I met Chuck Palahniuk, author of “Fight Club” at one of San Francisco’s upscale hotels where chipper mid-20s bellhops and fine-dining waiters hustle for tips and walk on their heels to please. The irony is all too present with Palahniuk. Here is the man who wrote the book that would become the most subversive movie Hollywood has ever made. Now the waiters and waitresses who rise up against society in the novel and movie are turning down his bed and serving him meals as he tours the Bay Area reading from his latest paperback “Choke”.
There is nothing, however, about Palahniuk’s demeanor, presence, or personality that would make him a target of another’s dissatisfaction. He still lives in the same pre-fame rural home, has the same friends and writes on the same desk as he did before success as a writer ever found him. Clean shaven with gym-thick arms, a chiseled face and dark hair and eyes, the soft spoken Palahniuk greatly contrasts all aspects of the personalities his maniacally humorous writing explores – except for the fact that he gave the characters life.
Tonight Palahniuk will read from his novel “Choke” at Cody’s Books on Telegraph at 7:30. “Choke” is Palahniuk’s fourth published novel. It will be followed by the release of “Lullaby” in September and a work in progress due next year called “Period Revival.”
Born in Washington and now a resident of Portland, Ore., Palahniuk finished his first published novel “Fight Club” in three months.
While working by day as a mechanic, Palahniuk found himself getting in frequent fist fights. After one particularly rough thrashing, Palahniuk returned to work battered and bruised. Not one co-worker acknowledged how roughed-up he looked, and it was then that Palahniuk realized that if a person looked like they’d been through hell, no one would question why they looked so bad. They didn’t want to get involved. They didn’t want to know. Then and there he began writing Fight Club.
Palahniuk’s first novel “Invisible Monsters” was rejected with long explanatory “Nos” from publishing houses claiming it was too dark and unsettling. Angered by the rejections, he wrote the gnarliest book he could – “Fight Club.” His attempt to spite the publishers not only caught their attention, but inspired the feature film starring Ed Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter. The movie also inspired a cult following that leaves Palahniuk loyalists standing shoulder to shoulder at readings.
“Choke,” is another dark comedy. This time Palahniuk’s dark literary chasm, once filled to the brim with violence, is now teeming with sex. It’s about medical-school dropout and antihero Victor Mancini, who spends much of his time cruising Sexaholic Anonymous meetings to find partners. He also pretends to choke in restaurants. After unsuspecting good Samaritans “save” Mancini with the Heimlich maneuver, he gets a free meal from the restaurant and scams his rescuer for money. It’s another kind of maniacal expose on modern-man’s identity crisis, and on the world in general. For Palahniuk, the exploration of the dark side of life through his novels is a product of his craft.
The following was a conversation between Chuck Palahniuk and Daily Planet correspondent Neil G. Greene on July 24, 2002.
Daily Planet: In “Fight Club” you drew a lot from personal experiences. Do you do this in your new books or is it completely from the imagination?
Palahniuk: First of all I don’t think anything is completely from the imagination. But I think you run out of your own personal experience, so you’ve got to be like this roving drift net I call the “two-mile wall of death.” It’s constantly going through the world looking for people’s stories, looking for sensory details, looking for little bits of evidence you can put together to make a story out of. It listens to what people talk about, what they’re concerned about, it looks for patterns. If enough people mention something then I know it’s something that is in the culture and it’s probably a good place to go.
Daily Planet: Where do you go to gather information?
Palahniuk: Support groups, and going out with friends and listening to what people talk about. Road trips are excellent for that, it’s like life in fast forward. People are always telling me weird things that are such incredible metaphors. A guy yesterday was telling me they’ve identified five types of core weight lifts – like bench presses, squats, and power cleans. Each one corresponds with a different personality type. He was telling me this whole thing that correlates with Jungian psychology and Jungian archetypes, but presented it in an entirely new different way. It’s fascinating I can’t wait to go research that, and talk to people about that. People are always bringing you these gifts, and all I have to do is sit back and people will just lay these gifts down.
Daily Planet: And then you take what you’ve gathered and kind of put it in a big bowl, stir it up and write it out?
Palahniuk: It’s kind of evil. I’ll go to parties and throw it out like it’s an innocent topic of conversation. People will just grab it and they’ll all start offering anecdotes that develop and flush the idea out.
Daily Planet: Do you record the information in your mind?
Palahniuk: Until I can get into the bathroom and write it down on Kleenex or something from the trash. I put it in my sock and I take it home because I know I can’t relax until I’ve written it down in some way.
Daily Planet: Do you keep those scraps of paper?
