- Text by Ed Andrews
As two of Huck’s favourite authors Chuck Palahniuk and Douglas Coupland geared up for a social experiment, masquerading as a ‘literary conversation’, at the New York Public Library Friday, April 11, we dug up some old interviews from the archives.
First up is this existential runaround with dark American novelist Chuck Palahniuk whose disturbing transgressional works of fiction explore the taboo sides of life, most famously immortalised in David Fincher’s adaptation of his breakout novel Fight Club.
We caught up with Chuck in 2008 as he was releasing his ninth novel Snuff and this is what went down.
A lot of your work focuses on very transgressive characters. Are they a reflection of yourself or the people you meet?
[Laughing] I’ve always really been shocked or confused by the term ‘transgressive’, in fact I didn’t really know the term until Fight Club was published, and I saw the tiny description on the inside with the copyright where it lists the classifications that the book has fallen under in the Library of Congress in the US, and how it’s legally registered, and I saw that it was registered as ‘transgressional fiction’, and I had no idea what that was, because the people that I’m always drawn to, that I find the most entertaining and I find the most honest, are people who tell me stories that I think other people might consider ‘transgressional’ but I just consider them very honest, memorable stories.
Do you find when you’re writing, that you’re perhaps living out your own fantasies and your own ideas?
Creating the voice of a character is very much kind of living in character for a period of time, and that’s why I’ll try to listen to the same piece of music endlessly as I’m writing a specific voice for the character, because it helps me create a continuity of mood and I’ll also create a vocabulary of mis-statements, that are very specific to that character, because so much of modern fiction and so many people are educated to the point that they can tell a story or they can speak very well that we no longer hear those little-told eloquent speakers, what we hear and what we remember is when something is said in a sort of inaccurate or a wrong way. Years ago, when I was in college, someone was telling me the story of being in line at Target, a department store, and right behind her were these women with all of these fuchsia blouses, and these women standing in line were saying very loudly, ‘I just love this new colour! From now on, fuck-sha is my new colour.’ And the fact that they said it wrong, that they didn’t know any different, that they didn’t know any better, is what makes that story memorable. And so when you hear someone say something wrong, in a broken way, in minimalism it’s called ‘burnt tongue’, when you deliberately consistently say something the wrong way so that people will actually hear it and remember it. It’s a technique, and I try to make it specific to each character. But you also see it in the dialectic parts of some of the most memorable fiction that there is. David Sedaris in his essays about learning French, uses that as a device for speaking in a very broken inaccurate way. The movie Cabaret, as everyone is learning German and English, the characters are constantly saying things wrong to comic effect, and so this ‘saying things wrong’ is a very effective way of creating a character. You have to live within that manner of speaking while you’re writing that character, but beyond that, the content generally comes from other people.
A lot of what you write seems to have quite a carnal tone to it, would you be able to expand upon that, what’s your motivation for that?
It seems like so many books, so many of the books I was required to read that deadened me to reading in school were books that were either very intellectual or they were very emotional or they were some combination of these two things. But they were rarely ever visceral; they almost never had a psychical component to them. So my goal is always to try to involve the reader in a physically sympathetic way, either through violence, or sex, or drugs or illness, or accidents – something that will pull the reader in on a visceral level as well as cognitive and emotional and therefore it will sort of occupy the entire reality of the reader. And because it can occupy all three of those aspects, it’s maybe a story that can compete against such a busy, distracted world, that people will feel and think and they will react to that on a physically sympathetic level. Also I think in Western culture, maybe all culture, we think of stories that engage us physically as being low-culture – pornography, or horror, that if we feel something within us then it is low culture and so we kind of stay away from that visceral quality in high-culture things.
Talking about underground movements, and general deviancies tend to crop up in your work. What is it about such things that fascinate you?
