By Jeff Walsh
In Chuck Palahniuk’s breakthrough 1996 novel, Fight Club, the narrator presses a gun to the temple of convenience store clerk Raymond K. Hessel’s head and gives him a choice: quit his job and pursue his dream of being a veterinarian, or die right now, since he’s practically dead anyway. The narrator takes Hessel’s driver’s license, so he knows where he lives, and tells him he will check in on him. If he’s not on his way to becoming a vet in three months, he will be dead.
The passage is barely five pages in Palahniuk’s sweeping apocalyptic tale, but more people than Hessel got its message. On a recent paperback tour for Choke, his fourth novel, Palahniuk says he always ends up reading the Hessel piece.
“I know too many people who tell me it changed their lives. On tour, every other person comes up and says, ‘My peers changed the way we looked at the world after we read this.’ That’s what I’m hearing,” he says. “Every venue on this last tour, some kid toward the end said please read the Hessel thing. It reads in three minutes and people love it.”
In a sense, this interview exists because of Raymond K. Hessel. My own library and reading habits took a horrible downturn a few years back when I started an online site for queer youth called Oasis (http://www.oasismag.com/) and started reviewing the books that I was sent free of charge. The majority of the books were geared toward, written by, and about urban homos. The language was witty and campy and fabulous, but nothing of substance happens in most of them. But they were free, and I kept reading them as amazing book after amazing book was written, released, and ignored by me. For several years, I spent my reading time camping through Chelsea, West Hollywood, and the Castro with witty buff boys and their sassy, sexy friends. When I felt I was ready to write my novel, I was certain what I was going to do: write the ultimate urban gay novel.
Thankfully, Fight Club changed all that. I wish I could say I was hip enough to have found the book back when it was underground and not a pop culture touchpoint, but I can’t. I saw the movie first. My copy of Fight Club the novel is the “now a major motion picture…” version with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton on its cover. But coming late to the game didn’t dull its effect on me.
It’s why I recently visited Portland, Chuck’s hometown (no, I’m not stalking him) to learn more about the writing style that Palahniuk practices called minimalism, which focuses on first-person narratives where the “I” is submerged as much as possible.
“The most honest story is a story where you know who is telling the story, a first-person narrative,” Palahniuk explains. “But, we have a national resistance to first-person narrative because it tends to be self-aggrandizing and self-involved. So, ideally, there’s a style where you can write first-person narrative but you can hide the ‘I’ and get rid of the ‘I’ on the page as many times as possible. So, you have the honesty of first-person, but it’s a detached first-person.”
Palahniuk is part of Portland’s “Dangerous Writers” community, which is led by Tom Spanbauer, author of The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon and In The City of Shy Hunters. Spanbauer created his branch of minimalism based on his own studies with editing wunderkind Gordon Lish at Columbia University. Palahniuk often says Spanbauer and the class changed his life by making him realize he could be a writer.
“It was that class and also Tom literally saying, ‘You could be one of the people who shapes our culture. You don’t just have to wait for books to come out of New York, you can be one of the people doing that,’” Palahniuk says. “I just never thought a person can live in Portland and affect change like that.”
This interview, done in the rare book room at the infamously independent Powell’s Books, is taking place because I’m in town to take the class that changed Palahniuk’s life. The day after this interview, I will be in the same class, its effect on my life still unknown.
After setting up the interview, I was immediately reluctant about doing it, but it was too late to turn back. Conceptually, I was all fired up to meet Chuck, talk about writing, talk about life. But, not this way.
I disliked the moment when I realized that I had stopped experiencing his books and began deconstructing them, seeing how he used literary devices to break up disparate passages of text (The rules of Fight Club are just a great example of literary devices used to tell a lot of separate stories and immediately pulling the reader back to the scene with “The second rule of fight club is…”).
This reluctance isn’t new. When I used to be a journalist, I stopped reviewing concerts of bands I liked, because I hated having to step out of the moment and write the order of songs, the audience interaction, etc. I only wanted to experience it emotionally, not to immediately analyze it and digest it for other people. For whatever reason, I tell Palahniuk my concern.
