FIGHTING FIT: AN INTERVIEW WITH CHUCK PALAHNIUK
"There I was tramping towards the hotel to have an exclusive interview with the author of the book Fight Club. I had dreams in my head. Since his new book Choke was based around a person pretending to choke in restaurants, I figured a smart photo would be one of those Heimlich maneuver teaching signs with him standing in front of it. Pretty clever? I was admitted to the hotel. And when Chuck answered his door, lo and behold, the man (unbelievable skinny, by the way) was wearing pyjamas. Not so good for my clever photo. As we sat and I put his microphone on him he asked, what is davidfincher.net? I explained that obsessive fans, SOMETIMES, do full-blown websites about the people they admire. He said 'I know, there seems to be a ton about me'. I said that we should save this for the interview."
Dan Epstein interviews Chuck Palahniuk
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
3AM: How much of Choke is autobiographical?
CP: (Long pause.) Boy…it’s funny because…(laughs)…the most autobiographical is the part where Denny says that when he first discovered masturbation, he thought he had invented it, and he thought it would make him rich. Because I still remember being, what, twelve years old and thinking, ‘Oh my God. I’m never going to have to work. None of my descendants are ever going to have to work; this is going to make me so much money. It was such a letdown when I realized that wasn’t my invention. So…
3AM: I was fourteen.
CP: [laughs] I probably wasn’t twelve.
3AM: There are some very close similarities to certain scenes in Fight Club and Choke, such as the main characters attending self-help groups. What’s your fascination with those groups, and did you ever go to any for research?
CP: Yeah, I went to sexaholics anonymous for six months. I went to the Wednesday night group.
3AM: For research.
CP: For research. (Laughs.) I went to the Wednesday night group and a Friday night group, and…mostly because I wanted to see the structure of the groups, how they were conducted, and what the atmosphere was like, and also to be able to describe the people as human beings, rather than as the dirty jokes that they are in our culture, you know? Nymphomaniacs and dirty old men; I wanted them to be people, and not just these stereotypes, so… And the other part of that is, more and more people are defining themselves not by what they are about, but by what they are against, what they are overcoming, the thing that is wrong with them. And in Fight Club it was terminal illness, and in Choke it is sexual addiction, but it could have been alcoholism, you know, drug addiction, anything like that.
3AM: Is there something that’s just fascinating to you about those groups, that they keep showing up in your work?
CP: Well, you know, they showed up for two very, very different purposes; in Fight Club the groups showed up to create life by being present to death, imminent death, and in Choke they showed up as a way that people cope with the fact that they hate their lives by anesthetizing, drugging themselves with constant, casual, addictive sex. So, they were so totally different purposes, and very little of Choke actually takes place within those groups.
3AM: Who do you think would be the perfect film director for Choke?
CP: Ah, for Choke You know…I couldn’t say. Bo Flynn has optioned it, and, uh, I believe that there’s a screenwriter, but I don’t believe I’m allowed to say at this point who it is…damn. But, uh, but I’m not sure who Bo Flynn has in mind, I’m sure he’s got somebody in mind.
3AM: I know he produced Requiem For A Dream [directed by Darren Aronofsky].
3AM: Aronofosky would be…intense for this kind of thing.
CP: (Laughs.) Yeah, it could very well be. Bo Flynn also produced Tigerland and House of Yes, and House of Yes was dark and funny. I loved House of Yes. A British film company was looking into producing Invisible Monsters starring Parker Posey. They had planned to start shooting during the SAG actors' strike which wouldn’t affect overseas at all. But it’s stalled right now.
3AM: When I was in grade school, I was forced to go to a horrible place on Long Island called Old Bethpage…
[Chuck looks perplexed] which is very similar to…
CP: Colonial Dunsborough [where Denny in Choke works]?
3AM: Yeah. [Both laugh] Were you forced to go to one of those, and is this your revenge?
