Interview: Chuck Palahniuk

By Jeff Sartain

Chuck Palahniuk Photo

© www.jeanmarmeisse.com, Paris 2006;
Used with permission.

A former semi-truck mechanic with a degree in journalism, Chuck Palahniuk broke out as a major figure in American literature shortly after David Fincher adapted his first novel, Fight Club, into a film starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter. Two more of his books, Survivor and Invisible Monsters, were immediately published coinciding with the release of the film, and a meteoric rise to literary fame began. Proving he wasn't a one-hit wonder, Palahniuk published Choke in 2001 to rave reviews and massive public acceptance, debuting at number ten on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Since Choke, though, Palahniuk's fiction has taken a decidedly darker turn since he contracted with Doubleday to produce a triad of horror novels. Lullaby, Diary, and, most recently, Haunted make up his initial speculative fiction offerings. Palahniuk is currently working on a book of essays about his minimalist style of writing, which is the culmination of two years of a public Writers Workshop that he held at his official website. This summer he is also finishing his eighth novel, Rant, which is his first foray into science fiction, due out in mid-2007.

I caught up with him in Chicago on the paperback tour for Haunted, a novel made up of twenty-five short stories and poems linked by a unifying frame-tale. Included in Haunted is the controversial and wildly popular short story "Guts," which has been causing people to faint and vomit at his readings since he first premiered it while on tour for his collection of journalism, Stranger than Fiction. "Guts" was recently selected to The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror Eighteenth Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant.

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Jeff Sartain: Coming from a mainstream position, what you've written seems to break the boundaries of what many people consider the traditional horror genre. When you write a speculative piece, do you find yourself more engaged by pushing a character's perspective, or do you find yourself really engaged with the ideas or commentary you want to make?

Chuck Palahniuk: In minimalism, I think you're always trying to work with the same thing as many different ways as possible. Lullaby, for example, is about presenting as many different forms of power and domination and competition as possible. So years ago, when I was studying minimalism, I didn't get it until I watched a Skipper's Seafood commercial. And in that commercial, in just thirty seconds, they showed me a bag, and they showed me a sign, and they showed me laughing people eating fish, and they showed me people drinking out of paper cups with "Skippers" written on it. They showed me Skippers fish and chips with as many different images and symbols as possible. So in minimalism, in Lullaby, the idea was to present the struggle for domination through invasive plants and animals, through magic, through families. Think of the group that goes on the road; it's really a family: a mother, a father, and two children. Through politics, because Carl Streator represents the aristocracy, and Helen represents the bourgeoisie striving for more power, and the two kids represent the proletariat who have no power and are willing to do anything to get some power. So all these different metaphors, everything throughout the entire book, is just another way of presenting this ongoing struggle to either maintain power, gain power, or get any amount of power. So really every book is just a collage of as many metaphors as I can find along the same theme. And so no matter how seemingly disparate those elements might be, there's a sort of organic wholeness to it, because on some level, you do recognize that they are all dealing with the same issue.

JS: So with Haunted, you're obviously exploring similar themes with the short stories that make up the bulk of Haunted. What inspired you to try to link all those stories, rather than publishing them one at a time in various places or publishing them as a collection of just short stories? Why move it into the sphere of the novel by putting in the unifying narrative?

CP: A couple of different things. Number one: The publisher said, "Can you link these? Novels sell so much better than short story collections, and if we can even slap A Novel on the cover, it would sell twice what it would sell otherwise." I've even seen an introduction to a Stephen King short story collection where he acknowledges it: "This is not going to sell anywhere close to what my novels would sell." And on another level, I really wanted to present something in a sort of vaudeville, smorgasbord format, where you have as many different forms of storytelling, ongoing throughout the book, as possible. The idea was sort of like A Chorus Line, the movie or the musical, where you trap people, in this case in a theatrical setting, and they literally stand on a stage and they tell an ongoing story with a through-line. Will these people get hired as dancers? But within that, they also present a very vaudeville program of dance, ballads, love songs, stand-up comedy, dramatic monologue; they're presenting a constant flow of different types of storytelling. So if one type, one small bit doesn't work, there's always another bit that can work in a different way and a better way. And on a third level, I wanted to mimic those "Best of" books—Best of Edgar Allen Poe or The Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson—that we grew up with. They sat on a table and you could open them at any point and read a short thing, or a long thing. So you have a whole selection of different things by the same person.

JS: What draws you to write horror?