Palahniuk: I think I threw them away, but then I come across them. I’m still coming across grease stained pieces of Fight Club on gum wrappers. My dad said I should always keep them, but I don’t, it’s like keeping the scaffolding on a cathedral after it’s done. As soon as I find them I throw them away.
Daily Planet: Is there a unifying thread in all your books?
Palahniuk: The unifying thread is finding a way to get people to laugh at something they’re really frightened of. Because unless you can laugh at terminal illness or violence, or even sex, than you have no freedom around it and you’re completely used by it. If you get people laughing then they’re shocked, they hear themselves laughing and they say, ‘Oh my god I’m laughing at mutilation,’ at something so horrible, but that’s really the biggest theme.
Daily Planet: Is that where you find the line is drawn – between people who can enjoy you’re writing and people who are unable to laugh at it?
Palahniuk: Yeah, because in a way they can’t see past the surface of things, or so few people who’ve actually read it haven’t like it at this point which is nice. I think people tend to judge it before they even read it. The other thing is, this is something that happened to my dad. My dad dreamed his whole life that if he could put together enough to get a mountain and cabin away from everybody he’d be happy. Then he got that, and he spent all his time in his cabin phoning people saying ‘please come up and join me I’m so lonely.’ It is really the American myth that if we can move into that castle on the beach or that penthouse and we can get away from everybody then we’re going to be happy. So all of the books are about somebody who’s achieved this isolation that’s supposed to make us happy. And then, for whatever reason, circumstances bring them back into community with people. They find more happiness in the turmoil of being with people then they did in blissful isolation. So all of the books, all five books are about that isolation to community.
Daily Planet: Who are your main inspirations?
Palahniuk: The people who really got me excited about writing, Michael Chabon’s “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”, Thom Jones’ “The Pugilist at Rest”, Mark Richard’s “Ice at the Bottom of the World”, and everything by Amy Hempel. Amy Hempel is just extraordinary. She only does short story collections, they’re really the finest minimalist writing there is. Everything I do is just completely ripped off of her. I almost don’t even want to recommend her, because when you read her stuff, you fall into a depression because some part of you knows you will never write as well as Amy Hempel.
Daily Planet: Some of your beginning books were turned down, what kept you going? What made you keep at it?
Palahniuk: I was really really angry that people were just never going to publish anything I wrote. They weren’t going to publish it because it was too dark and too upsetting and I felt like I had the choice of making it less dark or never getting published. So I just figured I’d never be published, and in a way that’s why the parts in “Fight Club” I don’t like are still in there because I figured it would never be published.
Daily Planet: So not caring helped take a weight off your back?
Palahniuk: Oh yeah, suddenly you’re just writing for fun. You’re writing for the whole reason why you wanted to write, before you started to think about money or recognition. You just wanted to write because it was fun.
Daily Planet: Do you think the book or movie would have been well received after Sept. 11.
Palahniuk: Sept. 11 is the death date of the transgressive fiction. So many transgressive fiction books like “Monkey Wrench Gang,” “Trainspotting” or “American Psycho,” books just like that will not be published, there were contracts already signed, advances paid out, but after Sept. 11, those sort of civil disobedience books will not come out.
Daily Planet: What fills that space? Is a new way of transferring the information emerging?
Palahniuk: We do what we did in the 50s, we get charming and clever and seductive, and we do our social commentary through horror, science fiction and fantasy. So you can say things about the culture, and say, ‘No, no, no, no, that’s not about the Nazis, it’s just about elves. It’s not about the rise of fascism, it’s just animals in a barnyard.’ We can pretend that it’s not a threatening thing. We can get away with questioning the culture. That’s not a bad thing. I think we’ve been on the soap box way too long. It’s time for us to be seductive and clever.
Daily Planet: Are you still getting in fist fights?
Palahniuk: No, I sort of completed that part of myself. Each book is about completing some part of myself. “Invisible Monsters” was about realizing I wasn’t going to be a young person for ever and ever, and that I’d better find another source of power other than just youth.
Daily Planet: Do you think your best piece is still ahead of you? Leading you like the donkey’s carrot?
Palahniuk: Yeah, I can still surprise myself. I look at parts of “Fight Club” and they’re totally wrong and they’re an embarrassment to read. And I can still pop out seven pages that I’m just in love with. I totally think it’s just going to get better. For a few more years, god knows if not forever. But eventually I think you stop and you start teaching. I turn 40 in Feb., and this is going to be ten years of writing and playing the game and having a good time, but once I turn 50 it’s going to be time to give it all back.