As interviews go, this particular pause is a substantial one. “I’m still here,” says Chuck Palahniuk, breaking a silence that was fast approaching the 10-second mark. “I’m just thinking. Sorry, I’m slower than my computer.”
There is, ShortList assures him, no need to apologise. It’s a pleasant surprise to encounter an interviewee who takes time to consider their answers, even if it is at a speed that would embarrass their own presumably ancient PC. As we’re finding out, a phone call to the Palahniuk household yields honest and thoughtful insight into what really makes the man tick.
It seems the first rule of interviewing Chuck Palahniuk is: do not attempt rapid-fire chat with Chuck Palahniuk.
But saying that, he’s upbeat and sparky — not what you’d expect from US literature’s greatest purveyor of the grotesque. It’s perhaps to do with his unlikely but hard-won ascent to the top of the modern fiction tree.
Palahniuk (pronounced ‘paul-ah-nick’) was born in 1962 and grew up in a mobile home in Burbank, Washington, spending his formative years reading darkly comic sci-fi stories by authors such as Ray Bradbury, who penned the dystopian Fahrenheit 451, and Kurt Vonnegut, of Slaughterhouse-Five fame. He worked as a diesel mechanic and a journalist after graduating in 1986 and quit two years later to volunteer for homeless charities and hospices before deciding to pursue a career in literature in his mid-30s. If his unorthodox writing process is anything to go by, this initial experience for hard, manual work has remained with him over the years.
“My working day involves jotting down ideas while doing a seemingly mindless physical task,” he reveals. “Then, when I’m exhausted, I’ll sit down and start writing. Today I stacked firewood. That kind of exercise seems to occupy a certain part of my mind, allowing another part to be freed up for thinking about stories.”
And how does he celebrate finishing a novel?
“I don’t. Usually, by the time I finish, I’ve already started another book. I could never complete something unless I had something else to move on to.”
This impressive work ethic is verified by a quick glance at his bibliography. Since the beginning of the millennium, the 49-year-old has published roughly a book a year. “I just love to write,” he explains. “And there are always dreadful, horrible things in anyone’s life that they cannot resolve. It’s those things that I have to turn into fiction.”
HELL ON EARTH
Palahniuk, it could be argued, has had more dreadful, horrible things affect his life than most people. And, true to his word, he’s turned them into some fantastic fiction.
His mother’s battle with cancer provided the inspiration for his latest novel, Damned, which follows a recently-deceased 13-year-old girl as she explores Hell.
“I wrote it while taking care of my mother as she died,” he explains. “She was on drugs the whole time, so writing it was like a way for me to be on drugs too. It kept my mind busy. It was kind of insensitive, though, because I was sat at her bedside reading all these books about Hell. That might not have been a huge comfort.”
Far more horrific, though, was the way in which Palahniuk lost his father. In 1999, Fred Palahniuk was murdered by the ex-husband of a woman he’d begun dating. Chuck’s involvement in the decision to condemn his father’s killer to death laid the foundation for 2002’s Lullaby.
“Lullaby was about forgetting [the incident] but also dealing with it on a larger level,” he says. “But the gentleman who killed my father has since been re-sentenced, so I’m much less invested in the idea of him being put to death now. Time has exhausted me, I think.”
Since Palahniuk uses his work to channel appalling, and very real, experiences, it’s hardly surprising that his books have provoked very real horror in those exposed to them. We’ve heard rumour, we tell him, that he once caused 40 people to faint at a public reading of his short story Guts, which later became part of 2005’s Haunted.
“Never 40,” he laughs. “Not at once. No, on that occasion it was only 18.”
Clearly, to Palahniuk, this represents a far less remarkable number of unconscious attendees. “It was at a festival in Brighton,” he continues, “and, yes, 18 people fainted during my story. He laughs proudly as he remembers it. “It was glorious.”
With so many faintings under his belt, we suggest his next goal must surely be to invoke a few vomitings?
“No, not vomiting,” he says, firmly, taking the question a touch more seriously than we’d intended. “I find that if I make people too ill, or make them weep, there’s no recovering. The rest of the evening is suppressed.”
Anyone who’s read beyond Fight Club in Palahniuk’s portfolio will understand why the possibility of fainting, vomiting and weeping is a concern. From 600-person orgies to swimming-pool suction pump accidents, his most explicit work makes Stephen King look like Judy Blume.
GALVANISING A GENERATION
However, while his writing may cause a loss of consciousness in some, others find it inspiring. For years after Fight Club’s publication in 1996, he received photos from men who had taken it upon themselves to grasp Tyler Durden’s bloodied baton and form real-life battle societies.
“They would send me pictures of themselves smiling,” he recalls, laughing. “All beat-up after gory backyard fights. They were sweet, goofy photos. They looked like little children covered in blood.”
He soon discovered, though, that it was his British fans who were prepared to go above and beyond to realise the book’s more graphic material.
“I remember doing a signing at a book shop in London,” he says, “and a young man told me he loved what I’d written [in Fight Club] about waiters doing things to celebrities’ food. He said he worked in a four-star restaurant in the City. He refused to tell me which one, so I said that I wouldn’t sign his book. He went very quiet and suddenly said, ‘Margaret Thatcher has eaten my sperm.’ I started laughing, so he became bolder and added, ‘At least five times.’ It was such a glorious, hideous little moment.”
As repulsive and — unless you’re Margaret Thatcher — amusing as this anecdote might seem, it also represents a neat bit of symmetry. Just as life began imitating art through these backyard scraps and culinary japes, so it was art that imitated life when Palahniuk was writing the book. From the Narrator’s ‘illness tourism’ (based on the author’s stint as a hospice volunteer), to colleagues turning blind eyes to his battered appearance (inspired by a bruised return to work after a rowdy camping trip), the book is littered with moments from its writer’s history.
Most notoriously, his affiliation with the famously anarchic prank group, the Cacophony Society, provided the blueprint for Fight Club’s maniacal terrorist organisation, Project Mayhem.
“People at Cacophony tended to have structured lives,” says Palahniuk. “The Society gave them a limited window of chaos — the chance to go insane for a few hours and then return to their normal existence.”
One of the best-publicised ‘windows of chaos’ is the annual SantaCon, in which members dress up as Father Christmas and parade through a city, singing, drinking and generally flying in the face of ‘goodwill to all men’.
“One year,” Palahniuk recalls, “they wrapped gifts in Playboy centrefolds. They weren’t supposed to go to children, but one ‘Santa’ gave a few to a kid and ended up being arrested.”
By now, our phone call is nearly at an end, so we squeeze in one final question. What advice would he give to budding novelists on getting their book published?
As usual, there’s a long pause, punctuated only by a “Still here” and a “Just thinking”. Finally, he answers. “Try to surprise the people you send your work to. Agents and editors look at books and manuscripts all day, so they’re the toughest audience you’ll ever have. If you can surprise them, you can surprise anyone.”
And, if that doesn’t work, you could always try to make them faint.
Damned by Chuck Palahniuk will be available in hardback and e-book from 8 September (Jonathan Cape), priced £12.99
(Image: Rex Features)