Novelist Chuck Palahniuk

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Tell-All author discusses the impact of his novel Fight Club and explains the process of ‘cleaning up the incompletes.’

Known for disturbing tales on unlikely subjects, best-selling novelist Chuck Palahniuk has been described as a writer for a new age. His books include Fight Club—his debut novel that was adapted for film—Invisible Monsters, Choke and, his latest, Tell-All. Palahniuk interned for a public radio station while attending the University of Oregon's journalism school and worked as a diesel mechanic before his writing career took off. He's also written nonfiction and magazine features and helps other writers through his Web site's Writers' Workshop.



Tavis: Chuck Palahniuk is a best-selling author whose main notable books include Choke and Fight Club. The latter, of course, served as the basis for the movie starring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton. His latest is called Tell-All. Chuck, nice to have you here.
Chuck Palahniuk: Thank you very much.
Tavis: It’s pretty obvious from the cover of this book that this is no Fight Club.
Palahniuk: No. This is kind of the anti Fight Club.
Tavis: Pretty dramatically different. We’ll talk about that in just a second. There was a piece in the paper here recently about another fight club. You Google this stuff and you see these kinds of stories written, you know, periodically and I’ve often wondered, so I get a chance to ask now, how you view these stories from time to time and there’s always the fight club reference in the story?
Palahniuk: I think, in a way, I invented the term “fight club” and that these things have always existed, but they never really had a label. Nobody had a language to apply to them. I created that language in two words and I’ve been paid a great deal of money for inventing two words and labeling something that has always been around.
Tavis: When you see that phrase in something like the Los Angeles Times, that’s a compliment or something else?
Palahniuk: I am a writer and the greatest compliment I can get is to know that I’ve contributed language to the culture, that I’ve defined something, given it a name. So I think that is one of the great things a writer can do.
Tavis: To your point, these fight clubs as you term them existed prior to your, you know, writing and, of course, prior to the movie being made, but is there something in particular that you think writing about it and having it turn into a feature film did to or for those fight clubs?
Palahniuk: It might have modeled it in a more specific way by kind of giving it a structure and giving some rules that weren’t mutually agreed upon at first. If we’re going to have consensual fighting, then we need to follow a certain structure.
Because for years, I’ve been getting letters from people who said that they did something like this in logging camps and during the Depression and during World War II. All of these people claim that they had these fight clubs in the past. In a way, I just made some arbitrary rules that now sort of structure it a little more.
Tavis: I’m a Men’s Health reader, the magazine. I don’t read it every month because I travel so much. It’s one of the things I will grab on the newsstand when I’m hopping on a plane which I do far too often. But the piece you wrote a year ago in Men’s Health magazine, Live Like You’re Dying.
Palahniuk: That was this spring –
Tavis: – this spring, yeah.
Palahniuk: – about how to commit suicide.
Tavis: Exactly. How to commit suicide.
Palahniuk: Yeah.
Tavis: (Laughter) You want to unpack that?
Palahniuk: (Laughter) The first part is not funny because I started as a small town newspaper reporter and every winter I would go with the Sheriff’s Department to these trailer houses in which very poor families would try to heat their homes by bringing their barbecue indoors, charcoal briquettes.
In their sleep, the carbon monoxide would have killed the entire family and they looked so beautiful and so peaceful and so perfect all lying there like Christmas morning, completely beautiful and dead, the entire family. I thought, if I ever do it, this is how I’m gonna do it. Just bring the barbecue inside, take a couple shots of something, watch my favorite movie and nighty-night.
But my other rule is that I have to have everything in my life completely fixed and perfect and cleaned up and I have to be complete with everyone in my life and I have seven days in which to do that. So I might make it to day three or four, but I’ve never made it all the way to day seven.
So periodically, it’s a way for me to kind of clean up and reconnect with everyone in my life with the idea that, if I make it to day seven and I still want to kill myself, it’s okay, but you’ll never make it past day three or day four.
Tavis: What causes the roadblock at day three or four?
Palahniuk: Well, you realize that you’ve gotten rid of all the excess things in your life and that you have sort of cleaned up all the incompletes.
You finally got that paperwork done. You finally hauled all of those things to charity and you’ve called all of those people that you didn’t like and you told them one good thing about themselves. You know, I’ve always envied your education. I’ve always envied your beautiful wife. Or that turtleneck sweater, I’ve always thought that was the greatest sweater ever.
But you find something good to say to everyone that you dislike and, in doing so, you reconnect with them. You sort of give up being upset with them. You abandon all those resentments and, once you’ve done just a few of those, you no longer have any impulse to end your life.
