“Didn’t one of us on purpose set out to make a snuff movie.”
The bright nihilist that is Chuck Palahniuk is interviewed by The Advocate:
Ironically, Palahniuk, by most accounts, is very good at being with people—as long as it is a lot of people. His readings, what he deems “events,” draw capacity crowds. He recounts with relish the dozens of people who have fainted at his performances of ‘Guts,’ a short story from his collection Haunted that involves masturbation, a pool intake vent, and a prolapsed colon. “It’s great when that happens,” he says. “There’s death, resurrection, and then afterwards people experience euphoria.” A friend of mine recalls standing in line for a reading and Palahniuk snuck in behind, eavesdropped, then said in his ear, “Have you ever had a prostitute hold your tongue and jab you in the chest with a knife?” (“It was sick!” my friend said with a smile, clearly having gotten what he came for.) For the upcoming Snuff book tour, Palahniuk has signed over 1,000 blowup sex dolls that he will toss into the audience “to give people a chance to scream and yell and hyperventilate blowing them up.”
Snuff is about nothing but people — 600 of them. Porn star Cassie Wright wants to break the world record for “serial fornication” in a film called World Whore Three, but Palahniuk has cunningly placed her (and the sex itself) primarily offstage. The book is essentially the stories of three men waiting their turn. Mr. 72, a young Midwesterner who carries a bouquet of wilting flowers, believes he is Cassie’s long-lost son. Mr. 600 is an aging porn star who brought Cassie into the business but is so far gone he can’t even recognize himself on the closed-circuit televisions playing Cassie’s hits. Mr. 137, the most complicated of the three, is a gay television star who participated in his own all-male gang bang, and the revelation ended his career. By popping Viagra, he’s hoping to burnish his reputation — and recast his orientation — especially since he thinks Cassie will die while making the film.
Given Snuff’s raunchy setup, the novel reads more like theater than hard-core, unfolding through monologues threaded with tragic backstory. Not surprisingly, Snuff started out as a play, but “it was terrible,” Palahniuk says, so he reworked it as a novel. (Palahniuk writes fast: The first draft of Fight Club took him six weeks, as did his forthcoming novel Pygmy. He wrote Snuff in eight weeks.)
Palahniuk does an enormous amount of research for his books, and for Snuff’s source material he turned to Grace Quek (a.k.a. Annabel Chong) and her own “sextravaganza,” in which she, at age 22, engaged in 251 sex acts with 70 men over a period of 10 hours, captured in the documentary Sex: The Annabel Chong Story. Quek, then a gender studies graduate student at the University of Southern California, had been a victim of a gang rape as a young woman; she said she wanted to “take on the idea of the stud.” Palahniuk loved the ambiguity of her experience, hovering between empowerment and annihilation. “Was she exorcising her demons, or was she just being used?” he asks. “Derrida says that the undetermined, undecided thing carries enormous energy. So if I write and refuse to take a moral stand about Cassie and spoon-feed people, it’s much more dynamic. Readers need to seek out the company of other people to discuss the themes.” (Incidentally, Quek was never paid for the video, though she claims in the documentary that she “didn’t want the money.”)
To develop his themes, Palahniuk also conducts experiments in what he calls “crowd-seeding”: At parties he tells people what he’s working on and freely hands out his phone number to generate ideas. For Snuff, he says, “I had all these people calling night and day, offering porn titles, or hairdressers saying, ‘Did you know Lucille Ball did this thing with wooden toothpicks…?’ ” All of his books are packed with this group expertise “so that you feel like you’re learning,” he says. It’s the Google-era technique of novel writing: social composition. “I’m simultaneously testing my material or premise with people and tweaking it,” he says. “Plus, it’s a fun game and gives people a role to play.”