Lullaby at the Fight Club: The Chuck Palahniuk GobQ & A
by K. Willis Morton


Chuck Palahniuk was telling me he'd just finished Lullaby, "the book for next year." It was a dreary November day & the book's release was still nine or ten months away. A big theme of the book, he said, "is what we think of as nature - isn't natural. Nature is so filled with invasive plants and animals that I begin to question if I've ever seen a natural place that wasn't in some way, if not completely, replaced by the invasive culture. It's things that people don't want to know but I find myself having to know them."
     We spoke at Tao of Tea, a SE Portland tea shop on Division. The sound of waterfalls & tabla & sitar music filled the room as we talked about writing, nature, the murder of his father, sex addiction support groups, SIDS, acceptance of "the other" & understanding their point of view, sentimental movies & terrorist bombings, paranoia & historical revisionism, how he researches, & the transformations that may occur when we write or read about characters who've been released from their traps.
     Again discussing Lullaby, Chuck said, "studying Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and finding out all the things that people who have babies do not want to know was a[nother] big part of this book." Chuck Palahniuk wants to unsettle you in hopes that, when you've read his novels, you'll think a bit differently, feel a bit more free, & be able to laugh off the world's horrors as well as the equally ineffable successes. - KWM

GobQ : Does researching your books like you did for Choke by going undercover - without disclosing your true agenda - to Sex Addicts Anonymous for six months help you create genuine characters?

CP: It was really important to me to be able to write about sex addicts as people rather than the gross stereotypes that they are in our culture, dirty old men or nymphomaniacs. We just have these really broad-brush generalizations for making fun of these people. And I wanted to go and be with people who define themselves as sex addicts, and be able to portray them in a sympathetic realistic way. I don't think I could have written about the issue without going, and I don't think that I could have gone and revealed myself and gotten a realistic look inside.

GobQ: How does the issue of SIDS mesh with the nature aspect of Lullaby?

CP: I wanted to reinvent the horror novel using aspects of contemporary culture. The protagonist is a newspaper reporter who is writing a series on SIDS, so he visits five SIDS locations with paramedics. At each location he notices the same library book; the same cheap anthology of public domain material. One poem is an ancient African culling spell for killing people who are injured, or very old, or need to die for some reason. It kills people instantly and painlessly. The irony is that he's a reporter but he can't share this information because he has no idea how many copies of this book are out in the world already. If anyone else knew about this, it would escalate a power struggle to the point where all mass media could conceivably carry the seeds of death. Any song you heard, even something subliminally placed beneath the level of noise, could kill you. So, sound is deadly. The next generation of people that struggle with him are environmentalists who are saying, "Yeah, we wouldn't mind seeing mankind wiped out." So they are the other spectrum. He wants to preserve humanity and they want to sort of, shall we say, prune humanity. The book becomes a modern reinvention of witchcraft within the mass media. If there were spells, the mass media would make them available to everyone; so it also becomes a book about censorship and how much can the government allow us to know.
GobQ: It also makes you think about what spells the mass media's already casting that we don't know about.

CP: Exactly. All of that. Are we already being manipulated and engineered by what we are allowed to hear?

GobQ: What was your first reaction when you heard about the bombings in New York?

CP: We don't have a TV so we woke up and just listened to it on the radio as it was happening. We were clustered around the radio, horrified, and trying not to cry in that big emotional moment when it sounded so real. And at the same time listening to it on the radio, after The War of the Worlds, part of me had to really wonder if we weren't being put-on in some way. And there's all this revisionist history about the Holocaust. No real event has the reality that it used to have. I wonder if one day there will be revisionists who try to say the Trade Towers disaster didn't occur. It's harder to become attached to these events because the moment they're over, there is a sense of unreality - did they ever happen?

GobQ: How much of that reaction do you think was influenced by the fact that you just finished a book in which you write about media's influence on our sense of reality?

