Chuck Palahniuk Interview

Interview with Chuck Palahniuk

Jason Anderson talks to Chuck Palahniuk – the author of the Fight Club. His new novel, Choke, is being released in the Spring of 2001.

“With Fight Club, I remember thinking, I want to write myself into a corner right from the get-go so there really is a gun to my head. And somehow I had to get these people back to this ludicrous place. So I wrote the most ludicrous, outlandish situation I could think of, which is the top of the building scenario. Somehow miraculously I got them back there, I couldn’t believe it. The relief is so much part of the writing, saying, oh thank God, that worked out.”

Getting yourself in an impossible spot

“Part of it getting myself to an impossible spot and realizing I don’t know jack about what I’m talking about and having to go out and do interviews and research and really hunt around for what is gonna save my protagonist, whether it’s a philosophy or some sort of knowledge about something. SO I love putting myself in those situations and having to think myself out.”

It’s McGyver-ish (laughs)

“Isn’t McGyver like the white trash James Bond?”

American ingenuity, I’m going to make this bomb out of a piece of chewing gum and this twig (laughs)

“Yeah. It’s funny because my brother was visiting for 72 hours, he lives in South Africa, and he’s a chemical engineer. And he and I stayed up drinking for the whole three days and working out the formulas for all the explosives in Fight Club. Then the publishing company changed them all at the last minute so they’d be useless, but we were so proud of those.”

Fun to invite that research

“It is. It’s funny because my friends always say that I write just so I can do the research, because it enables you, gives you permission to do all these adventures. A friend of mine was in nursing school and she told me she was gonna have to dissect cadavers and do autopsies. So I said, hey, if I introduce you to Brad Pitt, can I do autopsies with you? It worked: she met Brad and I got to autopsy three bodies. It was so amazing. That was when I was writing Choke.”

When did Choke start?

“I wrote a couple of short stories that became chapters in Choke, and I wrote them the summer of 1999, just before Fight Club came out. Playboy bought them that summer and scheduled them to come out over the next year. That was the genesis of Choke.”

Are the books being written as fast as they come out?

“Somehow, if I can’t write the book really fast and have a great time doing it, I get the feeling that people can’t read them really fast and have a great time reading it. Once they start to lag in my mind, that’s a really bad sign. That means something went wrong, and I didn’t set things up right. There needs to be a sense of discovery throughout.”

Fight Club and Choke open on support group meetings, fulcrum of American society

“The real story behind them was with Fight Club, and I was working at a volunteer at a hospice, and I would have to take terminally ill people to their support groups, and I would have to sit with them so I could take them back to the hospice. And since I was sitting on the edge of things, people just assumed that I had what everybody had. You can’t really stand up and say, oh by the way, I don’t have AIDS but I’m really sad you all do. You can’t say that. So you just sit there feeling guilty. That’s how that got started. There’s something about support groups, where they’re one of the few places in our culture where people are allowed to not look good. They’re really allowed to be honest and vulnerable with each other, and I was always so impressed with that.”

They function like religious meetings

“It seems like so many churches are about looking good and looking righteous. Not about really spilling your guts and confessing any more. Being in the presence of God and being open in the presence of God, they no longer serve that purpose it seems like. People wear their best clothes and look really good at church. Whereas at these meetings, everyone looks really hangdog and they’re burdened and they remove that burden.”

The more screwed up you are, that’s a badge in that context

“It puts you at the top of the pecking order (laughs).”

Had you encountered sexaholics meetings before?

“No. I wrote a little essay for Doubleday for them to put on a website. My brother had dated a woman who was going to support groups for sexually irresponsible women. Years ago, my brother had joked that the best place to meet women was these support groups, which he was just joking about. But it turned out that they were about to be married and he heard rumours about her behaviour when he was on business trips, so he put a voice activated tape recorder under his bed. When he got home, all the tape was run through, and he said the hardest thing in his life was to listen to that tape. It was her bringing home dozens of guys drunk. He played the tape for her and they were both hysterical. Suddenly this thing that had been funny to us before suddenly became really tragic. Even last year with my father being killed after he answered a personals ad, really got me curious about people who are addicted to relationships or addicted to sex. Part of why I wanted to go to these meetings was to get a better understanding of what this was all about. That’s where it got started.”

Fight Club, externalized, behaviour becomes assaultive, here the damage becomes internalized

“Internalized in terms of sex toys (laughs).”

That too, I wrote that down in my notes, the anality of the novel

“I hadn’t really thought about that (laughs). That’s like the opposite of lashing out. It’s funny because in this one, I wanted to take it one tiny baby step beyond, to the first moment of starting something new, from scratch. And that was the whole goal behind Choke, to go down the long dark tunnel toward the one spark of light at the end.”

