Readers of Chuck Palahniuk's novels must gird themselves for the bizarre, the violent, the macabre, and the just plain disturbing. Having done that, they can then just enjoy the ride.
The story goes that Palahniuk wrote Fight Club out of frustration. Believing that his first submission to publishers (an early version of Invisible Monsters) was being rejected as too risky, he decided to take the gloves off, so to speak, and wrote something he never expected to see the light of day. Ironically, Fight Club was accepted for publication, and its subsequent filming by directory David Fincher earned the author an obsessive cult following.
The apocalyptic, blackly humorous story of a loner's entanglement with a charismatic but dangerous underground leader, Fight Club was the first in a series of controversial fiction that would keep Palahniuk in the spotlight. Since then, he has crafted strange, disturbing tales around unlikely subjects: a disfigured model bent on revenge (the revised Invisible Monsters) ... the last surviving member of a death cult (Survivor) ... a sex addict who resorts to a bizarre restaurant scam to pay the bills (Choke) ... a lethal African nursery rhyme (Lullaby) ... and so the list continues.
Although Palahniuk makes occasional forays into nonfiction, (e.g., Fugitives and Refugees and Stranger than Fiction), it is his novels that generate the most buzz. His outré plots and jump-cut storytelling are definitely not for everyone -- some have likened them to the horrible accident you can't tear your eyes away from -- but even critics can't help but be impressed by his flair for language, his talent for satire, and his sheer originality. Newsday wrote, "Palahniuk is one of the freshest, most intriguing voices to appear in a long time. He rearranges Vonnegut's sly humor, DeLillo's mordant social analysis, and Pynchon's antic surrealism (or is it R. Crumb's?) into a gleaming puzzle palace all his own."
Palahniuk has said that he has heard a lot from readers who were never readers before they saw his books, from boys in schools where his books are banned. This might be the best evidence that Palahniuk is a writer for a new age, introducing a (mostly male) audience to worlds on the page that usually only exist in technicolor nightmares.
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Palahniuk (pronounced paul-a-nik) worked as a diesel mechanic for a trucking company before he became an author, jotting story notes for The Fight Club under trucks he was supposed to be working on.
Palahniuk's family has had a sad history of violence: His grandfather killed his grandmother and then committed suicide; later in life, his divorced father was murdered in 1999 by a girlfriend's ex-husband. The killer was convicted and sentenced to death in October, 2001. Palahniuk's book, Choke, was driven by an attempt to look at how sexual compulsion can destroy (see essay below for more).
When not working on his novels, Palahniuk has written features for Gear magazine, through which he befriended shock rocker Marilyn Manson; and is reportedly working on a script of the Katie Arnoldi novel Chemical Pink for Fight Club director David Fincher.
While writing, Palahniuk has said he listens to Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Radiohead.
To a reader who asked in a Barnes & Noble.com chat why the novel Invisible Monsters was not released in hardcover, Palahniuk responded: "My original request was not to have any of my books released as hardcovers b/c I felt guilty asking for over $20 for anything I had done. With Invisible Monsters I finally got my way."
Invisible Monsters was inspired by fashion magazines Palahniuk was reading at his laundromat, according to an interview with The Village Voice. "I love the language of fashion magazines. Eighteen adjectives and you find the word sweater at the end. 'Ethereal. Sacred.' I thought, Wouldn't it be fun to write a novel in this fashion magazine language, so packed with hyperbole?"
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In the fall of 2004, Chuck Palahniuk took some time to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It showed me how to write a "hero" story by using an apostle as the narrator. Really, it's the basis of the triangle of two men and one woman in my book, Fight Club. I read the book at least once a year and it continues to surprise me with layers of emotion.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
These are in no particular order or rank...
- Reasons to Live by Amy Hempel -- Each of Hempel's stories pay off with more emotion than most full length novels.
- The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis -- Another short story collection, Ellis's book shows the dark and funny world of people trapped by their own need for fame and money and love.
- Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson -- These stories have moments so shocking and distasteful that you have to admire Johnston for being brave enough to risk writing them.
- The Ice at the Bottom of the World by Mark Richard -- His story, "Strays," is my favorite. All of his language pops with hard dental sounds -- P's and K's -- and this makes the collection a delight to read out loud.
