First off, can you set the record straight on how to pronounce
your last name? I've heard it massacred in a number of inventive ways. I've
been saying "Paula-nick" all these years. Am I even close?
You say it perfectly. At least that's how my family says it. In
Germany this spring, every Ukrainian I met told me that I've been saying it
one four-hour stretch that took me well into the midnight hour. Talk about
night frights. Do you gauge your work's level of success by the visceral
reaction of readers?
That's one of my biggest goals: to get a sympathetic physical
response from the reader. My last novel,
pretty brainy and sensitive (for me). With Haunted
I wanted to
write a very physical, insensitive story. For years, when friends wanted to
lose weight, they'd try to eat every meal with me. My conversation makes those
flabby pounds just melt off you. So--because every writer seems to write a
"food" book, where recipes and menus act as memory cues--I wanted to write a
"food" book that would ruin your appetite. From "Guts" onward, every story
involves food, but the characters are starving to death. Just in time for the
Are you just sick to death of discussing "Guts," the
must-be-read-to-believe story of yours that had people dropping like flies at
your readings? I didn't faint, but I still have a severe case of the
heebie-jeebies just thinking about it. Can you tell us how that piece came
That story is a blast to read aloud. As a kid, I learned from the
Brothers Grimm that every
good story has to involve chopping off a foot, or dancing in red-hot iron
shoes, or being slit open and eviscerated. "Guts" is based on three true
stories people have told me--the way people used to tell
Hans Christian Anderson
folk tales. The first anecdote, about the "carrot" guy, came from a good friend
who got wildly drunk one night and told me this, his darkest family secret. The
"candle guy" was my best friend in college, a former Marine who'd been
stationed in the Middle East. He paid so much for the wax-removal operation
that he had to drop out of college, and I never heard from him again. The
"pearl diving" guy was someone I met in sex addict support groups while I did
research for my book,
This man was the thinnest adult I'd ever seen, and he gradually explained why
he couldn't digest food. By re-casting all the anecdotes with 13-year-old boys,
they garner sympathy by appearing more innocent and foolish. The only part I
invented was the sister's abortion. It makes such a horrible final event and
brings everything to chaos and death. All the stories in Haunted
are about a death and the way it leaves an unresolved relationship that the
survivors must suffer with until they die.
Were you stunned to discover that "Guts" had the power to clear a
room? It's almost as powerful as the deadly poem in
How did it feel to be so empowered?
Reading "Guts" doesn't feel very empowering. You know most people
are picturing the reader doing all those awful things. You're cringing and
stammering for real, even if you've read the story aloud a hundred times.
During one event, I had to stop and sit down three times (Denver, thin air)
because I got so dizzy. Still, it's a huge rush to witness as words--just
words--have such a dramatic effect. The best part is after the story, when
people care for the fainters and feel so giddy from surviving the whole ordeal.
This crowd of people who resented and elbowed each other for standing room, now
they're bonded and laughing together.
"Opening a book should feel a little scary. A book
should be like a trapdoor in the floor, going down into someplace dark."
, did you weave previously written
stories into the narrative or were most of them written expressly for the
Most of the stories I already had written. And the "envelope"
story was going to be a stand-alone novella. I cut it all together because that
seemed like the best way to create something long (epic for me, compared to
Club) while still achieving regular, frequent climaxes. So much
of my writing is more like "mixing," the way DJ's cut music together. Sampling
and cutting and mixing.
Your stories really take on the quality of modern ghost stories.
They demand to be read aloud and shared with others, passed on like an urban
Poe your biggest influence for this
contemporary horror genre you've been working in?
Thank you! Yes, Poe was the starting point. He wrote so well about
the unspoken fears of his time. I asked myself: "With all the freedom we have
to discuss anything in our era--if Poe were alive, what are the everyday
horrors he'd depict?"
You have a notoriously rabid fan base of readers. I remember a SRO
reading of yours at Elliott Bay in Seattle when you were touring for the
paperback of Fight Club
in '99 and you opened by addressing the
crowd with "Where the f-ck were all of you guys for the hardcover tour?" From
your point of view, what's a typical Chuck Palahniuk reader like?
After spending most of this winter answering mail from readers, my
impression is they demand a challenge or confrontation from their books. They
don't want stories to comfort and sedate them. And they recognize that books
have a private, consensual nature that allows them to visit topics that movies
and television could never risk. Because of that, opening a book should feel a
little scary. A book should be like a trapdoor in the floor, going down into
What is it about your writing that taps into that elusive
publishing demographic--the young male reader?
We could blame several aspects of my stuff. One, it's loaded with
physical action and sensation and lacking in emotions and thought. Characters
tend to act without a lot of hesitation. Two, the plots move relentlessly.