“To that extent, I don’t even really like to meet a writer whose work I like,” he says. “Because, in a way, I think the work is the best part of them. And meeting them is always somewhat of a disappointment.”
Palahniuk creates books that explore very personal philosophies and themes, but the worlds he builds to get them across are always larger than life. In Survivor, a religious cult member dictates his life story to the black box of an airplane he plans to crash into a mountain. Fight clubs spring up across the nation and morph into an anarchist group bent on overturning the capitalist system. A sexually compulsive colonial theme park worker chokes on meals nightly in order to get money from his saviors to help pay for his mother’s nursing home bills. Palahniuk says the balance of larger-than-life worlds and intensely personal themes is something I will be learning in Spanbauer’s class.
“What Tom will talk about is horses, which is his word for themes. And in minimalism, you decide what your themes are going to be, and then you find as many metaphors for portraying those themes,” he says. “The characters may all seem different, but they each portray the same theme or themes of the book using different metaphors.
“Tom’s metaphor for horses is that if you’re going to drive a covered wagon from Minnesota to Oregon, you’re going to have the same horses at the end that you had at the beginning,” he says. “So, in minimalism, you start with a very simple melody and you build it, work variations on it, and it gets larger and grander, but it’s still the same basic melody. And you just repeat it over and over as many different ways as possible until the end, when it’s still basically the same melody as when you started, the same horses in Oregon as in Minnesota.”
“In a way, you just keep accumulating things and your story naturally just gets larger and larger, because you have to keep all of the back story present with choruses and things as you move into the future. So, you find that it just grows like a snowball, and you can’t help but move into a larger world.”
I ask Palahniuk if he ever worries about going too far with something, whether readers will believe in Choke that people will pay Victor money after saving his life. Or does he just accept that as the central conceit of the story and know that it will work?
“That’s part of the challenge, to make a really plausible case for something implausible,” he says. “I thought for sure the entire time I was writing Fight Club that the moment I sent it out people would say, ‘In this blood-phobic culture, people are going to pound other strangers? In this insurance-based, liability culture? No, this would never happen.’ But no one has ever said that. So, if you make a plausible enough emotional case, people will follow any premise.”
In September, Palahniuk’s latest novel, Lullaby, will hit shelves, and he thinks it is the best work he’s done. Lullaby is a thriller that links Sudden Infant Death Syndrome with an old African chant that gets recited the night before a child dies. Next September, Chuck will deliver Period Revival, a horror novel. And if that isn’t enough Palahniuk for you, he will put out a travel book next spring, tentatively titled Fugitives and Refugees, about Portland, where Chuck has lived since 1986.
“It’s a really dark travel guide to Portland, Oregon, because Crown, a division of Doubleday, thinks there’s going to be a big surge in domestic tourism, so they’ve asked writers around the country to do these very personal travel guides to the cities they live in,” he says.
Considering how many things he already has in the queue, I wonder if it feels strange for him to be touring for something that was published last May.
“To do events and readings, it feels odd,” he says. “And to be answering questions about the issues that I can only half-remember. But, I’m catching up.”
While I’m in class with Spanbauer, Palahniuk will be finishing up his tour in a few cities including my current residence, San Francisco. We compare notes on Portland and San Francisco. I tell him how San Francisco is in the midst of a delicious decline, after the dot-com insanity pushed up rents, filled it up with yuppies, and left artists and the more interesting elements of the city looking for other places to live.
“It sort of went from the barbarians and rebels, and the really passionate people to sort of the merchandising, money-driven profit people, which always sucks the energy out of everything,” he says. “The best thing about that sort of collapse is that… Brad Pitt said it really well once. He said failure is integral to success, because it’s only when you fail and people start ignoring you that you have the privacy to reinvent yourself. It’s only when you get out of the public eye that you can go back to work.”
