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Interview - Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk

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An Interview with
Chuck Palahniuk

Q: I wonder if you could talk about the time before Fight Club was published. I understand your other two novels--Invisible Monsters and Survivor--were both written but not published before Fight Club.

A: I wrote Invisible Monsters first--a really sketchy version of it. People were fascinated by it. They were really excited. One by one, all these publishing houses came forward and said they were interested. But none of them could get their acquisitions boards to sign up for it. Editors loved it, but marketing people were terrified of it. It was this long, prolonged torture. I was really disappointed that people could be so excited about something but couldn't put their money where their mouth was. And so then I wrote Fight Club. I figured nobody was going to buy my stuff, and thinking it was never going to see the light of day freed me up to write whatever I wanted. So I didn't pull any punches, I just wrote everything. When nobody's paying attention, you can do whatever you want.

Q: How is Fight Club a progression from your first two books?

A: You know it's funny, because you want to think you're getting better book to book. But in Fight Club there is a real roughness, a rawness. And there are portions that I'm half embarrassed about because they are so rough, so completely random. The Blarney Stone flashback is a good example. It's only in there because my friend Laurie told me this story about how she almost married a guy who took her out to kiss the Blarney Stone one night--this Irish guy wanted a green card--and it was such a funny story, I threw it in the book. The book, I always tell people, is really a scrapbook for myself and my friends. I also cringe at the scene in which Marla thinks she has a lump in her breast. That's not really pertinent to the plot in any way, but I thought it was a good story within itself, and that chapter actually turned out to be a really good story-within-a-story.

Q: Your first two books were published just last year, so many people have yet to read them. What about them might surprise readers of Fight Club?

A: Well, Survivor is a trick story. And I really wanted to underexplain it, because I realized if I explained the trick ending enough, and everyone got it, there would be no joy in reading the book. So, I had to write the ending open enough that people could either figure it out and get the happy ending, or they could read the unhappy ending if they wanted to, and walk away with that. I wanted people to take from it what they wanted. But I only know of one person in America so far who has figured out the "happy" ending.

Q: What about Invisible Monsters?

A: I was actually making fun of myself in Invisible Monsters. At the end I pull out all the stops: everything is a trick ending, everything is a twist, everything is something else. It sort of became a parody of the genre I felt I was stuck in. You know, instead of every chapter being a plot point, every sentence became a plot point. I felt I was sort of stuck in my style, and so I started making fun of my style, trying to be irreverent about my own work. It's funny because I wanted to write a real throw-away beach book--I wanted the publishers to scent it like sun-tan lotion. Like those big fat books that have sand in them by the end of the summer. Like a big Valley of the Dolls book. You know, we haven't seen a big Valley of the Dolls book for so long.

Q: I've noticed that God is all over your novels. Why are you so interested in salvation?

A: Instead of salvation I'd say redemption. My characters are constantly trying to redeem themselves, constantly trying to make their lives count for some thing, and constantly trying to get their emotional needs met, even if it means pulling emotional scams.

Q: Like faking illness to attend support groups (as characters do in Fight Club)?

A: Right. The emotional scam allows you to be human, to steal some humanity. Thee scams are all about redemption in the sense that they allow characters to connect with something deeper than themselves in a world which discourages that sort of connection at every turn. And Fight Club, you know, is really all about that kind of redemption. It's all about the narrator's need to connect to Marla. The climax of the story is his being able to say "Hey, I like you." Everything is all about Marla Singer. Likewise, in Invisible Monsters, it's all about the narrator's need to bond with her brother--again, just that need to connect.

Q: But this need to connect seems to be at odds, often, with the characters' desire to disconnect with themselves--to reinvent themselves in opposite terms.

A: It can be. And in this, the books have a lot in common with recent movies like Existenz, The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor. The idea is that you have no idea who you really are until you try to become who you are not. The thing is, so much of "who we are" is decided for us that we don't even realize how little say we have in our own identity.

Q: And yet, by the end, your characters almost always realize they need really mundane things: the love of a woman, the love of a brother.

A: It seems like so much of our life is about getting over one thing. And we will--we have to--deal with this one thing in order to do much else. But so often it's the fear of the freedom that would come after that one thing that makes us begin to treat the fear like a security blanket. My books tend to be concerned with how we treat our fear, and that's an interesting part of it that need and refusal to get over the one thing.

Q: You're certainly considered an "anti-establishment" author. As your writing has become popular, how has it been dealing at length with those establishments?

A: It's been a little agonizing, because the majority of my relationships are really deep relationships with people I've known for many, many years. When you go on tour, and when you work on a project like a movie, you have lots of superficial, functional relationships for a moment or a day at a time. And I find that really uncomfortable. I hate that, in fact. I'd much rather sit down and talk with somebody for an evening than sit down and talk with somebody for thirty seconds on television. That sort of thing really drains rather than fills you. "Single-serving friends," as I call them in Fight Club, can be interesting, they can be fascinating, but they're not anything I strive for. That's why eventually I just pulled the plug on the whole movie promotion thing--that, and you just get tired of hearing your own voice, your own intonations, your own jokes. When you know how long to pause for each joke to get its laugh, it's time to stop for awhile.

