The following is the full transcript of the 35 minute interview between BMA Magazine’s Allan Sko and world-acclaimed author Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters) to talk about his career to date, as well as his latest book Damned. The talk covers his mother’s death and how it informed his new book; how Fight Club’s core message is still being ignored; and many other incredibly important topics, such as who would win in a fight between him and Bret Easton Ellis.
A succinct, 900-word article format of this chat can also be found by clicking here.
Allan: Do tell me, to kick things off with, how did I go with the pronunciation of your last name? Am I still in your good books?
Chuck: <hearty chuckle> We say PAUL-uh-nick, here.
Allan: Get things off on the right foot I always say. Absolute pleasure to be talking to you. I’ve been a huge fan of your work for many a year, so it’s thrill to actually be able to speak to you. And congrats on the new book!
Chuck: Thank you very much. I need to come to Australia one of these days.
Allan: You do. When I was bragging about this interview to various people, after their eyes nearly popped out of their head they said ‘What do I need to do to get him out here on a spoken word tour?’ The demand is definitely there.
Chuck: That would be terrific, maybe next year. I’m hoping they’ll release the second Madison book [referring to Damned which is a two part story] in 2013 which will give me next year free.
Allan: Good bit of timing; nice. It must be a relief to have it all done. Now you just need to talk to endless random bastards like me for the next few months to ensure people know it exists.
Chuck: Nothing is ever done is my life; everything is only ever half done.
Allan: How long did it take you to do from concept to completion?
Chuck: Madison was a big, big book. It was two years, because it took two years for my mother to die… My mother was diagnosed with cancer.
Allan: I’m sorry to hear that.
Chuck: Yeah, it sucked. It was two years of taking care of her and I wrote Damned until she died.
Allan: Ahhh I see. Had you started the book before your mother fell ill, or during? How much did this tragedy inform the book?
Chuck: I was finishing up the previous book Tell All when she was diagnosed; then as she was being treated and they sent her home – essentially to die – I was working on the Madison book. And it took me about a year after she had died to finish it.
Allan: It would extremely hard to put yourself in the right head space; really sorry to hear that.
Chuck: But it gave me something to do to keep my mind occupied; and I was busy, and I was quiet and I could be with her without wearing out so yeah… It wasn’t a completely bad thing; it gave us a perfect time together.
Allan: It’s all got to come to a close for us eventually – as you so wonderfully put in your book through the words of Madison – but as far as having to check out goes, at least you got to spend some quality time with her.
Chuck: Exactly, and I’m not the only person who has ever had to take care of their mother. Everyone dies, this is something we all have to deal with and it’s a shitty, shitty thing.
Allan: Yeah, we do all we can to distract ourselves from it, but it’s always there lurking in the background.
<at this point, a small silence occurs>
Allan: One of my friends I play indoor cricket with – arguably your biggest fan here in Australia – has written to you on a few occasions and he asked me to pass something onto you… He’s written… “I would actually really appreciate if you could pass on my thanks for the fan packages and personalised letters. The second time he did it was around the time of my Dad’s cancer. I had mentioned this in my letter to him, and he came back with some really useful advice about not mourning things which haven’t happened yet. Those words have stuck with me, and I thank him for that.”
Chuck: Oh good. Well please give him my regards.
Allan: I will. Now I believe it’s not so the case these days with your various projects, but is it true you would take a month out of each year to respond to fanmail?
Chuck: <Laughs> Ooo ho. No. It used to be every few years I would designate one month and all letters postmarked within that month I would respond to them as a gift. It really was exhausting; it took me over a year to respond to all the mail I had received in that one month.
Allan: Wowee… Popular guy! You deal with such wonderful subject matter across your books, so you must have some “wonderful” fans writing to you. What’s been the most bizarre thing someone has written to you, or indeed included in the post?
Chuck: Let me think… They are so many stories, and a lot of them I end up using. The Guts story, which I read is the one that made people think for the longest time, two of those stories had been sent to me by real people of the world. So often the things you read in my books are stories that people have told me. There was a terrific story from a young woman who had an internship at a movie studio – I think it was Warner Bros – but her job was to stamp ‘Return to Sender’ on all of Mel Gibson’s hate mail. And every day she was faced with a mountain of people just hating Mel Gibson. She had to look at the letters and send them all back. It was her full time job.
Allan: My lord, someone’s full time 40+ hours a week employment? What a wonderful world we live in, Chuck.
Chuck: And because she was an intern, I don’t think she was even getting paid for it.
