By Charles Russo
CHUCK PALAHNIUK IS disarming. Drinking three cups of black coffee before his first meal of the day, he is clean-cut, soft-spoken, and exceedingly polite. Yes, the author who gave us Fight Club, mutilated supermodels, and satirical comedies about airline hijackings is … very, very polite.
Palahniuk (pronounced “paula nick”) is even amicable in recounting his first book tour to San Francisco, in which he was greeted by an audience of only three people. Since then critics and journalist have thrown the word “cult” at his popularity like a cement life preserver. Now, with standing-room-only crowds and consecutive New York Times best sellers, Palahniuk’s “cult” is resonating with an increasing logic and seeming more and more like a full-fledged religion.
In his latest novel, Lullaby, an ancient African culling song inspires Burroughs-esque visions among Amityville-style horrors. As much as it is classic Palahniuk, it is also a subtle literary shift amid a social climate that has grown hostile toward transgressive fiction.
Stopping in the city during his 22-city book tour, Palahniuk took time to talk with the Bay Guardian.
Bay Guardian: So I read that Lullaby was written in only six weeks.
Chuck Palahniuk: The first draft in six weeks.
BG: Including research?
CP: No, if I start looking at how much time I spend doing research, I realize that I get paid about 10¢ an hour. My research really is screwing around and being with people and doing things I love to do. So it is so hard to count that as work. But the sitting at the computer, the actual part that I hate, was six weeks.
BG: As far as becoming more established as a writer, has the writing process changed for you, or is it still similar to when you first got started?
CP: It’s similar, but I don’t have to write things in the sort of short story form that I had to when I was working full time. I can now write things that are more woven together and integrated, not so episodic. In a way, Lullaby started as a short story but is also much more integrated or more continuous than anything I’ve done so far, just because I now have the time to work on it in one long stretch, rather than five minutes here and five minutes there.
BG: And then go to work.
CP: Yeah. Or work on it at work but always have to be ready in case my boss walked up. I always had to have one hand on and a piece of paper ready to cover my work.
BG: Technically, your first novel was Invisible Monsters?
BG: What compelled you to not only sit down and write your first novel, but also to write your first novel about a model having her face shot off?
CP: I didn’t start writing till I was 31, and boy, my 20s were great, but by the time I was 31, I started to see that I wasn’t going to be a young anything much longer, and I was not going to be able to have that sort of energy, that power to walk into a room and be noticed. I realized that I was gonna have to do something with my life and develop something other than social skills and partygoing skills, and just because my youth was not going to last forever. So, her face is shot off in an instant, but metaphorically that is the threat of growing older and that you won’t have your physical beauty and your physical energy forever. I was 31 and thought, “Damn, I have to do something with my life.”
BG: And yet as a writer you have a background as a journalist. What was your experience with journalism?
CP: I have a degree from the University of Oregon, and then I worked as a reporter for six months after school with a little, tiny, small-time paper, and I got five bucks an hour and had to give it up.
BG: In Lullaby your main character is, among other things, a journalist concerned with his profession’s ethics and objectivity toward his subject. What kind of experience did you come away with as a journalist in terms of how you view the news and the information that is given to you?
CP: I was really struck by how, when nothing was happening, it was not OK not to print news. We had so many column inches that had to be filled that we had to in some ways create news. So my editor was always telling me to call different people and officials and tell them lies to get them all really upset so they would call and create issues. It seemed that we were generating more news than we were actually reporting on, and I hate that. I hate how on TV they have to fill so many minutes. It means they have to put in anything, and by doing so they sort of trivialize news; news becomes this commodity that they need to fill dead time between commercials with, and so that’s the one thing that really got me.
BG: In line with that, in the later pages of Lullaby there’s a point where the main character begins to question just what thoughts are his own and which are the result of foreign influences. To what extent do you see that going on with people in America, as far as the media goes in influencing their thought?
CP: I haven’t had a TV in 10 years, and I really don’t miss it. ‘Cause it’s always so much more fun to be with people than it ever was to be with a television. And for the most part my friends can always be more entertaining than the tube ever can be. But somehow people have been sold on the idea that only professionals can entertain them, that only professionals can sing or tell jokes. And people are cut out of this creativity loop, and creativity is being limited to these large, centralized voices. And in a way, everyone’s thoughts are becoming just what the centralized voices are saying. Maybe that will change with the Internet, it will become more decentralized … but we don’t know yet.
BG: George Orwell comes up in Lullaby, yet you have a very particular slant on Orwell. Can you comment on how you arrived at a “singing and dancing” Big Brother?
CP: Even when I read 1984 I didn’t really believe that Big Brother could really watch everyone, even on a rotating basis. Just the man power – I thought, “Nobody would have that many people to watch everyone.” So it just seemed much more efficient that if there were an establishment or Big Brother authority figure, their time would be spent more effectively really filling people’s attention so that people would never develop the capacity for creating their own world. They would always be used to having the world served to them. In that way TV is the fast food of entertainment or the fast food of thought. We don’t have the time to do it ourselves and do a quality job of it, so they give us this schlock, and we think that we’re actually getting something, but we’re not.
BG: I think I’d ask any American author this right now, and not to dwell too much on current politics, but what’s your opinion of what passed as the USA PATRIOT Act to enable federal authorities to look at people’s library records?