CP: You know in a way, if you call it horror, you can sort of mask its intentions within some sort of horror expectations. Because with horror, you are granted the permission, and you ask the permission to end badly. A horror novel, as a social convention, is allowed to end in a dark way and to go to much darker places. It's sort of like labeling it right from the get go: "This is not going to end well." So that's the number one motivation. Since September 11, if you want to write a book that ends really poorly, it's really hard to do that on a soap box and call it social commentary.

JS: Do you ever set out to make an ostensibly political book, or does the commentary fall more on a social or cultural scale, with the book just ending up being prescient or political?

CP: It's sort of the opposite direction of that, actually. It goes to a much smaller political scale. I'm always identifying some fallacy in my own life. I'm sort of making fun of myself by exploring and unpacking just why I'm sort of automatically thrown to be a certain way. And if I can be really brutally honest about myself in regard to that, then I think people admire that and can see themselves in that kind of really brutal honesty. And they see a sort of permission to acknowledge a part of themselves that they've been in denial about for most of their lives.

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JS: Even prior to these three horror novels, Lullaby, Diary, and Haunted, none of your books end in what would be considered a cheery fashion, or have any sort of lasting consolation at the end. In terms of Haunted being a horror novel, what draws you to the bad ending?

CP: The bittersweet. Ira Levin, I always thought, was terrific at doing those dark, bittersweet endings. You know, where I think it really mimics real life. It's never happily ever after, and a moment after the curtain comes down on even a happy ending, everything's gonna go to shit. At least with a Rosemary's Baby ending, or a Stepford Wives ending, you have that acknowledgement that if you wait long enough, something bad will happen again.

JS: So you may have just answered this, but who's your favorite horror writer?

CP: Shirley Jackson. When "The Lottery" was published originally in the New Yorker, I think in 1948, people all over the world wrote in. They got more correspondence on that piece of fiction than on any other fiction, or maybe all of them combined, that they'd ever gotten. People cancelled their subscriptions all over the world. There was such upset. So, before I sat down to write "Guts," I thought, how would you have to write "The Lottery" now, in such a way that you'd generate that same strong outrage? And so "The Lottery" was really my inspiration for "Guts."

JS: When did you stop keeping count of the "body count" of people who passed out when you read "Guts"?

CP: I stopped in Toronto last year when it got to 71. It was a prime number.

JS: Over how many cities was that, roughly?

CP: It was about a year and a half of touring, so it was easily twenty cities. At least twenty or twenty-four cities.

JS: You've said your next novel is going to be set in a dystopic, science fiction society. Can you give us any more background on the dystopic nature of the society? Is it a recognizable present? Or is it completely speculative and invented?

CP: It's a very sort of day-after-tomorrow setting, wherein metropolitan areas over about a million people, they've been forced to make maximum use of the existing infrastructure. There is The Infrastructure Effective and Efficient Use Act. So a certain number of people have to live their lives outdoors between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., and a certain number of people can only leave their homes between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. So basically, public life has to be lived in these shifts, in order for everyone to fit on the streets because there's just no more room for any more infrastructure, any more highways. So it polarizes the community into day people and night people, and it becomes sort of a metaphor for racism and classism.

JS: You've also hinted that the next novel will be about car culture. Why cars? What metaphors engage you about cars?

CP: The book itself is called Rant, and it's a fake biography of a guy named Rant Casey. The car thing kind of functions as a second act dynamic, a sort of model in which people interact. So it's a metaphor, but also a physical structure that allows people to meet and come together and sort of interact around a competition, a ritualized structured expression. And in this case it's something called "party crashing." It's based on the Cacophony Society. People take conventional ways that other people have always decorated their cars, and use them as ways of giving other people permission to approach them. A friend of mine—and everybody's had this experience to some extent—he put his coffee cup on his car on his way to work. And as he was driving to work, countless people pulled up next to him and waved, pointed at his roof, or laughed. And in a way, by doing that sort of thing, by wearing a funny hat, or a funny piece of jewelry, that gives people permission to approach you, to interact with you. And he loved that so much that the next day he drilled a hole in his car and bolted a travel mug to his roof. And everywhere he went, everyone had this ongoing permission to laugh and point and roll down their window and stop in traffic and say, "You have a cup! You forgot your cup!"

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JS: That seems to be the light, harmless version of leaving the baby carrier on the roof. . . .

