Author Chuck Palahniuk talks to Miles Fielder about his hilarious, outrageous fiction that’s struck chords with readers around the world
At the exact moment Chuck Palahniuk greets me with a hushed ‘Hello?’ his home in south-western Washington State is being invaded by a group of unfamiliar men who are chanting in unison at the author: ‘His name is Robert Paulson!’
Palahniuk apologises and asks me to call back. An hour later, he explains: ‘I’m moving home and a friend made all the arrangements with the removers, to protect my anonymity. They saw me for just a moment and started chanting, and that freaked me out. That’s why I had to leave.’
Robert Paulson is a character in Palahniuk’s first novel, Fight Club, and the sentence is the mantra chanted by the members of the titular bare-knuckle boxing brotherhood-cum-terrorist organisation. That a group of removal men should quote it at their client is a measure of the notoriety attended Palahniuk since the 1999 film adaptation of Fight Club became a cult favourite. Palahniuk’s first book published in the wake of the film’s slow-burning success, 2001’s Choke, was his first to make the New York Times bestseller list. By the time his next, Lullaby, was published Palahniuk had given up his day job as an assembly line mechanic and become a full-time writer. Since then, the publication of a new Palahniuk book is a literary event, as with his eighth novel, Rant, an oral history of a rabies-infected serial killer who may or may not be mankind’s saviour.
Chanting furniture movers notwithstanding, Palahniuk is not a reclusive writer. In fact he writes in public places (unless he’s in Portland, Oregon, where the 41-year-old Pacific rim-born author is widely recognised). ‘When I first started writing it was me alone with a computer in my apartment. I hated the time away from other people, and my writing sucked. Now I have a laptop I can do the most tedious part of my job in a public place. A lot of Rant got written in Starbucks, on a book tour in Vancouver when I was up visiting Doug Copeland, on a family vacation at the beach - all over the place.’
For Palahniuk, contact with people is not merely a means of avoiding isolation; it’s become an integral part of his writing process. It began with Palahniuk joining a creative writing group (‘to make friends’), where he learned to appreciate feedback from fellow scriveners, and has bloomed into a global network of taletellers, friends and acquaintances who supply him with the stranger-than-fiction real-life anecdotes that his novels are peppered with. ‘I tell everyone I interact with what I’m working on,’ Palahniuk says, ‘and let them bring me anecdotes that illustrate my themes.’
Palahniuk says last week he was workshopping a chapter of his next novel (more of which later), and he was told it needed a scene in which the female protagonist gets her pubic hair waxed. ‘And so all the women in the workshop started talking about their Brazilian wax experiences,’ Palahniuk says, sounding incredulous. ‘One woman started talking about how incredibly horny she got, then an actual beautictian talked about slapping women’s pussies to distract clients from the greater pain of the waxing.’
His enthusiasm for collecting these crazy true stories palpable, Palahniuk continues, ‘I’m also collecting beauty mistakes that really fucked up old movie stars. Tallulah Bankhead used to grind up eggs shells and mix them with water and drink the mixture, and it would abrade her throat and give her that gravelly, sexy voice. Marlene Dietrich almost died in 1944 because she wanted her legs to look great playing the Queen of Baghdad in Kismet. She had them bronzed with copper oxide that gave her really bad lead poisoning. These are stories, Palahniuk says, ‘that could never come from your own experience, or a book, or the web.’
Palahniuk’s outrageous and hilarious writing has variously been described as transgressional fiction and satirical horror. While he employs non-fiction forms - journal entries, oral testimony - to lend credibility to incredible stories, and fleshes them out with other people’s anecdotes, Palahniuk’s writing is also loaded with autobiographical material. His mentor Tom Spanbauer, the author who encouraged Palahniuk’s spare, minimal style, also taught him ‘dangerous writing’. Essentially this means working deeply disturbing personal stuff into your writing.
In 1999, Palahniuk’s father was murdered. Fred Palahniuk, who had divorced his wife Carol when their son Chuck and his five siblings were kids, had taken up with a woman named Donna Fontaine, who had just put her sexually abusive ex-boyfriend Dale Shackleford in prison. When Shackleford was released, he went to Fontaine’s home and shot her and Palahniuk’s father and then burned the place to the ground. Shackleford was subsequently arrested, tried, found guilty of first-degree murder and executed. Palahniuk, who was involved in the court’s decision to give his father’s killer the death penalty, exercised his demons in his next novel, Lullaby, in which the protagonists deal with the moral implications of committing murder.
All of Palahniuk’s novels feature absent fathers and surrogate families (Chuck and his brother and four sisters were raised by their grandparents after his parents divorced; his surname is a conjoining of granny Paula and grandpa Nick). In Rant, the killer disease-carrying serial killer Buster Casey discovers he has an adoptive father and an absent biological one. ‘One goal in my writing is always to find a really visceral metaphor - drugs, violence, mutilation, or in this case illness,’ he says. ‘Illness as a metaphor for one person, or one idea that continually infects everyone it comes into contact with and in that way changes a culture. But I add a caveat that the person is absent, and so maybe the glory of that person is what others project onto them. Death is where that archetype comes from, and whether you perceive that as a distant and now missing father or Christ, it comes to embody all that is wrong with right now.’
