Though officially described as a ‘transgressional fiction novelist’, we prefer to think of Charles Michael Palahniuk as the dangerously demented author of a fistful of modern classics from Fight Club to Lullaby via Snuff and, of course, Choke, an adaptation of which is released in cinemas on Friday, and stars Sam Rockwell and Kelly Macdonald. Choke was Palahniuk’s first New York Times bestseller, following the story of Victor Mancini, a typical Palahniuk antihero, beset by existential angst, a series of dehumanising personal crises, and some bizarre coping mechanisms. We’ll have a review up on Friday (or take a look in the mag), but for now you can hear from the man himself…
LWLies: Why do you choose extreme topics to look at more general subjects of human behaviour and interaction?
Palahniuk: Movies really have this wealth of technology, they have music and colour and they have motion and special effects, and the technology of movies has evolved over 100 years. What they present is so accessible and so immediate that movies really have everything. So when I write I try to think about what the strength of a book is; it seems like the only strength that books still have as a storyteller is their fantastically intimate nature of consumption – that one person turns those pages and reads that story. Because of that, because a book doesn’t have to be broadcast to a wide audience like music or TV or movies, a book can really depict extreme situations and topics. So that’s really the strength of a book – that it can go places that movies can’t go to. And I think if I’m going to write books, I have to take advantage of that strength and depict the things that movies can’t touch at this point.
LWLies: Do you have a message that you want people to take away from your work?
Palahniuk: I don’t really want to dictate a message or dictate a reaction because that sort of shuts down the reader and doesn’t allow the reader to be a participant in the story. But if I had to hope that someone would get something, it would be the idea that our lives are self-determined, and that if we have any hope of redeeming ourselves it’s through self-determination. To me that starts with recognising mortality and being able to sacrifice what we have in order to achieve something better, usually to sacrifice self-sustaining, limited isolation as individuals and achieve a union or commitment with one other person. So all my books are about people finding romance and about risking revealing themselves to one other person. And in doing so kind of finding romance.
LWLies: What motivates you to write?
Palahniuk: There’s no guarantee that you’re ever going to have a reader or a paycheck or a project as a book. In the classroom – the workshop where I learned writing – the teacher called it dangerous writing, because the idea was to take something from your own life that you find confronting and frightening or unresolved and to find some way to explore and write a story around that issue through a metaphor. That kind of emotional investment in the thing at stake will bring you back to the story again and again, so the story helps to resolve this horrible unresolved thing in your life and you exhaust your emotional attachment to it. By the time you’re done writing the book, you have so explored and so vented about the issue that you’re no longer reactive to it – you really don’t care, and at that point the issue disappears. There’s an old exercise where you sit down with a note card and write down your worst fears and concerns of the moment, you put it in a drawer and a year later you pull it out and look at it, and a year later you’ll laugh. In a way, writing a book or writing a story allows you to look at those awful things until you can laugh at them.
LWLies: How far do things in your own life inspire you? For example your involvement in the Cacophony Society comes through in some of your work.
Palahniuk: They were very much the inspiration for Project Mayhem in Fight Club. They’re this group of people that just stage arbitrary reasons for being with other people and throw these themed pranks that allow people to come together for a small amount of time and do something crazy. In a way it’s scheduling chaos into your life – so you would be a lunatic from this time to this time on Sunday afternoon and you can be a really normal sane person the rest of the time. In Fight Club I called it the bureaucracy of anarchy, that’s an inherent paradox that I also find very appealing.
LWLies: Does it surprise you that people want to adapt your work and put it on the big screen?
Palahniuk: I thought about that, and I’m just guessing, something that I try to impress on young writers, because it was something that took me a long time to realise, it’s not about writing something to be liked, forget it, if you’re writing so people like you or like it, that’s not a great goal. I think it’s more important to write something that will be remembered, that will initially trouble people and be in their memory for a long period of time. Because taste changes and the public taste changes and if something can linger in the culture long enough as a memory eventually public taste will change to embrace it, and it really is about creating something that will be remembered. And I think that filmmakers especially want their work to linger in the culture for a long period of time, to generate enough attention that it will get them financing and help them make their next project. Especially people like Clark [Gregg] with their first project, they want to tackle subject matter and stories that they know will be a reference point for years to come, it will stay in the culture and it will not be readily accepted and dismissed.
