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Jim Bob: When the music stops ...

The former Carter USM singer talks to Paul Bignell about the life of a pop star-turned-novelist
  • @Paul_Bignell

Two things can be said for the list of musicians turned writers. One is that it is small. The other is that great lyricists don't always make for good authors.

For every brilliant musician-penned novel – think Nick Cave's second, The Death of Bunny Munro – there's the indulgent and nonsensical free association of Bob Dylan's Tarantula or the absurdist whimsy of John Lennon's In His Own Write.

But in recent years, a slew of singers have successfully put pen to paper for more than just a song lyric. Last year's I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive by Steve Earle received rave reviews, as did the fantastical Wildwood, the debut by Colin Meloy, lead singer of Oregon's The Decemberists, while the alt-country singer Ryan Adams is already on his third collection of poetry and short stories.

Now, adding to the small but growing cult list is Jim Bob, formerly of the indie-dance group Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, whose decade-long career during the Nineties peaked when they headlined the main stage at Glastonbury in 1992, and whose power-pop songs such as "Sheriff Fatman" and "The Only Living Boy in New Cross", with their loaded wordplay and offbeat lyrics, made them staples of the student union indie disco and, for a couple of years, Top of the Pops.

Next month sees the publication of his second novel Driving Jarvis Ham. (His first, Storage Stories, was self-published).

We sit in the front room of his home in south London, which he shares with his "I still call her my girlfriend" of 30 years. I had invited myself round mainly to be nosy, as it turns out we're almost neighbours. The 51-year-old Jim Bob (he changed his name from Jim Morrison because he didn't want to be associated with a "fat, dead, crap poet") is charmingly unassuming and self-deprecating for someone who has had a No 1 album and a successful first novel. He sits close to my tape recorder as he says he has a "tendency to mumble", and I start by asking him whether he thinks musicians who turn to writing are perhaps more liable to fall foul of the literary snob.

"I don't really know what happens behind closed doors. Sometimes I feel like maybe I'm taken less seriously as an author because I've been a musician – it's possible that might put people off. But I think it boils down to whether the work is any good. It probably would have annoyed me in the past when people off the television decided to be in a band. But if the band was amazing, I probably would have forgiven them."

Driving Jarvis Ham is a darkly comic novel, hilarious in parts, with lists and crude drawings. "I've done pictures again in the new book," he says (he's working on his third novel). "But I'm sure a lot of people hate that. The very idea that there should be pictures in a novel ...."

Its central character, Jarvis Ham – a Princess Diana fanatic, secret alcoholic and fame seeker – is a monstrous creation, contrived from bits of people we've all known at some point in our lives. "You know those people who are not necessarily your friend," he explains, "but there's something a bit strange about them and you always think that one day they're going to be exposed on the news as a paedophile or something? That was the original idea for the book. There are bits of my friends and people I knew and still know in the Jarvis Ham character. But not quite as bad as him though."

His first novel took him six years to write, on and off, and when I ask him how easy he finds writing novels compared with songs, he admits that it's a bit of a challenge, albeit one that actually comes easier to him now, than writing lyrics. "I've tried locking myself in a room – I love the idea of that – but it doesn't work. When you hear a writer who's asked 'how do you write?', they always say, 'I get up at 5am, take the dog for a walk, drop the kids off at school and then do four hours' work.' Someone must be lying. Surely you would write a lot more if you did 1,000 words a day? Is a lot of it rubbish?

"I find it almost impossible to write songs now – not ones that are good. I could write the music quite easily, but I have to sort of wait for the lyrics to happen."

Years spent honing his stage craft in front of beery students in the early Nineties has at least prepared him for the nerve-wracking experience of giving book readings. But unfortunately for Jim Bob, some of those now former students, no less beery, have come with him on his new journey. Admittedly, he initially softened his transition from musician to novelist by bringing his guitar along and playing songs after giving readings. But even that has its pitfalls.

"I find it hard to separate the two things," he says. "I have had some horrific experiences when I've been reading – people shouting for songs. And you think: 'I'm holding a book ... and there's a guitar there, so I'm probably going to play songs at some point.' Occasionally you'll get people who shout out for the hit songs while I'm reading." So, he still finds the process daunting, and recalls one particular reading in Bristol with a wry chuckle: "That was horrible ... if you've got three people in the audience when you're reading a book, and they're all shouting at you ... then that's all you can focus on really."

His Wikipedia page now refers to him as being a writer first, and then a musician. So does he now see himself as a doyen of the literary set? "I was out the other night," he says in reply, "and the only other person who hadn't written a book was my girlfriend. But we're hardly going to be the new Bloomsbury set. Having said that, I don't think I went to rock-star parties either."

Drive Jarvis Ham, By Jim Bob
The Friday Project, £12.99

"... Me and my girlfriend argued last night. She said I'd spent way too much of my life worrying about Jarvis. 'Tell me about it,' I said. Which was a schoolboy error because she then told me about it for fifteen minutes. She said Jarvis had treated me like his unpaid chauffeur for years. 'I know,' I said. 'Why doesn't he drive himself?'

'He can't.'"