CP: I had sent off the manuscript the day before. It was supposed to arrive in New York on September 11th. I forgot about that - I think that may have been part of it, but I've thought that way as far back as the movie Forrest Gump, which totally appalled me. I'd never been exposed to anything that so blatantly manipulated people in a sentimental way with everything they could throw in: old songs, children, AIDS, anything that could strike an emotional chord was packed into that movie. It completely disgusted me. I think ever since that movie, and that cheap use of sentiment, I've been really on guard.

GobQ: In another interview you said, "The point of fiction is not to validate the world but to reinterpret it." When you write and subsequently reinterpret the world what effect do you think it has on your non-writing world? What do you hope that it does for your reader?

CP: It always gives me the freedom to be with the things I can't be with because I'm always working through very personal issues. Lullaby is about having the power of life and death. If you had the power to kill anyone painlessly, instantly painlessly, without any effort, even from a distance, would you do it? And that's really about me processing whether or not I wanted to recommend the death sentence for the man who killed my father. This year I was asked to write a letter recommending whether or not I wanted the man to die. What I hope that someone would get out of the book is the freedom to be around whatever: whether it's terminal illness, or illness, or addiction, or loss of good looks. Or around suicide. I want the books to be able to give people a freedom to laugh at all these things that so upset us that we're paralyzed around them, and we have no freedom to be with them. So that's why I try to make fun of these issues and give people a license to be with them without being upset, to see them in a different odd way.

GobQ: It's interesting that you talk about freedom because there seems to be a theme of being trapped that runs through your books. In Choke they're trapped in 1837, in their old bodies, and trapped in the horrors of their past abuses. In Invisible Monsters they are trapped in peoples' expectations of what they should look like. And in Fight Club, trapped in life expectations and super consumerism.

CP: It's always about taking a character from a trapped place, even if it's a trap that they put themselves into. Because we have this American Dream that if we can make enough money then we won't have to deal with all the other assholes in the world. But once we get to that penthouse, that country estate, that yacht, then we're miserable and we instantly crave being back around people. So we hand-pick a few people and we bring them to our private world. Then we torture them. That's the huge American myth. We can't be with each other and we can't not be with each other, it's awful. And so all the books are about taking people from a self-imposed isolation and bringing them back into community. And taking them to something beyond.

GobQ: Do you think you will write more about your father's death?

CP: It's funny because I used to criticize Nora Ephron for writing about her mother's death. She writes about it in essays, in her best seller; she writes about it over and over, fiction and nonfiction, but it's basically always the same scenes. And now I'm finding myself always drawn back to writing about my father, especially as more is revealed about the murder, and the murderer, and the situation he was in. There is always some new bit of information that makes it all fresh and poignant and upsetting again. I'm just afraid of boring people with it or I would write about it more.

GobQ: Do you think writing about it masked as fiction allows you to be with it more than you could otherwise? Because the last time we spoke you said you could never write about it.

CP: I'll write about aspects of it, but I don't want to write a big nonfiction book about it. Writing about it metaphorically is different, and sometimes I'm not even aware that I'm doing it, until after I'm done. Then I realize, oh my gosh this whole book Invisible Monsters was really about me growing old. Survivor was really about my grandfather's suicide. And it's mortifying to see that you've revealed something incredibly personal about yourself that you never would have told anyone otherwise, and now suddenly you've told millions of people. It's terrifying when you realize: Oh my god if they knew where to look that they would know everything about me.

GobQ: It seems like you really do try to make the "gross" types in all your books sympathetic, and present them not as "the other" but as one of us.

CP: Exactly. And maybe even as superior in the way that at least that they are sharing aspects of themselves that the rest of us keep hidden. They are admitting that they have faults, that they are struggling with things, while the vast majority of us walk around pretending we're perfect or that we have it all together. In a way these people have a grace that the rest of us don't allow ourselves.

GobQ: That attitude does come through in your writing. It's also clear that you create sympathetic characters without resorting to sentimentality. In Choke there's this line: "He was assaulting the world by assaulting himself". In Invisible Monsters the transvestite says, "he transformed himself because it was the worst thing he could think to do to himself." There seems to be a theme of self-annihilation with a lot of your characters.