LWLies: Who has the most extreme reactions to your work?
Palahniuk: When I present my material it seems I think that the strongest reaction is in any country where it doesn’t have to be translated, but after that the strongest reaction comes in repressed countries where people have a very dictated way of being in public. Fight Club was enormous in Japan and also it was enormous among the Mormon population – all these young Mormon men totally loved Fight Club. They would be missionaries, but at night they would be running fight clubs in Mormon churches. At the time of it’s release the governor of the state of Utah’s son was arrested and prosecuted for running a fight club in the basement of a Mormon church. So the most extreme reaction is English speaking countries, then second highly repressed countries or culture and third Russians, I am told that the books are enormously popular in Russia.
LWLies: How do you feel about those reactions, like the Mormon arrests?
Palahniuk: In a way it’s too big to digest, it’s like having a 500-pound chunk of chocolate there, it’s so big it no longer occurs as food, and so you don’t even try to eat it, it’s just there
LWLies: As a writer how do you feel when people are adapting your work, is it hard to relinquish your influence on the rewrite?
Palahniuk: Actually I think the harder part is impressing on them that I want them to do their own thing and I want them to surprise me. I want them to take liberties with it so that it really becomes their story. Because if they’re going to be passionate enough to make this thing happen, this incredibly difficult, long task, then this story is going to have to represent part of their life, otherwise they just aren’t going to be able to see it through.
LWLies: Do you see your material differently once it’s been adapted, does it surprise you what people pick up on?
Palahniuk: It’s entirely shocking and off-putting because it says so much more about the reader than my material. The classic example is that I was on an airplane to LA once and a male flight attendant came down the isle and knelt down next to my seat and he’d seen my name on the passenger list and he said, ‘Are you the Fight Club guy?’ And I said, ‘Yes’, and he said, ‘Would you tell me the truth if I guess the secret?’ And he said, ‘Fight Club is really about gay bathhouses and it’s about gay guys screwing each other in public isn’t it?’ And I suddenly realised that he wasn’t talking about Fight Club at all, he was talking about and projecting his experience. I was just so shocked in that moment of people describing themselves in how they’re describing the world that I just told him he was right and asked him to keep it a secret and he was so happy. And when San Rockwell was making Choke he was telling me that he saw it as an updated version of Hamlet, with the unresolved Mother and Son relationship, and he also saw it as a version of East of Eden, which had the unresolved relationship between James Dean’s character and his mother. In that film he’s been estranged from her and she’s now a very old woman and he’s constantly trying to connect with her and she won’t talk to him, and so those were two sources that he studied.
LWLies: You’ve looked a lot at subcultures in your work, and Choke obviously investigates sexual subcultures in society. What direction do you think we’re all headed in, are things getting worse?
Palahniuk: Recently I was reading statistics like 85% of all college men now turn to pornography on the internet on a regular basis, and there’s all these social commentators that say young men are failing to make attachments and marry or even bother to go on dates because accessible pornography is changing the depth with which people interact. And that seems so much like Victor in Choke, people seeking a short term, fast food version of having a relationship. And I have to wonder if people will reach that moment of crisis when they realise that all these things have been unfulfilling, and that crisis will generate a delayed emotional or romantic attachment of a greater strength. I don’t think people could be self-deluded for their entire lives, and at some point they’re going to have to recognise a crisis, and at that point all this displaced romantic engagement will come back around.
LWLies: What kind of films do you enjoy watching?
Palahniuk: All of my friends have this classic line, they always say, ‘It’s got this terrible, sad, upsetting ending, you’re going to love it’. I always love stories that have a really dark ending because I’m a child of the ’70s and that was a theme in all the classic movies of the ’70s – Saturday Night Fever he wins but finds out it was fixed; Rocky he loses; The Omen, all of these movies of the ’70s typically ended with people trying very hard but still failing and having to continue in the face of that ultimate failure. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Randall Patrick McMurphy is basically killed, and so that has sort of shaped my aesthetic. And then the anger and resignation of the punk generation on top of that continued and fulfilled my aesthetic.