Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Bleak balladeer Nick Cave discusses his foray into fiction writing with Lindzee Smith.
Nick Cave was born near Yarrawonga in South-Eastern Australia in 1957. His first band, The Birthday Party, built an international reputation. He left Australia to live in London and subsequently Berlin where he became a part of the burgeoning rock scene which then included Nina Hagen, Lene Lovich, and Blixa Bargeld. His current band is Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and their new album, The Good Son, has just been released.
Cave recently turned his talents to writing, not lyrics or poetry, but a full-length novel: The Ass Saw the Angel, a picaresque story set in a mythological valley, based on Cave’s perception of an American South he has never visited. Its hero is a hunchback mute with the most woeful face in the world.
Lindzee Smith The Ass Saw the Angel—your first novel—was it as good for you to write it as it was for me to read?
Nick Cave It was a very solitary project. It was quite exciting to do that.
LS It never lets up. You think it must relent, particularly the language, but it just doesn’t stop. It’s such an intense experience. How did you write it?
NC I was primarily concerned with the language. I felt I had a decent story. I wanted the book to have a voice that was recognizable in the same way as Nabokov has his. I wanted the style to be quite unique.
LS Which it is.
NC There are a number of voices in the book: first person narrative by Euchrod, third person authorial voice, quotations usually from the Bible, either real or ersatz, constant changes in tone or approach to language, depending on who is talking. When I first started the book there were certain elements I wasn’t interested in writing about. When you read a novel, you have to wade through the setting up of the scene before the story starts. So I wrote a long prologue. It has no action. It includes documentary, poetry, maps and charts, in very short chapters. Once this is done, the actual story begins. The voice then changes between the narrator’s truth and Euchrod’s delusionary truth. The final book is Euchrod’s monologue which runs to the climax.
LS During Book II there are several “Lamentations”—yet another form.
NC It’s basically Euchrod in woe with the world.
LS After reading the book, I still didn’t have a good physical picture of Euchrod. I know he’s mute. I know he’s malformed in some way. What’s he look like?
NC He’s based on the singer of The Reels. Do you know Dave Mason? He’s slightly hunchbacked, a queer face, a lot of teeth, big smile, long greasy hair. Euchrod has the saddest face in the world—which Dave has.
LS Is the book an allegory?
LS We shouldn’t be searching for meanings beneath …
NC There are certain parallels to different things, which are either evident or not. The book, to me, is quite mysterious. A lot of things are hinted at that aren’t disclosed in detail. I’d like the book to remain that way.
LS I constantly thought of parallels: Spenser, Swift, Tristram Shandy, Fielding. Painters, too. How does Hieronymous Bosch strike you as a parallel? The Garden of Earthly Delights?
NC These kinds of parallels are all relevant, but Bosch certainly wasn’t in my mind at the time.
LS I’m pursuing this to give the readers some idea of the texture of the book. The visual texture is so rich, so dense, so resonant of Bosch—vermin, snakes, crows, rats …
NC Rather than Bosch, I’d prefer to say that if there were certain images that I used when I was writing the book, they would be Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs—I put one on the cover of the book.
LS Tell me about her.
NC An English photographer around 1880. One of the first photographers to do Biblical portraits, photographs of people in Biblical costumes with props. Bronwyn Adams, from the band Crime and the City Solution, gave me a copy when I was beginning the book and it had a big effect on me. I had a lot of her photos around me. I was looking at a lot of pornographic photos, too. I’m trying to describe what was around me in my room. There weren’t any Bosch paintings hanging up there.
LS We’ll throw Bosch out then, eh?
NC I’m glad that these images came up in people’s minds. They’re all relevant, if not to me.
LS One theme seems to be the beauty of things perceived as ugly.
NC The things that are ugly are supposed to be ugly. I’d hate to think the book was only about ugly things. It’s about innocence as well—the beauty in that. There’s a cartoon image to many of the characters—Beth, who I see as the idealized young girl, perfect and innocent, seen through the obsessive eyes of Euchrod. I hope they’re written without ugliness.
LS You talk about the trilogy: the harlot, the child saint, and the custodial angel.
NC Basically, Beth is the collective sin of the valley, the spawn of the harlot, and all the men who’ve been with her.
LS The harlot has to be purged for the rain to stop?
NC That was Poe’s idea.
LS But the rain does stop?
NC A year later. When Beth arrives …
LS Do you think women get a raw deal in the book?
NC I think everyone gets a raw deal.
