June 2004

Michael Farrelly

features

An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk's books are a wicked crossbreed of Charles Bukowski and an over-stimulated librarian. From his first novel, the "cult" book Fight Club onward, Palahniuk's unabashedly harsh and compulsively readable prose has shocked the quite world of literature. Palahniuk's prose style, terse but packed with minute details, has brought new audiences into bookstores, and spawned a legion of committed fans. Palahniuk's latest book is a work of non-fiction called Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories and collects pieces he's written over the years for a variety of magazines and other sources. The book includes interviews with Marilyn Manson and Juliette Lewis, a portrait of the life of a corpse-sniffing dog and the Palahniuk's own quest for Brad Pitt lips.

Chuck Palahniuk answered Bookslut's questions via e-mail.

A lot of interviews with you seem to focus on the nihilistic views in your books. Does the focus on this aspect of your writing get tiresome?

Yeah, a little tiresome. Especially when I secretly know my work is very romantic, and ALWAYS about returning a lonely character to community with other people. There's a BIG difference between "not caring" or being "nihilistic" about a topic and simply not being enrolled by the drama presented by other people. Just because my characters CHOOSE not to react in standard, socially-appropriate ways -- that does not mean they don't care. They just reject ordinary dramas.

In your new introduction to Fight Club you write how many people have thanked you for getting men in their lives to read again. Do you see your books as male in nature?

I did, but only because much of my reseach was done by listening to male peers gripe about their lives. Since the book came out, I'm finding that these "gripes" aren't limited to men. Everyone wants to be tested and challenged. Everyone would like a good, honest fight to exhaust their frustrations.

You've been giving readings of a short story called "Guts". It's been getting some rather intense reactions. I'll confess to getting light-headed upon hearing it, but I gather that's a mild response?

The story, "Guts," is a little marvel. When I read it to friends in our workshop, people laughed, but no one fainted. To date, 40 people have fainted during public readings. Even in Italy, where it was translated and read by an Italian actor, several people fainted at each event. The story is from a linked collection of stories I'll publish in 2005 (to be called Haunted), and "Guts" is by no means the most-upsetting. The one I'll read on tour this summer has made my friends weep so hard they had to leave the room. Then, go into counseling.

There's a poetic pace to your writing, the repetition of phrases and even character actions like the counting in Lullaby, how close do you feel your work is to poetry?

My first writing -- in grade school and high school -- was poetry. So rhetorical techniques, such as choruses and verses and meter have always been very important. In college, I wrote for a National Public Radio station, and there I had to read my copy out loud to hear where it would "clunk." Finally, when I started writing fiction in Tom Spanbauer's workshop, Tom insisted we all read our work aloud, again, to hear where it sounded awkward. To Spanbauer, writing is very much about creating something for public performance. This fuses perfectly with my goal to combine poetry, prose and song lyrics. And to use devices "sampled" from them all.

In an interview with The Onion you said there's a shortage of confrontational literature. There seems to be a glut of confrontational television, everything from shock political talk to "Fear Factor." Why is it that there's a short supply of books that stimulate and jar people?

This is going to hurt... Because the money is in television. Books are NOT the dominant medium of our time, so fewer people will create them. In a sad way, books have become a form of "comfort food" we expect to lull us to sleep. Still -- books can create a depth of story, a background of information and ideas, that televison and movies can't. Sure, the television shows may shock, but only on a superficial level. They'd never risk market share to really explore the issues like: "Why do we recoil from eating dog feces... Or why is one reality character a royal-ass bitch?" Nope, they report, but don't analyze or suggest any new ways for living our lives.

In Lullaby the main character sees Big Brother not as a watchful eye, but as a tap-dancing source of constant entertainment. How close is that to your own view of media culture?

Now that people are "renting" their foreheads to advertisers? Now that faux-news events are really "viral" advertising? There is so much competition for our attention -- taking our thoughts away from our family, our dreams, anything personal -- that some days I don't even want to leave the apartment. Traveling is wonderful, if only because I can't understand the media or advertisements blaring around me. Do NOT get me started on this...

