Writing, religion and the male psyche: A conversation with Nick Cave

This interview originally ran in National Post on September 27, 2009. It came up again in a chat I had over the weekend with the best South African dude I know, so I’m re-posting this on my blog:

By Brad Frenette
Bunny Munro’s first problem is that he was created in the head of Nick Cave. We meet the titular character of Cave’s second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro — a hard-living, philandering travelling salesman — after a night with a prostitute, and just before he comes home to find his wife dead by her own hand. The suicide pushes Munro, and his young son, Bunny Junior on a road trip through a world which the Australian-born musician, screenwriter and novelist refers to as “Cavian”. Bunny Munro is, as the character himself decrees in the first line of the book, “damned”.

Sitting in a high-end Toronto restaurant with Cave, who now lives in the British seaside town of Brighton, I was taken initially by how good-humoured he was — a contrast to the dark shadow that proceeded him through his work. And like the man, the book — released two decades after his debut novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel — deals in chiaroscuro, balancing dark themes with humour and even a few tender moments.

We chatted for an hour about writing, music, feminist manifestos, Avril Lavigne, the male psyche and even religion. Here is an excerpt of that conversation:

Q: What got you writing in novel form after two decades?
A: Well, it was a script first. I wrote it as a script for John Hillcoat, who made The Proposition, and has made The Road. Did you see it?

Q: No, I haven’t.
A: It’s great. He wanted me to write a script for him. he wanted to make a small film in the UK after The Proposition. He wanted me to write a story about a travelling salesman. So I write that. And it never got made. After a while I just got sick of it lying around. So I turned it into a novel.

Q: Was Hillcoat just looking to make that kind of a film? A man and a boy on the road? Which is the plot, set against different backgrounds, of both these works.
A: Well, the screenplay was written before The Road. He was just gave me the idea of the travelling salesman. I introduced the boy, and the kind of  guy that Bunny Munroe is, and all the rest of it. Then coincidentally, he got sent The Road. We never could get people to give us enough money to make this one.

Q: What is the first thing you think of when you think of Hollywood?
A: Money. It’s a different thing. It’s a massive, multi-billion dollar business. And there are consequences of that. One is that it’s very difficult to do what you want to do, to make the film you want to make.
I’ve only had good experiences with the kind of Hollywood machine. I’ve written a few scripts, and they’ve asked me to go back and do re-writes. And as much as I kind of bristle at this kind of thing, it’s always been for the better.  And in the end, I’ve come out with a better script.  I’ve had very good experiences with it. At the end of the day, people have got to sell a film. And compromises inevitably end up getting made.

Q: How does that compare to the process of writing and seeing through a book?
A: There’s no money in books. So, you can write whatever you like. I have an editor, for that book and the editor is concerned with getting the best book possible, but there’s never any consideration whether it’s the most palatable book, or most commercial book. The editor is there to help me get the best I can get out of what I’ve written.

Q: So, with The Death of Bunny Munro, there was never a suggestion about losing certain parts of the book, the more graphic parts, say, or the direct references to, I don’t know Avril Lavigne?
Q: No. It’s more a stylistic thing more than anything. He suggested chopping out two chapters, which happen toward the end. Which tightened up the book. It was a great edit. And we went through it together and blew a bit more air into the writing. Occasionally, I have a tendency for excess, in terms of my writing style, and we pruned that back a bit and weeded out some of the more congested passages. Apart from that, it was pretty much what I wrote.

Q: With so many outlets – music, novels, screenplays – when you get a creative spark, how do you decide where to release it?
A: Unless I’m doing music, which is something I have to instigate myself, everything else I’ve been asked to do. I’ve pretty much commissioned to do it.

Q: Including the novel?
A: That’s slightly different, because I rang up Canongate and said ‘I’m going to send you some pages’.  They really wanted to read something first, before they would make any commitment. Which I was very happy about, because I wanted something based on the strength of the writing, not on the fact that I can probably sell a few copied, just because I’m a rock star.

Q: You’ve said before that this book is inspired by two other books – The Gospel of St. Mark and the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanis. Can you explain?
A: It’s loosely based on the gospel story. Especially The Gospel of Mark, because it’s primarily concerned with the death of Christ. He rockets through the story to get to the end. It’s very short. The Gospel of Mark is a bit like someone’s pitching a film script; it’s breathless. I wanted to have a momentum to my book that had a breathless feel about it. The Gospel of Mark is also episodic, it’s got a series of adventures that go along until Christ dies. Mine is structurally the same.
Valerie Solanis’ SCUM Manifesto talks about what she considers what it is to be male. And she talks about it – it’s very beautifully done. And on some level accurate – that men are these great, lumbering blobs of meat that kind of..

Q: A biological accident, she calls us.
A: Yeah, somewhere between a man and an ape. That has no capacity for empathy or understanding. So I looked at that and though, there’s an element of that that is true, that exists within the male psyche. Let’s have a look at that, let’s confront that and write a character that driven by that.

Q: Are you religious?
A: Am I personally religious? No.

