An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Chuck Palahniuk is the author of the bestselling novels Fight Club, Survivor, Choke, and most recently, Adjustment Day. His short fiction has appeared in Playboy, VICE, Nightmare Magazine, and others. Updates on his life and work can be found on The Cult at chuckpalahniuk.com, as well as on his Twitter, @chuckpalahniuk.
TMR: In an interview with Nightmare Magazine, you state that your books "have a sort of romantic community at the end—people coming together." Yet on a more basic level, you say that you see them as being about power. Why do you find that you continue to return to these elements?
CP: I guess I see romance (attachment) and power (self reliance) as polar opposites. My perception is that we ping-pong between needing attachment and needing isolation. When one becomes too horrid we create the circumstances that drive us to the other extreme.
TMR: In your earliest documented interview, you note that "we have an enormous need right now for entertainment in our culture. And I think most of that springs from escaping what lives we're all forced to lead … People aren't very fulfilled by their lives anymore." How have you worked to fulfill rather than escape?
CP: I dreamed of being a writer. I dreamed of writing full time. I dreamed of living this strange, impossible life that had no precedent in my blue collar, farm town childhood. Then I took action. My stories always depict people taking action to change their circumstances. Those actions might be wrong-headed, creating short-term chaos, but at least the characters are acting and not passive.
TMR: In the same interview, you discuss purpose. You say, "[W]e're growing old with longer and longer life spans, and then come to the end of our lives, look back and say, 'OK, basically, I paid the bills.' But they have not had one big thing they ever contributed to." What's been your purpose?
Decades ago my only goal was to someday write a beautiful sentence.
CP: Decades ago my only goal was to someday write a beautiful sentence. I've come close a couple times, but in the process I've been able to meet and know an army of wonderful people, including many of my literary heroes. I'll keep working on that sentence.
TMR: You told Nerdist that with your new novel Adjustment Day, you "wanted to spin out all our fascist, racist, separatist fantasies and exhaust them." What do you hope people learn from Adjustment Day?
CP: You assume I'm a teacher of some kind? Heaven forbid. My job isn't to fix anybody. At best I hope to distract them from some dismal circumstance, such as a long airline flight. As an extra, I might give them a cathartic experience that vents their impulse to shoot everyone on their town council. I guess that would be a social good, the not-shooting I mean.
TMR: You dropped out of your writers workshop in order to write Adjustment Day without self-censorship. Why was this decision necessary?
CP: Honest truth? A dear friend, the thriller writer and brilliant comic scribe Chelsea Cain, forbid me using the word "faggot" in a story. Our group had veered into a quagmire of political correctness. When I realized I was self censoring in order to please my peers, I bailed.
TMR: You've been attending said writers workshop since 1990. How has this workshop been important to you?
CP: I'm loathe to drink alone. Writers have good gossip. There's little else to do in Portland, Oregon, on Monday nights. My every best idea is cribbed from the writer Monica Drake so I must stalk her at all costs.
TMR: Both Fight Club and Adjustment Day tackle the notion of weaponizing disaffected men. In a conversation with the Hollywood Reporter, you state that "the earlier book demonstrates the growth and empowerment of an individual. The latter book depicts what happens when a passel of those like-minded individuals join forces." Why is this something that interests you?
Men have either fight clubs or dead poet societies.
CP: In my experience most people are looking for fresh social models, roles, ways to present themselves. Fiction by women is rife with social models in which women band together to sew American quilts, join Joy Lucks Clubs, share divine secrets of Ya-Ya Sisterhoods, and travel together sharing a single pair of pants. Men have either fight clubs or dead poet societies. I think men need more options for their all-male gab fests.
TMR: You've said that your taste is for the extreme. How did you cultivate this taste?
CP: Consider that I'm a child of the punk era, and my generation was a reaction to both the television banality of the mid-century and the utopian strawberry fields of the flower children. I suffered from arousal addiction before porn and video games were invented. That, that's the source of my restless drive to seek out the extreme and report on it. And, no, I seldom invent anything. Always a journalist at heart, I mostly document aspects of the culture that mainstream writers pretend don't exist.
TMR: You've said that the Harry Potter series is "pitched to a population of young people who really have no power." What's the importance of delivering a story about power to those who have none?
CP: This seems obvious, but I'll bite. The powerless or marginalized need to see new roles modeled for them. A generation of kids went to the Seattle Worlds fair in 1962 because the government wanted to steer them into STEM careers and help win the space race. Up in the towering Space Needle, those kids were so excited about bringing this new future into being. In a similar way the depiction of Wakanda in the recent Black Panther film has excited and inspired a new generation of kids. Kids need to see the possibility of a power that they can attain.
TMR: Is there a secret about one of your books that the world doesn't know yet?
CP: Please, you won't get me to strip naked that easily. Ply me with drinks and flattery. Lick my neck. Even so, I still won't tell. Why spoil the joy of discovery for some future biographer or grad student?