Gut Check

The First Rule of Interviewing Chuck Palahniuk...

Ever since his cult novel Fight Club (and David Fincher's dark and delirious film adaptation) hit the streets, Chuck Palahniuk has blazed a trail through bookshelves across the globe, redefining contemporary fiction with his edgy body of work, including Choke, Lullaby, and Diary. With Haunted, his biggest book yet, Palahniuk gathers together an eclectic group of misfits who answer the ad: "Writers' Retreat: Abandon Your Life for Three Months. Just Disappear." What follows is anything but bucolic. Starvation, amputation, and cannibalism are just the tip of the iceberg in a book that opens with "Guts"--Palahniuk's much-buzzed-about story that had readers squirming in their seats and collapsing in the aisles during his last book tour. senior editor Brad Thomas Parsons caught up with the author over e-mail to talk about the visceral power of "Guts," rabid fans, contemporary horror stories, and how, exactly, to pronounce his last name. 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?

Chuck Palahniuk: 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 wrong. I read Haunted in 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?

Palahniuk: That's one of my biggest goals: to get a sympathetic physical response from the reader. My last novel, Diary, was 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 swimsuit season. 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 together?

Palahniuk: 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, Choke. 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 Lullaby. How did it feel to be so empowered?

Palahniuk: 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." --Chuck Palahniuk With Haunted , did you weave previously written stories into the narrative or were most of them written expressly for the novel?

Palahniuk: 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 Fight 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 legend. Is Poe your biggest influence for this contemporary horror genre you've been working in?

Palahniuk: 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?

Palahniuk: 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 someplace dark. What is it about your writing that taps into that elusive publishing demographic--the young male reader?

Palahniuk: 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 while touring?

Palahniuk: 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?

Palahniuk: 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 Tom 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 summer. Do you spend a lot of time exploring the dark corners of the Internet? I imagine your browser has seen some pretty interesting sites.

Palahniuk: 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?

Palahniuk: My first choice is still short story collections. My favorite new collections are The Dog of the Marriage by Amy Hempel and Honored Guest by Joy Williams. Short stories can be the hot, fast, unsafe, anonymous sex of fiction. Are you reading anything right now?

Palahniuk: 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?

Palahniuk: 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 company. Can you tell us about your writing routine?

Palahniuk: 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 plane crash. Do you plan on continuing to dip into nonfiction, as you have with Fugitives and Refugees and Stranger Than Fiction?

Palahniuk: 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 writing fiction. How was Fugitive and Refugees received in Portland?

Palahniuk: 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 world. Finally, is there anything out there that's just too creepy for even you to write about or is everything fair game?

Palahniuk: 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 Haunted .