Chuck Palahniuk is the author of such novels as Haunted, Rant, Snuff, and Tell-All. His novels Fight Club and Choke were both adapted for film. His work is often shocking and almost seventy people were reported to have fainted while listening to him read his short story “Guts.” His latest novel, Damned, is about a teenaged girl who dies and goes to hell.
This interview first appeared in The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
At your public appearances you ask trivia questions and throw inflatable toys into the crowd. How did you first get that idea, and when did you first start doing it?
Every event is different. Those are just a couple different elements that I might use. But years ago, maybe the third or fourth year I was doing tours, I found myself just hating the task, and I thought that if I gave away gifts when people asked a question, I could not simultaneously be hostile and give them something, so I started to buy these big, outlandish pieces of costume jewelry, usually tiaras and crowns. In every city I went to, before we did the event, we would go to a Claire’s and buy all their beauty queen tiaras. And it worked, in that no matter how tired I was, or how starving I was, or how much I had to take a leak, if I gave them something, that physical gesture trumped all of my internal crappiness, and I ended up actually liking it and really loving the process.
The two hardest things at a book event are to get the questions started and then, ironically, to end the questions, but if people see that you’ve got sixteen tiaras, then they’re instantly clamoring to ask a question. And as they see the tiaras dwindle, they know that the last tiara means the last question, so I’ve been able to structure that part of each book event that was just so difficult before.
It’s been reported that almost seventy people have fainted while listening to you read your short story “Guts,” and I just listened to an interview where you said you were working on something that makes “Guts” look tame by comparison. Could you tell us about that?
I’ve got two stories that will both totally eclipse “Guts” in the public mind, but I’m not saying anything about them. I’m not going to spoil that thunder until the stories are ready.
What was it like the first time you read “Guts” and had people start fainting?
The first time, I didn’t realize someone had fainted, because the crowd was that big and it was somebody standing toward the back where there was no seating left, and I didn’t realize that a young man had fainted, and he was kind of rescued by the people around him. But the time that I was most aware of it was a couple readings later, in San Francisco, at the old Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph, up by the University of California. A couple of people in the very center of this packed auditorium, right in the middle of my vision, they fainted on their neighbors, and the whole place just went nuts. It was just terrific to watch, because suddenly instead of seven hundred people looking at me, it was me looking at seven hundred people, and I was completely forgotten in the room, and everyone went to rescue these two people that everyone seemed to have thought had died, and as these people came back to life the crowd just went nuts, they were so euphoric, like they had seen Lazarus raised from the dead.
Your new novel Damned is sort of like “The Breakfast Club goes to hell.” Which character from The Breakfast Club were you most like in high school?
Oh, Ally Sheedy. You know, there was a really lovely woman named Glenda Haas who moved to our school, maybe in sixth grade, and her parents had a shop where they sold Western clothing in a town nearby, and so the perception was that they were wealthy people. Glenda was very pretty, and she had a southern accent, and I had a crush on her—one of those seventh grade crushes—and one day she was taking books out of her locker, and a book fell and caught the string of beads that was hanging around her neck, and broke the string, and as the beads fell down I saw my chance, and I went forward and helped her gather them all up, and as I was giving them to her she very sweetly looked up and said, “You’re a very nice person. You’re a very sweet, sweet person, and it surprises me because when I moved here everyone in the school told me that y’all was retarded.” And that was heartbreaking. You know, not just to hear it from her, but to find out that it was something that was being commonly told to total strangers, by people who I thought were my friends.
On your most recent book tour you’ve been reading a short story called “Romance.” Tell us about that.
I was watching the Sean Penn movie I Am Sam, and the premise is that Sean Penn, who is severely retarded, has a very young daughter by a woman who apparently was with him long enough to get pregnant, and that worked that way, in that I could conceive of a woman thinking that Sean Penn is just this very good-looking, very drunk guy, and going home with him one night, or one weekend, and getting pregnant. But turning it around, I had to think, you know, how good-looking would a woman have to be before a man would start to overlook fantastically aberrant behavior, and how much would he have to deceive himself in order to continue to be in love with this incredibly good-looking woman? And so that was the inspiration for “Romance.”