CP: More identity annihilation rather than self-annihilation. If you are trained to be a certain way, then you are trained that success means being trained another certain way. So how do you get away from the idea that everything you've every dreamt of being, you have been trained to want to be? How do you get beyond that into what you don't know you don't know, into a reality of which you have no inkling. Maybe one short cut is to go to the place you've been told never to go. Because enlightenment is there. Disaster may be there. But maybe that's where enlightenment is also. You know what success is: money, power, comfort, security. But what if you want something better than that? Where do you go?

GobQ : What were the things that trapped you when you were working on these books, and how is that different now that you have some notoriety and your books are successful?

CP: When I first started working I thought the idea was to isolate yourself and write completely from your own mind and your own experience. That was the worst way to write. To write I had to be around people. I had to argue with people and listen to their viewpoint. Their viewpoint, more often than not, was better than mine. I had to be able to absorb the best ideas of other people whether or not I agreed with them. I wanted to be open to as many different sources of information as I could find. And that's what made my writing what it is. Putting myself in a lonely room and shutting the door is not the way to do it. I thought that I would have to retire before I could ever write, which was another big lie. I could write a sentence at a time, if that's all I could write. And I could write while I worked full-time and still get a book done. No matter how little time you have, you still have a lot of trapped-dead time. Your life is full of little dead-times. In traffic, in the laundromat, in the car dealership while you're wait for them to change your oil. Every aspect of your life is writing, not just that trapped-in-that-lonely-room-with-the-door-shut time. You could be eating with friends and someone could say something incredibly funny and insightful and all you have to do is write it down.

GobQ: You've said you "really had to make a conscious effort to step out of culture in order to write anything new about the culture." But I also hear you saying that you had to become part of the culture in some ways.

CP: Well it's different. I had to become part of the personal one-on-one culture where I was meeting, and talking, and interacting with people, rather then dealing with very generalized ideas and messages that are in the media.

GobQ: You admire writers who fictionalize their lives and make something more universal and profound out of them. What things in your life were the seeds of the books you have written?

CP: 85% of the things in my books happened or are things that my friends told me. So much now is coming out about memoir and non-fiction being dramatized - in a way my books are the fiction version of that. My books are reality that has been masked and reworked just enough to call it fiction. Theirs is a story that has been sold as reality but has been sort of dressed up to read more like good fiction. I'm almost meeting those people right in the middle at this point.

GobQ: You say you want your work to be challenging and entertaining at the same time. Would you define those words for me

CP: "Challenging," meaning that it offends, and surprises, and amazes the reader. It's not pandering to the reader. It's, in a way, at odds with the reader. It's stimulating the reader in the way that a good argument is stimulating. And "Entertaining" in that it is clear, and surprising, and paced well enough that the reader can still be with it; that, despite the reader's own inclination, the reader continues. It's attractive enough that the reader doesn't want to walk away, even if they don't agree. So it's creating that approach-and-avoidance dynamic.

GobQ: What's the power of combining both of these attributes in writing? You could say you wanted to be challenging and any number of other goals, but you have chosen specifically these two elements; why?

CP: It creates a sense of intimacy and a sense of respect. When these two elements are combined readers don't totally agree with the work but they like the work well enough that they can respect it. It allows readers to be with ideas that are not totally what they believe and respect those ideas without having to destroy or ignore them; they then understand another viewpoint without the challenge of having to accept it.

GobQ: Do you think that your theme of identity annihilation goes to the point of redemption; that if you can chip away enough at your identity you'll find who you are?

CP: Or you'll have more of a freedom to become something other than just a reaction to your past, or just the thing you've been taught to become. You'll have a full spectrum of possibility rather then the very limited possibility that would come from your past. Your past determines your future if you live out of your past. This is just a way of escaping that cycle altogether and being able to choose from anything in the world rather then just the thing that is the reaction to what you have already been. That sounded ridiculous.