Politics, from CNN to the lowliest talk-show, the public suffering of people, as what validates them

“We’re all living in the same soup of this, and part of me is really just tired of this. It is living your life out of the past, out of what’s happened to you, rather than living your life out of some sort of hope for the future. And if I’m getting sick of it, I think everybody’s getting sick of it. We’ve recognized it and are ready to move beyond it. I use myself and my friends as this ongoing barometer of what to write about. What they’re talking about is what I assume the general culture is talking about.”

Before the current wave of things, rape victim, I choose not to be a ‘victim’ – very powerful and pointed toward something that didn’t happen in the culture, victimology got much stronger

“Victims get a lot more attention than people who deny or refuse to indulge in their victim status. Victims get really good attention. They get media attention, they get attention and sympathy from people. It’s almost like hypochondria of some sort.”

Greil Marcus joke – how anybody who took drugs and had a failed record got to be called a survivor

“Ah, Behind the Music. Okay, they’re fat now, that’s all I need to know.”

Could you have anticipated how much impact Survivor would have on American culture

“Oh my God. Years ago, when I was down in Los Angeles, like in ’96, ’97, in meetings about Fight Club, people were joking about this ludicrous show that was going into production called Survivor, where people were going to be on an island. People were so condemning and disdainful of it, they thought it was just a stupid idea and that no one would watch it. It’s amazing to see what happened.”

Evolution in game theory as people watch the same shows

“Or an evolution in personal presentation. Learning from generation to generation how to present ourselves.”

Television culture, how much human consciousness has changed in the last 50 years

“Maybe it will accelerate us in that way. We’ll all be learning these lessons really fast from TV. Whether or not they’re the best lessons to learn…. Candid Camera was the first reality television, and it was so naïve and simple compared to all this. There’s a lot of reality shows in the pipeline that are take offs on Candid Camera. I’m also wondering if it’ll become less novel to appear on television and people will quit signing the releases. Like, you made fun of me in public, no you can’t use that footage. That sort of thing.”

People getting caught on camera, and still signing the release form – Taxicab Confessions, scariest thing, is the person approaching with the release form, the subjects laughing and signing away

“Do those people think it’s a joke? Is it four in the morning?”

Fight Club reality-TV spinoff, not that far away

“I haven’t heard about it yet. In a way we have those a little bit in those American Gladiators, every man vs. the guy with the prop, television shows on Saturday.”

Curious about Choke parts – how much of the tasteful announcements, stuff you’d come across vs. stuff you were inventing

“Originally I was at a party. A lot of my friends are high school and elementary school teachers and they started all telling me the coded announcements in their schools for a shooter, someone in the hallways with a gun. They were all trading announcements. I was just shocked at how banal these little announcements were, vs. what they were announcing. When I went on book tour, I would announce that I was collecting these things, and if people wanted to tell them to me, go right ahead. And people all over the country told me these coded announcements for all these public places, and I had pages and pages of them. I changed them all so no actual announcements are there, except some of the really banal ones, like Elvis has left the building at Hard Rock Café, the Blue Danube Waltz in hotels. I left those in place. The really bad ones for airports, I changed.”

What did you learn about the different genres of announcements?

“I learned that there are situations out there, stressful situations, I never dreamed of. Like running out of the dinner special at the Hard Rock Café. I never thought that would be a stressful situation that would require a coded announcement (laughs). And the contingency plans for all these different situations at airports, whether they’re bombs or knives or hostages, or anthrax. All these other things. I had no idea all the things that can go wrong. In a way, that undercurrent was the theme of the entire book, all the frightening things beneath the apparent peace of the world, whether they’re coded announcements or diseases festering within your body. Or one of the things that struck me most about the sex addict support groups was how totally banal these people looked. They were such regular, anybody-on-the-street people, and yet as soon as they started talking and describing 40 sex partners just that afternoon, then suddenly I couldn’t live in a world without looking at everyone like they were a sex addict. I washed my hands a lot more after learning that.”

Extending the idea of damage control – a world full of bandaid solutions

“That’s the psychic jump I wanted to make. You can either spend your entire life worrying about all these things that could go wrong, that are somehow festering or about to spring out of nowhere for you, or you can live your life about something entirely different that you want to move towards. That’s what I wanted Victor to eventually do, stop worrying about what could happen out of the past, into creating what would happen out of the future.”

Paranoid American culture in the early ‘70s, e.g., The Parallax View

“In the early ‘70s, everything appeared to be breaking down and we were questioning everything. At the same time, we were really trying to pretend that everything was just fine, despite the Vietnam War and Watergate and the energy crisis, all of it.”

