Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s work has been described as “nihilistic,” “transgressive,” “lurid,” “wickedly grim,” “brilliant,” and too many other adjectives to list here. His first novel, Fight Club, was published in 1996 and started to garner him a reputation as a one-man cult, but the 1999 David Fincher film version catapulted the author beyond mere cult status. Since then, Palahniuk has released a stream of (often controversial) books, including the novels Survivor, Choke, Invisible Monsters, Lullaby, Damned, and Doomed; the nonfiction collections Fugitives & Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon and Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories; and the story collection Haunted. The latter includes his notorious short tale “Guts,” a story about an adolescent boy’s horrific encounter with a pool filter that has caused listeners at his readings to faint. His latest works are the novel Beautiful You, which he has called “a hybridization of chick lit,” and the anthology Burnt Tongues, co-edited with Richard Thomas and Dennis Widmyer and published by Medallion Press. Palahniuk is a native of the Pacific Northwest, where he teaches writing and is involved with writing workshops.

Let’s talk horror and start with Beautiful You, especially that opening scene, which involves a rape. In a lot of horror novels, there’s an unfortunate trope of women as victims, but in Beautiful You’s opener you turn that trope around and give us men as victimizers. It’s a powerful scene, and I was curious about why you decided to open the book with it.

I wanted to open it at the lowest point in Penny’s power — the point where she’s completely powerless, subjugated to something, and we would have a vague idea what that something was — we’d think it was a man, but we wouldn’t have the full context. And the darker the opening, the happier the ending.

Right. I know you’ve referred to yourself as a romantic, and your books often have a sort of optimistic ending. Is that one of the things that maybe separates you from being a true dark fiction author?

My books do have a sort of romantic community at the end — people coming together. But on a more basic level, I always see them as being about power, in the same way that Harry Potter books are pitched to a population of young people who really have no power. Superheroes are also stories about power. My books are always about someone obtaining a power to replace the previous sort of power that they held.

Or maybe that they didn’t hold . . . ?

Everyone holds a certain type of power. For young people, it’s their youth, their attractiveness, and their energy. But they’re terrified that as those qualities fade, what are they going to replace that form of power with? Every stage of life has its own form of power, and we’re always sort of terrified as to whether we can make the jump to the next form of power.

Penny’s power in Beautiful You almost seems to be her total innocence . . . is it more than just her youth?

Penny’s power is her total obedience. First she did what her parents said, and then she did what her academic professors said, and then for a long time she did what Maxwell said, and then she did what Baba said. She’s always been very obedient, a good student — and now she needs to step it up to something bigger.

One of the things that struck me about Beautiful You — and about much of your work — is that you have an amazing use of excess. In horror, excess tends to mean gore, but with you I think about something like the “meet-cute” scene in Beautiful You, where she comes into this office and she trips on a floral carpet and she spills all this sugary coffee, and Maxwell is there. Most writers would do that in a couple of paragraphs, but you extend it so long it becomes almost ominous. I wondered if excess is a sort of tool in your toolkit.

It goes back to my teacher, Tom Spanbauer. He always emphasized how important it was to unpack every aspect of a story. You couldn’t just let a moment pass — you had to unpack into as much detail as possible. So I really wanted to beat on that metaphor of how first she finds herself in this garden, and then she’s in the presence of this thing that appears to have hooves instead of feet. It was intended to play all those metaphors for as much as they were worth.

I also loved the descriptions of her being sticky and hot from the coffee — it was very funny, and a little creepy.

Y’know, you have to go to the body somehow and it has to be something that makes people physically uncomfortable as they read it.

I was also curious about the fact that Beautiful You is in past tense, when so many of your other works have been present tense.

So much of my early stuff was written according to the very strict rules of minimalism as created by Gordon Lish. With Lish, your goal was to keep the language really simple and to make things sound not writerly, as if they were being told aloud by someone who had actually experienced them as opposed to being written by a writer. With Beautiful You, I deliberately wanted to discard as many rules of minimalism as possible. I wanted to use as many writing tropes and clichés as I could, because I thought that if things seemed kind of tritely written, I could do even more horrific things. The contrast of the triteness of the writing style and the scene being depicted would end up being comic. That’s why I wrote in the past tense, and I used adverbs — tons of adverbs! — and I deliberately tried to write as poorly as possible.

You also ran dangerously afoul of political correctness in scenes like when you have Penny’s Latina roommate dancing around a sombrero . . .

As long as you put in the qualifying phrase about how “she had advanced so far beyond identity politics . . .”!

The book that most horror readers would know you from would be Haunted, which of course includes your story “Guts,” but I was also interested in the fact that in the beginning of the book you reference the group at the Villa Deodati and the night that Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein. Was that a tip of your hat to the horror genre, or was that more just to emphasize the book’s framing device of a writing group?