Allan: Phenomenal. People are great material. You wouldn’t believe it; if you wrote that into a book or script people would say ‘Great material! Hilarious idea!’ but you wouldn’t think it would actually happen.
Chuck: Well, the sad wonderful evolution of her job continued; there were letters to – what are the Olsen twins’ names again? That’s right… – Ashley and Mary-Kate and she started answering these fan’s letters to small girls in, say, Singapore and she would answer them as the celebrity and would go out of her way to make them happy. And she ended up embroiled in all these long distance relationships with these small girls and she couldn’t bring her herself to break their hearts. It ruined her life.
Allan: Such a noble undertaking but at the heart of it all ultimately deceptive so it’s only gonna have one tragic conclusion.
Allan: And your style of writing is so open and brimming with ideas I think you naturally attract such people; you’re like a Mecca for ideas. People would feel comfortable sharing their stories with you because you’ve explored so many crazy avenues of human life that people think ‘Hey, you think that’s crazy, check this shit out!’
Chuck: Exactly, and people have to tell their stories as a part of adjusting or accepting their lives, and I think I present as a safe person to tell stories to.
Allan: Are you happy to accept the mantel as a person people unload on?
Chuck: Yeah, y’know, when I was little I wanted to be a priest because the idea of sitting in the dark and having people tell me their worst secrets was so appealing.
Allan: <at this point I say I understand his thinking as I was working on a TV series with a priest as a man character who heard everyone else’s secrets. Chuck then started interviewing me about it before I managed to steer him back to talking about himself. Lovely guy>
Allan: Now, back to you and Damned… 13-year-old, trapped in hell; cracking subject matter. Where did that come from? I’m assuming that wasn’t in someone’s fan letter or else people really do have problems.
Chuck: On one level I recognised, with my father dead in 1999 and my mother about to die, I was going to end up without my parents and I felt this huge grief about losing them both and I couldn’t write about that grief directly because I couldn’t make that funny. But if I wrote from the perspective of a dead girl and the parents in this instance were both still on Earth and then she wasn’t really accepting the drama of being dead or the drama of being in hell, then I could make that funny. And I could still have her miss her parents because they’re alive, but they’re alive on Earth. That was my way of making sad things funny.
Allan: Nice switch; did you have a lightbulb moment for that perspective?
Chuck: I couldn’t say. I don’t remember one ‘A-ha!’ moment but I was very aware that there was this kind of form of story, like the famous book Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and also, are you familiar with the movie The Shawshank Redemption from the Stephen King story?
Allan: Very much so; one of my favourite endings in storytelling that one.
Chuck: And so, there’s a form of story where the character ends up in horrible circumstances that are completely new or novel to him or her, and they don’t really fully understand how they ended up there but they have to adjust and have to make the best of the new circumstances. So I’ve always loved those stories, and this was my chance to do one of these stories.
Allan: And being that the whole book is set in hell, were you tempted to throw all manner of things in there? IKEA, for example?
Chuck: <Laughs> No, I think me and IKEA, we’ve crossed swords already. I’ll never go there again. But in a way there’s that bean-counting theology in there like how many times you can say ‘Fuck’ before you’re condemned to hell, and who gets condemned and who doesn’t and why.
Allan: They got me worried; and it’s great because it sets you thinking, ‘O no, I have honked my horn in anger 566 times and I have said ‘fuck’ too many times.
Chuck: <hearty laughter> I loved being able to make up something that sounds so serious.
Allan: And it’s completely plausible; I could believe that the 351st time I’ve said ‘fuck’ means I’m automatically condemned.
Chuck: It was like ultimate factual bean counting stuff. People seem to, especially male readers, love that sort of sports page stats stuff.
Allan: I think everyone’s a statistics whore – some more ravenous than others – but everyone loves a good stat.
For me, this is a very enjoyable book; the end of the first chapter had a great hook – this bright young girl far from perfect as far the measure of human worth is meant to be; you learn about her parents who are these rich emotionally distant A-listers; and I loved the bit where the mother can control the various different shutters and doorlocks of their remote houses and villas via the keyboard, which starts as gaudy excess before becoming poignant in that she creates a shrine from all Maddy’s various bedrooms after her death using it. Funny, interesting, but with a serious side to it.
Chuck: The Breakfast Club was a real inspiration. While I was taking care of my mother I found myself watching The Breakfast Club over and over. John Hughes died at that time also, so that was a kind of poignant little event. But The Breakfast Club really was an inspiration.