Tavis: Kind of like a purging.
Palahniuk: Exactly. Kind of like a housecleaning.
Tavis: Yeah, and that’s a process you go through annually now?
Palahniuk: At least annually. You know, there’s a television show, Hoarders, where people have those homes filled with stuff. Emotionally, in our minds, we get so filled with resentments where we’ve got a story about absolutely everything.
That guy behind me on the airplane? He’s been kicking my seat because he hates me. He’s kicking my seat because he hates me and I’m gonna kill him. When we get off this plane, I’m gonna make eye contact. I’m gonna kill that guy. And all of that is just stuff in my head, but it’s good to get rid of that stuff.
Tavis: Word to the wise. If you’re ever sitting behind –
Palahniuk: – don’t kick my seat (laughter). One of these days –
Tavis: – (Laughter) Do not kick Chuck’s seat.
Palahniuk: – I’m just gonna snap.
Tavis: (Laughter) Let me segue now from that. I want to make sure Chuck is calmed down here (laughter). Let me switch now to Tell-All. I joked earlier that the cover of the book itself lets you know that you’re about to get something different here that’s 180 degrees from Fight Club. So tell me about Tell-All.
Palahniuk: They have never used that sparkle effect on an adult book.
Tavis: I noticed that.
Palahniuk: That’s children’s books. They only used it on children’s books.
Tavis: You can’t see the sparkle on television, but when you move it, it does sparkle. The story line here is?
Palahniuk: Well, when I was little, my grandma used to get romance novels and she would get hundreds of these and she’d read a dozen a month. My brother and I would always try to find the dirty parts. They would always be so euphemistic, so oddly phrased like “He plunged the full length of his steely manhood; he plunged into her salty chambers.” My brother would be looking at that thinking, “I think he just stabbed her in the ear.”
So I thought why not write a kind of mystery, murder, thriller book, but use that romance language where the language plays completely against the very dark subject matter, that very strange murderous plot, but use that Harlequin Romance language.
Tavis: And without giving the story away, the murderous plot is?
Palahniuk: Is to – a young man who befriends a fading Hollywood star at really the end of her life and he wants to write her biography and he wants to write it in an incredibly salacious, scandalous way. He also wants to kill her so he won’t have to wait for her to die before he can publish it. So maybe he kills her, maybe he doesn’t.
Tavis: The style of how you wanted to write the book you just explained, back to your grandmother and the Harlequin Romance novels, but I get the sense – in fact, I’ve read – that there are some things, though, in real life that you saw that made you want to write this book.
Palahniuk: Did you ever go to Park City for the Sundance Film Festival?
Tavis: Once.
Palahniuk: When you go there – I went there once for myself for the Choke movie made from my fourth book. All up and down the main street are all of those beautiful Hollywood stars, those incredibly groomed and styled women who are just absolutely gorgeous and unencumbered.
They don’t carry a purse, they don’t carry a coat. They’re just a deer or some natural animal just wandering through this snow landscape and they’re surrounded by this nimbus of paparazzi taking their pictures.
Everyone is looking at this perfect unburdened object and I’m always looking around thinking, “Okay, who is carrying her crap?” There is some poor person, always some woman –
Tavis: – who’s the Anne Hathaway in this story here, yeah.
Palahniuk: Exactly. Who is 20 feet away and is kind of dowdy and usually a little heavy and is carrying purses and coats and makeup cases and thermoses and tote bags and all the stuff that this beautiful, beautiful star does not want to carry, and that person is like the opposite of a movie star.
I’m always fascinated by this relationship of this beautiful object completely unencumbered, completely seemingly free, and this sort of pack mule of a woman who is forced to carry the burden of what it takes that beautiful woman beautiful.
The book is written from the perspective of that kind of pack mule, that kind of human Sherpa. I guess Sherpas are human, but that person who carries the weight of a movie star.
Tavis: Although those persons exist in big numbers in this town, to our point, the story is never told from their perspective in their voice.
Palahniuk: Exactly. Do you remember Sunset Boulevard?
Tavis: Um-hum.
Palahniuk: I always wanted to hear that story told from Max’s perspective, the butler. Because Max is the one that survives the story. He’s not shot. He doesn’t go insane. Max is the kind of witness character that will move into the future. In a way, Max was this Svengali that put the whole thing together to start with. So I always wanted to know, you know, Max, you tell us this story.
Tavis: Well, you know what? If you just get the folk who carry the stuff in this town to buy the book, you got a best seller. They’re everywhere (laughter).
Palahniuk: Okay. Please.
Tavis: (Laughter) If just the folk in this town who carry all that stuff, assuming they have time to watch a TV show like this to know that it’s out since they’re working so hard and carrying so much stuff, you got a best seller. The book is called Tell-All. It’s written by Chuck Palahniuk, a great writer is he. Chuck, good to have you on this program.
Palahniuk: Tavis, thank you.
Tavis: Congrats on the book.

Palahniuk: Thank you.

Last modified: May 3, 2011 at 6:02 pm