CP: But that's what he moved to. Among him and his peer group, people started putting more and more "inadvertent" things on their roofs. People would bolt whole dish sets to their roofs, with tablecloths. Because they all had junker cars. And so eventually you had these thanksgiving turkeys, and these huge 12-course meals bolted to their roofs. Or baby carriers. All these different versions of ways for them to be idiots in public and let people approach them. And so the whole second act of Rant is people interacting in what they call "party crashing," where they decorate their cars as a Just Married car, with the tail of cans, the sprays, and the whipped cream and they go out during very specific windows of time late at night in this big city, and they stalk each other. And they get into fender benders by stalking and chasing and escaping each other in this big consensual demolition derby that takes place in public. You think of all the sort of conventional ways that we make our car stand out—like tying a Christmas tree to the roof. So there are Christmas tree nights in party crashing culture. There are mattress moving nights, where you see cars with mattresses on top. There are student driver nights, where everybody puts a big fictitious student driver sign on their car. So there's all these different, seemingly ordinary ways of decorating their cars. But they do it in a slightly specific way during these windows of time, in these very specific parts of the city, and it allows them to do this sort of Fight Club-like party crashing, that allows men and women and people of all ages and races to act in this mutual chaos.

JS: Who've you read recently?

CP: I read and I liked a man named Allan MacDonell. He has a book out now with Feral House Press called Prisoner of X. It's sort of his autobiography as executive publisher of Hustler for 35 years. I thought it was just a book packed full with great material. I can't say it taught me anything about writing. The writing itself was pretty standard, but it was such a flow of constant, really extraordinary situations and details, that it kept you really engaged. So you finished the book in maybe one or two sittings. I read an Iraq memoir that's out right now called Chasing Ghosts. It's really dark. I couldn't believe how dark it was, and that's always very attractive to me. And it goes to a kind of place, in regards to innocent people living in such horrific circumstances—you know tortured children, just really horrible upset—that most other books can never go to. So I think Paul Rieckhoff, the author, was really brave with the nature of all the things he depicted. He just really didn't hold back on anything. And he was very, very honest with his own feelings, which was admirable.

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JS: What do you think about the larger state of contemporary literature, after the revealing of the J. T. Leroy hoax and the James Frey hoax? What do hoaxes do to an industry or art in general?

CP: It's the way it's always been. Remember Sapphire? The book about this tortured teenage sex worker that was exposed as a big fraud. [Ed.: Push.] That wasn't even that long ago. Remember The Amityville Horror? People loved the fact that that was a true story, even though it's been exposed as a total hoax. But even now they're still making sequels to it; we're still obsessed with that story. It never changes. We're always seeing that kind of fraud.

JS: It seems indicative of the fact that, even more than ever before, authors have to create a certain persona.

CP: But when you look at the history of what's succeeded and what's lasted, the majority of it seems to be from writers who're able to craft a public persona and who're able to tour an enormous amount. Mark Twain toured huge amounts, Edgar Allen Poe was constantly writing reviews and writing non-fiction to support his fiction. Agatha Christie; her whole kidnap thing. She was a non-entity until she became this nationally-known kidnapped woman, and everyone was raving, "What happened to the mystery woman?" And after that, her books started to sell. So we always have this myth that the writer is someone who hides out, like Emily Dickinson in her attic, but the truth is the majority are people who have to get out and tour like crazy and create a public persona to help sell their book.

JS: So what specific attributes do you bring to a reading, which is almost a performance sometimes, that make up your public persona? What things show up that wouldn't appear when you're at home or with friends?

CP: It's funny because I kind of make my public persona work based on the things that entertain my friends. You know, what do my friends laugh at? And I try to make that public presentation as unpretentious as possible. People tell me stories that have been really remarkable, and that I know work, and that can be used in different combinations. And then I road test them on my friends, and take stories from my friends.

JS: In a letter you wrote to me years ago, you wrote that the genesis of most of your writing comes from your friends, or stories about your friends. You wrote this small anecdote about a friend who's sitting in a casino and looking at all the fake jungle all around.

CP: Tom! We used to call him Reno Tom because he moved out to Reno. He looked at all the fake jungle and birds in this casino and said, "This is what life will be like in outer space colonies, where everything has to be shipped in, and it's artificial and underground." And it was such a bright thing to say. And it's funny because when somebody does say something really bright like that, your emotional recognition of it keeps it in your head for the rest of your life. And you can use that one memory cue to bring up the rest of the scene. There was a dancer there in a leotard that looked like a tuxedo, a strapless bodice, and fishnet stockings. And she came over, and I remember that she was telling us that she used to be a fine dancer, from New York, a ballet dancer. And when she moved to Reno it was all about dancing with your tits out, so she was disgusted and so she became a cocktail waitress instead. And her name was Toni. Toni with an "i." And I remember that. And that was seventeen years ago. And I only remember it because of that bright thing that Tom said. But that one little memory brings back a huge spectrum of images.

