Chuck Palahniuk Interview - San Diego Comic-Con 2015
For something you’re not supposed to talk about, there’s a lot of buzz about Fight Club 2 at this year’s Comic-Con.
In addition to the Dark Horse comic and Beautiful You, published last fall, Chuck Palahniuk has a short story collection, Make Something Up, out now, and is currently cutting his screenwriting teeth on Andy Mingo’s adaptation of Lullaby.
His Fight Club 2 panel generously opened the mic to about 40 minutes of fan questions and included the presentation of severed limbs for a knockout Tyler-and-Marla cosplay duo. Palahniuk also explained that he’s still at the mercy of the publishing industry when it comes to the third installment of the Damned trilogy. Illustrators Cameron Stewart and David Mack were on hand to discuss the series’ aesthetic, and share the trauma that comes with bringing the visual element to Chuck’s work.
I personally had a truly fan-tastic encounter on the floor in front of Mack’s artist’s alley booth when Noah Hathaway, who played Atreyu in The NeverEnding Story, shouted “Chuck, dude, you’re my favorite author!” over my head at Palahniuk.
Amid the signings, panels, and general chaos in San Diego, I was able to grab an hour with the soft-spoken author to chat about those things you are allowed to talk about...and, yes, a little about the one you’re not.
LitReactor grew out of your own fan site, and has become the first writing community for many of its members. Tell me a little about your first writing community.
My first writing group was led by a writer named Andrea Carlisle, she had written one collection of short stories called The Riverhouse Stories, and taught through this workshop that consisted of me and very pleasant middle-aged white ladies. They were all writing some form of memoir, or a thriller in that very Jodi Picoult way where a child is always in peril, and I was writing very different things.
Eventually Andrea came to me after a year or two, and said that the other students had approached her and said they were no longer comfortable having me in the classroom; that my work was too upsetting, and they didn’t feel safe around me. But there was this writer who had just moved to Portland named Tom Spanbauer, and so Andrea suggested that Tom would be a better fit. So I got dumped on Tom, and it made all the difference.
Your current group is pretty well-known in the LitReactor community. How did this group come together?
The core of us had been in Tom’s group since 1990, and we had really learned so much of what Tom taught, and for a large part we were running Tom’s workshop; Tom would defer to Monica Drake or me or Erin, or Suzy Vitello—people who had been in his workshop long enough to be able to repeat the lessons. As new work was presented, Tom would toss the ball to Monica to comment on it first so that he himself wasn’t always teaching those same lessons of minimalism, and each of us was learning a greater understanding in being able to teach the lessons that he’d taught us. First we learned how to do it, then we learned how to teach it, which gave us a greater depth of understanding the distinction of what we were doing.
But beyond that, we really needed to free up the seats and make them available to new writers. So we broke off and became a workshop of our own that was really more about reiterating those lessons of minimalism...so our writing wouldn’t degrade but also in holding each other accountable to produce something every week so that we wouldn’t get lazy and sloppy and quit writing, which happens so easily when you don’t have a group expecting you to bring pages every week.
I know there are a lot of women in your current group, yet your work is generally considered quite masculine. How do the women in your group influence your work?
I really hate to generalize because there are women in the current workshop—Chelsea Cain—who never take it too far. Chelsea’s always up for another gruesome detail, and she’s delighted when someone can contribute a more gruesome detail to something she’s written. And women like Lidia Yuknavitch, who are really up for messing with the structure, and presenting really raw, very challenging subject matter. So it’s not strictly a gender thing, there are women in the workshop who are braver than most male writers. And then there are also women who are really timid in the workshop, and so I would say that that timidity is not necessarily tied to their gender, either.
Do you have a dream critique partner that you’d love to join your workshop?
Occasionally I’ve asked visiting writers, friends of mine, to stop in, and Doug Coupland—who wrote Generation X—is always very smart about nailing what’s missing in a piece of work, so it’s always great to have him sit in on the workshop. And, boy, George Saunders; if the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, I would love to spend the summer in Syracuse as kind of a fly on the wall in one of Saunders’ workshops. I’d love to see how he does it.