That’s funny — I just read a fascinating essay collection called MFA Vs. NYC, and it’s essays that juxtapose the experience of people who came into writing via academics as compared to people who came to New York and got jobs in the publishing industry and got published in that way. One thing it points out is that so many famous books that came out of writing programs — for example, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — the ward depicted in Cuckoo’s Nest is very much the writing group that Kesey attended at Stanford. And in Beloved by Toni Morrison, they argue that the plantation is her writing workshop group from her MFA. I’ve attended the same writing workshop since 1990; we lock ourselves away at least once a week. So I wanted to kind of allude to these little crucibles where people bring their worst ideas together.

Do you still attend your workshop every Monday night?

We do.

And of course there’s “Guts,” a story so intense that it’s caused listeners to pass out when you’ve read it aloud. Why exactly do you think that story caused such an intense reaction?

Part of it is the discomfort of how densely packed these people are — they tend to be in audiences that are a little beyond fire-code . . . and then the story has a kind of up-and-down of charming people and making them laugh and then getting a little darker, and then making them laugh a little harder, and then getting a little darker. A doctor in England explained to me once how if you make people laugh too much, their blood becomes — I believe it is acidic as opposed to alkaline. It changes the oxygen level in the blood, and people are likelier to pass out at that point. That’s why cults make people sing so hard for so long — because it over-oxygenates the blood and sets them up to faint. He said there’s a lot of factors involved with people laughing so much at the beginning and it set them up to faint when they could see where it was going.

Was it deliberate on your part to set them up with the laughter first?

No, I had no idea. I just knew that if I was going to get them to this very dark place without them burning out and just closing the book that there would have to be a lot of funny asides that would break the tension early on, and that I would have to keep that up so that people would have stress laughs, which aren’t really “ha-ha” laughs, but like the kind of laughs you get in Pulp Fiction, when you’re almost hysterical and you laugh because of that hysteria.

Were you pleased or surprised at all by the reception to the story insofar as Ellen Datlow choosing it for her Year’s Best anthology, or the nomination for the Bram Stoker Award?

I thought it was terrific. I loved it. I wish I could write a story like that every year. I have a collection coming out in May that has two stories that are about the same level of extreme-ness as “Guts,” and my editor fought like crazy — he didn’t want those stories in the book. He originally hated “Guts,” but he’s grown to love it.

I confess it hit me kind of the same way. The first time I read it, I just thought, What is this?! But then I read it again . . . it’s quite an achievement to write something that so many people have read multiple times.

I was always fascinated by the public reaction to Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” and how it caused so many people to cancel their subscriptions to The New Yorker. But over the decades it’s become standard fare for middle grade kids and even grade schoolers to read.

I think it was one of the first horror stories I ever read.

Yes, it stays with us. And to think that at the time it was introduced, it was considered beyond the pale.

It’s probably too much to hope that we’ll see “Guts” in any textbooks in the future, though.

Yeah. There are a couple of teachers who’ve been suspended for even recommending it to their students.

Let’s go back even further to your break-out book Fight Club . . . but that wasn’t the first thing you’d written, was it?

No. I’d written a very rough first draft of Invisible Monsters that was shopped around for a couple of years and didn’t amount to anything. Fight Club was kind of my response to the fact that no one would publish Monsters.

Was Fight Club a comparatively easy sale?

It sold instantly, but it sold for $7,000.

Oh no!

I later found out that’s what’s called “kiss-off money.” If there’s an editor who wants to acquire a book, and the house doesn’t want to alienate the editors, then the house offers an advance so low that they hope to alienate the writer. I didn’t know enough to know that I should have been insulted by the advance and walked away.

That’s amazing. I just naturally assumed you’d received a gigantic advance on that book.

No. And it sold fewer than 5,000 copies in hardcover its first year. Sales started to build with the paperback, then the movie came out — and hardcover and paperback sales have done well ever since.

It’s certainly a great film, too. Was that a cinematic treatment you were happy with?

I was very happy. And I’ve just been in meetings with David Fincher — he’s optioned the stage rights, and he’s got Trent Reznor writing the score, and they’re going to be producing it as an enormous rock opera. David says that Tommy was the rock opera of his and my generation, and then there was The Wall, but there really hasn’t been a rock opera for millennials. So David is putting together probably the biggest project of his career, turning this into a rock opera. If anybody can do it — David with his music video background and Trent Reznor now with his film work . . . what a fantastic team.

That is fantastic. Is their intention to tour it?

I think they’re going to open it simultaneously in several different cities. And he’s been consulting with Julie Taymor about the kind of big spectacle show that Taymor is so good at putting on. And that’s probably all I should say about that.

Speaking of Fight Club, how did Fight Club 2 end up as a ten-part graphic novel?

