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Interview: Chuck Palahniuk

2 October 08 interview: James Walker
photos: Dom Henry

"Every book represents a portion of your life, kind of like a scrapbook. Fight Club is like reading a journal from fifteen years ago"

Why is it that the authors who write books about women being fucked by six hundred men in one sitting, accidents during masturbation, fighting with your fellow male as a means of escaping a Sunday afternoon in Ikea and joining testicular cancer groups for kicks are the nicest, politest, people in the world? Isn’t it always the way? Welcome to the world of Chuck Palahniuk. We caught up with him during his brief UK tour to promote his latest novel, Snuff, and sat back and applauded the man who forces fans to wear props if they want their picture taken with him, gives tips on YouTube about how best to steal books from shops and who holds the world record for fans’ fainting during a book reading.

Have you ever been to Nottingham before?
You know, when you’re on a book tour, no place feels like any place because you really just travel around and live in hotel rooms. Maybe you get to see a little of the venue but then you get right back on the plane again. The only thing I’ve really seen is the castle, because the cab drove past it on the way down here.

You have an unusual surname. Where does it come from and how do you pronounce it?
My father’s family is Ukrainian and we’ve always said Pol-e-neck. I’m not sure if that is the correct way but it’s our convention.

What was it like growing up in a female dominated household?
I have a brother and two sisters.

Apologies. I read on your official website that you had four sisters.
It’s a fan-site. A critical fan-site. But I don’t mind when people get it wrong, as long as they really exaggerate. Always give me more of something!

So how was your home life?
It was a very equally balanced household because there were three males and three females. My parents were so Catholic because they had a girl and then a boy and then a girl and then a boy.

We hear there’s a musical of Fight Club in the works?
David Fincher has been keeping everyone committed to this project for several years now and every time I think its dead, someone else talks to David and David keeps referring to it. So as far as I know as long as David is working on it, it’s still a project and he did go to Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and ask for Trent’s commitment to do the soundtrack. I think he got a verbal commitment over the phone from Trent like he did from me.

I take it you are a fan of Trent Reznor’s work?
I love his work. I was reading his work endlessly when I was writing the book.

On the music theme, Choke the film is coming out soon and I read that Radiohead have committed to do some of the music?
I was listening to Creep over and over again when I was writing Choke and I mentioned that to the Director David Fincher and I think as a kind of gift to me, Fincher went ahead and approached Radiohead. Initially they were going to do the closing credits songs, the sort of equivalent of the Pixies song in Fight Club. But as the project developed, they committed to doing ambient music as well. So they’ll be doing a large part of the soundtrack, yeah (ed - Radiohead have since denied this).

With Fight Club being the book/film you are most heavily associated with, we wondered how you felt about it now?
There are parts of it that I would write differently but at this point in my life, it’s not the book that I would write. And so in a way I’m very, very glad that I wrote it when I did because every book sort of represents a portion of your life, kind of like a scrapbook, a document of how you felt at that point in your life. So Fight Club is almost like reading my diary or a journal from fifteen, sixteen years ago

If books are like a diary of your life, what’s been happening recently that’s made you want to write Snuff, a book about a woman being fucked by six hundred men?
One of the main things is being in book signing lines where I’m going to meet and interact with hundreds and hundreds of people, one after the other, sometimes for eight hours or more and trying to be spontaneous and not be discourteous to people and trying to meet them with the same level of enthusiasm that they are meeting me with and just how incredibly exhausting that is. Writing about it as a movie, is just a sort of way to express that.

So it’s an author's metaphor, rather than a comment on the sex industry?
Yes and no. That aspect is.

A lot of fans have fainted at your readings, especially during your explicit descriptions of masturbation. What’s the current head count?
I quit counting, two years ago. At the point I think it was at seventy one people and even beyond that I still read out my stories, I just didn’t count. The greatest number of people in one setting was at Brighton two years ago when I read with Irvine Welsh

That’s quite a double bill as far as grotesque literature goes. So how many collapsed?
Thirteen people fainted. There was a St. John’s Ambulance company there, taking people out. The place was enormous. They had about eight or nine hundred people in the audience, so I guess relatively it was a small percentage, but sill thirteen people.

You seem proud of this...
I’m always proud when spoken words from a story can have any kind of physical impact.

How do you personally cope with writing books that have such a strong emotional and psychological impact? Irvine Welsh, for example, took ten years to write Crime (about paedophilia) because he had to write comical stories in between to escape.
My only pattern is to write one extreme book and then one less extreme book. But no matter what it is I do, I depict it with a humour that comes from depicting very extreme things that fail to have a socially appropriate emotional reaction to them. If you depict something very extreme and you don’t engage in the drama of it then you’re like Tyler in Fight Club, looking down at the bloody face and saying ‘cool’. There’s a humour that comes from being disconnected and so that’s always my tactic because it allows me to coax the reader into more horrible and challenging places without being completely shutdown or alienated by the subject matter. So humour is my strategy for escalating extreme subject matter. Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, said don’t be reactive to things. The way to deal and resolve issues is to not react to the emotional drama of them.

We live in a culture of excess where everyone’s searching for a more extreme kicks. Does your writing contribute towards this or are you simply reporting on it?
There is nothing that I can imagine that a million people aren’t already doing. Also no matter what I write, people still come up to me and tell me even more extreme things or that they tell me I have documented an aspect of their lives that hey thought that they were alone in. My degrees are in journalism so I guess that’s what I do; I collect and document these stories. So few people in the States actually read and books of course have the kind of safety that allows you to tell these stories.

Talking of the States. What are your thoughts on the American election?
I’m about the most unpolitical person you could talk to. Me and the state that I live in voted Obama in the primaries. It will probably be who I vote for in the finals in November. But I’m just tired of the Clintons’ and Bushs’ who seem to have dominated most of my life. I think it’s more of Bush fatigue and Clinton fatigue more than anything else.

Morrrissey on his last album sang that America, symbolically, needed a gay, female or black President if they wanted to be taken seriously again. Would you go with that?
I think it would be a really good experiment, something that people are ready for and would be thrilled to see. It would break things up and create possibilities for people who feel disenfranchised by the current model.

What was the last thing that made you laugh?
(Long pause) I’m thinking more of the last movie that made me laugh. I’m a real idiot for Simon Pegg movies. I haven’t see Run Fat Boy Run, but I loved Hot Fuzz. They’re the kind of movies that always make me laugh. Now I can’t come to Great Britain anymore without expecting to see Zombies down the side streets thanks to Shaun of the Dead.

On a similar note, what’s the last thing that made you cry?
Boy, that’s even harder. I get really choked up in the monologue that Kelly McDonald does at the end of Choke when her character completely dissembles and falls into crisis and it reveals her for what she really is. Her monologue really kills me. It really devastates me.

If you could fight anyone, who would it be?
That’s always an easy one. It would be me. When I listen to myself interviewing other people I’m always so disgusted by my own voice and hearing all of the opportunities I overlook as I’m sort of driving the interview. When I see myself on film I’m always like a stranger that I don’t like or really strongly dislike. So I think definitely, it would be fighting myself in a way that was a genesis of Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club.

Snuff is out in all good bookshops now. Choke is released in cinemas across the UK on 21 November.

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