Questions For Chuck Palahniuk
By John Glassie
(This interview appeared in somewhat different form in The New York Times Magazine, September 2002)
Q. You new book Lullaby is a darkly comic, subversive take on the horror genre, and features a more or less unwitting serial killer. I understand you wrote it in the aftermath of your father's murder - during the trial of the man who was ultimately convicted.
A. I was writing Lullaby when I was also writing my victim's rights statement. As part of that statement I had to decide if I favored the death penalty.
Q. Do you?
A. Eventually I decided that I would recommend the death penalty for him, but only under the requirement that I be present. We rely way too much on other people committing those acts for us in our lives.
Q. And is he on death row now?
A. Yes, he is. He'll be filing appeals probably until I'm old and gray.
Q. Would you be willing to pull the switch, too?
A. It's going to sound terrible, but I would. I think that I am responsible for the death of thousands of things and for the misery of thousands of people, just through the things that I buy and how I live my life and these are not things that ever deserved to die. And this man has caused so much misery for so many people throughout his life that this is perhaps the only form of redemption he has left.
Q. The narrator in Lullaby can cause other people's deaths just by reciting the words to an old African culling song. He calls it "a plague that you catch through your ears." Do you think such a plague exists right now?
A. In so many ways. On one level, nobody imagined the Internet was going to connect all the terrorists and all the pedophiles. One another level, there are copycat killings. On another level, advertisers occupy space in our minds, with their jingles and messages and slogans. And on another, there's the distraction, the pure time suck, of mass media.
Q. Your characters do pretty bad stuff in your books. They start fight clubs. They stalk sex-addiction support group meetings to find women. They pretend to choke in restaurants to get money. They engage in civil anarchy. You're not an anarchist, are you?
A. No. I just want to write exciting books.
Q. But you've said you want your books to be "confrontational"? What do you want to confront people about?
A. I'm dealing with my own issues on the page and if I can find a kind of resolution in exhausting myself around those issues, then maybe that's something that can happen for other people. Issues of property, mortality, commitment to long-term adult relationships, issues of sex, issues of violence. The books are all about finding some sort of resolution to these issues. My characters demonstrate such extreme coping mechanisms that they will eventually break down. I want my characters to really overuse their coping mechanisms to point where they do break down within 300 pages.
Q. Especially since the film version of Fight Club came out, you've developed a huge cult-like population of fans. I understand some of these folks are pretty obsessed.
A. For the most art they're incredibly sweet. They sleep out side the book store in sleeping bags so they can get to the reading. Two weeks ago, in Berkeley, the auditorium was packed with people, and at the last moment, a whole bunch of other people came crowding in; they were all dressed as waiters and they had black eyes and towels folded over one arm and silver trays with dinner rolls on them. And they started throwing these dinner rolls around, hitting people in the head. No one was reacting and I thought that maybe I was hallucinating. As I got into the reading, a man in the front row started choking on one of the dinner rolls and had to be Heimliched and spewed his dinner roll all over people. There's that kind of participatory nature to more and more of the events. But it does get a generation of people that have not been involved in books involved in reading. So what the hell, you know?
Q. But "Fight Club" has also spawned a lot of actual fight clubs. Doesn't that concern you?
A. Not at all. The kids I talk to really love them. And in the case of the fight club at Brigham Young University, they had hundreds of kids at each event, and the kids were furious when the university shut them down.
Q. Have there been any serious injuries?
A. Not that I'm aware of. But I've got a lot of bloody photographs that people have sent me of themselves beaten up after back-yard fights or fight clubs.
Q. And that doesn't bother you, either?
A. Oh, they're all smiling too much! All these smiling young men! It's venting something. It's giving them a sense of self worth and value that they're not getting anywhere else.
Q. You have been involved in fighting yourself. Do you still do it?
A. I haven't done it a couple years. I was taking grappling lessons but my coach moved to England. And do I really miss that. I miss being injured as much as the actual fighting. Because the injury gives you that sort of peace to sit down and actually write. Like a rainy day, it kept me in one place long enough to get work done.
Q. And now?
A. Now, I build stone walls and pour concrete and dig holes and do anything to exhaust myself.
Q. "Lullaby" is your version of a scary book, but what scares you right now?
A. What spooks me right now is that transgressive books or movies that make fun of the culture, that criticize the culture, might not be brought to market any more. I understand that on September 12th, suddenly it was deemed that that the market would no longer support those kind of books. I have to wonder if we're going to enter a real Ice Age of self-expression. But on the other hand, I think we're going to enter the more subtle 1950s-type era of literature along the lines of George Orwell or "Lord of the Flies" or Arthur Miller. I think the transgressive novel may have to go underground for a while.