Allan: You can definitely see it, it courses throughout the book. I think a lot of people will attach their own A-listers to Maddy’s parents. Not wanting you to name and shame, but were there any particular A-listers that you had in mind when writing?
Chuck: There so totally is! But I’m not about to say who they are.
Allan: Yep. Thought so. We’ll gleefully skip on from there my dear Chuck; I’m not here to get you in trouble.
Chuck: I thank you. <laughs>
Allan: Now, this is another book that weighs in at around the 250 page mark; all your books seem to be about the same size. For me it’s a great size for a novel; small enough that forces you to be economical with your storytelling, but long enough to be a proper novel and explore ideas in depth. Is this something you deliberately set out to do? Or is that simply how long your stories take to tell?
Chuck: I find that if you’re going to weigh more towards comedy, then 250 is a really good length. It means you can get to drama in the third act, but if you try to extend comedy past the 300 to 350 page mark it just falls apart; you can’t do comedy that goes for 500 pages.
Allan: Or if people do, they tend to switch to drama before long. You see that in TV all the time – Weeds immediately springs to mind. Weeds started as an out and out comedy; witty dialogue, wacky characters. But as it went on, it became more and more serious. If you’re doing comedy, if you’ve got to nip in and out. That’s the nature of a joke after all. Build up, punch line, leave.
Chuck: Exactly, and Six Feet Under. It started out so much funnier, but then became extremely dark.
Allan: Absolutely; the pilot episode had those mock ads for funeral home products. “Embalming fluid! Get yours now; buy 2 and get 3.”
Chuck: The early X Files were really funny, they had really funny elements in them and all of those were dropped once they went onto those continuous plot episodes, where it became so dramatic.
Allan: Very true; good to see Vince Gilligan doing well. Ex X Files, now doing Breaking Bad.
Chuck: Yeah definitely.
Allan: On a sidenote; there was some commentary from various wags in the media that a lot of your books – like Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters – had a similar voice whereas lately – Pygmy, Tell All and now indeed Damned – it seems like you’ve made a deliberate attempt to have a new voice or to mess with a different genre. Is this a direct reaction to previous commentary? Or is this something you’ve done to keep yourself interested?
Chuck: Number one is me growing up and out of that voice, and also the ‘keeping myself interested’ thing too. Recently I was asked to make a list of my 50 favourite books from one of my favourite local bookstores.
Allan: How long did you agonise over that?
Chuck: Awwww! It took forever! But once I was done, I recognised that almost all of the books had a very similar narrative voice to them. So in a way, I’m not just copying myself, I’m copying the voice of Kurt Vonnegut [Cat’s Cradle (1963), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973)] and the voice of Denis Johnson [Jesus’ Son (1992)] and the voice of all these writers.
Allan: Everything’s postmodern; we’re all a blend of everything we love and hate. And of course, they’ll be plenty of Chuck Palahniuk-apers out there that will incorporate your voice with their own and create something new… It’s a beautiful system.
Allan: What was your top three, can you remember?
Chuck: Ummm… You know what? I listed them alphabetically. I didn’t want to rank them.
Allan: That’s safe. Now, I wanted to ask, with the madness of what’s going on in London at the moment with the riots, is all this booze-fuelled late night boy violence somewhat peripheral to the cultural phenomenon that was Fight Club? A bogan/redneck interpretation of what was a far more deep and complicated message? Fight Club pretty much mirrors what happening in London; the idea of tearing it all down and starting afresh. I was wondering what do you think about that?
Chuck: My gut, my first reaction, was also along the lines of what happened with the Norway shooter, Anders. Initially he had said that this was a gender issue; this is about the lack of opportunity or expression for men, for young men in the culture. And very quickly, I noticed all the mass media dropped the gender angle of it. And so I’m always fascinated when it’s kind of a ‘young men’s gender issue’. For me, the media doesn’t really pick up or promote that aspect of it. Women’s issues are very easy and very fashionable to depict and promote, but young men’s issues are somehow tainted or forbidden; we’re not allowed to talk about them. And I think this rioting is, personally, a gender issue as well.
Allan: Completely agree; you look at the footage and it’s generally 90% young men. It all kicked off with a shooting and now it’s for the sake of rioting effectively.
Chuck: And what is being expressed here needs to be expressed. So I’m curious to see if it just dies away or if it actually leads to something.
Allan: It could be a zeitgeist shifter; it’s got everyone scratching their heads going, “Wow! I didn’t realise this was going on, at least I didn’t think it was this bad,” and will we see the usual political reaction of “double the police” or will they actually look at why everyone is so angry?