There’s a British anthropologist named Victor Turner, and he’s dead, but his dream was to start a ‘sombre school’, because he was obsessed with very short-lived cultures or events where people came together really without any kind of existing status-structure or power hierarchy, they came together as kind of common equals in a feeling of mutual affection, what you call ‘communitos’ and they were things like festivals or rock concerts or ‘Burning Man’, etc, where people would come together and go crazy together and they would live under a different social model and they’d live as different people for a very small window of time. And so, in doing these little ‘social experiments’, they’re experimenting with different ways of being in a community. The ones that succeed eventually become the dominant culture, because they present a new, more effective way for people to present themselves and to be in relationship with each other. And so I’m always looking for ‘fringe’ cultures or communities to run these little social models and see how people react to them, how they resonate for people, looking for something that might be, you know, an improvement of what we have now.
There’s also the elation of physical danger that’s explored in your work quite a lot; the fighting, the choking, the car-crashing… do you think such things are inherent of human, that humans sort of share that desire?
The main point of those things in all the examples you’re citing, are just to bring people together, to give them the bare structure of roles to play, so that they have some idea of what’s expected of them and how to behave. And then to keep them together long enough to present themselves, to begin to share their experience with each other, in a way that’s kind of ‘churchy’, to bring people together and give them that connection, and that kind of boring setting in which to present themselves to each other. And in Snuff, it’s the people waiting in the green room for this eventual, very physical, carnal thing to happen. But really, in Fight Club, or in Rant or in Choke, the physically intense carnal event is actually the tiniest, tiniest part of the story. And it really is just like Titanic hitting the iceberg; it’s kind of the long thing that we’re working towards that is the excuse for the long ‘coming together’.
Do you think you will ever run out of taboos to address, is there anything you won’t write about?
Every part of your life has something that you are really, really frightened about… At 25, I was terrified that my life was not gonna turn out, that I wasn’t going to be able to create a career, that I was not gonna be able to even pay off my student loan so I couldn’t find a good job. And there were things in that part of my life that were absolutely my worst terrors that I never thought that I would be able to resolve. And now, so many of those things are resolved. And when you’re 35, there will be a whole different set of anxieties you couldn’t anticipate. And when you’re 45, your parents will start getting ill, and it will be a whole different set of anxieties. And when you’re 55. So really almost every year of your life, you’re given a whole different set of horrible possibilities that you can’t really change, or be with. And fiction gives you that way every year of kind of exploring your worst fears, whatever they may be that year, and finding some resolution.
Your views about society and life in general, do you have a particularly cynical view of things?
No, I think I’ve got a fantastically romantic view. I’ve lived long enough to realise how every year we’re told we’re gonna die; when I was little it was swine flu, now it’s SARS or a flesh-eating virus, it’s one thing after another. Every year there’s another sort of call to panic, and I’ve seen this cycle through so many imaginary crises that there’s a sort of burnout that happened, like in my novels. The possibility of disaster is explored so many times that you sort of lose your emotional reaction to it. You’re not as reactive, or upset by possible things. You sort of gain a sense of being able to deal with whatever might occur, and you see a huge continuity of history that’s not going to end anytime soon.
Do you feel you’ve had to make sacrifices for your writing over the years?
When I started writing, I thought that you just stayed at home, and when people called and said, ‘There’s a party this weekend,’ you said ‘No.’ So you quit answering the phone and all of your friends sort of faded away and stopped calling. And then I found that that just led to fantastically boring writing. And that your own life, my own life, would not generate enough good ideas to make a good book. So I decided that I wasn’t going to sacrifice a life in order to write, and that if I was going to write, I’d write at parties, and among my friends, and I would write in public, and as people told stories. And I would collect the very best things that people said. So after deciding that, writing has kind of given me my life. So no, writing has given me a better life than I’ve ever had.
So you feel you have to ‘live it’ to write about it?
Live it, and, I think with any creative person you’re more of an editor, you’re just constantly listening and watching for things that you yourself recognise the value of, and you’re sort of documenting and collecting them in like an enormous net, and then finding some way to preserve them in a single context.
Find out more about the Chuck Palahniuk and Douglas Coupland on the New York Public Library website.