The Beatrice Interview

Chuck Palahniuk

"When people read something, they should not have to go through slow parts."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Fight Club was a book that restored my faith in literature. When it first came out in 1996, I was simply blown away by the raw power of Chuck Palahniuk's language, and the way he'd perfectly captured the sarcastic, subversive spirit of the Usenet newsgroups in which I immersed myself back then. (Turned out that Palahniuk had barely any access to the net back then; even at his office, he was trapped behind a corporate firewall.) It turned out to be a brilliant precursor of the end-of-the-millennium anti- corporate-consumerist-culture that would lead to fighting in the streets of Seattle during the WTO convention--held just weeks after the release of the film adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. (The main instigators of the street violence, in fact, were anarchists who were based much closer to Palahniuk's home in Portland than to Seattle itself.)

What brought on such cynicism and black humor among so much of our generation, I asked him. "I think it's sort of a defense mechanism," he said. "Things are changing so fast, and standards are changing so fast that it takes a twisted sense of humor not to just cry all the time. I mean, you could take it all personally and kill yourself or you could find some way of laughing at it." Since Fight Club, Palahniuk's been able to laugh his way through three other novels and has become something of an cult hero to a new generation of readers--including yours truly.

RH: Let me start by saying, and I mean this as a compliment, that you have a very twisted imagination.

CP: I wish it were just mine but it's really all of my friends. About eighty percent of Fight Club is received information. I can go to parties and say, "How many people have doctored food in the service industry?" and get their stories... people write the books for me; all I've got to do is remember everybody's stories and put them together. So, I can't take credit for most of it.

RH: So how did you first get interested in hearing these stories?

CP: I was always disappointed when I went to read anything. I'd go to the library and I'd pull fifty books off the shelf and none of them were anything I wanted to read. And I always thought, you know, I could do something better. And there's always stories that really stand out that make me laugh out loud when people tell them. People have fantastically funny stories. So I thought, why not collect these things instead of letting them be wasted, letting them go out in thin air. I collect them and put them together somehow and it seems to work.

RH: There's a lot of different types of stories that end up in the book. You've got the support groups stories, the disease story, the homemade bomb story, the homemade soap story... just a lot of really bizarre stuff that all seems to click somehow.

CP: I don't know how it all clicks but I just feel that when people read something, they should not have to go through slow parts. They should get a lot for their attention and for their time. That's why I just end up putting more and more in. Reading and books are up against a lot of entertainment these days and it seems like movies, video, everything is getting better, except somehow books just seem to lag behind. Part of what I was trying to do was make a book as exciting as a movie or anything else a person might be doing with that time.

RH: How much of the stuff in the book have you done?

CP: I've done a lot of it; almost all of it's been done by either me or my friends. A friend of mine, Alice, who is sort of a survivalist, was teaching me how to make soap at the same time another friend called and told me about working in a dermatologist's office where they do liposuction. So nobody I know ever actually made soap out of human fat, but that's how the two things work together.

RH: The way the narrator of Fight Club tells the story, in a very conversational tone with the occasional bizarre riff, is one of its most striking features.

CP: I think the best story tellers right now are standup comedians because they tell a story really conversationally and get to the point and they make it brief and they keep your attention. The switch between first, second, and third person, and the tenses, past, present, future, always jump around--I love that and that's how I always try to write. Because that's how people tell a story: You walk into a bar and there's a priest and the priest says to the guy... I mean, it's just a really honest way of talking.

RH: Who were some of the writers you had in mind when you were figuring out how you wanted to work with language?

CP: Amy Hempel, who wrote the short-story collection At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, and Mark Richard who wrote The Ice at the Bottom of the World. And Thom Jones--when I heard that he had written a blurb for Fight Club I was just overwhelmed, because I've always loved his stuff. When I read his stories, I think, "Why can't more writing be like this?"

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
William T. Vollmann | Complete Interview Index | George Saunders

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