CP: We were forced to go to the Whitman Mission, where two Christian missionaries came out to teach Christianity to the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest who consequently slaughtered these missionaries and all their children. And every place you’d go there’d be these buttons that you’d press, and no matter what button you’d press it would say, ‘Where you’re standing, Jessica Whitman was slaughtered and decapitated and disemboweled.’ There wasn’t a square inch you could stand on without some horrific story, so…I loved it.
3AM: I just got back from the Tower of London, and there’s no buttons, but they do have the, uh…
CP: The little role-playing?
CP: Thank God for those drama majors.
3AM: Why does everyone in the world of Choke do drugs, or has such intense outward problems?
CP: Well, people who don’t want to get on with their lives, and don’t want to accept responsibility for the direction of their lives want to hang out with other people who don’t want to accept responsibility or move on, and so you find that your entire culture around you are people who are just like you, because that’s what’s comforting. And so, that’s what the world becomes for you; you don’t even see people beyond those people who are just like yourself. And so, for Victor, this is how the world is because this is how he is, and this is what he’s surrounded himself with.
3AM: What is the allure of the twist ending, the one that changes the whole concept of what you’re thinking?
CP: It just seems like more and more we are taught something throughout our growing up, our education, and continuously, no matter how much we believe in this thing, something comes up that forces us to revise our entire belief system. No matter whom you idolize, it turns out that Louis Armstrong collected vast amounts of pornography. Louis Armstrong is now a porn addict. You know, Marilyn Monroe was screwing the Kennedys. You know, everybody had a dark secret which now forces us to revise our entire idea of who they were, you know? Or schools of science and physics replacing each other at a faster and faster rate. Just the nature of our world is constant revision, constant…negation of previous beliefs, and so…the whole world is a twist ending. Every week is a twist ending.
3AM: That’s a really good point.
CP: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s a little exhausting.
3AM: So it’s been two years since the movie Fight Club. How has that release affected your career and work?
CP: Well, the books sell like crazy now. [Laughs.] The books sell like all get-out, which gave me the wherewithal to leave my day job. So, I can write more than ever now, and five books in five years, with a sixth book on its way at this point, so…yeah, it’s not like I’m resting much. In fact I’m working harder now than I have ever worked in my entire life, but what the hell, my life is my job now, and my job is my life and that’s the way it should be.
3AM: The movie Fight Club has Brad Pitt in it and cost $70 million. All of that money seems to be anathema to the concept of the book.
CP: [Laughs.] I thought in a way that was like the ultimate twist ending, the ultimate joke was the idea that capitalism would eat its own feces in order to make money, you know, that would make fun of itself if capitalism thought there was a buck in it. And so…you know, I understand that you pay top dollar for the best people who do what they do, and I can totally understand that. You know, you want David Fincher, someone who does as great a job as David does, you pay the going rate, because you want the best, you pay for the best. I can understand that. But, it seemed like the fact that the budget just got larger and larger and larger was the ultimate joke beyond the end of the movie, and magnificent.
3AM: Did 20th Century Fox send you a copy of the DVD?
CP: Yeah, I got a small stack of them, but I don’t have a DVD player, so I have no idea what’s inside of them.
3AM: I know you weren’t too happy with the scripts for Fight Club until Andrew Kevin Walker took a stab at it. What is it that he brought to the script that made it more palatable to you?
CP: Actually, I was very happy with the script. I understood though that the original script, which I didn't see, didn' have voice-over, and that made it very much into an action-thriller movie, and that it was David’s direction to Jim Uhls to lift voice-over directly out of the book to make it into a dark comedy-action-thriller. That really was the version I saw and then I was very, very happy. So, yeah, I couldn’t say I was ever not happy with the screenplay.
3AM: The added visual elements that weren’t in the novel, but were in the vein of the Fight Club theme, like Tyler Durden in the furniture catalogue, how did you react to the things that were in the movie but not in the book?
