If you’re one of Chuck Palahniuk’s many rabid fans, you already know that he’s both a total babe (I met him at BEA, and I’m here to tell you the man has the biceps of a demigod) and a big sweetheart. He wrote Fight Club, and his short stories regularly make people faint; he’s brilliant, articulate, darkly funny, and comfortable writing about violence. But he’s also remarkably soft-spoken and kind. I sat down with him to talk about his new book, his dogs, and his opinion of 50 Shades of Grey—among many other topics. Here’s our (condensed) conversation.
Could I ask about your belief in the possibility of an afterlife? When we meet Madison she’s in hell, and now she’s moved into purgatory, and as a fellow ex-Catholic, I’m curious about your beliefs.
I think it’s harder to believe in the lack of an afterlife. It would be ruling out so many things just because we can’t see them. I think it would be akin to living in past centuries in denial of microbes or germs or the galaxy. Just because we can’t see something, we shouldn’t be dismissing it so easily.
Do you think it’s possible that hell is a physical place in some way?
No. I ascribe to the belief of I think it’s Thomas More, who said that hell is where you take yourself when you’re not being the person that God intended you to be. So hell is, in a way, a state that you create yourself.
What have you been listening to you as you worked on Doomed?
Really nothing. I don’t listen to music anymore.
That’s unusual for you. Why did that change, do you know?
I think because I started writing outside more. I have dogs now, and I write a lot while I walk my dogs. Charles Dickens used to walk 20 miles a day as he wrote, and Lakeland poets used to hike endlessly as they wrote. I’ve become a walking writer, and walking my dogs kind of precludes listening to music.
When you say you write as you walk, are you speaking into a recording device, or is it more that you’re thinking about sentences and structure?
Thinking about it. Every time my dog goes to the bathroom, I write down a sentence. So you know that about Doomed: every time there’s a sentence, my dog went to the bathroom.
You have Boston terriers?
I’ve got pictures! [He shows me physical snapshots of the dogs, who are adorable. –EC]
This one died last year.
Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.
She was very old.
What are their names?
This is Chick, who is also very old now, and this was Imp, and this is Egg.
Are you an egg-eater?
I didn’t name them. Those are just their names.
Does it feel different being in a room with a little soul as you’re writing—do you feel less alone?
Oh, definitely. A little soul that gives you an excuse to break every once in a while and do something that meets someone else’s needs, so that you’re meeting the needs of this—not helpless thing, but very dependent thing. It’s a nice complement to writing, which is so self-centered.
Damned and Doomed skewer celebrity culture. Do you ever consume celebrity gossip—on the plane, or just for research?
No. Not anymore—maybe I used to, but I have no idea who the Kardashians are, or the Baldwin brothers, even. There are just so many of these people now. But in a way, as I’ve gotten more success myself, I’ve fallen into more of that town-car culture, where you find yourself really insulated and removed from people. My way of being with that is trying to write about it from Madison’s perspective. That kind of insular world where your problems aren’t realistic anymore, and you can’t identify with the problems of the people that you used to know.
That must be really a challenge as a writer, to be insulated in that way and to try to write characters who aren’t.
I know fewer and fewer people who have schedules as loose as mine. So more of my friends are becoming other writers, because their lives are like my life, and we can call and do something in the middle of the day. They understand my problems, I understand their problems, but we’re not a really accurate representation of most people. So finding some way to write about that isolation within a character—that’s why Madison is isolated in her own odd life.
Any plastic inflatable objects coming up that we can look forward to on this book tour?
These inflatable two-foot beach balls with light sticks inside of them so they glow in different colors really bright. I’ve arranged that at all the venues for tour this year, we could control the lighting. They’ll be nighttime events. We can give out hundred and hundreds of these things, and people are going to be asked to write a few words of poetry on each one. Throughout the evening, as people throw these hundreds of beautiful glowing things up in the darkness, we catch some of them. And then by the end of the evening we have this sort of spontaneous poem. It gives people something very physical to do between the parts of the evening that are more about listening and talking. It’s a kind of physical spectacle, a kind of chaos that occurs.
Reading about Beautiful You, and reading that it’s a mash-up of mommy porn and fantasy lit and chick lit, I thought of Fifty Shades of Grey, and I’m curious what you thought of the book. Did you read it?
Fifty Shades? I did not read it. People synopsized it to me, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
I actually think you might really get a kick out of it. Have you been intentionally avoiding it?
You know, I started the Twilight books and I was so disappointed by those that I really didn’t want to get my heart broken again.
It’s not nearly as dirty as I was hoping.
That’s what I keep on hearing. Beautiful You is dirty. This is going to sound coarse, but when I was growing up, my father worked for the railroads and he’d be away from town, from the household, for weeks at a time. Once I was getting something from my parents’ closet and I found a couple of really raunchy paperback porn books that had those salacious titles, really horrible, almost machine-written pornography that was so graphic and plain. It always makes me think of that line in George Orwell’s 1984, where Winston Smith talks about Julia working on the proletariat pornography novel-writing machines. They seemed the most dirty little paperbacks, almost like they were written by machines. And then on the other hand there were my mother’s romance books, which were so flowery and so euphemistic, and nothing carnal really ever happened in those. In Beautiful You my dream was to use this flowery, euphemistic language to depict this fantastic, almost Marquis de Sade carnality of my father’s books. I just kind of wed them together in that way, and call it Gonzo porn, or Gonzo erotica.