If the economic downturn worsens, what could happen in the culture

“I wonder about that, too. I wonder if we’ll escape to very escapist entertainment, like they did during the Depression, incredibly unrealistic fantasy entertainment. Or whether we will look for meaning in entertainment.”

Meet a lot of people who expect you to have the same predilections as your characters

“Yeah, I do. But thank God, there are four books out now because that gives me a wider range of expectations. People are less likely to see me as one character or another.”

Or instead of having one set of perversions, you can have all of them

“Yeah, and it lends more credence to when I say that I draw my material from people around me and from the world at large, because my own experience is so relatively limited, only the experience of one person, not even one particularly interesting person. People are more likely to believe my process when they see the wide range of things I write about.”

Exciting about the writing, trying to find the most extreme areas, the rape scene, could’ve gone very wrong, and I’m sure some people…

“I always have to take it one step too far. In Fight Club I had that horrible line in there about after Marla makes love to Tyler, what can she say? The most romantic thing she would say is I want to have your baby, so what would Marla say? ‘I want to have your abortion.’ I thought, I can’t put that in there, but I’ll put it in because I know the editor will take it out. But nobody ever took it out. Even up to the time of the movie, it was a huge scandal at the studio as to whether they’d use that line. I feel that unless I take that one step too far, I’ve cheated myself and I’ve been gutless. I’d much rather risk offending too many people than risk being gutless and not doing the thing that needs to be done.”

The bit in the DVD about changing that line

(laughs) “Change it back!”

How much have you heard about real fight clubs in the wake of the book and the movie?
“People sent me a lot of newspaper clippings. Somebody even sent me an album of photos from their fight club in Los Angeles. The newspaper clippings were interesting. There were enormous fight clubs at Brigham Young University, all these little Mormon boys loved it, they were getting like 300 people per fight club. The university was trying to shut it down and the students came forward, stating there was nothing in the Book of Mormon that forbids this.”

Brilliant defence!

“I was like, whoa! I was amazed by that. I just talked to a British journalist who’s in town touring the country to different fight clubs. He’s a little staggered by it all, too.”

Was there anything like a fight club when you started the book?

“No, there was nothing that I knew of. I’ve since found out. Outside magazine just did this extraordinary piece about a Peruvian and Chilean festival where all the peasants get together and they fight for five days in these mountain villages, as part of proving themselves before they get married. The women fight the women and the men fight the men to prove themselves, and then they get married. And these things are incredibly bloody and people die. But they’ve been going on for centuries. Now there’s the whole thing with dance clubs in Brazil. At the same time here in Oregon, after the movie came out, it was revealed that several small towns had high school fight clubs that were meeting in city parks. And none of these kids had seen the movie or said that they’d read the book. So these things sprung up sort of organically. I felt bad because by focusing attention on this, I inadvertently got these clubs shut down. I felt bad for the kids.”

Burroughs concept of the language virus, picking up on something there… people who felt you’d revealed some great secret

“I get a lot of letters from people, especially older men, who say, you didn’t invent this! We were doing this in the ‘30s and ’40s and ‘50s. We did this in the service. We did this in work camps during the Depression – so don’t think you invented anything, buster! You’ve just exploited it. I’m like, ‘Dude, I had no idea. Lay off. Those are the only hostile letters I’ve ever gotten in.’”

How much of a brawler when you were a kid?

“Not at all. I think that was a big part of it. I was always told to walk away, turn the other cheek, run away, just avoid those boys. SO, I spent my whole adolescence, going, what am I capable of? What am I missing? Am I going to spend the rest of myself running from everything, whether it’s terminal illness or homelessness or women? Everything that’s vaguely frightening, am I going to turn my cheek and run away? This was a way to get back in touch with that.”

A boxing fan at all?

“My dad was a boxer in the navy, and he had a lot of trophies. He taught my brother and I, but he didn’t really do much of it, because we grew up out in the middle of nowhere and there was nobody but each other to pound on.”

Ever have someone pick a fight with you since you’re the fight club guy?

“No, people tend to be really reserved. It’s funny because I just appeared at a Washington university at this huge event, 1000 people there, they were turning people away. And this was the first event where there were two seemingly hostile people in the audience. And they were more hostile because they wouldn’t just settle for an entertaining story. They wanted somebody who would ideologically lead them, give them insight into how to live their lives, and I wasn’t ready to step into those shows. They seemed sort of pissed about that. Afterwards they came up and apologized. They hadn’t meant to be so hostile, but they just expected more of a political leader.”

More of a Tyler

“Exactly.”

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