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JS: It's been ten years now since you first published Fight Club as a novel. What's changed in ten years for you?

CP: I'm not working full time anymore. I'm not working at Freightliner. I have a different car. I have a 2000 Toyota pickup, whereas before I had a 1985 Toyota pickup. I had a little yellow one, 4-speed, 4-cylinder. Now I have a Toyota Tacoma. Basically, all my friends are still the same. I live in the same house. Everything else for the most part is still the same. I go to the same writers' workshop, but we meet on Friday nights now instead of Thursdays.

JS: So your success as a writer hasn't changed your relationship in any way with your writers' workshop then?

CP: Some of us in the workshop after sixteen years, some people make their living at it. Some people publish a few short stories. Some people have never published. And some of us have died. But we so much enjoy being together once a week, that in a way, presenting our work is just an excuse for us to be together and to catch up. And so it's just sort of amazing just to think, after sixteen years to still have these friendships that are based on mutual passion. So many people's friends are just based on family, or jobs, or work, or school. They're based on external circumstances, so once those circumstances change, the friendships, the relationships fall away. And so it's incredible to have relationships that are based on a shared passion.

JS: I know you don't keep tabs on the film adaptations day to day, but where does most of your work stand in terms of film?

CP: Almost all of the fiction has been picked up for film options. Right now they're still trying to decide whether to break up Haunted and sell the stories separately or sell the whole thing as one big package. Choke is partially cast and it was supposed to start filming back in March. Right now they've got Susan Sarandon for the role of the mother, but they lost the male lead. So right now they're trying to cast the male lead. Survivor was bought by the writer/director team from Constantine. And my screen agent, who is a really, really tough sell, has read their screenplay and he was really impressed. He said it was brilliant. Diary, they have a screenplay with an Icelandic producer who's made a bunch of Harrison Ford movies, and he's developing it. They're shopping it around for casting. Invisible Monsters, Jesse Peyronel has had the option for years now, and he's been casting it. I just sold the option this year on Lullaby to a Swedish man who's made his name making television commercials and music videos. He just did a 36-series of eBay Express television commercials that are just coming out, and he wants to be the next David Fincher. His plan is to have Lullaby into production in a year and a half, two years at the most.

JS: Which of your six remaining novels would you most like to see up on the big screen?

CP: I'd like to see Survivor. Just so the trick ending will be demonstrated visually and I won't have to answer that question anymore. But I'd also really like to see Lullaby. Lullaby is one that I've always really been attached to, if only because it does flash-forwards, which you really seldom see in books. I was so tickled at how each of those turned out.

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JS: The sexuality in Choke seems a little graphic, even by Hollywood's loosening standards. How do you think they'll get your material intact and get it past the MPAA, especially in books like Choke?

CP: I think in a way, the unacknowledged American standard for success is to transgress. Break the rules, or find a place where the rules aren't there yet, where they're not legally set in stone, and do something there, and make your name by breaking convention.

JS: That seems to be the fundamental American hypocrisy, right? We venerate the rebels, but we tell people to toe the line and be good.

CP: Yeah. We say, "be a good kid," but then we reward the bad kids.

JS: What do you think facilitates someone cutting their own path, or making their own way, transgressing against what they're told to do? What do you think has to come together for someone to be able to do that?

CP: A rejection of external acknowledgement. You can't base what you do on the reaction of other people. You can't be pandering for their approval and still do something that's still worthwhile. It was nice to come to the point where it didn't really matter to me whether people liked or didn't like anything I did, as long as they remembered. Taste is such a changing thing. Every age our tastes change. But the things that really last aren't necessarily the best or the worst or the most loved things, but they're the things that make the biggest impression. So that was always the goal, just to make a really strong impression that will last over time. So many of the books that we think of as America's most beloved classics, like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, were, at the time, fantastically controversial because they used a sort of low culture dialect, and they told stories from a sort of uneducated idiot's point of view, using idiot's language. So they were really despised by the intelligentsia. Yet those are the things that last and become the beloved things. The Great Gatsby came out and everybody turned their nose up. And yet that's the thing that we remember. We don't remember so much Tender Is the Night, or the ones that sold a million copies. But we remember the one that failed.


Jeffrey A. Sartain is a freelance writer with work appearing in publications such as Poets & Writers, Ninth Letter, MICRO-FILM Magazine, Indiana Review, and many more. He is currently finishing a Ph.D. in literature at Indiana University.