LS The portrait of Euchrod’s mother is so abrasive.
NC She’s quite a real character for me, even though she’s very extreme in what she does. She’s based on very real characters I used to know. Certain characters in the book are based on different characters throughout my life. Some, from my school days, are petty revenges that I’d like to get off my chest. I did those quite consciously and took a lot of delight in doing them.
LS Like Alfred Jarry did with Ubu Roi.
NC There are scenes that aren’t in the book where characters die in different ways. In the first draft, which was much longer, everyone basically died. This didn’t make for a very good story.
LS I’d like to ask you about the deep South because the main voice has a definite Southern drawl.
NC These are romantic notions I’ve had as somebody who’s never been to the deep South. I don’t see my songs as being Southern. It would be wrong and a bit stupid to think that they were. It’s just a mythological territory I’ve devised as a stage where a lot of my songs and this book operate. There’s Australia in there. It’s a composite world.
LS The religious group in the book, the Ukulites, reminds me of the Amish of Pennsylvania.
NC The Ukulites are based on a real life sect called the Morrisites. When the Mormons came to America, there was a guy, Joseph Morris, who had many revelations and went to the Mormon leaders and disclosed these things. They excommunicated him. He took a band of his followers to a place called Weeber Creek and set up a sect. He became more and more obsessive, walking around in a robe with a gold scepter and a crown on his head. Eventually, a sniper shot and killed him. The Morrisites took this as a further justification of their faith. It’s not known if this was done by insiders or vigilantes who were killing Mormons all over the place.
LS The Australian/American fusion is very intriguing. You’re convinced you are in America, then words like joker, blood oath, and the like leap out at you from the page.
NC Maybe to an Australian, they do. The book is not meant to be an authentic Southern novel. I wanted it to be ambiguous.
LS Can we talk a little about the Bible?
NC Well, I read the Bible when I wrote this book.
LS ”A chilly thing, the Bible, sometimes” is a quote from Euchrod. What’s your take on it?
NC For me that’s a fairly accurate summation. When I began writing, the Old Testament fascinated me. I was pushed over into the New Testament, which I instinctively ignored, until I began reading it and found it incredible. The basic figure of Christ I find to be quite haunting and some of the scenes in the New Testament are the most evocative and haunting I’ve ever read.
LS It’s a book I’ve never finished.
NC There’s a scene which I find so beautifully written and I can’t do it justice to describe it … a scene of Christ walking through a crowd, and a young girl, who has had an issue of blood for 13 years, walks through the throng and takes hold of the end of Christ’s robe. He stops the crowd and says, “Why did you touch my robe?” She shrinks back, “I touched it because I’ve had this issue of blood.” And Christ heals her. I found this to be very powerful. These stories run throughout the New Testament and have a very different flavor from the Old Testament. There are some incredibly subtle stories there which I think are brilliant.
LS Are you talking about the Bible as poetic fiction?
NC That’s the way I approached it, originally. You can’t look at the Old Testament in any other way. You can’t believe it as gospel truth. But the New Testament came to affect me. In some ways, quite worryingly so. I don’t feel the same way now but when I was writing the book it had a strong influence.
LS The seduction of Christianity.
NC Yeah. Yes, I said that.
LS Yes. I wrote down the word ecstasy. I got this feeling of being ex stasis—when I was reading the book.
NC Is there another beer out there?
LS Yeah. I felt some kind of ecstasy was driving the book along.
NC I wrote in a very disciplined manner, really considered. I wrote with a pen first and organized each sentence to the very best I could and then typed it out and worked on the next sentence.
In the actual realization of the story, in terms of the character, I found myself becoming more and more obsessed with Euchrod. More and more becoming his character. There was a definite change in the way I related to to other people. The more I concerned myself with writing the book, which I had to do in four-month chunks, and then go off with the band, the more I became involved and obsessed and like him in my habits: more and more reclusive. It became like “method writing.”
LS You become the character and the character becomes you.
NC I had this situation in Berlin when I wrote this book. I had this room which was so pungent with obsessiveness toward the book. In ways which you can understand. It was very insular. I can’t talk about this too much in that it opens up lots of things I don’t really want to talk about. It was a very obsessive period for me.
LS I’m really impressed by the use of language. The book reads like a long lyric sheet from one of your albums. The song “Mercy Seat”—the driving insistence, its relentlessness—driving, driving, driving. The book has a similar quality. Can you see it as a long song? You constantly work with onomatopoeia, alliteration—other poetic devices.
