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Catching Up With... Chuck Palahniuk

September 26, 2008  |  7:00am
Catching Up With... Chuck Palahniuk
When a young Chuck Palahniuk pitched his novel Invisible Monsters to publishers, it was rejected because it was too disturbing. His response was to fill his next novel, Fight Club, with even more disturbing and violent events and dub himself a writer of “transgressional fiction.” One of his favorite stories for live readings is the short story “Guts,” from his collection Haunted, because the accounts of masturbation that met a violent end caused several of his audience members to actually faint. His worlds are shocking, but his readers eat it up not simply because they like blood and guts—his stories aim to shock like a defibrillator, to wake you up from the mundane and remind you that while terrible things can always be around the corner, you might just be able to withstand them.

The latest film adaptation of one of his books, Choke, hits theaters today.

Paste: For second time now, you’ve got a book of yours turned into a film. What do you think of the film versions of Fight Club and Choke?
Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club was kind of flashy, but nostalgic. It was really well plotted and had great pacing and all of the above, but Choke was just heartbreaking. It really makes a transition from comedy to tragedy at the end, and it has that kind of romantic fatalism that I’m just in love with.

Paste: In your writing, you’ve had excruciating violence, and the new novel Snuff deals very explicitly with the porn industry, but the movie Choke doesn’t seem to have as much shock value. Even though there is the sex addict nature of it, it doesn’t seem as shocking as some of your other writing. Was it weird to see it transferred that way?
Palahniuk: Not really. In a way, a lot of my humor comes from presenting things that are dramatic or shocking and then people not having socially appropriate responses, having people denying the drama by failing to react to it, and that’s a really classic form of humor. So in a way, its a good sign when people aren’t playing to the drama and are portraying characters for whom these are such banal everyday aspects of their lives. It’s a lot more true to the story and to reality, to tell you the truth.

Paste: Would you say the same thing about Snuff, that the shock value kind of throws people off of the story? How would you characterize how that relates to the story?
Palahniuk: It’s funny, because I don’t really perceive it as much as shock value. I’m so used to the material; I’ve been carrying around some of those true stories from friends for 30 years. So, for me, they aren’t really shocking stories. In a way it's a comfort to be able to finally use those stories that people told me so long ago.

Paste: With your recent collection of horror writing [Haunted], it seems like there is definitely the shock value there and it is taking it to extremes. An example of that would be, just the reading the story "Guts" to folks and the faintings that have happened, you almost seem to get a kick out of the faintings during these readings. What’s the point of the shock there for you?
Palahniuk: Okay, well, number one, one of the very few advantages books still have over other forms of mass media is the intimate, consensual nature of consumption. You don’t have to worry about the story being broadcasted or presented to an audience that isn’t ready for it. With a book, you’re guaranteed the audience has a certain skill level and that the audience has to make an ongoing effort to consume this product and that the project is being consumed by just one person at a time. I really want to play to that strength because it's one of the few advantages books still have. So I want to tell the kind of stories that only books can tell, at this point in history. I remember when books used to be the dangerous things. People would ban or burn them. Books used to have that sort of lofty place of being the most transgressive thing and the edge of culture and books have really fallen away from that role and I kind of want to revive that role as well.

Paste: Yeah, that mantel has been claimed by video games these days.
Palahniuk: Yeah, exactly, or maybe hip-hop music videos.

Paste: I remember Fight Club was actually turned into a video game. Did you have anything to do with that? Was that an interesting experience for you, to sort of take that transgressive nature of books and push it to the place where film or video games can go?
Palahniuk: I didn’t even know it was being done until it was done. The merchandising rights went to 20th Century Fox.

Paste: I guess that’s the nature of those things.
Palahniuk: I haven’t heard anyone say a good thing about it. I hope Fox made some money on it.

Paste: Now, are you a video gamer at all? Have you ever played any of these games that are sort of transgressive in nature?
Palahniuk: I think I used to play Doom at work occasionally when people would sneak it in, but that’s it. I’m kind of a pinball generation.