Q: That makes sense. You strike me as someone who's very suspicious of formulae of any kind.

A: Oh definitely. And that's one of my worst fears about writing. You know, everybody wanted a sequel to Fight Club. Everybody wanted another book about Tyler [Durden, a key character in Fight Club]. I said "Hell, no"--I wasn't going to do another one of those. But people were even trying to buy the rights to Tyler so they could write books about him.


Q: This all makes me want to know--after all the books and essays you've written--how frustrating it is to be known to so many people as "the Fight Club guy."

A: Well, it was fun for a little while. Now I see it as a challenge. Now I'm trying to figure out what it is I could write that would be so amazing, so heartbreaking, so surprising that it would just erase "the Fight Club guy." Now, in a sense, I'm writing to get rid of that moniker.

Q: Do you see writing in other genres as a way of accomplishing that? You seem very comfortable with the essay form, and your style is well-suited to screenwriting.

A: I would like to do a collection of personal essays. I love essays. In fact, sometimes I think I love them more than fiction. I'd rather sit down with a book of Joan Didion essays than almost any work of fiction. She is so funny, and heartbreaking, and clear, and elegant. In fact, I think so much of my work is first-person because I'm trying to do essay. As far as the film thing goes, it's funny, because my favorite book is probably The Great Gatsby, and a lot of critics say that that is the first truly filmic novel, where the visual components really captivate our attention. And maybe that's why I write like that. I really like to latch on and create a scene. And you know, I did try to write a screenplay last year. It turned out horribly. I think it was just a bad idea. And now I'm not sure if I can give myself the time it takes to drop out of the picture and learn how to do it right. It's just such a different way of telling a story. Sometimes I feel really limited just working in words, but then I think of directors, and how they have to tell an entire story with images, and I can't imagine what a handicap that is. So I think screenwriting is something I'll do out of curiosity, but I don't know how serious I'll be about it.

Q: In an earlier conversation, we were talking about how frustrated you are with a lot of fiction being published nowadays. Why are you so dissatisfied?

A: The problem is, it's just so much of the same: bland, third-person omnisciently narrated stories with maybe one key plot revelation that isn't even that interesting. There's no novel observation. The story just plods along and sometimes something is revealed and sometimes nothing is revealed. Maybe I'm just a stupid person for not understanding the merits of those sorts of books. But I want a writer to amaze me. I want a writer to take some real risks, and maybe fall on his face. I will always love a book that tries to do something interesting and falls on its face more than a really safe book.

Q: That being said, how do you feel about the constellation of names that tends to hover around you in reviews: names like Ballard, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Delillo?

A: I feel silly! Those are pantheon names. I'm just this guy who raises chickens. I don't think those sorts of comparisons will go on for very long. I'm just the name du jour.

Q: And if the adulation does dwindle . . . ?

A: Well, you know, Brad [Pitt, who starred in the film version of Fight Club] and I had some interesting conversations about that. One night, Brad talked on and on about how failure had to be part of the process, because it's only when you fail that people give you the kind of privacy you need to reinvent yourself. You think about all the research and all the groundwork you have to do to create something new, and you can't do that if you're in the spotlight all the time.

Q: Can you tell me anything about the new book you're working on?

A: Sure. It's called Choke. It's about this pathetic guy in his third year of medical school who realizes that medicine is not about saving lives, it's about damage control, and people die no matter what. He gets to the point where his sense of personal impotency is overwhelming, and he drops out of school. He can't find any motive for anything, and he sort of goes into stasis: he gets a dead end job, and so on. The book is about how he has to build his new life from nothing; he learns to make that Kierkegaardian leap from "We're all going to die" to "We're all going to die, so I'm going to do this." That's all I know so far.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in Choke and all your future writing--fame or no fame?

A: I think we've been in a culture the last ten years focused on making fun of things, tearing things down, undermining things, talking ourselves out of believing in anything. So why bother? Why bother doing anything? We can, after all, undermine anything, talk ourselves out of anything. So I think it's time to draw a line in the sand and recognize our own authority. I think we need to create our own internalized values, or else we're going to disempower ourselves to the point where we're incapable of doing anything. I want my work to be about people, about characters, that draw that line in the sand and say "This is so because I say it is so." I'm really interested in that Kierkegaardian leap of faith, and that's what I want to write about. I want people to read my books and recognize their own authority.

Ryan Spear
Ryan Spear is the former editor of the Portland Review Literary Journal. He lives and works in Seattle, WA.

2000 Portland Review Literary Journal


After a recent reading at Portland State University, Chuck Palahniuk and Ryan Spear sat down to discuss his remarkable career. The author's first novel, Fight Club, received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the Oregon Book Award for best novel, and was also made into a major motion picture. His two most recent novels are Survivor and Invisible Monsters. Among other things, the author talked about the travails of sudden fame, why his books are anything but nihilistic, and his disappointment in much contemporary fiction.

A mature man; Actual size=180 pixels wide

Here I might include a picture of the interviewee.