NC I can’t help but do that. I’ve been writing songs for a long time and I definitely have that feel with words. I understand that that might be difficult to tolerate over a long period of time. I enjoy books that are written in a matter of fact, unpretentious style. At the same time, I wanted to write a book with my own voice. The whole process of writing a song is very different, very different.
LS Looking at the name of your band, Bad Seeds, and some images, for example, Euchrod’s black blood. Why this particular fascination?
NC I wanted to create as much proof of an alienation as I could [for Euchrod]. I wanted someone to be completely alone.
LS But he’s hooked into God.
NC I wanted someone who was so completely, so perfectly alone that his relationships with certain things became obsessive—the way he talks about the west wall, or the north side of the valley. He had a stronger relationship with one particular side of his shack than he did with any person in the valley. His whole relationship with the rest of the world was totally askew.
LS About the language. Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake was perhaps the master of creating words which were not real but had their own reality. That’s a contradiction, but you know what I mean. I found myself running to the dictionary early on in your book to check, then I got tired of it. It was not necessary. You get the idea. What’s horripitent mean?
NC It’s a formication of the skin.
LS And reboant?
NC Reboant echoes. I think its banging back and forth.
NC Are you going to ask me about all these words?
LS I want to have the words on the page because I like them so much. I don’t even care about the meaning of them.
NC Morbific … I’ve forgotten.
NC The noise that cicadas make. No. I’ll have to read it in context.
LS And the last one—cachination of the corvine kind.
NC Laughter of the crow kind.
LS Rejectemena is a good one too.
NC Those things that are rejected. These may not be in Webster’s, that is, the American Dictionary. It’s not the same as the O.E.D. (laughter)
LS Nowhere near as challenging. Far too facile for me.
NC Americans use words differently from the English. I found it quite amusing to use those words.
LS I found them very amusing to read.
NC I wanted to create an alien language. That was one of the reasons I made Euchrod a mute. He didn’t use language to communicate. Language was an abstract thing to him. Although he would not know these words, I wanted his way of speaking to be …
NC … difficult for the reader to understand. There are some words that aren’t “true” words. There’s a lot of obscure, arcane language too. Hopefully, I used these words sparingly enough that they don’t interfere with the flow of the story.
LS I found the relationship between etymology and entomology pretty interesting. The Vargas Spider for example.
NC The Vargas Spider is probably my favorite chapter. Have you heard about the spider?
LS No, I haven’t.
NC Are you Australian?
LS Yeah. Yes. What spider are we talking about?
NC It was told to me by a friend, Anita Lane. This spider in Queensland, Australia is called the Barking Spider. I’ve tried to research it, but have been unable to find anything. Anita insists that it exists.
LS And it actually barks?
NC Yes, it barks. It’s as big as a dinner plate.
LS Tell me about Euchrod’s father’s traps.
NC I had to invent them myself.
LS What are they?
NC Baggers—a simple bag. Wire nets.
LS Self explanatory.
NC Trip traps—you hit a wire and they snap.
LS Pit traps, loops and coils, nooses.
NC Whatever it was, it didn’t work anyway. Spike Snap—it goes bang with a spike—it didn’t work either.
LS Drop beam and tangle beam.
NC Grab sack.
LS For larger animals?
NC No, this is for smaller ones—seven toads, a feral cat, a lot of rats—but there were holes in the hessian.
LS That would be burlap according to Webster. Well, let’s go quickly beyond the book. You now speak with three tongues.
NC You mean I’m involved in different areas of the creative arts.
LS Yes—Film, Literature, Music.
NC My involvement in film is very dubious at the moment. I think all the acting parts I’ve had so far, apart from Ghosts of the Civil Dead, where I had a true acting part, have been onstage performances of the band—Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire. I don’t really consider that an acting part. The other films I’ve been involved in don’t need mentioning.
LS But you’d like to work in film as an actor, not as “yourself.”
NC I can afford the luxury of being able to choose roles that suit me, or that I’m interested in, without having to be a “struggling actor” and grabbing at anything that comes my way. This makes me happy but I’m still not fully confident about my acting abilities and so that side of things is very much up in the air.
LS You planning another book?
NC I hope to, yes.
LS So writing goes on as usual.
Lindzee Smith is an actor and director living and working in New York. He is a member of the theater collective, NIGHTSHIFT, which just presented Phil Motherwell’s Fitzroy Crossing (it) at Choices Theatre Project.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.