Back to black: Nick Cave on pens, prose and rock'n'roll

Writing his first novel almost killed Nick Cave, the rock'n'roller says. He is in a better place now: Hove. But that has only served to make his work darker

Well, this is new. Nick Cave is smiling. He's just asked me what I thought of his new book – his second in 20 years – and I said I thought it was terrific. Horrifying, but terrific. "That's good to hear," he says, and seems to mean it. The last time I met him, to talk about a new LP, he didn't smile once and he certainly didn't ask what I thought of it.

Cave is best known as a musician, of course; the be-suited leader of the Bad Seeds, who sings songs of murder and madness and heartbreak. His lyrics are deemed some of the greatest of his generation, comparable to those of Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen. But over the years, Cave, now 52, has broadened his horizons. He is an occasional screenwriter, essayist and actor; he writes film scores, delivers lectures and curates arts festivals. And he is, yes, a novelist, even if the term makes him wince slightly.

Cave never intended to write another book. The Death of Bunny Munro began life as a script commissioned by the film director John Hillcoat, a fellow Australian for whom Cave had already written 2005's gritty western The Proposition, set in the Outback. The new script was to have three elements, said Hillcoat: a door-to-door salesman, an out-of-body experience and a scene in a Butlins holiday camp.

"It was a challenge, for sure," remarks Cave, smoothing down his raven-black hair. "I wrote it in a few weeks and it was floated around. People seemed to like it but no one wanted to film it. Then John went off to make The Road, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, and this script just sort of languished."

A friend of Cave's suggested he re-write it as a novel, but he wasn't keen. During a two-month tour of Europe, however, Cave found himself with some time on his hands and set about turning the first scene into prose. He worked backstage between sound-checks, at night in hotel rooms and on the tour bus. "It just took me over," he recalls. "Suddenly I got three or four chapters in and thought, 'Maybe I'm writing a book here'. Not only was it enjoyable to write but it felt like I'd had a book in me for a long time and I was too frightened to attempt it. I mean, the last one nearly killed me."

Cave's first novel, 1989's And the Ass Saw the Angel, was a baroque tale of a mute boy raised in a town of religious fanatics, who visits grim revenge upon his oppressors. Cave was living in Berlin when he wrote it and subsisting on a diet of heroin and speed. Rumours of him running out of ink and using his own blood to finish it still abound.

"I was sucked into the world of that novel in a particularly destructive way," he says darkly. "I sort of became the central character for three years. It got really strange. The obsessions of that hugely obsessional character became my own. Songs you can dip in and out of, but a book... well, it can overpower you."

By contrast, while writing The Death of Bunny Munro, Cave was able to keep his distance – a relief given his protagonist's appetite for serial seduction and al fresco masturbation. It tells the tale of a sex-crazed hand-cream salesman who returns from a night with a prostitute to find that his wife has committed suicide. Left to look after his son, Bunny Junior, Munro embarks on a depraved odyssey along the south coast of England, during which he attempts to tutor his son in the ways of salesmanship.

Cave based Munro on a description of men by the radical feminist and would-be Warhol assassin, Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto. "She wrote a very angry and very precise portrait of what she considered the male to be: something between a human and an ape; an unresponsive blob only concerned with physical sensation and without the capacity for empathy or self-knowledge or intimacy, and at the same time full of hatred and jealously and shame and guilt. Her description is beautiful and on some level, I think, entirely accurate."

The Death of Bunny Munro also explores the complexities of the father-son relationship. While Munro regards his son as, at best, an inconvenience, Bunny Junior worships his dad and remains blind to his flaws. One imagines that the subject might be a raw one for Cave, whose own father, an English literature professor, died in a car crash when he was 19.

"When I look back, I realise that the reason I wrote And the Ass Saw the Angel was that my father always thought to write a book was where it was at, and to sing rock'n'roll was definitely not," Cave reflects. "He died quite soon before I wrote that book, so it was written for strange reasons. It was basically written for him. Though it's about the father-son relationship, I don't think Bunny Munro has any relation to that. I think it comes more from having kids of my own. I have nine-year-old twins. They are at that beautiful stage where I am Superman and it doesn't matter what I do, that remains their fixed belief. I have older children too, so I know that the scales will soon be lifted from their eyes."

Born in Warracknabeal in rural Australia, Cave's early life was governed by chaos. After being ejected from art college in the late 1970s, he formed the post-punk band the Birthday Party. Arriving in Britain from Melbourne in the early 1980s, they became notorious for the bloody intensity of their live shows. In 1984, the band disintegrated and gave way to the Bad Seeds, with whom Cave would realise his full potential as a songwriter and performer. Gigs were similarly deranged spectacles in which Cave became a demon preacher spouting darkly theatrical lyrics in a furious, blood-curling howl.

The mid-1990s brought, finally, a mellowing of Cave's spirit, no doubt as a result of his finally kicking his heroin habit. These days he resides in East Sussex with his wife, the model Susie Bick, and their sons, and works in an office in his basement from nine to five every day.

Much has been made of Cave's trajectory from wild man of rock to, as he irritably puts it, "Contented of Hove". Now, Cave channels his appetite for chaos into his writing. "The more settled I've become, the more problematic my characters have become," he observes. "There was a period when I wrote sensitive and gentle songs and these came at a time when life was at its most destructive. I think you write about what you need, on some level. But I've also learned that the more I can separate myself from the work, the more interesting and dramatic it becomes. It's wrong to confuse the story with the storyteller. Some time ago I made a conscious effort to take myself out of the picture and to lead a life where there wasn't a story."

With two books under his belt, Cave is a long way from seeing himself as a bona fide novelist. He is currently working on a script adaptation of The Wettest County in the World, Matt Bondurant's book about a gang of moonshiners in West Virginia. "I just sort of kick on to the next thing," he shrugs. "There's no game plan... The book thing still feels like something of a novelty."

Will you will write another one, I ask?

"Yeah, I think so," Cave replies thoughtfully. "At least, I'll try."

The extract

The Death of Bunny Munro, By Nick Cave (Canongate £16.99)

'... "I am damned," thinks Bunny Munro in a sudden moment of self-awareness reserved for those who are soon to die. He feels that somewhere down the line he has made a grave mistake, but this realisation passes in a dreadful heartbeat, and is gone – leaving him in a room at the Grenville Hotel, in his underwear, with nothing but himself and his appetites.'

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