Chuck Palahniuk is a famous writer.
Who would have thought it? At Privy we’re dedicated to championing the gratuitously overlooked, the foolishly ignored, but by the time we met up with Chuck Palahniuk at Balthazaar Restaurant in New York City this June, the “cult” writer could no longer be referred to as such. Two nights before he had read at the Barnes and Noble at Union Square, and the crowd was so overwhelming that late arrivals were reduced to peaking over the shelves of the History section to get a glimpse (there had to be at least five hundred people), and the subsequent signing went on until well after midnight! At a recent reading at Book Soup in Hollywood, only the extreme early birds made it in the bookshop; the rest were left out in the street and herded behind a police barricade. They were so avid, in fact, that it was feared a riot might break out. “I’m going to go talk to them,” Chuck told the event’s organizers, who promptly rejected the idea. No way, you can go out there! “Fuck that,” Chuck said, “I’m going,” and proceeded to go down and apologize for the lack of space and sign as many books as he could for the thwarted throngs.
As we met up with him, his new novel, Choke, had just cracked the New York Times Bestseller List at thirteen.
Not surprisingly, this new fame doesn’t always rub him the right way. As our lunch begins, he is still recovering from book party the night before, where paparazzi kept thrusting attendee Parker Posey next to him for photo ops. “Poor Parker,” Chuck tells me, “I barely know her and suddenly all these photographers are using her as my prop.” He’s a little embarrassed about the Town Car waiting for him outside during the interview, a perk from his publisher, and he chides himself for his behavior at Thursday night’s reading. “I was a jerk,” he states ruefully. I suspect he’s referring to his comment during the introduction. The reading was a threesome of Palahniuk, Heather McGowan (author of the first novel Schooling) and Colson Whitehead (author of the occasionally awesome John Henry Days). As the young white, black, and female writers sat at a long table during the intro, Chuck interrupted the speaker and, looking out on the huge crowd, asked, “Is it me, or does it look like the Mod Squad up here?” It took a second, and then the place roared. It was just politically incorrect enough to be hilarious. (Neither Whitehead nor McGowan looked amused.)
And there was a certain swagger to Palahniuk that night. Publicly he’s a loose, beefed up literary star; there were both male and female groupies that night. Privately he’s humble, self-deprecating, and kind, anxious to talk about anything but himself (he’s sick of it, he admits). He’s trying to help other writer friends break in, and is sincerely interested when I tell him I have a novel myself coming out in a few weeks. He makes me tell him all about it.
We meet at the bar. His hair is wet from a recent shower; it’s half past noon. Right up front he tells us he’s crazy-busy, he can give us an hour, hour and half tops. The lunch goes nearly three. The topics? His “buddy” Marilyn Manson, what to buy your editor at Tiffany’s when he gets you on the bestseller list (or is it the other way around?), and the necessity of writers to remain provincial.
Privy: You must be shocked at your sudden success.
Chuck Palahniuk: In a way I’m really grateful for those drug culture movies we had to watch in high school, because now I can pretend that this is all an acid flashback, or that I’m lying in some back woods somewhere, comepletely brain dead, and this is all some bizarre fantasy taking place… And last night, at the party, having drinks with Parker Posey – I mean talk about surrealistic dreams – and then having my friends from Portland there, these friends I’ve had for years and waving them over, and having them all interact together…
Privy: Sometimes it’s hard to keep those friendships under these circumstances.
CP: You start to find out who your friends are, who’s really been pulling for you all along, and who hasn’t. For the friends who have been happy for me, it’s been such a joy to introduce them to other people and make sure they get really good readings on their submissions, and do anything I can to help them. But the ones that pull back could really be killing a resource that could work for them.
Privy: You’re becoming almost like a real celebrity now. If you look at your website, you can see you have a really fanatical following.
CP: It’s funny, because it’s like the only middle age people I get at the readings come up to me and say, You know, my son, or my nephew, or my niece, asked me to read this book. And so, it’s like young people getting older people to read again. I think it’s very cool. I feel like the grunge Harry Potter… Also, though, I’d kinda like to talk to someone to find out how to handle this stuff, you know? So I don’t make the same mistakes that others have made. Talk to people like Kurt Vonnegut and ask what were the mistakes you made when things were really starting out for you. What you wish you handled differently. Because nobody’s really trained – especially in my blue collar family – to step into something like this. There’s no model, no vocational training.
Privy: Are you feeling a little overwhelmed right now?
CP: You know, I don’t feel overwhelmed, but at the Harvard Coup, for example, they couldn’t get people to form a line at the signing, and you got like a thousand people surrounding me and pushing the table. I’m against the wall, the table hits me here (gestures to his chest) and I’m suddenly realizing I’m getting cut in half. I thought of Betty Buckley in Carrie, where she gets cut in half and the top part falls over. That was the only time I got a little freaked out.
Privy: With the movie version of Fight Club how did you feel about the changed ending? There’s a lot of people I know who objected to it.
CP: You know, it was a great surprise, it touched up the romance, and then they truncated it at the end with a little comedy at the moment it could’ve become sentimental – so I thought, perfect. And it had that great Pixie’s song.
