Chuck Palahniuk's new novel BEAUTIFUL YOU is certainly a must for his fans. If you haven't read him before, steer clear; I mean, by this late date, if you're at all into this kind of thing, you've at least perused a copy of FIGHT CLUB. Or maybe not, and you're just now broadening your tastes; in which case, I'd say start with SURVIVOR, check out FIGHT CLUB 'cause you pretty much have to, and then give BEAUTIFUL YOU a shot. It is smart, very entertaining, and in no small way disturbing.
I was lucky enough to speak to Mr. Palahniuk about writing, power and yes...the morals of his books.
D: How are you doing today?
CP: I’m doing good. It’s a really stormy terrible day and I’ve got my first fire of the winter going so it’s a great day to write.
D: That’s good, I’m not interrupting am I?
CP: No, not at all. I set some time aside, this is my break.
D: Well I guess I gotta ask you, first question, what are you writing right now?
CP: I’m writing a sequel to “Beautiful You.” It’s not under contract or anything. Random House doesn’t even know it’s in the works. But, you just can’t leave a sex witch on top of Mt. Everest and never go there again.
D: Ya, that would be a bad thing. Speaking of the book, I got it sent to me earlier this week. I’m about halfway done with it and people are asking me “So how is it?” and I’m like, it’s just another brick in the foundation of your work. I think your work is spectacular, it’s amazing to me. Every year it seems like you keep coming out with a book, I guess the question is, have you always wanted to write?
CP: You know, I loved to read so much as a kid and maybe that’s where it came from is this love to read. More and more I was finding fewer and fewer books that I wanted to read and so that kind of compelled me to kind of pick up and try to write the kind of book I myself would want to read and that’s how loving to read became loving to write.
D: When you were growing up what kind of books were you drawn to?
CP: For the most part I was drawn to comfort books when I was really small because my parents fought so much so I was always reading “Bobbsey Twin” books where nothing happened. People were happy at the end. After that I really went for Ellery Queen mysteries because they would give you enough clues that if you really paid attention you could figure it out. There wasn’t a sort of Agatha Christie cheat moment where you weren’t given enough clues. Ellery Queen always did so I loved Ellery Queen novels and short stories and from there I kind of moved on to science fiction and horror as a teenager.
D: Are there any other hidden gems in terms of stories or certain authors that you think people don’t remember much today but should remember?
CP: Ira Levin I think is kind of unappreciated, people remember the metaphors he created like “The Stepford Wives” and “Rosemary’s Baby” but they don’t remember the books themselves. I think that Ira Levin was brilliant, he’s still so brilliant compared to most horror writers.
D: When you started writing did you set out to do a specific thing. Did you have an agenda per se?
CP: You know, my very first attempt when I was completely on my own without a teacher, without any kind of guidance, I thought I would try to write Stephen King fiction. So I sat down with every Stephen King book and I tried to copy everything that he did and it was just a waste of three or four years. I learned nothing and I accomplished nothing.
D: From there, when did you figure out and finally find your voice in writing?
CP: When I was kind of set up by mutual friends to study with a man named Tom Spanbauer, Tom had studied a style called minimalism at Columbia University from an editor named Gordon Lish who is kind of attributed with inventing minimalism through his work with Raymond Carver, and Tom taught us by showing us these fantastic short stories by writers like Mark Ruschard, Tom Jones, and Amy Hempel and so our exercise became trying to write short stories, something self-contained in the fantastically clean minimalist style and that’s when things really came together. Because my degree was in journalism and this minimalist style was so close to journalism that it just felt very natural.
D: That’s interesting. Your books seem to hammer home the idea that we all have some kind of power inside of us. What gives you power?
CP: When I can take just words, not even fancy words, just very simple words and string them together in such a way that they elicit an emotional response like laughter or horror from people and maybe the eventually make people weep or lose consciousness, that’s a huge feeling of power, that’s such power.
D: Are you referring to, I think I read somewhere, when you were reading “Haunted” that multiple times people had passed out from it?
CP: Ya, it was a short story “Guts” that’s in “Haunted” and it still makes people pass out. It’s beyond 200. I quit counting at 72 or 73 but I’m still so aware of people passing out whenever I read it. Also last year I was reading a story called “Zombies” that always ended with a large part of the audience weeping and that felt fantastic.