Chuck: Or it will just be dismissed as, “It’s summer, it’s August… It will pass with the weather.” Also, when you look at the pattern of young successful men committing suicide in the past year it’s really remarkable, when you see such people like David Foster Wallace, and Heath Ledger, and Alexander McQueen… These men should be the most accomplished men of their field, they shouldn’t be killing themselves. And nobody wants to talk about it.
Allan: There’s another book in that maybe.
Chuck: Ha! I’m just going to complain about it.
Allan: I had something I was hoping you could clear up… I heard ages ago there was to be a film adaptation of Survivor which was then stalled by the studios after 9/11 because it was too controversial to have a film about a civilian hijacking a plane. Is this true? If so, do you agree with that level of censorship? And is there scope, now we’re ten years on, for it to be made?
Chuck: Initially there was. David Fincher really encouraged 20th Century Fox to option it and they had optioned it, it was in development and Jake Paltrow – Gwyneth Paltrow’s brother – had even written a screenplay for it, but with 9/11 it became untouchable. And then, the production team that made Constantine optioned it for similar use and they were able to put together a project and right now there’s even talk, there’s a request from Australia of all places, to produce the live stage version.
Allan: O, we have good taste down here, Chuck.
Chuck: My screen agent just mentioned it and that’s all I know about it.
Allan: I heard there was meant to be an adaptation directed by Francis Laurence?
Chuck: Exactly. That was the Constantine connection.
Allan: Good news!
Chuck: Well, that’s fizzled. It’s not happening right now.
Allan: Well, good to know something’s happening. Many people, including myself, rate Survivor as one of your best amongst a strong canon. It took a global tragedy to derail it.
Chuck: Do you think we would have ever seen Fight Club if it was due to be released later? With the buildings falling at the end? They couldn’t touch that.
Allan: No way, huh? And now you mention it, it’s strangely prophetic, eh?
Chuck: It really troubles me when I’ve watched it since then; I haven’t watched it in years because of that.
Allan: Fair enough. I’d heard also; I read an article that came out not long after the film about how you were so amazed at Fincher’s interpretation that you were embarrassed for your book. For me it’s a page for page remake. Did you actually have that reaction?
Chuck: I thought the film was better in the way the novel would have been better if I had written one more draft. I would have really been able to get the kinks out of it, I should have held onto it for just one more edit. Ahhhh!
Allan: That old chestnut. I think you’ve done alright Chuck; don’t beat yourself up about it.
Chuck: You don’t see these things.
Allan: As a writer, do you get sick of people asking about film adaptations of your work?
Chuck: <Pauses> I do, but only because from moment to moment, I’m not really up to date on them. I don’t really know the latest on some of the books. It changes so often.
Allan: Well, back to your work… Liminal time features in your work, have you experienced this in your own life? And has this indeed led to time travel?
Chuck: <Laughs> No… No experience of time travel. But I do love Slaughterhouse 5 which does that, jumps around in time, and I love being able to jump around temporally; it’s just so much fun to do. Non-linear books are so exciting for me.
Allan: Do you have to be careful when doing that? It would be easy to get confused and convoluted. Do you get out a big sheet of butcher’s paper and map out everything?
Chuck: As long as I create a device, a landmark device, where people are given a chorus or a ‘jump prompt’ so that we know we’re about to shift temporally, then I think you can go anywhere. But you have to establish those rules very early.
Allan: Well that’s right. You can suspend disbelief, but then you can break that believe and then you’ve lost your audience.
Chuck: Exactly. If you go too long or become too confusing… All those things exhaust the reader.
Allan: Two more quick Qs before we part ways. The internet… It’s a wonderful thing, it says you’re often mistaken for a nihilist when in fact you’re a romantic. Would you give that the stamp of approval as far as truth goes?
Chuck: Definitely. All my books are romances; everyone’s falling in love in my books. It’s constant.
Allan: And wildly as well. Ferocious love.
Chuck: Like an ‘opera love’.
Allan: And finally, who would win in a fight between you and Bret Easton Ellis?
Chuck: <Laughs> O! I haven’t seen him in years, so I would say he has the weight advantage. I would give it to him.
Allan: That’s very humble of you Chuck.
At this point we make our goodbyes, Chuck (and after 35 minutes I can call him Chuck now, rather than a badly pronounced ‘Mr Palahniuk’) promises to try and come out for the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2013, or similar. Needless to say, we’ll be all over that like a rash should that come to pass.
In the meantime, his new book Damned, is out now through Random House Publishing.