Chuck Palahniuk was telling me heıd just finished Lullaby. It was a dreary November day & the bookıs release was still nine or ten months away. A big theme of the book, he said, ³is what we think of as natureisnıt natural. Nature is so filled with invasive plants and animals that I begin to question if Iıve ever seen a natural place that wasnıt in some way, if not completely, replaced by the invasive culture. Itıs things that people donıt want to know but I find myself having to know them.²
We spoke at Tao of Tea, a SE Portland tea shop on Belmont. 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 ³the other² & 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 whoıve been released from their traps. We briefly discussed his nonfiction. Writing for such publications as Gear, L.A. Times, & the Sunday Herald, he has described everything from Montanaıs Testicle Festival & the trial of his fatherıs murderer to the wild mood swings of post-9-11 America.
Again discussing Lullaby, Chuck said, ³studying 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.² Chuck Palahniuk wants to unsettle you in hopes that, when youıve read his novels, youıll think a bit differently, feel a bit more free, & be able to laugh off the worldıs horrors as well as the equally ineffable successes.
We hoped to do a follow-up interview, but Chuck has been very busy with film & television projects, nonfiction, & his Lullaby book tour (which got better reviews than the book.)KWM/
GobQ: Does researching your books like you did for Choke by going undercoverwithout disclosing your true agendato 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 donıt think I could have written about the issue without going, and I donıt 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 heıs a reporter but he canıt 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, ³Yeah, we wouldnıt mind seeing mankind wiped out.² 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: What was your first reaction when you heard about the Twin Towers in New York?
CP: We donıt 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 werenıt being put-on in some way. And thereıs 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 didnıt occur. Itıs harder to become attached to these events because the moment theyıre over, there is a sense of unrealitydid 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 mediaıs 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 thatI think that may have been part of it, but Iıve thought that way as far back as the movie Forrest Gump, which totally appalled me. Iıd 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, Iıve been really on guard.
GobQ: Do you think you will write more about your fatherıs death?
CP: Itıs funny because I used to criticize Nora Ephron for writing about her motherıs death. She writes about it in essays, in her best seller; she writes about it over and over, fiction and nonfiction, but itıs basically always the same scenes. And now Iım 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. Iım just afraid of boring people with it or I would write about it more.
GobQ: It seems like you really do try to make the ³gross² types in all your books sympathetic, and present them not as ³the other² 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 weıre perfect or that we have it all together. In a way these people have a grace that the rest of us donıt allow ourselves.
GobQ: That attitude does come through in your writing. Itıs also clear that you create sympathetic characters without resorting to sentimentality. In Choke thereıs this line: ³He was assaulting the world by assaulting himself²... In Invisible Monsters the transvestite says, ³he transformed himself because it was the worst thing he could think to do to himself.² 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 youıve ever dreamt of being, you have been trained to want to be? How do you get beyond that into what you donıt know you donıt know, into a reality of which you have no inkling. Maybe one short cut is to go to the place youıve been told never to go. Because enlightenment is there. Disaster may be there. But maybe thatıs 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: Youıve said you ³really had to make a conscious effort to step out of culture in order to write anything new about the culture.² But I also hear you saying that you had to become part of the culture in some ways.
CP: Well itıs different. I had to become part of the personal one-on-one culture where I was meeting, and talking, and interacting with people, rather than 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 dramatizedin 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. Iım almost meeting those people right in the middle at this point.Q