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Nick Cave on his monstrous, funny Bunny Munro

September 25, 2009 |  5:40 am

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With the publication of "The Death of Bunny Munro," Nick Cave has graduated from one-off novelist to staring into the pitiless void of a multi-novel career. Poor guy -- but that’s what you get for not sitting content with your lot as a rock star.

In his first novel, "And the Ass Saw the Angel," (1989) Cave drew upon his inimitable mix of the profane and the biblical that has informed his music with many formidable outfits -- his mainstay act, the Bad Seeds, his early venture, the Birthday Party and, most recently, Grinderman, which will tour next spring in support of a new album.

For his second novel, Cave has fine-tuned his obsessions and delivered an iron-black comedy, sharply observant and secretly brimming with morally alarmed sentiment. It's the tale of Bunny Munro, facing down death after the suicide of his depressed wife. Munro never lived with conscience or care but his final spiral has a darker twist: It threatens to suck in his young, adoring son, Bunny Junior. Munro’s choice of poisons are sex, sex, sex – and anything snortable or swallowable.

Margaret Wappler caught up with Cave by telephone while he was in New York; she called upon the author to explain.

Jacket Copy: How long did it take you to write "The Death of Bunny Munro"?
Nick Cave:
First draft took six weeks by hand in a notebook. On a six-week tour, actually, around Europe and America with the Bad Seeds. I wrote it backstage, in hotel rooms and so on.

JC: Wow, you must have an incredible capacity for focusing.
NC:
Well, it was a story that I was happy to enter and get inside. To be on tour can be mind-numbingly boring. The actual traveling and the airports and all that stuff. Everything is geared up for those two hours on stage in the evening. It was actually lovely to enter a different world.

JC: How would you characterize the relationship between your music and your writing? Do ideas from one feed into the other?
NC:
It’s all done by the same person, but the process is different for sure. The actual process of writing a song is different than writing a novel. Writing a song, of all the things I do, is the hardest and most difficult thing for me to do. But it’s something that I have a real pride about, in that I’ve written a large body of songs. Good ones and bad ones but a lot of them. And I’m pleased with that aspect of things.

JC: What was the first germ of the idea for the book?
NC:
John Hillcoat, who directed “The Proposition” that I wrote the script for, asked me to write a second script, which I was really happy to do because it was a real pleasure to do the first one. And we had a successful kind of relationship. So I asked him what he wanted it to be about and he said, I want a film about a traveling salesman.' So both of us went and interviewed some traveling salesmen or people working in that profession. We looked at various kinds of documentaries about these guys and discovered that there was an underworld of womanizing and hard drinking and that kind of thing. I guess that was the initial idea. I think John found these people attractive to make a movie about. And I just took that particular character and blew air into him.

JC: It’s interesting that that’s how Bunny started because the fact that he’s a traveling salesman is a minor thread of the book.
NC:
It’s not the thing I’m interested in writing about. That’s what the collaborative effort brought out between me and John. John had certain things that he wanted to film and I had my own interests.

JC: How would you describe the character of Bunny Munro?
NC:
I’m not sure I can do that in a few words, but the success of the character for me is that the reader can see something of themselves in him. The character is ultimately monstrous, but they can identify something of themselves in him. Or, in regards to the female reader, they can see evidence of something they’ve suspected all along about the male psyche. I’m getting a strange response from women about the book. It’s been called by some women a great feminist novel. By other ones, pure misogyny. So, who knows.

JC: Was it taxing to write from Bunny’s point of view?
NC:
A lot of that Bunny Munro stuff is comic but it was actually quite difficult to write. Not difficult to think of what to write, but to adopt a certain way of thinking. You have to inhabit the character to a degree while you write something. You have to start visualizing the world from his point of view, and he’s got a certain kind of eye for detail. He’s very much obsessed with the physicality of things. It’s a relentless point of view. In that respect, it was difficult. You mention the comedy. I’m sure that helped lighten up Bunny. 

More... on Bunny Munro, writing and Kylie Minogue's hot pants... after the jump.

If he wasn’t funny sometimes, it would be too depressing. [laughs] Rather than the joyful book that it is. That aspect of it, the humor, it was enjoyable to write but difficult. It’s a certain British style of humor that I don’t actually understand as an Australian. I’m not suggesting that Australians are the most sexually mature race of people on the planet but there is a certain misogyny that runs through the laddist kind of humor. I don’t actually find it that funny. There’s a whole culture of it in England, magazine after magazine dedicated to that kind of thing. To cars and breasts, basically -- in that order. So that kind of stuff was actually quite difficult.

I think it’s a hard look at a particular aspect of masculinity. It’s fronting up to that and railing against the kind of misogynistic and predatory element of the male psyche.

JC: It does seem like his obsession with sex and his predatory nature is his downfall.
NC:
Yes, it’s hardly an advertisement.

JC: Despite his appetites and the way he thinks, do you think he’s likable?
NC:
I don’t condone his acts and what you find out about him at the end is monstrous and illegal and in every way repellent, but there’s certainly an aspect to his character that I admire -- his commitment to his desires.