Paste: Well, what do you think about taking these transgressive stories and books and, instead of just reading about the character, becoming the character and committing some of these transgressive acts? Is that something you see as a perversion of what a book can be, or is it something else altogether?
Palahniuk: On one level, I think its the highest compliment, because when something is presented to our culture that the culture cannot readily accept in a simile, then the culture has to break it down by making lesser and lesser copies of it, that the original event generates many versions, and each version is a more simplified, digested copy of the original. And this is how these sort of upsetting or unacceptable or challenged things are broken down and assimilated into the culture and digested. So I think one of the highest compliments is to see your work reduced to one-liners on The Simpsons or Jon Stewart saying, “The first rule about ‘blank’ is you don’t talk about ‘blank.’” Because that is really good sign that the culture is still breaking this thing down and digesting it. And on another level, the big role of anything creative is to model new ways of being for people and to allow people to try on these ways of being as a sort of a costume and seeing if there is anything to be gained from that. You know, it’s not a full identity, but it’s like a hat or a shirt or a pair of shoes: you can work with it.

Paste: Why do you think horror stories are important?
Palahniuk: On one level, it’s a sort of cathartic, sort of exhausting. It’s the reason I go to the gym every night, so that generalized stress is forced to crisis and exhausted in that way. And I think horror stories have always been our way of dealing with social issues that we can’t address directly because we’d just fight resolution. Horror stories give us a way of exhausting our emotions around social issues, like a woman’s right to an abortion, which I always thought was the core of Rosemary’s Baby, or the backlash against feminism, which I always thought was the core to Stepford Wives.

Paste: Our books editor Charles McNair pointed out that there are other writers out there dealing with violence very explicitly, like Cormac McCarthy, almost writing as a way to cope with this end game he senses as coming. Do you consider yourself more of a humorist? Is this a way to just laugh in the face of all the crap around us?
Palahniuk: Not so much as humorist, even, as a romantic. Crap has always happened, crap is happening and will continue to happen and that’s at the core of romantic fatalism. In the face of all the crap that just happened, having the freedom to make good things happen, as well, and not be stunned just by the bad things. So all my books are full of that. That’s the central drive.

Paste: You’ve spent a good portion of time volunteering at hospice. Could you tell me about that experience?
Palahniuk: A church I was going to had a Christmas tree that had ornaments on it, and each one was kind of a good-deed, community-service thing. The one I chose said, “Take a hospice patient on a date.” There was really nothing I could do in terms of patient care, but I could drive people around, and I ended up just basically driving people who are dying to do things they wanted to do one last time. And then also, to drive them to their support groups. And at the time, my life was miserable. I wasn’t doing anything with my college degree, and I was really deep in debt. But it gave me some perspective being around people who had lives a hundred million times more miserable than mine. It made me feel really, really good about my life for the first time, maybe since childhood.

Paste: How do you think those experiences have worked their way into your writing?
Palahniuk: Well, in a literal way, all of the support group stuff from Fight Club came from me sitting in on these support groups for terminally ill people, so that I could take my charge back to the hospice afterwards. Those sequences in Fight Club were things that dreamed up while at these meetings. I started to recognize that, in a way, 12-step groups, recovery groups, support groups were becoming the new kind of church of our time—a place where people will go and confess their very worst aspects of their lives and seek redemption and community with other people in the way that people used to go to church and sort of present their worst selves in confession and then celebrate communion and then go home for another week. The same dynamic of Fight Club became a dynamic of Choke with the 12-step support groups and recovery groups.

