Chuck Palahniuk:An interview with Oprah


Chuck PalahniukChuck_Palahniuk ‘s immoderate satires elicit much the same reaction as a Dead Baby joke: readers aren't quite sure if it's okay to laugh. This may help explain Palahniuk's initial problems finding a publisher.

As the story goes, when Palahniuk sent his first manuscript to New York, a number of editors personally loved the book but were nevertheless too timid to admit it. They worried that they alone were demented enough to enjoy a book in which Thanksgiving dinner includes a graphic description of felching. The book, Invisible Monsters, was unanimously turned down.

But instead of turning to more "marketable" material, Palahniuk decided to screw New York and write an even more outrageous book. The story he came up with centered around a club where men come together to beat one another senseless. Fight Club's blend of extreme violence, black comedy and passionate ideas was like nothing anyone had ever read before. When Marla waxed romantic to Tyler by telling him, "I want to have your abortion," readers knew they had entered virgin terrain.

Finally, W. W. Norton recognized an opportunity. When in 1995 they aGREed to publish Fight Club, one of the most original and exciting literary careers of recent memory was born. After the exceptional David Fincher movie, which made the term "Fight Club" part of the vernacular, Palahniuk was able to quit his day job and begin writing full time. In the next three years he published two more "maniacally comic" novels, Survivor and Invisible Monsters (apparently now safe to print), which cemented his reputation as "a master of depicting the dark and depraved underbelly of our society through the voices of mordantly existential protagonists."

Chuck PalahniukChuck_Palahniuk 's new novel, Choke, does for sex what Fight Club did for violence. It tells the story of Victor Mancini, a recovering sex-addict whose resolve to overcome his illness is less than convincing. In fact, he continues to attend his recovery meetings only because they are such a GREat place to pick up chicks. Meanwhile, Victor scams a little extra cash by going to restaurants and pretending to choke on his food until someone performs the Heimlich maneuver. For when someone saves your life, they tend to feel compelled to help you again, hopefully in the form of cash checks.

Where he comes up with this stuff is anyone's guess. But by now, who cares. Palahniuk's readers are hooked on his unique blend of wicked wit and carpe diem outrage. And, after Choke debuted at number ten on the New York Times Bestseller list, no doubt his publishers are hooked on his marketability.

"When I started writing, I said my goal was to bring people back to reading, people who had given up on reading. So I wrote for people who didn't read at that point. Today, you have to write books that can compete against video games and music videos and professional wrestling and all the other things people can do with their time. And those people want plot. People don't want stasis and description. They want the plot to move, they want lots of verbs. You know, verbs on top of verbs."

* * *

"When I was a kid I used to go to the library, and I would read all the Ellery Queen books, because with the Ellery Queen books they gave you all the clues. All the cards were on the table. It was an even playing field. And so when you could figure it out, it was a real victory. I loved reading them very slowly and then reasoning through them and trying to put together what we were given and why were we given that. What scenes stood out? What didn't fit? What were we shown on purpose because we had to be shown that thing? They were just GREat examples of revealing not too much but enough for people to get it if you wanted to get it. I loved those books."

* * *

"For a lot of the people who come to my readings, it's true that they don't read other books. Some people seem to think that's bad. So many guys come up to me at events and say, So is this what readings are always like? And I realize they've never been to a reading. They've never bought a hardcover book. Of course I shake their hand and say, Yes, readings are like this. Books are incredible. I don't want to ruin their first experience. I want them to come back to readings. I want them to buy other books. It's not about me being the center of the universe. It's about bringing people back to books, and showing them that books can be incredibly rewarding and entertaining and whatever. So yeah, these people read nothing else. But eventually they will. And maybe the reason they don't read other things is not their problem. Maybe it's just that there are a lot of sucky books out there. Not to say that my books are not sucky books."

* * *

"For me, plot is very important. Every chapter has to up the ante. Otherwise, why is it there? If no action is taking place within this section, what's going to increase the emotional and psychological tension. Maybe it's a lulling scene that's going to provide a contrast, that's going to give a very short, quiet episode before the huge breakdown and disaster. I'll do that occasionally, but just for contrast.

"It's like when Sigourney Weaver stripped down to her bra and panties, blew out the candle, and put out the cat before the final showdown with the alien. This scene was there to lull us - and, of course, sexually excite us. The music goes all soft, and then boom!, the alien's there. It's the oldest trick in the book.

"But anything that builds those skills, that gets people exercising that part of their mind, and makes them excited to be reading, makes them crave and look forward to it: I love that."

* * *

"I always think I deal with really typical things. Like I didn't invent the waiter-peeing-in-the-soup thing. I really invent so little of what I put in my fiction. But finding ways to make it real in the world, or reinventing it and make it seem real again, I think I do that really well. But as far as overall originality, there's just not a whole lot there."