One evening Chelsea Cain threw a dinner party. She invited comic luminaries: Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and they came with the intention of coaching me into doing a comic. Not specifically Fight Club, but doing a graphic novel. They talked to me about the process, and how it would differ from publishing literary fiction, how easy it was, and they offered to hold my hand through learning the new process. I had already delivered almost all of the story collection that came out this spring, Make Something Up, so for the first time in years I had a block of time where I could afford to be a student again and really learn a new form. I could devote a huge amount of time—two years—to it. So with the hand-holding, and with the time I had, it was the perfect combination of elements that I needed to do this.
It sounds like this was your first attempt at comics. Was it something you’d ever considered in the past, or were you ever a fan?
I wasn’t a fan really since adolescence, and very early on, back in 1999-2000, Marvel and DC had approached me about doing a limited series of 14 books, but at the time I knew it would be like screenwriting for me; such an entirely different form of storytelling that I would either mess it up and do a miserable job, or I would take 2-3 years learning how to do it before I could do a decent job. And so it was a time in my career where I couldn’t set aside that much resources just to learn how to do a 14-book series.
When you originally wrote Fight Club, was there an end cap, or were you already projecting into the future and thinking where you could take it beyond that final page?
No really, the end was the end. I wanted this very limited, very small window through which to see this story, and that it would be just one aberrant event in one character’s life, and that would be the end. But I didn’t realize I would have to talk about that one 185-page story for the rest of my life.
Would you and “Jack” be friends in real life, or have you been?
Boy, that sounds like such a euphamism: “Are you friends with Jack?”. You know, I don’t think so, because I don’t think Jack could be anyone’s friend. I think Jack is so unstable and so unsure of himself that he would never reveal enough of himself to be anything but an acquaintance—anyone’s acquaintance.
Fight Club is what brought you notoriety. Looking back at your full body of work, what would you have picked to be your breakout work, if you had a say?
I think it happened very naturally, and kind of perfectly that I had written things before Fight Club that I will always be grateful were not my breakout thing. And so I think it was completely appropriate that Fight Club was my breakout thing. It wasn’t intended as that, but I’m glad it was that.
There’s something I tell beginning authors, or authors who have one or two manuscripts under their belt: they get one first book, and they really want that book to be something that generates a lot of energy. That’s why directors, I think, young directors, are attracted to my work. They know that they want their first horse out of the gate to be something that really develops a buzz and a reputation that lingers for long enough that they can get another project put together. So you want the thing to stay in the popular imagination long enough that you can launch another thing. And so I really try to dissuade writers from coming to market with something that’s not that breakout fantastic thing.
Your stories really touch on a lot of different genres; Beautiful You felt very sci-fi to me. Have you ever thought about doing straight-up genre fiction?
I think I always intend to. I start out thinking, Beautiful You is going to be one of these books where it’s a beautiful girl with an ethnic best friend and she gets picked up by this man of power and gets manipulated and she must attain her own form of power and fight back against him, blah blah blah. But I don’t think that would hold my interest, to try to do it straight the entire way through.
There’s always this element of camp that comes into all my work—Fight Club has got a lot of camp, a lot of Dionysian comedy where horrible things happen, and people react to them in a less-than-dramatic way; they don’t react to the full drama of what’s happening, and that occurs as humor. When Jack gets his face pounded into the floor, and Tyler looks down at this bloody mask and says “cool”, instead of reacting in horror, and it’s this disconnect, this kind of campy acceptance of what’s happening that always makes my work go off the tracks.
Is your drive to push the boundaries of good taste intentional, or is it just where your work leads you?
It really is where the work leads, because you can’t intentionally shock yourself. It’s a very gradual process to try to take a premise and develop it, and keep developing it to the point where it surprises and really shocks you, the author. And so I don’t think you can intentionally arrive at that place; that it has to be a place that you can get to, but you have to fool yourself into going there. And at the same time, you have to kind of charm and fool the audience because if the audience knows that you’re going to end up in that swimming pool, drowning, then the audience is not going to go there. It’s really a gradual process of making them laugh, and relaxing them, and then shocking them in greater and greater ways. So in a way you’re doing that to yourself first.
Have you written anything that’s too shocking to publish?
Not too shocking, but I have written things that were a little raw and I don’t have a way into them yet.
There’s a form of exhibitionism where people don’t flush the toilet after having a bowel movement. They leave it there so that someone else will find it, and it’s kind of a weird way of flashing them. ‘Somebody’s gonna see my poo.’ And it gives people such jollies. I wanted to combine this with internet stalking.