Privy: How do you feel about readings? It must be odd to try and feel close to material that’s two years old or more by that point.
CP: The nice thing about going to other cities, is that no matter what you read they haven’t heard it, so you get a fresh response on it. It’s amazing, some cities will laugh at everything, even the most offensive things, and other cities will be sort of flat, almost reverential – you’re getting nothing back – and you’re thinking, This is bombing, this is failing, they are hating this. Other cities, there are so many children out there… There was this reading in San Francisco, where there were at least five women out there nursing babies, and I’m thinking, No way can I read this stuff I normally read. It would cause birth defects.
Privy: With all the parties, we thought you might show up all hung over…
CP: It’s too early for that. I still have, like, eight European countries to go. I just want to go home and re-house train my dog and start work on the next book.
Privy: Any ideas yet?
CP: Oh, my god, I’m so excited about it! And yesterday, after a BBC interview at Carnegie Hall, I talked this guy into giving me a tour of the all of the basements and attics of Carnegie hall. And it was exactly what I’m researching for the new book.
Privy: You must read a lot of scientific and medical journals in preparation for your novels.
CP: My brother is a chemical engineer and he came to town and we stayed up for three days drinking and working out all the formulas for all the explosives (for Fight Club). I wanted to do a parody of Like Water For Chocolate and Heartburn and all those women’s novels that have recipes in the narrative. I wanted to have, like, guy recipes in the narrative – and then they changed them to make them safe in the book. They changed one ingredient in each so no one could use them.
Privy: Did you ever work in the food service industry? A lot of your characters seem to work as waiters, and there’s a lot of fussing about stem ware and such..
CP: No, but for a long time I was wondering if all these old ladies, these Miss Manners with all their forms of etiquette, if that wasn’t becoming the American Zen – all those forks and what to do with them! – and sort of the focused and deliberate ways that folks were supposed to eat. Was that really becoming our way of transcending and focusing and becoming more Zen-like?
Privy: Did you struggle for a long time? How old were you when Fight Club finally hit?
CP: That would be in ‘96, and then I was 36. I only started writing when I was thirty two.
Privy: Did you have a lot of anxiety when Fight Club was coming out, if people would like it and how it would be received?
CP: There’s a writer named Matthew Sadler who lives in Seattle, and he calls me the kind of animal that eats its own young, because by the time a book comes out, I make sure I have another book ready. This is so that my heart is always way down the road, and if people trash and attack one book – you know, wait till you see the next one! And so, that’s just my defense mechanism… If something came out and was very much trashed and dismissed, I couldn’t imagine jump starting myself to do another thing. I think I would be so frozen in “what’s the point?” and “what if I fail again?”
Privy: You certainly know a lot about twelve step programs and psychological mumbo jumbo, which you hilariously satirize. Did you have any experience in these sort of programs–
CP: (already shaking his head) In a way people used to identify themselves by who they were or what they produced, and more and more people are identifying themselves by what has happened to them – by their victim-hood or what they’re dying of. They used to say, I’m a writer, I’m a dancer, I’m something noble. Now they say, I’m the adult child of alcoholics. And the forms that try and help them recover from those identities sometimes are only reinforcing those identities.
Privy: The theme of sexual addiction is central in Choke, and I was wondering if part of the point is that in a age where our lives are so calibrated – so mundane and careful – that promiscuous sex is really the last adventure, the one thing they can’t take away from us. It’s the one place where we can find true exhilaration.
CP: Exhilarated, and in a way, animalistic. And really, to be very out of control. I’ve written a short story about a very happily married couple who had decided they were going to make one of those amateur porno movies, so they taped themselves. They really tried to perform for the video, and they were so proud of how they looked and had convinced themselves that they were the perfect beautiful couple – but then, once they saw the video and actually saw what they looked like, they were so devastated by the reality that it ended their relationship. It destroyed their image of who they were. I’ve never used that short story!
Privy: So did Doubleday have a heart attack when you became a bestseller?
CP: My editor, Jerry Howard, has been in publishing his whole life, has been recognized for doing some enormous things, but he never had a literary bestseller. He danced on his desk, I heard. The idea of Jerry on his desk doing a jig… (He smiles, shakes his head.)
Wenzel and Palahniuk talking shop with each other’s novels
Privy: Our magazine is primarily about music, and coming from Portland, Oregon, there so manygreat bands there…
CP: (nodding) Because it’s so cheap to live. There’s a lot of freedom to experiment. And you can really pretend in a way that nobody but your friends are going to see this. I was told that publishing houses are looking more and more for Portland postmarks on submissions, and those move to the top of the slush piles. And I was proud to hear that.
Privy: You listen to a lot of new music?
CP: Yes, but recently I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff that people cut themselves – they hand me things – and some of that music is so good, I just love it so much. Maybe because in a way most of it’s inspired by music I originally loved. You know, Nine Inch Nails or Prodigy or Massive Attack.
Privy: And you’re friends with Marilyn Manson we hear?