CP: Boy … I always assumed that they were doing that already, so it wasn’t a big shock to me. The thing that I am much more worried about now is … after Sept. 11 a bunch of transgressional novels that were very good and had sold extraordinarily well in Europe died, were not released in the American market. Right now any sort of civil disobedience or cultural terrorism – from the Monkey Wrench Gang to Trainspotting is all being lumped together and condemned as terrorism, and so those books are just not being brought out by publishers; publishers are self-censoring. And the spooky thing is, since 9/11 something called media liability insurance has skyrocketed, and now publishers are not being able to offer it, or they’re offering very limited media liability insurance to their writers. Media liability insurance is basically the equivalent of malpractice insurance for writers, and so I have to wonder why did that insurance skyrocket? Did it start to skyrocket so publishers could start to self-censor and writers would start to self-censor? There really is a backhanded tendency now to censor fiction, and I really have to wonder where it’s coming from … if it’s just happening or is somebody generating this.
BG: In retrospect would Fight Club have been …
CP: No. Oh, it would have never come out now, and the movie version of my second book – Survivor – is just dead in production. It won’t happen now, not for years and years.
BG: Have you felt pressure to steer away from certain things you have written about before – blown-up buildings and hijackings? Are you toning things down?
CP: I wouldn’t go there. In a way, I had already chosen to move towards horror, towards trying to say the things that I wanted to say, but to say them within a genre like sci-fi or horror or fantasy because that’s what people like Orwell did during the 1940s and 1950s, during more oppressive times. And when there is this kind of censorship going on, people do find really clever, seductive ways to get their messages across regardless. So I don’t want to grieve too loudly, because I think this might be a good thing. Transgressional fiction held the stage for so long that to a certain extent people were no longer hearing that message. They were like, “OK, great. Another angry young man. Who cares?” But if that’s replaced by the funny young man or the seductive, charming voice, then maybe those messages will be heard again more effectively. So I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, but I think it is happening.
BG: Rolling Stone referred to Fight Club as “defining the angst of a violence-starved age.” Would you say we’re in an age that’s violence-starved?
CP: I think we’re in an age starved for genuine experiences, instead of cathartic phony experiences through the media, structured, engineered experiences. And those are the fast food, the masturbation of experience. They don’t really exhaust any aspect of ourselves; they don’t make us any stronger. You’re not any stronger because you watched Titanic. We just don’t have the challenges that it takes to mature and really come into a sense of our own ability, a sense of peace and accomplishment. So we need real challenges; we need real risk and danger to achieve those things. Uh … now I’m sounding like I’m on a soapbox.
BG: No, no. That’s what I was getting at. For a generation that hasn’t gone to war like their fathers and grandfathers before them, do you think that has had a certain effect on them, maybe in the realm of identity, of masculinity?
CP: Other than perhaps sports, and even less so, they’ve never been a body working towards a common goal. And whether that common goal is a WPA building project or fighting a war – it can be a constructive or destructive thing – they’ve never given over their personal identity to a larger good. They are kept fragmented towards each other. Sports, in a way, used to bond people together for the common good, but more and more, sports are so much about celebrity – showcasing one really good person. So sports aren’t really serving that role anymore. So I think that is one thing that has really been missing, something that puts people into a common, bonded mission.
BG: Do you see other things that could perhaps bond people together, things other than war?
CP: In a way, Fight Club was an experiment in social models for men in the same way that The Joy Luck Club and Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood were just about exploring a different social construct. What about a group of women who get together every week and just bitch about the guys they’ve been sleeping with – Sex in the City. So many of these novels for women are really about groups of women that get together within a structure that keeps them united, and we really don’t have them for men. So in a way, Fight Club was playing with that idea of a social model as a way of bringing men together. And it seems like it would have to be a really physical social model, because physicality is a form of expression for men.
BG: As far as that physical expression, is that something that we have to come to terms with, like a blood lust or such?
CP: Well, football is that, but football is behind glass on a TV, played by people you will never meet. You experience it in a completely detached way. One thing that I’m struck by that we’ve really lost is how the gym in ancient cultures used to be a real seat of learning. You went to the gym to hear philosophers as well as to exercise and exhaust yourself. And to be with people. We didn’t have this separation of school and physical education. We put them together, and a lot of my friends who are teachers talk about kinetic learners kids who will not remember anything unless they are doing something physical while they are taught. And I can’t write standing still. I have to write while doing something, because ideas don’t come when you’re just sitting in a chair.
BG: You need to get the blood flowing.
CP: Exactly. Part of the solution is about wedding thinking and moving again, bringing them back together, whether it is teaching while dancing, while working out, or teaching while wrestling. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think that they need to be brought back together.
BG: Last question: how much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?
CP: You can know that you’re frightened of a lot of things, you are scared of a lot of things that you have no experience of. It’s funny how each book is something that I am really frightened of and I had to go there. In a way, that’s why the woman in the negligee always has to go down to the basement. Because you can’t not go down to the basement. You can live a long life upstairs, but it’ll be a long miserable life, but you have to go down in the basement and see that awful thing, even if you know it might end your life. So each of the books is looking at some awful thing that I’m really afraid of.