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Interview: Chuck Palahniuk

In 2002, Moment editor Toby Venables talked to Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk at a public reading. Here's the result of that encounter – part of our #VirtualLitFest series.

Photo: Allan Amato

72 hours. That’s how long Chuck Palahniuk’s been awake. When he was a kid he’d wonder at British writers arriving in Portland looking like skeletons, at the outermost edge of their signing tour. Now here he is, at the outermost edge, 72 hours from Portland. A skeleton. A skeleton dipped in yellow wax. Chuck writes a lot about sleep, about crawling through life in a dream, about being neither asleep nor awake. His latest book is called Lullaby.

Outside, Chuck fans and die-hard anarchists are crammed into the Business section of Borders bookstore, which some accident or Mischief Committee has seen fit to place directly above Starbucks. It’s one of only two Lullaby signing sessions in the UK, and he was due on five minutes ago. But he won’t leave the building until he’s talked to everyone who wants to talk to him, which, right now, means me. Chuck is a gentleman.

‘The genesis of Lullaby was a short story about a reporter – and about doing something that would make words really, really powerful again,’ he says. ‘There was a time when people really shaped their lives by what they said; they took vows or they took pledges, and that was the rest of their life changed with a word. Now it seems the proliferation of language has destroyed that power. So I wanted to do this short story about language having this ability to kill people – what we see as the ultimate change. A friend of mine had pointed out how the icons of the religious deities in different cultures had became the decorating element of our culture. Whatever some culture held as sacred, our culture was using as a wallpaper border. So I started thinking about doing that with language, and what would happen if the wrong thing got quoted. It became a short story, which became three chapters, and then I made Lullaby out of it. That’s good rule of thumb: if you can’t get your concept down to a short story – like chapter six in Fight Club – then maybe you really need to focus on what your concept is. If I can’t get it into a short story, I don’t have it clear enough yet.’

Chuck likes short stories. He says: ‘A short story has to make a transformation, to complete a dynamic in, like, seven pages. And I read so many novels where nothing happens for 200 pages. So my goal is to make every chapter like a short story – something is completed, but something also generated in a very small space.’

And then: ‘Every time I think I’m writing a book of short stories I realise that everyone in the short stories is doing the same thing, and that what I’m really doing is writing another novel.’

It wasn’t until 1992, at the age of 31, that Chuck Palahniuk decided he was going to write. But it began with a kid who’d grown up in a trailer opposite the Burbank Tavern, East Washington.

‘In fifth grade my sister was getting a lot of attention from her teacher because she was writing, so I thought it was a good way to get attention. Up to that point I could barely read. I was a really slow reader, because I just couldn’t make head nor tail out of diagramming sentences. I used to just weep over my homework, because it was gibberish. When it finally made sense it was such an emotional moment for me that I was just married to words after that. I never got over it, the joy I felt when I finally realised why a verb was a verb, why a subject was a subject, why a noun was a noun…’

‘So what led to you actually becoming a writer?’

‘I had wanted it all my growing up, but I always told myself that I had to wait until I retired. Because I couldn’t do it and work. And then I did a motivational course which basically convinced me that if I wanted to do something, I should start doing it immediately, even if it was just a few minutes a day. I had to do it in some capacity, I had to fit it in to my life.’

‘So was that awakening the way it is in Fight Club? With a gun held to your head..?’

‘It sort of was a metaphorical gun to the head. It was very much about existentialism and nihilism, but leading up to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith – the idea that if you could stand for everything meaning nothing, then you could determine what means something. I finally had the freedom to choose the thing I wanted to choose my entire life, but was afraid to.’

Someone once said to me of Chuck: ‘He likes to experience everything he writes about…’ If that were literally true, he’d be dead by now. But then there were all those fights he used to get into.

‘Yeah… It was a real frustrating part of my life, when I wasn’t writing. I was just working and seeing my life amount to nothing more than paying the bills until I died. And I was not brave enough to do the thing I wanted to do. So there was a lot of frustration. I was in a lot of fights during that time.’

‘And that frustration was where Fight Club came from?’

‘And the exhaustion that came from it, because at least it left me tired and vented – you know, my rage was vented – and I had to acknowledge that there were aspects of fighting that I really liked, that were really beneficial to my life as a coping mechanism. But writing works a little better as a coping mechanism.’

Another time around then, he was off hiking in the mountains with friends.

