Controversy rides Chuck Palahniuk's back like bad weather, which is exactly how he likes it. When he tried to get his first novel, Invisible Monsters (then titled Manifesto) published in the early 1990s, some editors secretly loved the dark novel about a model who's shot in the face, but they shied away from acquiring it. Frustrated and rebellious, the Portland native embarked on an even darker book. The result was Fight Club, a novel about fist-fighting, anti-corporate power and identity, which rocketed him from obscurity to success and then fame when the book was adapted into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.
While critics are still uncertain of what to make of 42-year-old Palahniuk's unique blend of dark, irreverent and discomforting fiction—labeling him a "shock writer"—his fans are so passionate, they've organized "The Cult" website (chuckpalahniuk.net), where they act as his unofficial PR team, staunch defenders and cult of worship.
Though Palahniuk claims he still isn't sure he's made it as a writer, his 10 books (two nonfiction) have sold more than 3 million copies, and at least three more of his books have been optioned for films, with Choke set to begin filming this year.
For a man who writes about violence and sex in unabashedly graphic terms, the writer himself is disarmingly soft-spoken, even shy, and extremely private about his personal life. When we spoke, his new novel Rant had just been published and was garnering harsh reviews from critics. But Palahniuk is a testimony to the aphorism that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Even as critics pan him, his books continue to rise effortlessly on the bestseller charts.
YOUR PATH TO SUCCESS DIDN'T FOLLOW A STRAIGHT LINE. AT WHAT POINT DID YOU FEEL LIKE YOU REALLY MADE IT?
I'll let you know when that happens. I don't know if you ever really feel like you've made it. Maybe it was one day when my mom called and said she'd seen a pallet full of my book Lullaby at Costco.
YET YOU HAVE AN INCREDIBLY LARGE FAN BASE THAT EVEN HAS ITS OWN NAME AND WEBSITE—THE CULT. DID THEY MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE A SUCCESS?
I try to forget about the expectation that's out there and the audience listening for the next thing so that I'm not trying to please them. I've spent a huge amount of time not communicating with those folks and denying that they exist. You realize you have no control over how you're perceived. I want to focus my energy on the thing I can control—which is the next book.
YOU HAVE SUCH VARIED AND WILD NEW IDEAS FOR EACH NOVEL. WHEN DO YOU KNOW THAT SOMETHING HAS THE MEAT TO BECOME A NOVEL?
It's usually a premise that I can present in a short story and bring to my workshop. Hopefully, they can instantly get it and be very excited about it and take it off in different directions. When it gets a response like that, I know the premise is good. When it generates personal stories from other people, when an idea seems to portray an aspect of my experience that's really close to other people's, that's another really good sign that it can go for a few hundred pages.
IS INTERACTING WITH PEOPLE A BIG PART OF YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
Entirely. My writing has to excite people and depict or include their experiences. That way, every time I go out socially, and people ask, "What are you working on?" and I tell them the premise, I end up illustrating it with anecdotes taken from hundreds of people. That's part of my process—to go out and interact with people. It's very much like an archival process. I understand that the Brothers Grimm would go out and get people talking so they could document folk tales that weren't being documented any other way. I try to offer a little bit of myself—some experience from my life that evokes stories in other people.
THAT'S AN INTERESTING POINT IN LIGHT OF YOUR NEW NOVEL, RANT, WHICH IS WRITTEN AS AN ORAL HISTORY—A SERIES OF INTERVIEWS ABOUT THE TITLE CHARACTER. WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO WORK WITH THIS FORM?
One, I've always found the form just incredibly readable. It's a form that's presented in small nuggets, so whether you enjoy the moment or not, there will always be a payoff at some point. It's such a flexible form that it can be used to make a fairly mundane character much more attractive. For example, the biography of Edith Sedgwick: She really was a spoiled rich girl who did a lot of drugs, but by using this form, her story is more readable, compelling and dynamic than it actually was.