I staged a meeting in which Reese Witherspoon is meeting with her production team, her marketing people, and they’re gradually breaking it to her that there is this Eastern European website called “Reese’s Feces” which purports to be showing pictures of her unflushed business. And I thought it worked, it had a great redemptive ending and Reese Witherspoon ended up looking fantastically brilliant and kind of evil, but just plain smart at the end, and very sympathetic. But that was one of the things that the workshop shot down. I don’t think the world is ready for a poop story like that. Guys like poop stories, women not so much.
Screenwriting. Right now I have the first draft of the screenplay for Lullaby, and Andy Mingo has written it. It’s so long, and it’s so faithful to the book that it bores the piss out of me. I really want to see Andy swing away from the book in big ways, so right now we’re meeting and trying to come up with some completely new, kind of interstitial scenes that can be repeated throughout the narrative, where we can keep the story arc intact but can have some really bold, escalating things between scenes. And that new element will make it really fresh for me, and I think for people who’ve read the book, they’ll be grateful for those scenes, too.
You’ve written some fantastic craft essays for LitReactor, and taught your first class with us last year. Is there a career in academia in your future?
I would like there to be. Last year I did the experiment with the writer’s scavenger hunt, where I talked about different techniques or devices in narrative and rewarded people who found the best examples of them in popular narrative and were able to replicate those devices in their own work. So I would like to create a series of exercises like that, that make people really present to how the things, the stories they consume are put together so that ultimately they themselves can replicate those different techniques in their own work. I don’t want it to be a really dry textbook or course, I want it to feel like a series of games that really engage people.
Tell me about your writing space, and whether you have any rituals that go along with your writing.
Most of my writing gets done in the world. I always have a hard copy of whatever I’m working on, and I scribble all over it and carry it with me all the time. It’s pretty rare that I actually sit down at the computer, but when I do, I’ll make all the revisions that have occurred to me over days, and in wildly different places: hotel rooms, airports, walking the dog, restaurants. I’ll put all those revisions into the file and print a brand new hard copy, and then I’ll carry that around for another week, making ongoing small revisions to it, and also taking it to workshop, where people will suggest things or ask about aspects of the story that I’ve neglected, and I’ll put those changes in, so it really is just a constant accumulation and revision in the world before I actually sit down and do that keyboarding.
Start to finish, what’s the longest timeframe that you’ve spent working on a novel or short story?
Short stories take so long, that’s what kills me. Writing Phoenix, that went into the story collection, Phoenix took about 8 months to a year. If you include when I write a story and take it on the road, and revise according to audience reaction, then it can take over a year. That’s why so many of the stories in Make Something Up are stories that took a year or two to come to where they are.
Sometimes I don’t know where the laugh is, and there will be moments like in the story Romance where the narrator says “So we go to Lollapalooza and I pitch my tent”, and there would always be a huge laugh at “pitch my tent”, and I didn’t know that was a euphemism. But the audience of young people knew, and they thought it was the funniest moment in that sequence.
Is there one question that you always wish someone would ask you, something you have that perfect answer for?
It always changes, but right now it is my little tirade against dialogue. Writing for comics has made me even more dialogue-adverse. I come from a big family, and when you come from many siblings, you have to make a hole first if you’re going to say something: “Listen to this, listen up”, then you say your thing. You always have to clear a big space, get their listening, then say it. I’ve noticed among my friends who had one or no siblings, that they just say what they say, and they trust that the world’s going to pick it up on the first pass.
So much of my writing opens with these introductory clauses in every line of dialogue, which function as somebody from a big family. “I’m about to say something important, but this is not it...” and then the important thing. In comics, I’ve gotten that I don’t have to be wordy like that, that I can state everything in just one or two words. And that those words are placed in sequence adjacent to each other in different panels but they still will read in series. So little can be done with so few words or with no words whatsoever, so comics have made me even less likely to use dialogue.
I really dislike so much of television with very low production values, where it’s just a two-shot of actors saying things to each other. Saying “this is going to happen”, “This is going to happen”, and everything is furthered with dialogue. That’s something that Tom Spanbauer taught: never further plot with dialogue, it’s the least effective way to further a plot. You’ve got to present things in such a way that the reader realizes what’s about to happen, or has happened, and then if you have to you can confirm that with dialogue. But only after the reader has figured it out. And so, less dialogue.
See video of the full interview here.
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