Fight Clubs and Self-Reflection: An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk
Chuck Palahniuk is one of the most popular novelists of our time. While others have bigger hits, have sold more books, or had bigger blockbuster movies made from their titles, Palahniuk has built a massive, dedicated fanbase. And it’s understandable why this is the case.
Palahniuk’s work is not clean and tidy. It isn’t a nice little package with a neat bow. Instead, the subjects he deal with are often dark and gritty, but they’re the stories that speak to a huge audience. He speaks to a part of modern culture that most authors and media ignore.
Books-A-Million was able to catch up with Chuck and ask him questions that had been sitting in the back of our minds for years.
BAM: We always like book recommendations from our favorite authors. What is currently on your reading list?
My current read is The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholas. It’s eye opening to realize how many major art museums began as dumping grounds for art looted during wartime. And to see how masterpieces are coddled while human beings are slaughtered. For pure reading pleasure, my latest favorite is The Folly of Loving Life by Monica Drake. Drake is a wonder who can balance comedy and tragedy in a single sentence.
BAM: In your early novels, your characters aren’t usually upstanding citizens. They tend to be people most of society would shun, and they quite often are involved in illegal, immoral, and essentially terrible situations. What was it about the characters and their stories that was so compelling to you?
My interest is piqued by people who reach the fullest extent of their power and are forced to accept diminishing circumstances or to graduate to a new form of power. The beauty, for instance, who knows his/her looks are waning. Or the good scholar who finds him/herself dumped into a career where being studious and working hard will never yield enough returns. If the socially acceptable formulas for success and fulfillment actually worked, we’d all be satisfied. Instead, the stalled-out individual must break some rules or venture where no rules yet exist. Those are my people. In fiction and in life.
BAM: Which character is your favorite?
My favorite? That’s a tough question because the answer will change every ten minutes. At present I’d choose the unnamed narrator from my short story “Zombies,” the kid who struggles over the possibility of lobotomizing himself. The story is part of my collection “Make Something Up”. Read aloud, it makes even jaded hipsters cry because it acknowledges the terror most people feel under the pressure to mate, nest, reproduce and build a career in the brief time span of their youth.
Some of your most famous characters aren’t named or their name changes throughout the story. Can you explain the choice to not provide a name for the narrators or protagonists?
To me a name is the most-abstract and arbitrary aspect of any character or person. Even my named characters have allegorical names or names I blithely pulled from my collection of phone books. Between drafts of a story or book I’ll change the names to negate my attachment to the characters. What’s memorable is what characters do. Their actions. The way a character demonstrates his/her intelligence and character. Verbs create good fiction, not adjectives, and certainly not proper nouns.
BAM: Some of your stories are uniquely structured, in particular Invisible Monsters Remix. What’s the significance of using nonlinear storytelling throughout the novel? Is it, in and of itself, a plot device, or is it meant to make the reader feel a certain way?
Invisible Monsters Redux is the best example of how I always exploit the strengths of a medium, and use non-fiction devices to make an outlandish story seem plausible. The inspiration for the book hit me while reading Vogue magazine at the Laundromat – Vogue being the only reading material on hand. I loved the fashion-speak hyperbole in the copy, and how stories “jumped” forward and backward in an issue, forcing the reader to hunt through a forest of un-numbered pages and perfume ads in order to finish reading. It was chaos, but it was something only a printed paper medium could offer. Any electronic medium makes links and jumping effortless. I wanted to give the hunting reader a glimpse of hidden things while he/she searched for the next thread. Likewise, in the Fight Club 2 graphic novel I could use more visual elements – ones that would be too challenging for film – because comics have a sense of cartoony unreality. My dying child soldiers, for instance, would never work on film because they’d overwhelm the viewer. But the artist Cameron Stewart depicted them as tragic, noble and heroic without exhausting the readers’ emotions.
BAM: In many of your novels, you have a strong reaction to consumerism. Are you trying to make a personal statement or are you generally using satire as a means to create a running commentary about modern society?
First of all I’m not here to fix anybody except myself. When I skewer consumer stuff I’m teasing myself and my own occasional lust to possess something. During my childhood my parents always asked my siblings and me what we wanted for holiday gifts. Honestly, I wanted nothing except the sticks and mud I used to build miniature cities. But “nothing” wasn’t an acceptable answer because it didn’t allow my parents to express their love through a gift. I learned to want things – from advertising and my peers – just to please my parents. Sadly, I’d subsequently be forced to act delighted when they worked overtime to buy me the electric football game I never wanted or played with. Do people even remember electric football?
BAM: So is that a more self-reflection of your parent’s mistakes?
Most people have children, and those parents are able to reverse engineer their own behavior as they observe their child going through developmental stages. Those parents can recognize the flawed decisions and choices they made as children, and this gives them a chance to correct their own outlook and identity. They’re no longer the limited product of their six-year-old selves. But as a childless person I don’t have this opportunity for revision. Instead I create characters that allow me to observe myself and recognize my self-imposed superstitions and false beliefs.
BAM: You reject the notion that you’re a nihilist, instead arguing that you’re a romantic. Are the two concepts mutually exclusive in your work? Is it possible readers could associate nihilism to the stories you tell?
If you don’t believe what others espouse they tend to call you a nihilist. I advocate occasionally setting aside all of your preconceived ideas, your externally imposed education and prejudices, just taking a vacation from that great framework of control. It’s only when a great tragedy or illness or drug experience occurs that we recognize the few things of importance. My work is always looking for a physical path – through violence, disease, insomnia, drugs, sex – to renew life and be aware of its limitless opportunities.
BAM: Which novel would you recommend as an introduction to your body of work?
Why tackle a whole novel? Read one of my short stories. In the new coloring book, Bait: Off-Color Stories to Color read the story “Dad All Over”. Or read the story “Guts” from my book Haunted. Or read “The Facts of Life” from my story collection Make Something Up. Any one of those will show you the cut of my jib. Whatever THAT means.
by John Burleson, Contributing Writer
Don’t miss out on Palahniuk’s latest book, Bait, in stock and available now.