CP: He’s a really smart guy, on so many different fronts. He’s writing his novel right now, and the painting – visually and musically he’s really his own Renaissance man. Gear magazine asked me if I would go down and interview him – it turns out he really loves my books. We talked all afternoon, but he said, You know, we should really spend more time, so why don’t you come up to the house for the weekend. And we became friends.
Privy: We we’re speculating about the new wave of music, where it might come from. We’re definitely due for something soon, obviously. Maybe it’ll be from the basements of America, now that everyone has access to this new technology.
CP: Well, it’s like a two-edged sword. I love the availability of the technology through the Internet, but new voices and new sounds come out of isolation. People who are away from the culture long enough to invent their own voice. I’m afraid that the Internet is going to make us so connected it’s going to make it harder and harder to find that new, unique voice. That new perspective on things. Even people like Manson and Reznor – you know, Manson came out of Lancaster PA, a math major in college. In a way, sophistication leads to becoming a reviewer.
(Strangely, the interviewers encounter some friends from high school, who stop by the table and are introduced to “Chuck” – they haven’t the foggiest – and when they leave we all speculate what it would be like to be back in high school. Palahniuk seems to shudder at the thought.)
CP: Somehow I think I would just revert back to way I was, the quiet, shy, nerdy guy in the back of the class. The one everybody cheated off of.
Privy: Even now, after all this?
CP: Oh, yeah. In fact, last night, at the party, I had this fear that nobody was going to show up, and that no one would take any of the free books that were laid out. When I was nine, my mother threw a birthday party for me, and none of my friends came. I can still remember my mother on the phone in the next room, yelling, “Well you get up and you come over here, now!” And like three hours later a couple of kids showed up and that was it. And so now every party is a re-creation of that party.
Privy: So, Chuck, who do you read? Who do you look forward to having a new book come out?
CP: The people I read never get new books out. Like Amy Hempel. She was supposed to be at the party last night and I didn’t see her. The idea that she was there and I didn’t meet her breaks my heart. But in a way, I’ve built her into a such a figure in my mind, that I don’t think I should ever meet her at this point. I think, with writers at least, it’s almost a guaranteed let down, because they express themselves so thoroughly on the page, that what you’re meeting is almost like… what’s left over. I tend to avoid writers now, because I’m so not wanting to be let down.
Privy: You must’ve read a lot of Delillo.
CP: Nope, never read him. Never read J.G. Ballard either. The only Vonnegut I’ve read is Slaughterhouse Five. All these people I’m compared to I’ve never read.
Privy: Tell us about your process. Do you just bang it out or what?
CP: My process is so weird. I have to be doing something while I write. Like I’ll write at the gym, when I’m working out. I work as a mason now, so I write while I’m building rock walls.
Privy: You work as a mason to keep in shape, so you’re not trapped behind a desk?
CP: No, I do it because when you tell lies for a living, you have to have something to counterbalance that. (laughs) And to sleep at night. It’s only when your mind is not thinking about writing that the most incredible ideas come to you. It’s only when you’re not focusing on “how do I solve this” that the answer just sort of comes in your head. It frees your mind up, opens up channels. I wrote most of Fight Club while I was working on trucks. Because it was boring, heavy, physical work, and it left my mind free to fantasize. I had all these greasy notes.
Privy: I read somewhere that you actually did what the character does in Choke, feign choking to run out on a check.
CP: No, I almost did it once, when I was at a bar and I ran out of money and my friends didn’t show up. I thought it might get me sympathy and get me out the door since I couldn’t pay. What I did do though, was I used to buy these bottles of ipecac – the stuff they give to kids to make them vomit – when I was working on an assembly line. Then I used to chug them to get out of working. Like, if I wanted the afternoon off, I’d just drink one of those and puke all over the floor. You’re sick in a way that nobody wants you around.
Privy: Do readings make you nervous?
CP: Not as much anymore, but like last night there was this guy with a Mohawk who, during the question and answer period, asked me if I was just going to keep writing the same book over and over again. When are you going to write something original and new? he kept saying. And he had a list of all the bad lines from recent reviews, had them all itemized and was repeating them one after the other. And the moderator was like, Thank you very much, next person! Thank you very much!
Privy: He seems to have spent a lot of time hating you!
CP: Well, no, because he kept saying, “It’s not that I don’t think you’re an incredible writer, I do, but…” Finally they had to physically pull him away from the microphone. And then after that, during the signing, dozens of guys came up to me and were like, “Hey, you know that guy’s still downstairs, you want us to go take care of him?” All these guys. Of course I said, “Yes, absolutely. I want his head on a plate.”
Finally, Chuck looks at his watch, and is aghast – he told his driver to meet him at two, and it’s nearly three-thirty. He asks us if Tiffany’s is a good place to buy a gift for his editor and agent. He doesn’t know anything about it. Is it expensive enough? We tell him that it should do just fine.
Outside we take some goofy pictures. Chuck insists on holding up my book. As he leaves to his car we check the inscription in our copy of Choke, which he has just signed:
Let’s be friends forever. Chuck Palahniuk.