* * *

"Humor is crucial. Otherwise, why bother? Without humor, my books would be like those tragic Oprah books. You know, everybody just weeping and looking tragic and...the end. Tragedy on top of tragedy is just overwhelming.

"In college, we read about a group of people who were shown photographs of dental decomposition in various stages. The people who were shown photographs of mild deterioration and mild tooth loss increased their dental care, their dental hygiene. But people who were shown severely deteriorated mouths, hideous photographs, those people just shut down entirely. They quit brushing their teeth and flossing altogether. It actually made them worse.

"That's why if you're going to portray sadness, if you're going to have enormous amounts of sad, dark material, it has to be presented in a funny way, or there has to be intermittent funny scenes to release that tension, to bring people back up, to contrast with the sadness so that it can occur again and again."

* * *

"At Book Expo my editor Gerry Howard got invited to a high tea at Oprah Winfrey's apartment. So I was really needling Gerry, trying to get him to bring back some sort of a sacred relic that we could sell on Ebay. I wanted him to go through her medicine cabinet, to look under her bed, pretend he'd lost a contact lens and get down on all fours, just look around and see what he could steal.

"Gerry wouldn't do it. He just totally gutted out. So while I was on tour, every time I was on the radio I told a story about how Gerry had stolen Oprah's diaphragm and put it on Ebay and we were both going to make a fortune and retire. I told that story in total seriousness in six major markets until finally I got this call from New York saying, Stop it! Don't tell that story any more. Cut it out.

"I was able to tell that story one more time in New York at a reading, but this time in the form of a public apology to Gerry, who was there. He laughed so hard that I knew that that night I could read all the filthy stuff."

* * *

"People seem very happy with Choke. Some people say it's my funniest book so far. But I got one guy at the Barnes and Noble Union Square event who stood up and basically read my beads, just said, When the fuck are you going to stop doing this 'identity crisis' thing, talking about identity as a central theme and move on...blah blah blah. It's been four books. You're still dealing with identity. We need you to give it up and really show us something new with your talent. And then he goes, Well, I think you're a GREat writer. I really love your work. And I'm kind of like, Okay, cut my balls off and then compliment me?

"I told him that I really wanted to completely explore the theme of identity. You know, not just dash it off and get rid of it, but explore it from every angle before I left it behind. But I think in a way he's right. And that's why my next book, Lullaby, is such a complete departure from identityitis. Identity plays no part at all in Lullaby. It's got entirely different themes.

"But a half dozen guys came up to me in line that night and very seriously said, You want me to take that guy out? I think he's still downstairs. You want me to take care of him for you? And they were totally serious. So I went, Yeah, would you?"

* * *

"I think that the central, most American literary theme is the invention of self. We see it in Henry James's Bostonians; we see it in The GREat Gatsby; we see it in Breakfast at Tiffany's. People who move to the city from the country and reinvent themselves, or move to the frontier and reinvent themselves. It's the poor person becoming the rich person. You know, the nobody becoming the celebrity. It's such an American genre, this whole idea of reinventing and creating your self based on your dream, or how you perceive yourself to be, or not to be, whatever. And I've always seen that as the most American literary device or literary theme, so I really wanted to play with that.

"Maybe it's only at this point that I've become comfortable with who I am, so that theme no longer appeals to me. Plus, four books based on that! Fight Club is based on what you are not; Invisible Monsters was based on recreating yourself based on fashion and fantasy; Survivor was based on creating yourself in the face of immortality; and Choke was based on creating yourself out of a purpose, out of something that you stake your life on, that you commit to. So they're all about creating identity. But it's time to get past that."

* * *

"The books are always about taking a character from faux happiness and isolation back into community, into dysfunctional, unpleasant, chaotic, but ultimately more fulfilling community. Because the other American myth is that if we can just get away from one other, then we'll be happy. And so we want to be Howard Hughes in the penthouse, or we want to be William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon. We want to be on that desert island away from everyone, and then we'll be happy. And then we get to that isolated place where we're alone, and we're even more miserable than we ever were before. And so there's that constant pull between wanting to be with people, and wanting to be alone. And flip-flopping back and forth. You know, if you're married you want to be divorced. If you're divorced, you want to be married. We never want what we have at the moment we have it. And so the books are always about bringing people back into community, people who've achieved that isolation and now hate it.