Palahniuk’s brand of Spanbauer’s semi-confessional dangerous writing has seen him criticised for being a shock-meister and a nihilist. ‘If you don’t believe what other people believe, then they’ll accuse you of being nihilistic,’ he says. In practice, Palahniuk’s prose promotes alternative belief systems, from Fight Club’s anarchic Project Mayhem to Rant’s subverted Christian iconography.
America’s censorious climate has done nothing to diminish his desire to provoke. Recently he did a reading of his play Cattle Call, which is coming out next year as a novel entitled Snuff. ‘It’s about a group of men gathered to shoot the world’s largest gangbang porn movie. Three men are waiting in the green room for their number to be called, and gradually they reveal their reasons for being there and how they deal with the fact that the star of the movie might be dead when they get to interact with her. And she’s doing this in order to end gangbang movies by dying in the middle of it and becoming a legend.’
If anything, the author is becoming increasingly provocative. And with a global network of conspiratorial taletellers boosting a growing fan-base, Palahniuk is clearly doing something right. So, let’s hear it for Robert Paulson.
Rant is published by Doubleday on Tue 1 May.
Chuck Palahniuk isn’t the only big name from across the pond with a new book out. Brian Donaldson looks at the top US titles due to be published between now and Independence Day.
Jonathan Lethem: You Don’t Love Me Yet
The New Yorker is perhaps best know for his Tourette’s cop drama Motherless Brooklyn (the movie of which is in Ed Norton’s hands) and now he is back with the warped tale of an LA rock band. Faber, 3 May.
Gene Wilder: My French Whore
Willy Wonka follows up his recent memoir with a debut novel set in the First World War about a French train conductor who passes himself off as a notorious German spy with, perhaps, hilarious results. Old Street, 4 May.
Lionel Shriver: The Post-Birthday World
The writer of books as varied as the Columbine-styled We Need to Talk About Kevin and the tennis romance drama Double Fault pokes around a parallel universe in tracking the life of a kids’ book illustrator and the men she courts. HarperCollins, 8 May.
Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope
The Democratic Senator brings us his vision of how the USA can overcome its divisions to tackle the real problems it faces at home and abroad. Canongate, 10 May.
Ian Jack (ed): Best of Young American Novelists 2
The fresh faced future is represented by the familiar likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, ZZ Packer and Nicole Krauss alongside the next generation such as Daniel Alarcon, Gabe Hudson and Yiyun Li. Granta, 10 May.
Walter Mosley: Fear of the Dark
Another in the Fearless Jones series as he and his sidekick encounter a series of monsters, madames and misdemeanours. Serpent’s Tail, 17 May.
Al Gore: The Assault on Reason
A possible forewarning here for Mr Obama as the man who should have been President posits that fear, secrecy and shameless backhanders are running and ruining the American political system. Bloomsbury, 22 May.
Armistead Maupin: Michael Tolliver Lives
His sweeping Tales of the City gained this Washington-born scribe his legendary status, and here he returns to one of the characters, who is now aged 55 and living with HIV. Bantam, 18 June.
Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
The Pulitzer Prize winning Chabon dreams up an alternative history for his sixth novel, in which a Jewish homeland is created in Alaska after the Holocaust. Fourth Estate, 4 June.
Miranda July: No One Belongs Here More Than You
The performance artist, musician and pop promo director who picked her surname after the month in which her creative juices flow most freely, offers up a book of stories about people on a quest for love and acceptance. Canongate, 14 June.
Dave Eggers: What is the What
The cheeky scamp of the US literary scene returns with a fiction inspired by Valentino Achak Deng, a member of the Lost Boys of Sudan programme which has resettled refugees from the civil war that killed over two million people. Hamish Hamilton, 7 June.
Woody Allen: Mere Anarchy
His book’s out after Independence Day, but why not squeeze in the little fella whose star seems to burn less bright on the film stage these days. This is his first collection of essays, musings, riddles and short tales since the riotous Side Effects in 1980. Ebury, 5 July.
Charles Webb: Home School
He’s never been able to escape the shadow of his 1963 debut, The Graduate. So it’s little surprise that he has chosen to finally write the sequel, taking the story 11 years on from the moment when Benjamin rescued Elaine from the aisle. Hutchinson, 7 June.
Seth Godin: Small is the New Big
Marketing ideologist, entrepreneur and founder of the ‘recommendation network’ website Squidoo brings us more theories in a book subtitled ‘And 193 Other Riffs, Rants and Remarkable Business Ideas.’ Michael Joseph, 28 June.
Tina Brown: The Diana Chronicles
Born in Maidenhead but an honorary American thanks to her editorship of the New Yorker in the 90s, T-Brown (as she’s known to showbiz pals) explores the legacy of the Queen of Hearts from ‘country girl to global celebrity.’ Century, 7 June.
Don DeLillo: Falling Man
It had to happen, really, as the living heavyweight of US letters brings his forensic analysis to bear on 9/11. It is already being hailed by many critics as a return to form after his disappointing last novel, Cosmopolis. Picador, 18 May.