CP: Oh, I thought that was magnificent because I wanted to be surprised and entertained by something entirely different. I didn't want to be shown just a complete visual version of the book, a book with pictures. And so those effects, and so many of the effects, I thought they were so magnificent and they mimicked in a way the very choppy way that the book was told. I never got tired of them, I thought they were wonderfully done. They told a unique story in a fantastically unique way. And in a funny way too, in an atypically funny way of using sort of nonfiction real-world forms within a fictional sense, and making fun of the real world while also lending credibility to the fictional world, so, I thought that was beautiful.
3AM: What about seeing Survivor [Chuck’s third novel] in the theaters before the next millennium?
CP: Well, it’s funny, because Jake Paltrow (television director and Gwyneth Paltrow’s brother) is under contract to Fox, and he’s written a screenplay which I’m told is very, very good, but the guard has really changed at Fox…as to who has the option on Survivor and it’s not likely going to get made there, so right now Paltrow is shopping the script around, trying to attach actors to it, I think trying to do the same thing that David did. You know, if you can get enough power, bankable power behind something, then somebody’s going to make it for fear that somebody else is going to make it. And there was a recent piece, I think in the London Times, about Nicole Kidman wanting to do Survivor…yeah, it was phrased that it would be revenge against Tom Cruise because it would make fun of Scientology as a sort of creed-ish religion. And I’m not sure where that came from, but I was a little amazed to see that little article in the paper. [Laughs.]
3AM: You know, we’re only about four blocks away from a Church of Scientology.
CP: You know, it’s funny I’ve got nothing against Scientology -- some of my best friends, you know, but…it’s funny how people will make these connections that aren’t in the work, but people sort of interpret the work within the context of their own lives, and God bless ‘em. Go for it.
3AM: Well, I remember, when people decided to start Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard said, “What is this? What’s going on?” and people were like, “We’re wealthy people, we want to create scientology,” and he was like, “Alright.” It almost seems like the exact same thing you have with your work.
CP: [laughs] Okay, now you’re scaring me.
3AM: [Laughs.] Well, it’s like you were saying before; a lot of the Internet sites…
CP: A lot of my friends have asked me, my friends are scared for me, and so maybe I’m not taking things very seriously. Maybe I should be more concerned about the passion and the intensity that people really, really like my stuff. But, when I meet the people, there’s no sense of lunacy, it’s just that people have found something that they’ve really enjoyed, that totally surprises them. And I don’t think that there’s any lunacy to it other than just an appreciation to something different.
3AM: When I went to film school, about eight years ago, everyone in my classes wanted to be Quentin Tarantino, who appeared to replace George Lucas for about a half a minute. I was asking my intern who currently attends New York University about who the students want to emulate, and he says everybody wants to be David Fincher.
CP: Oh, okay. [Laughs.] Chances are I’m going to be seeing David tonight, so I will tell him that. I’m curious about what he’ll say about it.
3AM: Can you give us a short synopsis of what Lullaby might be like?
CP: It’s a…it’s about a very burnt-out, jaded newspaper reporter who is assigned to do a five-part series about crib death, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. So, he wants to profile five different crib deaths. So, paramedics take him to, first, one crib-death scene, and he notices a library book that’s there, and it’s a cheap anthology of public domain folk stories and poems and anything that could be slapped together and published, and it’s opened to page 27. And…the next crib-death sight is not exactly crib death, it’s a three-year-old, but it’s the same library book. And, it’s not open, but when he sets it on its spine, it falls open to page 27. Then the third, the fourth, the fifth crib-death sight, these people have all checked out this library book, and it looks like the night before these children died, it was read, what turns out to be an ancient African culling song, which was used to decrease population during famine or drought, and to humanely euthanize elderly or diseased or injured people in a painless, almost instant way. And he realizes that this is a spell for killing people. And the problem is, there could be countless copies of this book in the world. And the other problem is, he can’t get the spell out of his head, so anytime anyone pisses him off, the spell runs through his head like a…McDonald’s jingle. And the person who pissed him off falls dead at his feet. And the third problem is, twenty years earlier, his wife and child died when he read them the same song. That’s why he noticed it in the first place because he used to have this book, and he destroyed his own family using this book accidentally twenty years before. And that is just the tip of the iceberg of Lullaby.