"You know, five minutes after the lambs stop screaming in Silence of the Lambs, the lambs started screaming again. They never stopped screaming for, at the very most, five days, okay. Clarice had maybe a five-day window. But she woke up one day and those lambs were screaming louder than ever, and she realized that she was on a treadmill. For the rest of her life she was going to be shutting the lambs up. And every time she got them to shut up, they would shut up for shorter and shorter periods of time, until eventually Clarice Starling will kill herself. Or she will go on medication. You know, eventually the last book in that series will be called The Medicating of the Lambs, or The Prozac of the Lambs."

* * *

"It feels like that kind of a cycle never does end. Damn it. I think we're all doomed to reincarnation. People believe reincarnation's a good thing. But it feels like that hamster wheel to me. Who wants to be there for the final curtain, to be on stage for the plague/war/famine, whatever's going to happen. All those people who threw away their cigarette butts and killed all the birds? So boy, rotting in a box does not sound like such a bad thing at this point."

* * *

"As a child my father impressed upon me that if you are going to do stupid things you are going to have to pay the price. Once he actually threatened to chop off my finger with an axe for something I'd done. And at that moment it became incredibly clear to me that I am a cause in my own life, that I had to take responsibility for myself for the rest of my life, and not blame anyone for the things that I did. I was not going to blame anyone. If I wanted something to happen, I was going to make it happen. I was going to be the cause. You may forget those defining moments, but you still act out of those decisions. And I think that is one reason I've been very proactive in my life, because of that one afternoon, when it became really clear that I am responsible for me.

"A childhood is full of GREat defining stories, these moments in which you make enormous decisions about how the world is and how you will be in reaction to that world for the rest of your life. And you forget that you did that. You just become that reaction, but you can't remember why you became that. And remembering the moment when you made that decision and became that reaction is so freeing because you're like, Oh my God. Suddenly you have the choice of either being that thing that you've always chosen to be, or being something totally different that's not a reaction to the fact that no one showed up for your fifth birthday party. You're free from that tragedy of the past. You don't have to be a reaction to it for the rest of your life."

* * *

"I see hope as this rather pointless, amorphous emotion. Hope doesn't accomplish anything. Action accomplishes something. The idea that a possibility creates something... Sitting around hoping for something doesn't do much."

* * *

"When you think about what a small percentage of the people in this huge culture actually control things, it's staggering that more people aren't controlling their culture. It's only a tiny handful. And why is that? That's what breaks my heart. And I think young people, with the Internet and the availability of technology, are more and more able to get their stuff out. But then I worry whether by the time they have the technology we will have cut expressive courses in high school and college to the point that no one has the ability anymore to express themselves in an entertaining, balanced, or interesting way. Band and art and creative writing, or any of those things that we don't see as vocational, could actually be the most important courses, because they give kids a way of expressing themselves other than breaking things."

* * *

"The idea, Don't push the river, it flows. You could sit here all day and the river is not going to flow you where you want to go. And is it really pushing when you're doing something you love to do? Or is it just in a way surrendering yourself to that thing that you've always wanted to do? I don't see that as pushing the river. I see that as jumping in and letting the river sweep me along rather than clinging to the bank and not doing the thing that I'm dying to do."

* * *

"You know, all I've ever known are really obsessive passions, so it's hard for me to imagine people who don't have some sort of obsessive passion in their life, something that they have always dreamed of doing, whether or not they're doing it. I think that everyone's got an incredible passion, whether or not they admit it, or whether or not they're even aware of it anymore. Maybe they've just completely forgotten the fact that they wanted to do this thing when they were a child. Or they talked themselves out of ever doing that or being that. But I have to think that everyone's got that passion, and that much of our unhappiness and destructive behavior is based on not doing what we were created to do, for whatever reason."

* * *

"Oh, my God, sometimes I think I live my life more on the page than I do in the world anymore. And I get a little worried that I've reached the point where I can imagine things so clearly and so satisfactorily that I'll be disillusioned with everything in the physical world, because I can imagine things so much better. At that point I would be so dissatisfied with reality I would be nothing but Jabba the Hutt at my laptop and do nothing out in the world.

"You have to wonder when you see people like Stephen King, who I perceive as writing compulsively. And now, come to find out, he's taken drugs and drunk alcohol compulsively. If part of that isn't also this disillusionment with the physical world and the idea that this fantasy life on the page can be so much more exciting and fulfilling than real life can ever ever ever be... On the page you can do things that are impossible in the world, because the world is so regulated and structured anymore. On the page you can make those mistakes and have those adventures. I just get a little worried that I'll stop having those adventures in the world. And I won't even bother with the physical world because the fake world is so much nicer, so much more satisfying."

* * *

"Well, I suppose there isn't probably much difference between a sex addict and a writer. But when it's behavior that anesthetizes - come to think of it, writing anesthetizes, doesn't it? Okay, there's no difference whatsoever."


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