- The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones -- Again, here are hard unsentimental stories that somehow break your heart while they make you laugh.
- Drown by Junot Diaz -- These may be the bleakest childhood stories ever published, but the plot tension and the love between family members force you to finish the book.
- Ill Nature by Joy Williams -- Here is the brutal description of how humans have treated the natural world. The book is so painful, at times, you must put it down. Still, you always go back to re-read it.
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury -- As a kid, I carried this book everyday, everywhere, for two years. The stories create a collage of an epic story better than any single narrative ever could.
- At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom by Amy Hemple -- These stories carry the power of great "Slam" poetry. They function more like magic spells to put you into a trance and make Hemple's world more real than your own.
- The Call of the Wild by Jack London -- My brother and I memorized most of this book as children. London's frontier world seen through animals was my favorite fantasy.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Favorite films, in no rank:
- Session 9 -- This horror/thriller has the tightest plot and most clever voice over device I have ever seen. The tension lasts until the final credits roll.
- The Haunting -- The original 1964 black and white version proves that good writing is more frightening than any movie magic special effect.
- Jesus of Montreal -- This French-Canadian film is the most moving movie I have seen. Even with subtitles, it brings me to tears.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
While writing, I tend to repeat the same song, endlessly, for thousands of times. This helps me ignore any lyrics, and helps create a consistent mood for each book. The songs have included "Creep" by Radiohead, "The Fragile" by Nine Inch Nails, "Shine On, You Crazy Diamond" by Pink Floyd, "Little Fifteen" by Depeche Mode, and "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give – and get – as gifts?
My favorite books to give or get are short story collections. And, always paperbacks because they are easy to carry as you travel.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
My only writing ritual is to shave my head bald between writing the first and second drafts of a book. If I can throw away all my hair, then I have the freedom to trash any part of the book on the next rewrite.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
My only "rejection" story is how I accepted a tiny advance for the book Fight Club -- not realizing the publisher was trying to offend me while not offending their own staff editor who loved the book. I got $6,000 and was thrilled. Since then, other writers tell me that an advance this small is known as "kiss-off money."
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
My best advice for writers is: Have your adventures, make your mistakes, and choose your friends poorly -- all these make for great stories. But what's most important is that you Do Not Die. Also, avoid getting brain damage. Have fun, but don't die. We digest our lives by turning our experience into stories, so find some way to turn every event into a story you can express and exhaust of all its emotion. That way, bad events won't exhaust you. Then, never stop writing those stories.
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An essay about Choke from Chuck Palahniuk
Bill was the first man I ever met who called himself a sex addict. This was in a church conference room, on a Thursday night, where a couple dozen men and women sat in plastic chairs around a table stained with poster paint and glue. Bill is a big guy, wearing three layers of plaid flannel shirts, with a big square chin and a booming gruff voice.
This is just after Christmas, the first Christmas in almost 20 years that Bill says he didn't spend with his wife and kids. Instead, he put on a dress and went downtown to an adult bookstore and gave blow jobs all day.
This is the world of sexual compulsives. One by one, almost everybody around that table, very ordinary folks, young and old, hip and square, men and woman, they took turns telling about their week's worth of sex with prostitutes, lingerie models, and strangers. They talked about Internet sex, public-bathroom sex, and telephone sex. None of these people were anyone you'd look at twice on the street, but their secret lives were amazing.
Everybody in my family does something compulsively. My brother exercises. My mother gardens. I write. That's part of the reason why I was at this meeting.
This is the rest of the reason:
Ten-plus years ago, my brother joked that the best place to meet women was at support groups for sexually irresponsible people.
At the time, he was engaged to a beautiful woman. She was funny and charming and looked just like Vanna White. The two of them had met at work, and my brother knew about the support groups because she went to them. They'd almost gotten married, but he'd heard some rumors about what she did while he was gone on business trips.
To resolve the issue, before he left for his next trip, he put a voice-activated tape recorded under the bed in his apartment. When he came home, the tape was run all the way through. Rewinding it and listening, he says, was the hardest thing he's ever done in his life.
On the tape, his fiancée was drunk and bringing home guy after guy -- to his bed. The second-hardest thing he's ever done was confronting her with the tape and ending their engagement.
Today, he's married with a beautiful family, married to someone else.