I ask how that philosophy applies to his own writing, since he wrote his first couple of books without an audience, with a day job, and now his books top the charts, with advance reader copies of Lullaby going for more than $300 on eBay a few months back. How does the concept of audience inform his work, knowing that what he writes now will be read?
“Living in the middle of nowhere, where I do, outside Portland, it’s really easy to forget that. But also I think the audience makes me better. It makes me a little more self-conscious about making sure everything works. That everything deserves to be in the book,” he says. “There are parts of Fight Club that I’m just embarrassed about because I just never thought that anybody would read it, or that it would get published. So, I think I’m actually a better writer because of that.”
His preparation for writing a novel is always the same. He starts by writing a short story to encapsulate the premise of the book (Chapter 6 of Fight Club started as this short story).
“If I can’t get the premise clear enough in my mind to do a seven-page short story about it, then I’ve got to be thinking about the premise a little bit better,” he says. “It gives you a chance to really make your case, like a lawyer in court. You really have to make your case for your premise, and put together your case in a convincing, entertaining way. And do it in seven or eight pages.”
I tell Palahniuk about my current novel, which was inspired by an incident with a person at my gym. Within a few days of this incident, a short story flowed out of me, start to finish, with a unique voice, a narrative unlike anything I’d ever written, and it required no editing afterward. After reading it, my reaction was: Where the hell did this come from?
“A lot of people say that is the nature of breakthrough,” Palahniuk says. “It doesn’t happen gradually. It happens in an instant. Chapter 6 in Fight Club was written in two hours one afternoon at work. The least likely place, and I wrote it in one sitting. And it was arguably the best thing I had ever done up until that time. That is how breakthroughs in writing happen. Maybe in everything.”
Palahniuk initially wrote Fight Club after getting in a fight while camping and coming back to work all banged up, and no one asked him about it. They didn’t want to know that much about his life. The incident was the seed that became Fight Club. So, how academic is writing ultimately then, if Palahniuk gets his inspiration after fighting at a campground, and I get mine after I work out next to a crazy guy at a gym?
“You always get those moments when you are out in the world,” he says. “You get those moments when you are with other people and suddenly they reveal something about the world that you would have never come to by yourself. It’s that old thing about God being present when two or more people are together. There is an insight that only happens when you are out in the community, and that’s why I write everywhere but at home. I just did a huge amount of writing on a planeload of screaming babies, probably the worst place. I was pissed off the entire four and a half hours from Detroit. I wanted to kill every baby on that flight, especially the one kicking the back of my seat for four and a half hours.”
Palahniuk writes at the gym and on noisy airplanes and out within society for a higher purpose.
“It is only when we are out of comfort and stressed that our mind works in an untypical way and suddenly we’re not thinking in the efficient, streamlined, conventional way and we have this access,” he says. “Carl Jung, his whole study of synchronicity and inspiration, proposed that we normally think out of our rational, reasoning left brain and it’s only when we’re stressed or sick and emotionally upset or sleep-deprived or something like that that we literally have instants of thinking out of our intuitive, creative, instinctual right brain. And it’s during those moments that we have access to our collective, universal subconscious archetypes, and we might have access to a deeper, more commonly held knowledge.”
“Tom Spanbauer talks and teaches about monkey mind versus elephant mind, which is a Hindu belief that normally in our everyday living we live with our chattering, judging, evaluating monkey mind that says this is good, this is bad, she’s pretty, he’s ugly. This is constantly evaluating and chattering at us like a monkey,” he says. “But, if we could shut that off, we could have access to elephant mind which is sort of an incredibly deep collective, unjudgmental knowledge and understanding. And I really think, according to Carl Jung, that when we’re pissed off and forced not to be comfortable, we have those moments of loss of control and that gives us access to elephant mind.”
Palahniuk only composes his novels long-hand, out in the world, and only keyboards them into his computer at home. And he certainly doesn’t travel with a laptop computer.