Your use of trivia and strange facts (the origins of tumbleweed in Lullaby, soap-making in Fight Club, the horrible lives of great artists in Diary) is just overwhelming. Could you describe some aspects of your research process?

Some writers research in order to write. I write in order to research topics that interest me. Especially if I can meet with other people, in forums from illness support groups to phone-sex hotlines, and learn what other people know best. Every character (really, person) sees the world through a framework of education and experience that they're proud experts about. To write a character, find out what they know best, and THEN you'll know how they'll describe a "hot day." Or a "pretty girl." Plus, when you're talking to someone about their field of expertise (really, just listening) whether it's physics or mythology or finding risky sex, you'll notice how people really SHINE when they talk about what they know well. Being around that shine is reward enough.

You've participated in writer's groups and have been very generous with your own time, including writing essays on your website. How valuable was a community aspect to your writing?

For me, it's a nice way to "pay back" people for their interest in my work. The essays I write are (will be) about simple, effective ways to make your writing stronger. These topics are stuff that I wish my college education had included -- but few if any writing teachers or books bother about. Maybe because so many of the techniques are obvious story-telling tricks we use in everyday conversation, but never think to use on the page. By providing the essays over the Web, I can answer these questions for a lot of people, quickly.

Your next book is a collection of essays. What are some of the topics you cover?

My favorites among the essays are the ones in a section called: People Together. It' always bugged me: how do people co-exist without fighting to destroy each other? To answer that -- and eventually form an artists retreat center where people won't die -- I traveled to explore how people created the structure and mutual passions that create a good community. This includes men aboard a nuclear submarine, Olympic athletes, motorcycle gangs, even familes building their own private castles. My second-favorite essays are the experimental profiles I did on various celebrities. My least-favorite essays are the ones about my own experience.

I've read where you talk about limiting a character's vocabulary to what that person might really use. How difficult is that with your personal range of knowledge? Is it a bit like 'unknowing' to write a character?

It's not so much about "playing dumb" as about creating a wardrobe of phrases and words specific to each character. Me, myself, I almost always start a new topic by saying: "It's funny..." that's my private "bumper music" to seize the listener's attention. It's a throw-away phrase to enroll the listener before you say the important part of your sentence. Most people have a small collection of relative clauses they use to get attention or to manipulate a conversation. For each character, you must find those and stay true to them. Beyond using simple, accurate language, you can use fancy-pants words -- but only to demonstrate what the character knows BEST. The overall language of a story should never swamp the story. Also, with bland words, you get more the "timing" effect of a pause, not sub-vocalized by the reader, a quiet pause that makes what follows more powerful.

Your official website is filled with committed fans, even going so far as to use the word cult. Is it at all intimidating to put out a new book with such a rabid fanbase?

Ouch, thanks for pointing that out. The most-important part of each story or book is forgetting the idea that ANYONE might ever read it. Especially your mother or Aunt Ruth in Texas. Especially "Guts." Personally, I find loud trance music (in French or Italian) helps.

You've written that music is an important part of your creative process, what kind of music sets the tone for your writing?

The music depends on the tone of the book. In a way, I use a single piece of music to re-create the same mood each time I go back to a project. By listening to it -- again and again -- I quit hearing the words, and almost hypnotize myself into a fictional world. Andy Warhol used to do this with a record called "I Saw Linda, Yesturday." His friends grew to hate that song.

In interviews and elsewhere you've talked about the scary things people have told you or asked you to do, often somewhat related to stunts from Fight Club. I'm not going to ask you what's the strangest, but what was the funniest?

The San Francisco Cacophony Society crashed a book event, all of them dressed in sunglasses and trench coats, and tried to kidnap me. I found out, later, their plan was to take me climbing into the massive concrete bowels of the Bay Bridge, a fortress of concrete in the center of the San Francisco Bay. Thank God, but a crowd of people stopped the kidnapping. Still, it would've made a GREAT story. Or obituary.