D: Due to the fact that we live in a very visual world today, stimulation everywhere, iPads, tablets, phones… do words have any power left?
CP: I didn’t used to think so and I think that’s always my goal is to prove that words do have power, that oral storytelling, that telling these stories aloud still has power. I think I’m still trying to revisit that power that stories had around the camp fire or at slumber parties, where we would scare ourselves insane with just a story.
D: What motivates you to keep writing?
CP: Writing is kind of the thing I do to keep my mind busy. Because my mind will spin off with so many worries and upsets and depression and hysteria that unless I keep my mind kind of harnessed to a project, even if it’s a make believe writing project, my mind will just go nuts. So writing is what I do to keep my mind busy.
D: So when you say hysteria, depression, things of that nature… do those eventually make their way back into your work?
CP: They do, and my friends always notice, and they always say some version of “You’re not writing right now are you?” and I realize no I’m not. It’s really a danger time between projects. It’s when I tend to do drugs if I’ve got drugs, it’s when things tend to fall apart.
D: Do you think with the whole creative process, does that hinder or help?
CP: The compulsivity or what?
D: I guess what I’m trying to get across is, trying to keep busy at all times but also trying to balance that with other aspects of your life, does one help the other one? Does one hurt the other one? Or is it all just part of a whole package of what you do?
CP: I think it’s all part of the package. When you’re writing full time you’re never not writing. You’re always listening for a story, you’re always listening for an idea. Or consuming the world in such a way that you’re always this kind of giant drift net always looking for something of use to your work. So you’re never not a writer.
D: How has your writing changed since you’ve seen adaptations of your work to the screen? Has that changed how you write at all?
CP: If anything it’s made me write more extreme things. Because I’ve always sort of seen the screen as my enemy, and that if I’m writing something that can be readily adapted for the screen then I’m not writing something extreme enough. I want to write to the strengths that only written stories have. The idea that they can depict things that movies and television wouldn’t dare depict. So the screen has made my work more extreme.
D: Do you think say a hundred years from now or so, if the Earth is still here and whatnot, between let’s say something like let’s say Shakespeare and something by Bach, a couple of your books could be wedged in there, what two books would you put between those two?
CP: Boy… “Fight Club” seems to be such an institution now I can’t imagine it dropping out of the culture very soon. Yeah…
D: You’ve got a pretty good catalogue to choose from.
CP: You know it’s a tough one, people really like “Lullaby” but I think they like it because it’s so easily consumed, it’s a pretty linear book. Not a real challenge like “Pygmy.” I really like “Pygmy” but it’s a real hurtle for some people. I don’t know, I’ll say “Beautiful You” because “Beautiful You” is… no actually I’ll say next year’s story collection. There’s a story collection called “Make Something Up” and it contains so many kind of extreme broken stories and so many experiments with language that I think it’s going to be a landmark book.
D: When you do that and you kind of dissect words, phrases, even dialects like with “Pygmy,” was “Pygmy based on pidgin? Was that the idea?
CP: “Pygmy” was based on how badly I speak German. Because I know so little German but I’m able to get by by kind of putting the wrong words together. So basically I spoke German first and then translated it back to English and that became “Pygmy.”
D: Now that you’ve tackled 'Gonzo Erotica' what genre would you like to hit next?
CP: I really haven’t thought about it. I’m still so in love with the characters from “Beautiful You” that I’m just thrown to go back and write a sequel. Beyond that I think I might be writing a sequel to “Rant.”
D: I think that’s one of my favorites “Survivor” is up there for me, I really like “Choke” but “Rant” I’ve read like three times and it’s still just such a head trip for me. There are so many angles to it, it’s great.
CP: I was just talking to Franco about it yesterday, and they’re about to start with a movie and I’d like to approach Dark Horse and do a sequel as a graphic novel, the way we’re doing “Fight Club.”
D: I’m glad you brought that up because I wanted to touch on that, I noticed that it’s coming out next year. Is it going to be seven or ten issues, I can’t remember.
CP: It will be ten.
D: Since the debut of “Fight Club” fifteen years ago. Personally what’s changed for you and what’s stayed the same since then?