‘Some people came and they camped right next to us. And they brought out a big stereo and were playing disco music in the middle of the night, in the mountains. They were stoned, and I was pissed off, and I went over and we got into a big fight and I ended up getting the shit beat out of me. My face looked so bad. The kind of bruises that just change colour like a mood ring. So bad that anyone who cared about me wouldn’t even acknowledge it. And I realised no one wanted to acknowledge what was so obvious because they were afraid I would tell them what my secret, private life was like. They didn’t want to know what I did in my free time, because obviously it was something terrible. And I thought, if you look bad enough you could get away with anything and people wouldn’t call you on it, because they’d be terrified you’d tell them the truth. So I thought, what about somebody who wears his private life on his face in that way, in such a way no one will have the guts to acknowledge it?’

The first novel to actually get written was Invisible Monsters. The story goes that when it was rejected, Chuck wrote Fight Club to get back at the publishers. But instead of getting pissed off, they published it.

‘When they first saw Invisible Monsters it was really weak, and I’m so glad in retrospect that nobody published it, because it would have been a really poor first novel. When Fight Club was published, Gerry Howard was the only editor who wanted it. He was one of their top editors, and they didn’t want alienate him, so they offered what they call “kiss-off money” – they offer you an incredibly low advance, knowing that any intelligent author will be offended and turn it down. That way they keep peace with their editor, but they’re able to not acquire the book. So they offered $6,000. But for me that was like “Wow!” I took the kiss-off money, and that’s how Fight Club got published.’

Chuck’s now heading for the 73rd hour without sleep. I ask him about Tyler Durden. Everybody always wants to know about Tyler Durden.

‘Tyler Durden is married and raising two kids in Bent, Oregon, building houses for very rich people. Tyler Durden is my friend Geoff. Really all my characters are just friends of mine.’

Chuck says how the things he writes are just stuff people tell him, how every time he thinks he’s seen it all, another person on a plane next to him tells him a story. ‘The world is always another book,’ he says. ‘I was doing a book event in London and a young man took me aside and said “I really loved what you wrote about doing things to celebrities’ food in restaurants, because I work in a five star restaurant and we do things to celebrities’ food all the time…”‘

‘Do you think Osama Bin Laden read Fight Club?’ I ask, tentatively.

‘No, but I think maybe he saw the movie. I don’t think we’ve been translated into that many languages yet. Don’t blame it on me…’

‘Were you happy with the movie of Fight Club?’

‘When they made the movie I wasn’t very invested in it, because I had sort of processed all those issues, so emotionally it didn’t catch me any more. But I thought it was a terrific piece. They told the story so much better than the book did. They pulled all the needless extras out, and pared the story down to what mattered. It embarrassed me how much stuff should not have been in there. Parts of the book now I just think are needless. And it was just dream casting – people who were really invested and did a great job. What was so funny was taking the actual people who were characters there, walking through this giant, beautifully lit version of their lives. The house that they built was so much like Geoff’s horrible house. It just cracked me up that they spent $1,600 having a hand-made Ikea table made instead of buying the $16 plastic Ikea table. Everything was like this enormous, big budget version of our cheap, scuzzy lives. And they were saying things my friends had said three years before when they were drunk.’

I look at my watch. He was due on 20 minutes ago. But now I’m on about how so many modern novelists are cinematic in their writing. ‘Do you think that applies to you?’ I say.

‘I think it does, because in minimalism, the style I was trained to write in, you’re really trained to break down every moment, every physical activity. You can’t say “Someone walked into the room angrily”. You have to describe them in such a way that “angrily” occurs in the reader’s mind. You have to break down every physical aspect about them in a cinematic way. It keeps your scenes really short, too.’

Chuck’s publicist is giving me the wind-up signal. ‘I’ve heard you’re running a raffle for characters in your next book to be named after real people. Is that still in progress?’

‘The new book is almost done. In October they’ll be pulling the six names.’

I’m trying to imagine that. Writing a novel and not knowing the characters’ names.

‘Really the theme of the book is how people need to make their mark and leave their name in some way, so it seems just perfect to use real people’s names and give them that mass immortality in an instant. And in a way it’s a jibe at these writers who are taking kickbacks from corporations for mentioning stores or products.’

‘Does the book itself have a name yet?’

Period Revival.’

‘And after that?’

‘My goal is always to try to eclipse the thing that people fixate on, to raise something better. Eclipsing Fight Club is always really the challenge. But I’d like to put out at least a book a year for the next ten years and then just teach after that. I really wanted to spend my 40s writing and then spend my 50s teaching.’

And then the question everyone asks – about a follow up to Fight Club.

‘I have no interest in going back there. If you see a sequel to Fight Club it’s because I desperately need the money, and I sold the rights to someone else and they’re writing it… Harry Potter And The Fight Club Of Fire.’

Outside, the space monkeys are getting restless. Soon they’re going to know it’s me holding things up.

‘I think we should stop now,’ I say, ‘or something’s going to happen out there…’

#VirtualLitFest

Note: Chuck eventually did write a sequel to Fight Club – as a graphic novel.

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