Is the protagonist a mommy?
No, she’s a 24-year-old recent graduate from law school who’s working her way up in a firm—a very Devil Wears Prada entry-level sort of job.
What’s the future of books? Will we be reading print books in 30 years?
I always try to figure out what happens in books—what can print books do that no other books can do? And print books, you can put flowers and stuff in them and press them, so there’s this really odd, idiosyncratic things about print books. That they can be inscribed, that they can be wrapped and given. I think there are all these different strengths of print books that will keep them alive. They might have to get richer and more beautifully produced, they might have to go back to leather covers, but they’re going to have to justify ownership. They’re really going to have to be beautiful, beautiful things that carry their own weight. They just can’t be cheaply made anymore.
Are there any living authors who you think get unfairly dismissed, or get ghettoized as genre writers, who you would urge your readers to check out and give more of a fair shake?
A friend of mine, Monica Drake. Monica gets kind of dismissed as a quirky writer, and I think it’s because her sense of humor is just so young and so fresh. And Christopher Brown. I think Chris Brown gets kind of dismissed as a gay writer, and I think Chris’s books are really, really smart. I wish his books sold a little more widely.
It sounds like you very successfully avoid gossip blogs. But what is it like to be a writer in a time that’s so suffused with advertising and addictive internet junk? Does it pose particular challenges that writers in other generations didn’t face? And readers, for that matter?
I think it’s a little harder to sequester yourself, or cloister yourself, away from language and try to have a thought that isn’t already in culture. I try to work from parties, because if I can go to a party and hear a story from a person, I know that it’s a genuine fresh story and it’s not something that’s already in culture because it’s on the internet or it’s been recorded in some way. I’m not one of ten people hearing it on NPR; I’m one person hearing it at a party. So hearing stories from people is what I really prefer most, because those are the freshest, most powerful stories. And then also getting private quiet time to develop them, to think them through, which is where walking the dogs comes in. It’s kind of the blessing of animals because their language isn’t going to disrupt my thought process. I can interact with them without language.
You’re very prolific, and maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem like you struggle with procrastination or have to urge yourself on the way that many aspiring writers do. What advice do you have for people who want to write but find themselves internet-addicted or just watching too many cat videos?
In a way, I think it’s a good idea if you are addicted. Because if there are things out there that are more interesting to you than what you’re writing, than what you’re writing is not very good. Because what you’re writing has to be consumed by people who are just as distracted by all those things in the world as you are, so if your material doesn’t stand up to the test of maintaining your own attention, it’s not going to maintain a grasp on anyone else’s attention. In a way I think that’s a good litmus test, all the distraction of the world. Your work is ultimately going to be read in airports and places that are nothing but distraction.
So if you’re struggling and bored as you’re writing, you need to change projects?
Right. You need to write something that is more personal or more upsetting or more extreme, but in some way does hold your attention.
Is there anything that grosses you out?
Those Sarah McLachlan animal commercials. They gross me out and sadden me to the point that I can’t tolerate them; I have to escape them.
There have been a couple of animals who have suffered in your novels. Are those scenes hard to write?
You know, they are, but the first one was in Pygmy and it was a rat dropped down a garbage disposal. And it does make the protagonist weak, very upsetting, and that was the purpose: to show that humanity of this person.
He’s the one person who is upset by it, right? He does have that reaction and so we see his humanity.
Exactly. I did struggle with that. But at the same time, that scene was inspired by me finding a mouse in my kitchen sink. I thought, “You know, I could just wash it down the garbage disposal and kill it.” And instead I picked it up and carried it outside. In a way I think the real world vindicated me—I could only write about it because I hadn’t done it.
In your Ask Me Anything on Reddit, you said that energy flags as you age. I’m wondering if you think that creativity flags, too, if the well of ideas starts to dry up. Is that something you worry might happen, or have seen happening to other writers?
It doesn’t for me. I think rather than the creativity disappearing, writers might become disillusioned with the process of producing a work and publishing it. You become disillusioned with the idea that producing a work is going to guarantee a certain outcome. Or you become more familiar with that outcome and less thrilled by the idea of going out and being the public person you have to be. So in a way it’s that knowledge of what comes after the productive creative process that might dampen the creative process. But if you write because you love to write, then you won’t run out of ideas. You won’t dread the portion that comes after the creative part that you love so much. You can see why Salinger hid himself away and said, “I’m just gonna write for myself the rest of my life.”
I’m a relative newlywed and I know you’re in a long-term relationship, and I’m wondering what advice you have for maintaining a happy, healthy relationship.
Always think of yourself as a gift to the other person. Always think, “Let me be of service to whoever I’m with.” And be ready to acquiesce on issues. No issue is worth ending this relationship. I don’t have to give up all the time, but it’s not about just having my way anymore. It’s about being of service and trying to make that other person have a fantastic life, wanting the best for them.