Second, it's a nonfiction form. You can always tell a more incredible fictional story if you present it with the structure of nonfiction. An example: Orson Welles telling H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds through radio, giving it a credibility or gravitas. And later, doing Citizen Kane, a fictional movie using a nonfiction form. Or think of the movie The Blair Witch Project that was presented as lost documentary footage that had been recovered. You can tell a more over-the-top incredible story if you use a nonfiction form.
Third, this form allows you to cut things together like a film editor cuts film. You can really experiment with collage and juxtaposing certain elements. Seemingly unrelated things can be placed next to each other, and you don't have to worry about lots of wordy transitional phrases. You can present the best nuggets in whatever order serves it best.
A HALLMARK OF YOUR WRITING IS THAT YOU PLAY WITH FORM IN A WAY THAT MAKES PEOPLE THINK DIFFERENTLY. WHY DO YOU LIKE TO PLAY WITH THESE NON-TRADITIONAL NARRATIVE FORMS?
Laziness. I just hate having to come up with all those transitional establishing shots, all the conventions. You know, the part where the character looks into a shiny mirror or teapot so they can describe themselves—all those hackneyed, obligatory 19th-century things. I hate doing that, so I find a nonfiction form that provides me with the structure I need. I've done it with every one of my books.
LET'S TALK ABOUT RANT THE CHARACTER. HE'S SORT OF A PILGRIM FOR AUTHENTICITY; HE'S ALWAYS SEARCHING OUT WHAT'S REAL, EVEN IF IT'S UGLY OR PAINFUL OR BASE. I WONDER IF YOU FEEL LIKE OUR CULTURE HAS BECOME SANITIZED OR SEPARATE FROM OUR HUMANNESS? THAT COMES UP IN A LOT OF YOUR WORK.
I'm not sure about the whole culture, but I would be comfortable saying that intellectual culture seems to separate high art from low art. Low art is horror or pornography or anything that has a physical component to it and engages the reader on a visceral level and evokes a strong sympathetic reaction. High art is people driving in Volvos and talking a lot. I just don't want to keep those things separate. I think you can use visceral physical experiences to illustrate larger ideas, whether they're emotional or spiritual. I'm trying to not exclude high and low art or separate them.
I try to provide as many strong experiences as possible so that you're left thinking you experienced or lived through what the characters have. The idea is to try to place the reader in that reality so they really feel like a character.
YOU OFTEN ARE DESCRIBED AS A SHOCK WRITER AND SOMEONE WHO LIKES TO PUSH BOUNDARIES AND GO FOR THE DISCOMFORT ZONE. ARE YOU OUT TO SHOCK OR MAKE PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE?
I'm just trying to record and honor stories that have been told to me because more often than not, everything I write about begins with an anecdote. My first goal is to document an aspect of human experience that won't get documented by any other form of media.
My second goal is to make my workshop laugh on Monday nights and to make my editor laugh.
My third goal is to shock myself—to put something on the page that I never want my mother or nephews to see and that I cannot imagine reading in public. Because if you're always going for the thing you can conceive of, it's boring; you don't force yourself to change. But if you can somehow create something that you can't conceive of at the beginning, you evolve 51;you discover something that was beyond your capability when you started. That makes more sense to me.
DOES IT GET HARDER TO SURPRISE YOURSELF?
Not really. It's such a harvesting/gathering process. A lot of my discoveries involve other people who bring me stuff that's so outside my own experience. I find myself continually amazed, shocked and moved by how diverse people's lives are.
WHAT'S YOUR WRITING PROCESS LIKE?
My writing process isn't a very organized thing. It seems like I'm always working in some way. Even when people are sending me letters, I'm looking for a really strong anecdote that resonates or doing the research to develop those seeds and illustrate them in different ways. Or I'm talking to people, gathering firsthand experience. The actual writing part is a tiny part of my life. I often write in public. I bring my laptop or write freehand in notebooks. Then, I'll read through them while I exercise or walk the dog. The very last thing I do is the sitting alone at the computer part.
WHY DO YOU LIKE TO WRITE IN PUBLIC?