CP: My passion for writing has stayed the same and my writers group. I still meet with more or less the same people that I have been meeting with every week to talk about our work since 1990. Some of us are still obscure and some of us are fantastically successful but it’s still the same group of people that gets together once a week. So that’s stayed the same. What’s changed is, I’ve become much more isolated. My parents both died and my family has kind of dispersed into the world and I’m past an age where I make really strong friendships and acquaintances easily, and also I’m a little wary of people who approach me to become friends. Because more often than not they just want something at this point. So that’s changed. I’m more isolated and I think that’s why the characters in my books are becoming more isolated. You know Madison was always alone always in some kind of penthouse or alone in some car. And Penny’s alone a great deal in “Beautiful You” you know, now she’s up on top of a mountain alone.
D: As far as the moral values that you have within yourself and what you believe and that come across in your books. Do those stem from the values that your parents taught you?
CP: (laughs) I wasn’t sure that my books had any moral values.
D: The big thing for me is that it always seems like there’s an individual that’s overcoming something and realizes that within themselves they have this power there’s a situation their placed in that they can be powerful in. That’s what I like about your books too I like the choruses. You have the repeating phrases and stuff and I always look at them as hooks or like a chorus of a song that seems to tie in really well and I think that’s a pretty cool remarkable package. That’s what I get from it, all these powerful people that just kind of needed to find someone or something to kind of get their shit in gear. Am I looking at it the wrong way?
CP: No, no. Something that’s always there is people transitioning from one form of power to another. Like in “Invisible Monsters” you have this fantastically beautiful woman but she realizes that her beauty is going to last so long and ultimately it’s going to cripple her because it’s going to keep her from becoming an intelligent, deep, talented woman. So she deliberately destroys her face so that she’s forced to develop other aspects of her power in the world. And also as we go through our 20’s and we realize that our vitality, our good looks, our youth, things that we hold as power, those are not going to last forever. We panic and we scramble to find another form of power usually in our early 30’s. That’s when I started to write because there was that horror that my youth is not going to last forever and I had to transition to another form of power. So the books really are about people recognizing that the innate power of youth vanishes and they’ve got to find a different form of power and that throughout your life you’re always kind of leveraging and moving towards a different form of power.
D: Interesting, wow. Maybe I did get something from this.
CP: No, I think you nailed it.
D: Why do you think "Fight Club" has had such an enduring appeal?
CP: I think there are a lot of really excellent books that model ways for women to be together in groups. The real classics are “Joy Luck Club,” “How to Make an American Quilt,” “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” all these different models by which women can come together and be social and talk about their lives. But there are very few books that provide a social model for men. The only one in the same kind of time period as “Fight Club” that I can think of is the “Dead Poets Society.” Where in “Fight Club” they go down into a dark basement and they fight and in “Dead Poets Society” they go down into a cave, again they’re going into the ground at night, but in this case they’re reading poetry. Those are the only two narratives that I’m aware of that model a way for men to be together and to talk about their lives. There’s just not a lot of selection for men. Most narratives about men are about a single man going against an enemy, James Bond or some detective, always the lone guy. There’s very little group narratives.
D: What is the mythology of “Fight Club?”
CP: I’m not sure what you mean.
D: I’ve read a little bit about the sequel and time has passed. Tyler has a spawn and he sees maybe himself making the same mistakes that his father also made. I’m just thinking that it’s the repeating pattern, things that are handed down, someone can turn the myth on its head and say no that’s not how it is, this is how it is. Do I look too much into this? But it’s like when I read “Fight Club” I always feel like there’s some greater mythology to it, like it’s pulled from something and it will also give birth to something after it.
CP: The sequel moves the story both ahead in time and drops back in time. So that we can see that Tyler is not a manifestation of just Jack’s generation, that Tyler is most likely the thing that killed Jack’s parents. Jack’s parents aren’t mentioned in the book, because they are both dead. Most likely Tyler has attached himself to every generation of Jack’s family going back for millennium and has destroyed family after family in order to bring Jack to this point in history where he’s at. And now he intends to use Jack’s son for this ultimate deed. I don’t want to give away much more than that. But Tyler really is this eternal meme, he’s this meme that is heard across time.
D: I really want to thank you for your time.
CP: Take care.
Author Chuck Palahniuk will appear LIVE & in pajamas this Wednesday, Oct 29
Brought to you by the fine folks at The Kings English Bookstore. For more info and TIX go here:
PS...special shouts to Cassidy Ward for busting out the transcript.
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