigne and is worried about her response.
“I’m a coward, but I hugely respect her,” he says. “I just hope I’m not on tour somewhere and meet her bodyguards, who greet me with a ‘this one’s from Avril’ and punch me.” Maybe it will appeal to her ego, being immortalised in the novel? “Well, if she wrote a book about the wonderfulness of my penis, I wouldn’t be that upset.”
ONE STRIKING THINGabout meeting Cave in person is how often he smiles and laughs, something never apparent in his publicity photos. Off the record, he tells me a story about Kylie and his sons, and speaks with a hint of sadness about the fact that their innocence will shortly change.
“Nine is that age, isn’t it? I know that my kids think I’m Superman, that I’m godlike” – which, he says, has nothing to do with what he does for a living – “but by 10 or 11 the edifice crumbles and they start to see you for what you are. I can still make a trip to Safeway seem like an adventure, but when they’re 10 they’re going to wise up to me.”
Bunny junior is also nine, and has a similarly idealised view of his “go-getter” father. Writing his mother out of the book early on (Bunny senior’s own mother is never mentioned) was very deliberate as Cave wanted the story to focus on the father/son relationship and does this by a skewed recurrence in the story. A horned killer brandishing a trident is terrorising Britain, dominating rolling-news coverage.
“Bunny’s great problem, which he doesn’t recognise, is not the horned killer,” says Cave. “It’s his son, sitting in the car, who loves him.”
Writing the book has clearly been cathartic for the singer. Lecherous, tormented Bunny Munro has helped banish the negative associations Cave had developed about writing novels. His other band, Grinderman, has just finished recording an album, and he and Warren Ellis recently scored the soundtracks for a documentary, The Girls of Phnom Penh, and the upcoming film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Cave has also had various small acting roles over the years, but has no interest in returning to it (“it’s a mug’s game”).
In spite of Bunny Munro’s screenplay birth, Cave would actually like to see the book made into a TV series. Juggling soundtracks and bands, scripts and novels, suits the singer.
“In terms of my career, I’ve never had any ambition about where all this is going, but I feel – because I write narrative and character-driven songs – that all of my characters are part of the same thing, that they can all live happily within a Cave-ian community,” he says. “And that each song that I write broadens and deepens this world.”
As long as he can flit between different media, the spark that has fuelled a long, creative career shows no sign of dying.
“Records take so much out of me to do that if I had to make them constantly, I’d just stop. By moving across to another format, it reignites things for me, so by the time I finish a book, I’m dying to make a record – but then writing a book is so much easier.”
The Death of Bunny Munro, by Nick Cave, is published by Canongate Books, £16.99