“Getting a laptop through the airport anymore is like getting an atomic bomb through an airport. I hate that,” he says. “And even the first thing I do when I keyboard it in is print hard copy and take that hard copy out into the world with me, so I’ll have those pages at the gym and I’ll be editing those. But, usually, if it’s good enough to write down longhand, which takes so much effort, then it’s pretty good.”
This is the process he has used to write every one of his novels.
“I don’t want to spend all my time alone in front of the computer,” he says. “And if you go to parties or you’re around people, they say the most brilliant, funny, revealing things, like the guy you heard at the gym. You would never have heard that at home. Your own experience is so limited. Most people’s lives would make one short story, much less a book, much less 10 books. So, it’s not a matter of sitting at home and really thinking, it’s about exploding yourself and being open.”
Palahniuk never plots his novels out, because he says if he knows where the story is going “it just sucks all the energy out of it.” His chapters seem rather encapsulated because of having a full-time job when he wrote his first few novels.
“When I was working full-time, I would try to write short stories that were each a plot point. The short story that explains the back story. The short story that explains the emotional scam. Or the short story that explains how the boy meets the girl,” he says. “They’re each a plot point I would try to make self-contained. And when I have enough of those plot points together, then I can see how the arc of the story is going to build, and it really completes itself at that point. The momentum is enough to carry it through the end of the book. And they are also each sort of a character study to get really clear about who each of these people are.”
Once Palahniuk finishes a draft of a novel, it always undergoes massive revision in the second draft.
“In a way, I’ve written myself through to an ending, and that has killed the energy,” he says. “So, to get that energy back, I have to massively rip it apart and even change the ending. Change a lot of the major plot points, change the ending. Any revision has to be a huge revision just to keep my attention.
“After I get three-quarters of the way through a first draft, I tend to sort of rush the ending because I want that completion. And, also, I’m a little sick of being in that process. So, I rush the ending, I set it down for a little bit, and then when I do the rewrite, I give it the ending it should have had. That’s why I used to shave my head between first and second drafts, to prove to myself how transitory things are. This is just ink on the page. It’s not chiseled in stone. You can throw it away. You can throw as much of it away as you wanted, and it really doesn’t matter. There’s nothing sacred about it. All of my rewrites have to change radically. Otherwise, I have no excitement about doing them. It would just be grunt work, unless I really got to hack and burn.”
Has every book improved due to this shredding?
“I shred them first and foremost because the process has to be fun to me. If it’s not fun for me, it won’t be fun for the reader,” he says. “Besides, this is my life. I don’t want to be wasting away 90 percent of my life so that the other 10 percent is fun. I want to be having fun all the time.”
But how does he feel when he sells his finished product to Hollywood, and they rip it apart all over again? Does he just cross his fingers and cash the check?
“I don’t even cross my fingers,” he says. “I cash the check, and I go to bed. You can’t fight every battle. You fight the ones that you can, and the rest you say, ‘God bless them.’ That’s one thing Tom really taught me. Whenever you get a shitty review, or something beyond your control happens, you just say ‘God bless them.’ It’s just a great attitude.”
Palahniuk did well with his first round with Hollywood. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton brought his characters to life, directing wunderkind David Fincher was at the helm, and Jim Uhls beat his book into a Hollywood screenplay.
“I thought it did a better job of telling the story than I did,” he says of the film. “When I wrote the book, I didn’t expect it to be published, so I didn’t really polish the book as well as I might have otherwise. So, the movie was probably closer to a finished draft than the book was.”
Palahniuk can’t even watch the Fight Club DVD at home, because he doesn’t have a television. Other writer friends also told me to lose my television to boost my writing output, so a few months back, I did it. I tell Palahniuk how my mother was hilarious when I first yanked the cable out of the wall, because she would call me and seem so depressed that I had done this, so she would start in with, ‘OK, let me think? in the beginning of Friends, Rachel and Joey…’
“I hate that, how in our lives we aren’t really connecting with other people because we’re talking about Seinfeld. That really pisses me off,” he says. “In a way, TV has become what the weather used to be. Eventually, most of your family conversations degrade to, ‘So, is it hot there? Did it rain this week?’ They become about this really safe, detached thing. When you talk about TV that’s what you’re talking about.”