“Romance” is metaphorically about what it’s like to fall in love with an idea, and to think that idea is all that you will ever need, and to isolate yourself with the idea and to exist with nothing but that idea for weeks or months at a time, but eventually you have to introduce that idea that you loved so much to your friends and family, and at that point, depending on whether or not they see the same value in the idea, you’re confronted with either having to betray your friends and family, or betray your inspiration, the thing you loved so much.
How did you go about constructing your vision of Hell, and what kind of research did you do?
Leonard’s character is the one that knows all about demonology, that kind of cross-cultural theology based on demons and what each culture considers evil, what they blame disasters on, and so just reading all the books about demonology was the most research I did.
Oh, also research on Halloween. I fell in love with Halloween when I found out that it used to be just a night of fantastic property damage. Halloween was a night when, in small cities and towns, all slights, all injustices were avenged, and it really was a night that you went and killed your neighbor’s dog, or you set their barn on fire, or you knocked their fence down, or you cut their tires, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that city governments started to conspire with major newspapers and candy makers, and they started to organize media campaigns where they would offer troublemakers candy in exchange for not burning down the town every Halloween. And so what we think of as Halloween is really the product of media barons, city mayors, and candy-makers. You know, before the 1920s, Halloween was really a terrible, terrible night.
I heard you read a short story called “Cold Calling” that’s about a telemarketer, and telemarketing also features prominently in Damned. What is it about telemarketing that makes you want to write about it?
The original “Cold Calling” story was from five or six years ago, and it was never published. I sold the rights for that to Nickelodeon, so I don’t hold those rights anymore. But I like the accidental way that people are connected by a machine. More applicable to Damned was that I wrote the book while I was taking care of my mother, who was dying, and telemarketing calls were some of the only breaks in my day, the only times that I had any contact with the outside world, and when a telemarketer called I would find myself trying to keep them on the line longer than they wanted to talk, so it was kind of an ironic turnabout.
Wait, you sold rights to a story to Nickelodeon? I’m having a hard time imagining how Nickelodeon would be involved with Chuck Palahniuk.
Over the years there have been several different television projects that I’ve been brought on board to help with, and one was an idea for Nickelodeon that I was brought on board to help develop, and I proposed this telemarketing angle, and they liked it, so they bought the original story. It was actually a very clean little story, just this very innocent back and forth between a kid and another kid as they gradually lie to each other more and more.
Do you consider yourself a science fiction fan, and if so who are some of your favorite authors?
I’m very much an old school Ray Bradbury kind of guy, a Stephen King kind of guy. Mostly short stories. Anything from Martian Chronicles I really loved, and I still remember the first time I read Night Shift, I was really blown away by it.
In 2008 you taught at the Clarion West science fiction writers workshop, and I just saw that you’ll be back again this summer. What sort of experiences did you have last time you were there?
I worked with about twenty fantastically bright people. I think that they screen people very, very carefully to get the very best people into those programs, and there wasn’t a person there who didn’t have a fantastic idea, and so what I mostly focused on was helping them write their ideas as clearly as possible, and to develop them into something that they could bring to market.
You started off as more of a mainstream author, but as you’ve progressed in your career you’ve delved more into genres such as horror and science fiction. Is that something you see yourself moving more toward?
My first few books, if they had to fall into a genre classification, were what people used to call “transgressive writing,” where you had people doing illegal things—extreme things—but for noble reasons, and that became a little unpalatable after 9/11, in that we weren’t accepting transgressive acts as sympathetically anymore, and so I think that’s when the idea of going to a genre like horror or science fiction seemed like a much more effective avenue for social commentary. And that won’t always be the case, the farther we get from 9/11, but I think it’s still the case right now.
When you’re teaching at a workshop like that, do you pass along the lessons that you learned from Tom Spanbauer, or do you have a different approach that you take?