He told me this story one summer while we drove to Idaho to help identify a body the police said might be our father. The body was found, shot, next to the body of a woman, in a burned-down garage in the mountains outside Kendrick, Idaho.
This was the summer of 1999. The summer the Fight Club movie came out. We went to our father's house in the mountains outside of Spokane, trying to track down some X-rays that showed the two vertebrae fused in Dad's back after a railroad accident left him disabled.
My father's place in the mountains was beautiful, hundreds of acres, wild turkeys and moose and deer everywhere. On the road up to the house, there was a new sign. It was next to a boulder that lay beside the road. It said, "Kismet Rock." We had no idea what the sign meant.
Once at a toga party, I was drinking with a friend, Cindy, and she said, "Let me tell you about my mother. My mother gets married a lot." It was such a great line I used it in Invisible Monsters. I knew exactly what Cindy meant.
Part of visiting my dad was always meeting his latest girlfriend. Or wife.
Before my brother and I could find the X-rays, the police called to say the body was Dad's. They'd used dental records we'd shipped to them earlier.
At the trial of the man who murdered him, it came out that my father had answered a personal ad placed by a woman whose ex-husband had threatened to kill her and any man that he ever found her with. The title of the personal ad was "Kismet." My father was one of five men who answered it. He was the one she chose.
This was the dead woman found beside my father. She and my father had gone to her home to feed some animals before driving to my father's house, where he was going to surprise her with the "Kismet Rock" sign. A sort of landmark named for their new relationship.
Her ex-husband was waiting and followed them up the driveway. According to the court's verdict, he killed them and set fire to their bodies in the garage. They'd known each other for less than two months.
That first support group for sex addicts, I went because I wanted to understand my father. I wanted to know what he dealt with and why his life was girlfriend after girlfriend, wife after wife.
At the meeting in the church conference room, here were very everyday-looking people, telling stories that even their own spouses didn't know. I just sat there, and even though everyone was supposed to limit their sharing to a few minutes, we always ran out of time before everyone had to speak. People were so hungry to share their pain.
Several months after meeting Bill, after his story about blow jobs on Christmas Day, he came to the group upset. The fourth step in the 12-step process is to keep a record of your addiction, recording all your transgressions, past and present. Bill's wife had found his notebook. She'd told him she made copies, and -- if he didn't give her the kids, the money, the house, the cars, and then move to another state -- she was going to give the copies to all his family and coworkers.
Bill was frantic, and his only way out, he told everyone, was to go home and kill her and kill himself.
He seemed so resolved.
I kept thinking, This is how it happens. All those newspaper stories about murder/suicides, this is how they happen.
The group got Bill calmed down. He wept. A few weeks later, he and his wife had resolved to stay married and face his addiction, together.
During this time, a friend introduced me to a woman. This was at breakfast in a restaurant, and it was funny because her name was Marla. Like Marla Singer in Fight Club. I'd never met a real Marla, and it turned out she's a therapist who works with sexual compulsives. Piece by piece, the ideas and themes of Choke were coming together.
I wanted to write about the moment when your addictions no longer hide the truth from you. When your whole life breaks down. That's the moment when you have to somehow choose what your life is going to be about. Doping yourself with sex or drugs or food, or choosing something like writing, body building, gardening. True, in a way this is trading one compulsive behavior for another, but at least with the new one, you're choosing it.
Funny, but all my former junkie friends are either fervent Christians or triathletes. Nothing in half measures.
As Paige Marshall says in the book, "You have to trade your youth for something." With Choke I wanted to show someone actively choosing their future, instead of perpetuating their past.
Here, I want to tell you how lovely and clever my brother's former fiancée was.
I want you to know how happy it felt to see Bill resolve to save his marriage.
I want to tell you how my father spent years with my brother and I, building huge model train sets with papier-mâché mountain ranges and working streetlights. We'd go into town, to Bailey's Toys and Hobbies, and buy a new locomotive for our birthdays. We'd glue specks of sand, just so, to create the perfect miniature roadbed for our tracks. Yeah, it's sounds like compulsive behavior, but it was so sweet.
Here at the end, I want to thank you, for your time and attention. And thank you for taking a chance with my books. This is the story behind the story.
I'll shut up now,
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