I also tell Palahniuk about how I gave my mother a copy of Fight Club, even though she usually reads more John Grisham and Danielle Steel-types of books. Halfway through the book, she finally asked me on the phone when the plot was going to begin. She was waiting for the lawyer who had to rise up against the evil law firm or something, because that’s what she’s used to reading. Palahniuk laughs, but says his style is intentional.
“When I write, I don’t want a character controlled by circumstances. I want a character that is creating their circumstances. I don’t want an innocent character thrust into the world and they are pushed around by inescapable forces. Screw that,” he says. “Ultimately, I want a character who made their bed and have to live with the fact that they made their bed and resolve that. I don’t believe in that innocent character. Even if you watch Rosemary’s Baby now, a more modern part of you thinks, ‘Why the fuck doesn’t she just move out? Have an abortion. You’re carrying a baby that you think other people are going to sacrifice? You need to be a little more pro-active.’ I think that’s the reason why kids respond to my stuff, because in our culture we’re more and more aware of our responsibility in the matter. We don’t accept victims as easily.”
While Palahniuk is forthcoming in interviews about his craft, his philosophy, and his views on the world, you never really get the sense that you are getting to know him as a person. Even his books contain deeply personal views on the state of the world and culture, but they aren’t about him. When you read his books, he says you get to know his friends more so than him.
“There’s a really great Georgia O’Keefe quote, ‘Where I was born and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.’ I love that. I just love that,” he says. “We are not the circumstances of our life, we are what we do with those circumstances. That’s what I try to write about. For a long time, I tried to get my pictures off the books and really minimize my attachment to them as a personality, but you really can’t anymore. Marketing a book means marketing a person.”
Palahniuk tells me that I ultimately need to focus on creating something worth reading. And not worry about my job, getting it published, or what people will think about it.
“It comes down to fighting the battles you can fight. First and foremost is to create a story that really excites and entertains you. Don’t think beyond that. You just cannot think beyond that, because then you’re fucked. You’ve completely unnerved yourself. ”
One of my guilty pleasures is to hope, that like Palahniuk, my writing will ultimately be my escape from my job, but I know that is bad energy to bring to the writing process.
“Right,” he says, “because then you’re trying to anticipate and write for other people and trying to think what sells.”
And the thing that will sell will be devoid of that kind of thinking…
“Exactly. Be the thing that will lead the market instead of follow the market. It’s something that’s so totally different and out of the loop that will get noticed.”
But, on some level, wasn’t Palahniuk trying to write his way out of his day job just a few short years ago?
“You can drink to forget your job, or you can shoot drugs to forget your job, or you can have impulsive sex to forget your job. I was writing to forget my job. It had really become that escape,” he says. “To a big extent, it still is my escape. If there’s something I can’t deal with, I’ll write about it in a metaphoric, fictional way. And by the time I’m done with a book, usually the thing in the world will have resolved itself.”
Despite not having a day job, Palahniuk still volunteers in his community as a way of living for something beside himself. Ultimately, though, you get the sense that Palahniuk once made the same decision as Raymond K. Hessel, presumably without a gun pointed to his head, and now he is alive, well, and writing novels.
“It sort of breaks my heart when I think how little we trade our lives for, doing things we don’t really want to do,” he says. “Part of me is just sort of stunned by how little I was earning in the world doing something I really hated doing.”
At the end of our interview, Palahniuk says he thinks Spanbauer’s class will do me good before tackling my second draft.
“It will be a great thing, like a sorbet before going back to a different mindset,” he says. “And you can always shave your head.”
I tell Palahniuk that I’m afraid my head would look really, really ugly.
“That’s the point,” he says. “Having that freedom to look ugly. That’s entirely the point. Not being attached to other people’s expectations or judgments.”
Jeff Walsh has a full head of hair, writes software nonsense by day for “the Man,” works on his novel at night, and runs Oasis Magazine online.
This interview was written for .