Paste: In October, we’re publishing a violence issue. We have people exploring what violence means in the media, why we crave it, how it affects us, and one of the writers is looking at some of the copycat stuff that’s happened. What do you think your responsibility is as a writer when crazy people react to what you’ve written? I know there’ve been fight clubs that have cropped up since the movie came out, since the book came out. And the reaction that I’ve read from you is, "Well, there must be a need for these things." Is there ever a fear that some of these more violent aspects will get recreated out there by some idiot?
Palahniuk: Well, yeah, for a long time I got custom letters accusing me of being a copycat of the people that conducted these things that were like Fight Club in the 1940s or ’50s or in the military or during some war. There were logging camps. And so I think these things have always happened and will always continue to happen because they serve a purpose, and I just was kind of lucky enough to slap a name of this thing that is perennial, that is permanent. And that’s kind of my sole responsibility, just to bring it to light, and I don’t really think you can slight people for that. There are far worse things going on out there that haven’t been brought to light.

Paste: Why do you think these clubs have existed?
Palahniuk: Because I think people need a consensual forum in which to express themselves and to exhaust their pent up anxiety, and also to test themselves and kind of destroy their identity-of-the-moment, so that they can move on to a better, stronger identity and all of the above. Plus, it’s an active social way for people to be together. There are a lot of books out there about women’s social models, like, The Joy Luck Club or How To Make An American Quilt or The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. But there are just very few social models that are being presented for how men can come together and just communicate. And so much of Fight Club wasn’t just fighting, it was also fighting and bitching. You know, just being able to talk about your life and the fights were just almost the arbitrary reason, like sex in the book Snuff. You know, sex is almost an afterthought. Really, so much of it is about bringing people together so that they can talk about their experience, so in a way Fight Club serves the same purpose as the gang-bang in Snuff.

Paste: Your characters are often dealing with the anxieties of the modern world. What scares you the most?
Palahniuk: Well, you know, I think it changes with every age. When I was in my teens and 20s, it was that idea that life was just not going to turn out, that I was going to end up in some sleeping-room only hotel and that my family, for generations, would point to me as the big failure not to emulate: "Just don’t be like your crazy uncle Chuck who wanted to be a writer." That was the predominant fear of my youth, and then as you move forward in life, that fear changes to, you know, whether it’s fear of decrepitude and aging or whether it changes to terror for your children, there’s a very specific terror to every age in life and it changes.

Paste: Do you think writing, for you, is a way to deal with some of those fears?
Palahniuk: Yeah, definitely. There’s my idea that writing is a way to deal with things that I cannot change and I cannot tolerate the possibility of. I know that I’m going to die and that you’re going to die. I can’t do anything about that. But I can explore it through a metaphor and make a kind of funny, dark story about it, and in doing so, really exhaust and research as many aspects of it as I can imagine. And in a way, that does give me some closure. It gives me some comfort, and so that’s all I’m really trying to do.

Paste: Do you think your readers are finding that same sort of comfort—that among the sex and gore and everything else there’s that comfort in there?
Palahniuk: I think so, because if you can present a worst, worst, worst case scenario, even a scenario that’s worse than anything that the reader or the audience can imagine, like “Guts,” and then you can show the person surviving it, moving beyond that worst-case scenario. Then in a way, I think you give the audience a sense that they themselves can survive their very worst fears, that even if the worst thing they imagined actually happened to them, they would live beyond that. And I think that’s a big, big comfort.

Paste: Well, there is a definite sweetness that you find in Choke. How would you define kindness?
Palahniuk: Letting people make their mistakes but then still expecting them to be a different, better person every day.

Paste: I’ve read a lot that there’s potential for a Fight Club musical. Is that any closer to happening?
Palahniuk: Yeah, every year I think it’s kind of faded away and died. This year, too. And then at Sundance, I met a journalist who had just interviewed [Fight Club director] David Fincher. And this journalist was telling me that Fincher was talking non-stop about it, so I guess it is still in the works out there somewhere.

Paste: So will you be pretty involved in that, you think?
Palahniuk: Yeah, I’d love to be, but I’ve got plenty to keep me busy until then.

Paste: What are you working on right now?
Palahniuk: I’ve got a book called Pygmy that is done for next year, so that’ll be next spring’s book. And the Choke movie comes out toward the end of September and there’ll be a lot of work to sort of support that. Plus I’ve got a garden to take care of, I’ve got another book to start. Life goes on.

Watch the trailer for Choke:

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