Typically, by the time I'm sitting down to write a story draft, I have an idea of the dynamics I'm holding in my head, and I'll know the purpose of the scene. For instance, I often need physical gesture to balance dialogue. If I write in public, every time I need to know what a character is doing with his hand or foot, I can look up and study people and find compelling gestures that I can harvest. Writing in public gives you that access to a junkyard of details all around you.
I READ THAT YOU HAVEN'T HAD A TV IN YEARS. DOES THAT INFLUENCE YOUR WRITING?
I haven't had television since 1991, and it definitely influences me. As a child of the 1970s, I couldn't hold a narrative in my head; I was lucky if I could hold a joke in my head, because every time you turn on television or radio, it wipes the slate clean—at least in my case. After I gave up television, I found I could carry longer and longer stories or ideas in my head and put them together until I was carrying an entire short story. That's pretty much when I started writing.
TELL US WHAT'S NEXT.
I've fallen into a pattern of one kind of acceptable book and one really appalling book—I have to warn you that next year's book, titled Snuff, is the appalling book.
WHEN YOU SAY "AN APPALLING BOOK," DO YOU ACTUALLY APPALL YOURSELF?
I appall my editor. I make myself really, really nervous. Right now, the workshop that I attend on Monday nights is entirely female writers. I'm not sure what kind of material I should present, because I don't want to offend or anger them. With the material for Snuff, the women either roared with laughter or told me more experiences that I needed to hear. They ended up egging me on to places I would never have gone. They are an enormous, fantastic resource.
THERE ARE A LOT OF ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT WHAT'S ACCEPTABLE TO WRITE ABOUT, AND WHAT'S NOT, BUT YOU DON'T SEEM TO CARE WHAT PEOPLE THINK.
As horrifying as something might be, it's happened to somebody. That's my line of defense. Just because I'm writing about something, it's not so unique or unusual that millions of people aren't already doing it. Sometimes the very best way to deal with unpleasant things is to depict them in ways that allow people to laugh at them and destroy the power of unsayable things, rather than refusing to acknowledge them.
DO YOU FEEL YOU GET ENOUGH CREDIT FOR THE HUMOR THAT'S IN YOUR WORK?
My workshop laughs a lot. My editor laughs. I have a secret goal with my editor—he has asthma and uses his inhaler, and after I send him a new manuscript, I'll have his assistant phone me and tell me how many times he had to get his inhaler out while reading a draft. It's my secret laugh meter.
YOUR WORK CAUSES PEOPLE TO FIRST LAUGH AND THEN CRINGE.
That's the idea, the juxtaposition of those opposite states. Tom Spanbauer, who taught me to write, said you have to make them laugh and then, as soon as possible, try to break their hearts.
DO YOU THINK YOU'LL EVER WRITE A SWEET STORY?
I started to write a children's book about a little boy whose mother dies. After coming home from the funeral, his father leaves him alone in the apartment, and he finds a phone number on a business card that says: "Ladies for all occasions." He phones up and says, "I need a mother," and a jaded escort girl shows up thinking he's a pervert but ends up having this sweet afternoon with this 6-year-old boy after he's just buried his mother. As a children's book, it didn't go very far.
I HEAR THAT CHOKE IS BEING MADE INTO A MOVIE AND THAT A FEW OTHER BOOKS HAVE BEEN OPTIONED. WHAT'S IT LIKE TO UNDERGO A FILM ADAPTATION OF YOUR WORK? ARE YOU ATTACHED TO THE PROCESS?
Once again, I say control the things you can control. As for the rest of it—God bless it all. I know that [the filmmakers'] goal is to do what they do as well as possible.
DID YOU LIKE THE MOVIE VERSION OF FIGHT CLUB?
Yes, I thought they did a fantastic job. But cross your fingers: the Fight Club Broadway musical is still alive. I can't say any more than that.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR BUDDING WRITERS?
I've got so much! One—persevere. I know so many writers who are a hundred times better than me and have longer, greater ideas than mine, but they gave up; they stopped. The biggest talent you can have is determination. Do you use the writing process as your ongoing excuse to keep exploring the world, meeting people and learning things? If you can do that, then the writing itself will be its own payoff and reward.