Three, there's enough nonfiction research to ground the story in reality. Four,
it deals with potentially offensive topics without investing those topics with
drama and morality. This allows room for the reader to make his or her
judgments and explanations.
"The best information and the most-compelling stories
still come from real, live people. I'm more likely to hear a heart-breaking
anecdote or interesting factoid from a stranger I meet aboard an airplane. That
person who thinks he'll never see you again--he'll tell you something really
incredible." --Chuck Palahniuk
What's the most bizarre experience you've encountered with readers
I could make a list… but don't ask me to choose the
weirdest. It might be the fake "waiters" who pelted me with dinner rolls. Or
the drunk Santa Clauses who build a plywood barricade across the front of a
building to prevent the reading. Or paramedics arriving to revive "Guts"
fainters. Or a handful of really upsetting events that my publisher tells me
never to discuss for fear of copycats.
At the end of each event, a handful of stragglers used to linger
so they could ask if there was a local fight club. Now, since reading "Guts,"
people linger to tell me their most-upsetting, never-told-before sex stories.
Some stories make "Guts" fade to nothing.
Your Web site, The Cult, is really killer. How much involvement do
you have with the content?
I really want to be clear--especially since the site started to
charge money--that the site doesn't belong to me. Ten years ago, Dennis and Amy
and Kevin came to a reading I did in New York and asked if they could start an
"official" site. They've built such a masterpiece that it makes me feel
uncomfortable. Such public attention. To redirect all that energy, I've been
trying to steer the discussion away from me and more toward the craft of
writing, itself. For more than a year, I've been posting monthly essays that
teach the distinctions of Minimalist writing I learned in
Spanbauer's workshop. These are simple techniques that make your
writing better the moment you start using them. I'm taking a little breather
while I tour this spring, but I'll be posting additional essays later this
Do you spend a lot of time exploring the dark corners of the
Internet? I imagine your browser has seen some pretty interesting sites.
I've surfed fewer places than you'd imagine. The best information
and the most-compelling stories still come from real, live people. I'm more
likely to hear a heart-breaking anecdote or interesting factoid from a stranger
I meet aboard an airplane. By the time something's appeared on the Web or
television or in a movie, it's lost some sense of rarity. It's not as fresh or
surprising. That person who thinks he'll never see you again--he'll tell you
something really incredible.
Who are some contemporary writers you really dig?
My first choice is still short story collections. My favorite new
The Dog of the
Marriage by Amy Hempel and
Guest by Joy Williams. Short stories can be the hot, fast,
unsafe, anonymous sex of fiction.
Are you reading anything right now?
This is shameless. I'm reading the screenplay written from my
fourth book, Choke
. The writer-actor Clark Gregg has done a
great interpretation, and the production company hopes to start shooting the
movie--cross your fingers--late this year.
Does music influence your writing at all?
As part of creating a character, I tend to find one song that
would be that character's favorite song. Then, I play it endlessly, until the
lyrics no longer make sense. This creates a continuity of mood. Best of all, it
drives everyone from my life. With no friends, I'm forced to invent a story for
Can you tell us about your writing routine?
Talk about unhealthy. I binge and purge. I'll spend a year
listening to people talk, but never writing a word. Then, I'll break a rib or
get sick so I'm forced to sit still, inside, and write. The critical point is
when I'm more afraid of forgetting a great story than I am of being indoors,
keyboarding. Finally writing the "Guts" story gave me a huge sense of relief
after years of worry that those core anecdotes would be lost with me, in a
Do you plan on continuing to dip into nonfiction, as you have with
I wish there was a good book about Minimalist writing, but I'm not
sure if I'm the person to write it. For now, I'll be writing occasional
nonfiction pieces for magazines or Web sites. That makes a good change from
How was Fugitive and Refugees
Take some advice: Never write a guidebook to the city where you
live. You can never make everyone happy by including all the details they
love--whether or not you also like those things. The left-out landmarks and
events and people, they all feel snubbed. And you'll enrage other people by
including details they'd like to hide. (Drugs and sex and rafting in the
sewers, mostly.) That little book manages to do both, irritating a lot of
people in a small town.
The best aspect of my job is I can do it anywhere.
The good news is, that little book is now translated into Russian,
German, French, Italian, and Spanish. Irritating or not, it sells all over the
Finally, is there anything out there that's just too creepy for
even you to write about or is everything fair game?
In college, I knew a man and woman who paid their tuition by
adopting pets through the classified ads in the newspaper. Every weekend,
they'd pose as nice, young-marrieds and harvest the unwanted dogs and cats all
over town. These mild house pets, these trusting animals they'd sell to product
testing laboratories. So far, I can't make that memory funny.
Thanks for ending this on such a dark note.
All those tortured dogs and cats get their revenge on humans in