I pass along what I learned from every writer that I wish I had known when I was younger, lessons from Tom Spanbauer, and writers like Peter Christopher, every writer that I’ve met and interacted with—David Sedaris, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker. If they taught me something that was really effective then it’s something I want to pass on to people, especially if they’re younger people who might not learn these things for years.
Could you give an example of one of those lessons?
No abstract measurements. When someone walks in and you say “a six-foot-tall man,” you miss the opportunity to describe what a six-foot-tall man would look like to your narrator, because how the narrator describes a six-foot-tall man says more about the narrator than about the man. So every time you use an abstract measurement, you’re using a shortcut that’s cheating you out of some really fantastic opportunity.
How did you first get involved with writing workshops?
In my early thirties, when I wanted to be a writer, I joined a workshop that was all very nice ladies more or less writing “child-in-peril” thrillers. They all wanted to be published writing these stories about children being murdered or kidnapped, and my stories were so upsetting to them. My stories were just too confronting, they had too much violence and too much sexuality in them. Nothing was really hidden off-screen, and that was too much for them. They would leave almost in tears sometimes.
Like the blow-up doll scene?
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the blow-up doll scene that I later used in Snuff, where the kid is trying to fornicate with this doll that he’s dressed up to look like his ideal, and he realizes that the doll has a slow leak, and so it becomes this race to fulfill his needs before the doll is completely just this flat, wrinkled thing. And that was the scene that got me kicked out of the workshop.
Didn’t they say, “We don’t feel safe with you here,” or something like that?
They always say, “There are members of the group who no longer feel comfortable having you in the workshop.”
But then as a kind of consolation they suggested a different workshop. A man had just moved from New York to Portland, and his name was Tom Spanbauer, and he was teaching this style called Minimalism that he had learned at Columbia from a famous editor named Gordon Lish, who was Raymond Carver’s editor. And they put me in touch with Tom, and I was one of Tom’s first four students. That was in August of 1990, and that’s when I really started to write.
Your novel Damned features a really devastating satire of these do-gooder movie stars. Is that all in good fun, or are you genuinely appalled by people like that?
I’m more or less appalled by people who preach ecological awareness but have lifestyles that consume so many resources. When we were at Sundance, in Park City, Utah, for the launch of the Choke movie, I was always struck by the hundreds and hundreds of Lincoln Navigators that were lined up everywhere and constantly running, so that they would be warm when the celebrities came out of whatever the venue was, and all these Lincoln Navigators, burning all this gas, lined up for miles, all had “No Blood for Oil” bumper stickers. And that was just such a shocking, horrible hypocrisy.
Part of the inspiration for my book Tell All is that every really beautiful, fantastically groomed actress had a kind of doughty, dumpy, very plain assistant, or team of assistants, who would act as this kind of remote support, and always traveled a dozen feet behind this beautiful object that they maintained, and at any moment when the object was disturbed, this team would rush forward and intensely groom it, and restore it to its perfection, and then they would immediately remove themselves from its vicinity so that they would never be photographed with it, and that was just amazing to watch.
How did you feel about the film adaptations of Fight Club and Choke changing the endings of the books?
I didn’t mind. That’s part of the bargain. If they’re going to put that much money and energy and time into the story, I think they should have some freedom to interpret and adapt the story. But I thought it was interesting that both movies cut out the third act scene in which the hero is completely humiliated and subjugated before his peer group, and I have to wonder if there’s some aspect of moviemaking culture that can’t allow itself to experience that kind of public humiliation.
Speaking of Fight Club, there’s an interesting story you tell on the DVD commentary about Marla’s famous line . . . ?
