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Chuck Palahniuk: “You can’t just be a spectator”


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Chuck Palahniuk
Short Profile

Name: Charles Michael Palahniuk
DOB: 21 February 1962
Place of Birth: Pasco, Washington, USA
Occupation: Author

Mr. Palahniuk, do you think that the world is getting better or worse?

Better. Ultimately, everyone is acting out of what they feel is the best choice. In a way, they’re all trying to improve the world. And I think that those basic choices make the world a better place.

I wouldn’t have necessarily guessed that from the guy who wrote Fight Club. Do you think that attitude is reflected in your fiction?

To me, it’s a choice: whether to focus on the way things work out beautifully, or to focus on the way things work out miserably. I always skew to life continuing beyond the end of a story – people demonstrating their own strength and potential and increasing that over the course of the story. It’s hopeful, positive. Also, my stories tend to bring people from isolation into community – with at least one other person, usually with a whole community of people – so that they find themselves accepted back by a world that they kind of fled from.

I can see that… But your stories still usually involve lots of sex and death.

I think they define one another. A comedy ends with a wedding, and a tragedy ends with a funeral: you always have to juxtapose sex and death. Like in Fight Club the boy meets the girl in a support group for terminally ill people. That’s why abortion occurs so frequently in my stories. Abortion sort of synthesizes both sex and death. To have sex and death placed as close to one another as possible is always a goal of mine.

Scene from Fight Club (1999) by David Fincher, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk.

Is your life anywhere near as extreme as your fiction?

No, my life has been about living like a monk and looking like a priest so that people will come up to me and tell me their most appalling stories. They have to make their confession to somebody, and it might as well be me. I like it when you’re not getting stories from a publication or broadcast – those are stories that everyone will know – but you’re getting the secret stories that you can only get from individuals. In settings where people make confessions, like support groups, or I used to love telephone or sex chatlines, you can listen for hours to people discuss their fantasies or whatever private, horrible thing they needed to process by talking it through.

How do you get people to tell you their darkest stories?

I call it using a little fish to get a big fish. I find one story, one anecdote that I find really fascinating and I will introduce that into conversation. And each time I tell that one small anecdote, there will be someone who has a similar experience from their life, but much more extreme. People compete when they have conversation, they want their input to build on the previous contribution. So, the strange anecdote that I throw out, which is sometimes something from my own life, is instantly eclipsed by an almost identical but more extreme version from someone else’s life. Then a third person will jump in and eclipse that anecdote. I’m recognizing these common events that link people in pretty much everyone’s lives, and I’m looking for the most extreme versions of those.

“Writing itself should be so extreme, so wild, and so much fun that it doesn’t matter whether or not you ever sell the book.”

Why the most extreme?

To illustrate that these things happen to everyone. You want to start with something that establishes a comfortable precedent that people can relate to, and then you want to move towards a version that is the ultimate version of that common experience. Also, my writing teacher told me to always take your reward up front, that the writing itself should be so extreme, so wild, and so much fun that it doesn’t matter whether or not you ever sell the book.

You once said that Fight Club was just The Great Gatsby updated a little. If Gatsby was about the Lost Generation of the ’20s, Fight Club about male disillusionment in the ’90s, what would it be in the current culture?

I wouldn’t even venture into what the current culture is. I hate the idea of writing or trying to address current events. By the time the writing is finished, those current events will be outdated. Years ago, the first time I ever visited my literary agent, he sheepishly brought out this rolling cart filled with dozens of manuscripts about priests molesting children, because that week that’s what was in the news. Everyone had the same idea and they were all a complete waste of time. So, rather than try to follow current events, my goal is to try and write something new enough that it might possibly lead the culture rather than follow the culture.

Then why does your new book Beautiful You refer directly to Fifty Shades of Grey?

It’s true, the working title of the book was Fifty Shades of the Twilight Cave Bear Wears Prada. I’m fascinated by the whole issue of arousal addiction, which seems to be mostly a problem for young men – videogames, pornography… The idea was to try and explore arousal addiction, but to do it in a comic, off-hand way, by depicting it with women, the population least likely to be subjected by it. I also wanted to borrow from all of those kind of “chick lit” books and use all of those tropes that are viewed so seriously.

Like what?

The lead character is a beautiful white girl and she’s got a pretty black girl for her best friend, the black girl is always really sassy… These tropes are thrown at us over and over, so I thought, “Let’s use these tropes as a joke and see if people recognize them.”

I think they will. That’s why I would say you are definitely writing about our current moment.

I wanted to write about how so many of us, when we look back at the major events in our lives, they’re not actually things that happened to us. They’re our favorite movie, our favorite book, things that weren’t full experiences; they were facilitated by a product that we bought. And so, I wanted to write about that. That breaks my heart a lot.

Because people are just living by proxy?

Exactly. That they find an identity in a series of products, and the experiences provided by those products, rather than by going out and having strong, unique experiences of their own. Years ago I had to buy a tombstone for my grandparents and the cemetery was showing me the new trend, which was to get the logos of different products engraved on your tombstone and that defined who you were in world. She was showing me the tombstone of a teenage girl who had died in a car accident. She had been a very good volleyball player, so her parents had had a Voit volleyball engraved on her tombstone.

I find that extremely depressing.

My grandfather had been a farmer, so the same salesperson was showing me tractors – John Deere tractors or International Harvester tractors – that I could have engraved on my grandfather’s tombstone that would, you know, define him for the ages. There were pages and pages of these corporate logos that you could put on your tombstone, right by your name, right by your birth and death dates. It kind of broke my heart. This idea of people living their lives through a series of experiences provided by products was a big part of the new book. I think that the Millennials are struggling with coming up with goals and ideals of their own.

I feel like gay rights is a big issue at the moment.

That’s one of the issues, but I would venture that that’s just another manifestation of an equal rights issue, almost like a third wave feminism, where you take women’s rights out into the larger world, and fight for them. Beyond rights, we still need a new vision to drive us.

What might that be?

I’m still waiting for that to pop up in somebody’s head. That’s why we have things like Burning Man. Events like Burning Man are the laboratories where people go and experiment with social structure and with identity. It’s out of these little laboratories that our new culture will grow. And that’s why so many of my books are about these little “liminoid” human experiments that are short-lived and are kind of fun and exciting, like party crashing in Rant, or Fight Club. It’s these “liminoid” laboratories that will give us that vision, that new thing to quest for that isn’t just capitalism or Marxism. You’re outside of it, and in a way, you’re outside of yourself. Everyone is equal and everyone is forced to participate; you can’t just be a spectator.