Q: Spiritual?
A: In a way. The imaginative world that I’ve developed over the years, it’s a particular world. And the thing that I’m most proud of in terms of songwriting and all that – and I feel very much that I’ve written good songs and I’ve written bad songs – is that I’ve developed a world that is kind of a consistent, “Cavian” kind of world. And within that imaginative world, some kind of God exists. Sometimes it’s a maligned God, sometimes it’s a forgiving God, but something’s going on there.  But do I personally believe in a personal God that is looking after me personally? No, I don’t.  But also, I’m open (laughs). The last thing I want is for anyone to prove that God exists. I love that our existence is mysterious. People call me a “Christian writer”. I don’t mind what I’m called.

Q: This character, Bunny Munro, how do you explain his sexual mores, is he a nymphomaniac?
A: I’ve never really considered him in that way. What I wanted to do is create a character that both men and women recognize. Men certainly recognize themselves within this character, to a lesser or greater degree, and women – that something about this character revealed something they’ve long suspected about what goes on in a man’s head.  It’s a look at this particular aspect of the male brain.

Q: Do you think the character feels a sense of running out of time?
A: There are these blips. These moments of clarity that something rises up, that sticks its head over the parapet of his own libido that suggests something else is going on in the world other than his rampant sexual drive.

Q: Speaking of said drive, Kylie Minogue is one of two female singers appearing in the novel that Bunny has pretty graphic fantasies about in the book. You’ve worked with her before – have you spoken to her about the way you’ve written her?
A: No (laughs). I haven’t seen Kylie for a couple of years. I sent her a copy of the book and wrote her a letter of apology on behalf of my simple character. But I know Kylie. I’m 99% sure she won’t be offended. She knows me – she knows what I’m capable of.

Q: Now, what about Avril, who is Bunny’s ideal, I suppose.
A: I don’t know Avril Lavigne. Unfortunately.

Q: Why does she become Bunny’s obsession?
Q: She just seemed the right kind of girl for him to be obsessed with. I’m personally a huge Avril Lavigne fan. I’ve always liked what she’s done and would be distressed if I felt that I caused her any upset.

Q: Would you be keen to work with her?
Q: In an instance. Can I just say something about this? For me, even though it’s dark and invasive, admittedly, in regard to Avril, I really think some of the writing around how he imagines her is some of the most beautiful writing in the book. It was a real pleasure to write that stuff. And I’m saying that quite sincerely. And I think that what interests me about the writing process, and other writers who write in the high literary style that this is, through words they create a universe that is once recognizable to us yet distinct from the one we live in. In you read something like Nabokov’s Lolita, when you strip away the language, the story is kind of a non-story – a kind of dark, tawdry little tale. But you pile on the language and it becomes something absolutely of itself. And that’s what I was trying to do with this book – in its context, these things can happen harmoniously. So when we talk about Avril or Kylie, taking them out of context feels wrong. But within the context of the book, it’s right.

Q: So it would have been different if he was obsessed with someone else instead of Avril?
A: Avril Lavigne is perfect (laughs). She is. I couldn’t have written that stuff about Madonna. Kate Moss is in there a bit. I’m pretty sure she won’t mind. There’s quite possibly women out there who will be more offended that they weren’t included in the book. [Cave moves close to my voice recorder] He says with a chuckle – a low, deathly chuckle (laughs).

Q: The book, it’s like a war zone really, of sex and violence. However, within that, some tender moments between Bunny and his nine-year old son, Bunny Jr. Could you have written Bunny Junior before you were a father?
A: No. He’s a composite of my twin boys, who are also nine. His actions, the way he moves, it’s the esoteric knowledge that nine-year old kids cling on to – stuff about dinosaurs, stuff about the planets. It’s very much from observing my own children. It’s really something that kids have around that age that I don’t remember as a n adult. It’s a mystery to me even though I went through it myself as a child. It’s something that gets taken away from you at some point. I think that’s what the novel is about, in some way – how long this child can hold on to that world before it’s dashed.

Q: There is a also an Apple iPhone app for this book. How did this come about? What is your idea?
A: The app wasn’t my idea, because I didn’t even know what an app was at the time. I do know, and the app has dragged me into the modern world. And it’s fascinating –  the app, not the modern world. I wanted it to come out as an audiobook. I love audiobooks. But I wanted to make an audiobook that was like no other audiobook that you’ve ever seen.  Me and Warren Ellis made enormous amounts of music and sound effects and atmospheric stuff. Then it was sent to New York, and the whole thing is spatialized.
It’s perfect for the book, because I wanted the book to have this dream-like aspect. It’s been enormously beneficial to the novel.

Q: Did you score it as you would a film?
Q: More or less. You don’t want the music to overwhelm, so we were subtle with it.

Q: You have the talents to make this happen. Cormac McCarthy –
A: – Can’t play guitar.

Q: This positions you as something of a publishing pioneer. What do you make of the state of publishing?
A: I’m not concerned with that. It’s not my day job, although there’s less and less money in music. I don’t quite honestly care that much. You know, they f–ked it up with the music industry. The internet was seen as the enemy. No one looked at ways of working with the internet. And now the music industry is terrified.
Canongate see the internet as an opportunity, so that’s interesting to be working with a company like that?
(pause)
You know, we’ve got a Grinderman album coming out.  I want to do an “app”.

Q: And maybe write a novel to go along with the album.
A: There you go. My albums are nearly novels anyway.

Brad Frenette, National Post

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