When I wrote the scene where Tyler and Marla wake up together, my first thought was, “What is the most romantic thing that Marla could say, the most sentimental thing?” And that would be “I want to have your baby.” And so, being Marla, she had to say the opposite. So it was just by formula, she had to say, “I want to have your abortion.” So that’s what went into the book. But everyone hated that line. Even Brad Pitt came to the producers and said, “My mother is going to see this movie, and my mother is going to be so offended by that line.” So everyone wanted to change it, and they floated a lot of different versions, and I think Fincher finally came up with “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school.” And when he shot it that way, Laura Ziskin, the producer, went nuts and said, “Change it back, for the love of god.” And Fincher was so thrilled that he had come up with something worse that that’s what he went with.
And Brad Pitt’s mom was okay with that one?
I have no idea. You know, I think by that point it had been such a drawn-out process that it was kind of a line in the sand. This is what we’re going to go with. We got rid of the thing that you hated; you got something you hated more, so just be careful what you complain about in the future.
Your story “Knock Knock” is about a boy who grows up with his dad always telling these horrible jokes. Where did all those jokes come from?
I think I learned all those jokes in second grade. Second grade is really where they tell you those horrific jokes, racist jokes and misogynistic jokes that you have no idea what they mean, and you just memorize them because they have a very strong effect, they make people laugh in this kind of nervous, horrible way, and it’s only later that you realize that you’ve got a head full of crap.
At your recent appearances you start things off with an anecdote about an oncologist. Could you talk about that?
Earlier this summer I was at a charity dinner, and I was seated across the table from an oncologist—a cancer specialist. He was telling this funny story—what he considered a funny story—about sitting on an airplane drinking a glass of wine, and the woman next to him starts talking to him, and she’s saying how much she loves wine, and how much she’d love a glass of wine, and she used to drink a glass of wine every night. Only recently every time she started to drink wine she’d feel this fantastic sharp pain at the base of her throat, and she had decided, she was explaining to this doctor, that God doesn’t want her to drink wine anymore, because she feels this pain every time she drinks wine, or beer, or any kind of alcohol. And so this doctor drinking his wine sitting next to her on the plane says, “Ma’am, that’s not God. That’s what they call a ‘canary indicator,’ like a canary in a coal mine, and when you feel a sharp burning pain at the base of your throat like that anytime you drink even the smallest amount of alcohol, that is an undeniable symptom that you have Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.” And he gave her his card and said, “Give your doctor my card, and have him call me, because I think you have Stage IV Hodgkin’s, and you’ll probably die very soon.” And he said the woman on the plane suddenly wasn’t as chatty. And within a few days this woman’s doctor called him and said, “Well, you were right, you hit the nail on the head, she has Hodgkin’s . . . and you could have been a little less of a prick about telling her.”
Was that a thing where he told that story and instantly you were like, “Oh yeah, I’m using that on the book tour”?
I knew I would use it, because it was such an extraordinary, sad, funny little story, but I wasn’t sure exactly what the metaphor demonstrated. And then I saw how I could use it to illustrate the metaphor that I like to talk about with stories. A good story should change the way you see the world. After you hear even the shortest great story, it should fill you with a little bit of fear. Because now whenever I drink, and from now on whenever you drink, you’ll wait for a little pain. Every sip of alcohol you’ll think, “Am I going to die? Do I have Hodgkins?” And when you don’t feel that pain, the combination of the fear and the alcohol will make you feel better than you ever felt before. And that’s how a good story works. It changes how you feel. It brings you to a greater appreciation, a greater joy, of your own existence.
Any other new or upcoming projects you want to mention?
I’m working on the next two books that come after Damned, so it’s going to be three books ultimately. And working on the two stories that will make people forget “Guts.”
Any idea when those stories will be revealed?
They’re definitely tour stories. Something that Tom really taught us was reading our work out loud, and so every week in workshop whatever you brought, whether it was a scene or a story or a chapter, you had to read it out loud to people, so you would get the spontaneous feedback of laughter or shock. You would get that completely uncensored feedback of an audience, and so every time I have to tour I write a story specifically for reading out loud, and that’s what “Guts” started as, and so these stories really won’t exist until the next tour, because that’s when I’ll need something to read out loud.
And the next tour will be?
2013, if I can help it.
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