JC: Not only is Bunny sex-obsessed, but the whole culture he’s involved with is sex-obsessed. Why did you want to write about that quality of the world?
NC:
In a way, the novel is, at least in regards to Britain, a state-of-the-nation statement. The way things are and the way I see them to be. It is a kind of lurid world, and Bunny Munro is a product of it.

JC: How would you compare this book to your first novel, “And the Ass Saw the Angel”?
NC:
Twenty years have gone past; it’s a hugely different affair altogether. One’s got nothing to do with the other one, I don’t think. You can look for parallels but I don’t see much point in doing that.

JC: I know you wrote some scripts in the 20 years between the two works. Did you also try short stories or any other kinds of writing?
NC:
No, I got sucked into music. I didn’t want to write another novel after that first thing because it was difficult to write. It took three years and I never wanted to be a novelist anyway. I love music, I love songwriting, I love the whole thing. It remains really important to me to be doing music. It’s not only a kind of wonderful art form in itself, but it’s something that is very mysterious and it remains mysterious and exciting. Look, I love being in a band. It’s an honor, but one of the things I need to do to stay making music, to stay in a band and stay making relevant records, is to work on other things as well because it keeps the music alive. It keeps that aspect of my career alive by taking me away from music when it all gets to be too much.

JC: It sounds like you had a much easier run of it, writing this second book.
NC:
Yeah, it was. It was an absolute pleasure to write this novel.

JC: Does that make you want to do another one soon?
NC:
I don’t see any reason why I couldn’t. These things that I get involved with, it’s not like I have this ambition to do anything really, I just want to keep everything moving along. It’s important for me to keep working. In a way, it’s all the same thing. It’s just being engaged with the imagination in some way. I’m addicted to that.

JC: Was it hard to write the scenes where Bunny Junior is so clearly being neglected by his Dad?
NC:
I was able to write them in a certain way with a certain tenderness and a certain type of language. It was often a relief to go to that character, as sad as that character may be or may feel. It was a relief to see the world through his eyes; to him, the world is an amazing place.

JC: What was the redrafting process?
NC:
I had to put it into the computer so I could e-mail my publisher. That took longer, another six weeks or something. I had to look at it, work it a bit and so on. Then there was a little bit of editing done, from [senior editor] Francis Bickmore at Canongate. He did a lovely edit. He suggested dropping a chapter toward the end, which was a great decision and it had a wonderful effect over the narrative of the book.

JC: Before showing it to Francis, did you have any readers in the drafting process? Anyone you bounced it off of?
NC:
No, absolutely not. I’m writing it so fast, I don’t have time to sit and wait for somebody to read it and get back to me about it. I did send off the first of three parts to Canongate and that was written before I went on tour, actually, now that I think about it. And they basically said that they would publish it on the strength of that first part. Then I wrote the rest on tour. Canongate is an amazing publishing house in England, one that’s doing really interesting stuff.

JC: Besides losing that chapter near the end, what kind of changes did it go through as you worked on it with Francis?
NC:
He didn’t do anything without me being there. He came around to my office and we sat there and kind of weeded it out a little bit, some of the language. I tend to get a little carried away sometimes. Then he said it was ready and I kept on editing it for some weeks after. I kept going back in with more and more suggestions and in the end, he took it away from me. He has experience with that kind of thing. He was saying, ‘It is what it is, and it’s time to step back from it.’

JC: Avril Lavigne and Kylie Minogue both make cameos of sorts. Why did you want to include them?
NC:
There was a particular video Kylie Minogue put out, "Spinning Around," in which she wore gold lame hot pants, and this captured the imagination of the British public for at least a year. All the tabloids could talk about was the state of Kylie’s backside. It had a huge impact on the British psyche, her hot pants. It was extraordinary, and that happened around the time this novel is set. They were a cultural artifact. Australia claimed them and they exist in a museum, in a temperature-controlled vault. I’ve actually seen them. They are insured for some enormous amount of money. They are a genuine Australian religious relic. They are our very own Turin Shroud. And I’ve touched them.

JC: How did that come about?
NC:
I went to the museum where they are held, the Melbourne Arts Centre. I’ve donated a lot of my original manuscripts and that kind of thing to them and I went down to the vault where they were kept. They said, “Do you want to see Kylie’s hot pants?” And I was with my two little kids who are 9 and they were like, “We want to see Kylie’s hot pants!” So they put little white gloves on the children and brought the hot pants out. And one of my kids touched the hot pants with his finger, and now has the little white cotton glove above his bed. So, as trashy as that particular fantasy Bunny has about Kylie and her hot pants, they are actually extremely important as a modern day cultural relic. As to Avril Lavigne, I hope she enjoys the novel. I’d like to send a signed copy to her one of these days.

-- Margaret Wappler

View As Web Page LA Times staff writer Margaret Wappler is currently enjoying Clarice Lispector, "Mad Men" and Yacht's new record.

Photo: Nick Cave. Credit: Gavin Evans

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