3AM: Is there any truth to the rumor that your next book, Lullaby, is to be filmed by David Fincher as well?
CP: It’s funny, that’s a rumor that I’ve heard from a couple different places, and I don’t know who starts the rumors, but…from their mouth to God’s ears. That would be a fantasy, but…I’m not sure if I can expect lightning to strike twice.
3AM: You said in the early stages of Lullaby, you wanted to reinvent the horror novel. Can you elaborate on that?
CP: It’s funny because every classical sort of…horror metaphor, whether it is Frankenstein, or Dracula, or The Mummy, is really a metaphor for something that frightened that period of history. Frankenstein was not so much a body sewn together out of dead bodies as it was the threat of the Industrial Revolution to the world, and also to the replacement of religion by science. Religion was taking the place of God. And so, the Frankenstein monster was a very tangible, you know, way to manifest that zeitgeist -- as a monster, and give the monster a face, and run it through a narrative and then destroy the monster. And I had to wonder what is the metaphor that sort of personifies the horror of our time. In one way it’s a virus. It’s, you know, viruses, illnesses, computer viruses, they work on so many different levels…but I can’t help but think that there are really undiscovered, unrecognized, unacknowledged horror metaphors for the very here-and-now period of time that we live in.
3AM: What’s the inspiration for making Lullaby a trilogy?
CP: Actually, it’s not so much a trilogy; I just was committed to doing three reinventions of horror. They’ll be entirely different, but they’ll all be more focused on finding very frightening metaphors, and developing them and going, not so much for “enlightenment” or humor -- they will be funny -- but they will ultimately be upsetting and horrific and scary.
3AM: Was this your idea, or did somebody ask you to do it?
CP: It was my idea because I loved horror books growing up, but I’m not seeing a lot of diversity in the genre right now. I see old things being reinvented, and being reinvented very well, but I don’t see a lot of, sort of, new metaphors being created. The last couple new really good horror things were Alien -- remember how good the original Alien movie was? And, uh…House of Leaves I thought, you know, scared the hell out of me. I thought that House of Leaves, a book that came out a couple years ago, was some of the best horror I had seen in years and years. So…
3AM: If you had to write your own epitaph, what would it say?
CP: It would say…um…hm. [Long pause.] “No, I’m not working on anything.”
3AM: [Laughs.] This is a personal question. Are you a fan of filmmaker David Cronenberg?
CP: Oh yeah, you know it’s funny because I like Cronenberg’s films, but I think I’ve only seen a handful of them, so yeah…
3AM: That’s just an obsessive thing with me.
CP: [Laughs.] Oh, okay. Well then why are you doing the davidfincher.net then?
3AM: [Laughs.] I love Fight Club.
3AM: Were you on the set when Fight Club was shooting?
CP: Yeah, yeah. Boy, that is a tedious process. Oh my God, [Laughs.] I have so much admiration for actors and movie people in general for being able to tolerate that kind of waiting and waiting and waiting. In a way I’m not surprised that movies are the dominant art form of our time, because movie production is in so many ways so similar to the worst of our culture. That…wait around until you’re almost dead with boredom, and then hurry and complete what has to be done.
3AM: I had to leave the movies. I was working as a grip. It can be so mind numbingly boring.
CP: Right. [Laughs.] You know, now that I can write anywhere I think I might actually enjoy a job like that. Because I could always pick up my pad and write another book, you know? That’s what I did at Freightliner [a truck manufacturing company in Portland, Oregon where Chuck was a service researcher] while we were waiting for parts on trucks, all that dead time when people would be out smoking or sitting in the toilet for three hours waiting for parts, you know, I was working on Fight Club.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is currently a producer for MetroTV a regional station in Manhattan .