Well, I wanted to do a follow-up because I had no idea that I’d be talking about Fight Club for the rest of my life. I wanted to expand the mythology — look backward into the past as well as forward into the future — and if I did it in the form of a book, it would be compared to the original book. And if anyone did it as a movie, it would have really a difficult job being compared to David’s movie. I thought a third medium would be perfect, so I thought — graphic novel.

Had you ever wanted to write a graphic novel before?

We’d been approached by DC years and years ago about doing a Fight Club graphic novel, but what they wanted to do was just depict the story in the book in comic book form, and that wasn’t very exciting at the time.

The art looks great in Fight Club 2 as well.

Oh, Cameron Stewart was a perfect choice! He is so frigging smart, and he was able to cram so much information onto the page.

When is the first volume being released?

The first volume is coming out in May, but as part of Free Comic Book Day they’re producing the last third of the novel in comic book form as a way of introducing readers to the way the characters will look in graphic form, and also as a means of reintroducing readers to the end of the book, as opposed to the end of the movie.

Since it jumps around in time, it must have elements of historical fiction . . . ?

It does. Random House wanted to bring out my story collection at the same time and kind of ride the skirts of the Dark Horse project, so Random House asked me to specifically write a short story that could be linked to the whole mythology of Fight Club, so I ended up writing this kind of Lovecraftian, Edgar Allan Poe-type Gothic tale that takes places in the nineteenth century and shows the dynamics of Fight Club and Tyler affecting that family even that far back in time.

I know you research a lot of your work, and I’ve thought it might be interesting to see a Chuck Palahniuk take on historical fiction.

Really, I’m kind of a journalist by degree. I’m really good at interviewing people and gathering information and finding patterns between people’s life experience, but I’m also kind of good at aping and mimicking style, so I spent the whole summer in Spain reading Poe and reading Lovecraft, and aping that archetypal Gothic style.

That brings me to a question I had: A lot of writers will tell you that they start a book by thinking about a character, but with you I get the idea that you might start with something that you’re just dying to say. Do you ever start with thinking about a character first, or do you start with a sort of thematic device?

It depends. My short stories tend to be based on journalism; someone tells me a small story, and then someone else tells me an almost identical story from their own life . . . that’s how “Guts” went together. Somebody told me the funny carrot story, and then in response to that somebody told me the horrible candle story, and then somebody told me the hideous swimming pool story. The short stories tend to be a journalistic gathering of anecdotes that are put together to make something larger. But with the novels, I usually start from something in my own life that I can’t resolve, so I turn it into a metaphor and for months or sometimes years I’ll exhaust all of my emotional reaction to this issue by making it enormous on the page. You talked about going too far, and that’s the idea — to exhaust my own emotional reaction by going farther and farther and farther with it. And that tends to resolve the thing itself.

I think it’s also one of the reasons people respond to your work so strongly. You’re talking about things that quite often no one else seems to be talking about in fiction, and you’re talking so strongly about these things, and people respond by saying, “Somebody else feels the same way I do, and they’re talking about it.”

Yeah, I think that’s why I see so many tattoos of my stuff on people — tattoos of my book covers, tattoos of quotes . . . it’s kind of daunting sometimes.

I can imagine. Do you ever think, Oh my God, this guy scarred himself permanently on my behalf?

Only when it’s my signature!

Your signature? Wow, that’s almost like identity theft.

I’m always really careful about posting those pictures! But the bookstores love to post those on their websites.

Do you ever worry about being politically correct?

Oh, hell yeah. Twentieth Century-Fox set me up to do this blog around ComicCon for a week. And by the end of this glorious week, suddenly the trolls came out and the whole thing just exploded in my face. It’s just a mine field out there. You have to ignore the fact that you’re pissing off somebody!

Do you pay much attention to social media?

I do not. I really don’t. I have some very kind people who do all of my social media for me so I don’t have to be exposed to it.

Do you look at reader reviews?

No, you can’t. Please, don’t. Save yourself the unhealthy euphoria, and save yourself the unhealthy despair.

Do you think these sorts of things will impact writing in the future?

Real writers write because they love to write. They don’t write for public acclaim.

I know you work a lot with teaching new writers and with writing workshops, and I was fascinated by something you said once about how many writers want to start by telling their own darkest secrets, but they shouldn’t . . .

Yes. They shouldn’t. It’s so upsetting when they’re telling their darkest childhood trauma, but they’re telling it in such fantastically trite, disempowering ways that it turns it into this inadvertent comedy that everyone at the table is trying not to laugh at. It’s horrible, but it’s funny.

Can you teach them to overcome that?

Yeah, by first writing about something else. Don’t write about your most emotionally charged moment as a learning thing. I try to redirect them to write about anything else first, so they can build up their skills before they tackle that giant thing. And beyond that, if nothing else, I try to train them like Tom trained me: To stay in the moment, and to give weight to the moments that are most important. One of the easiest ways of making things funny is to not weight them enough in relation to other things: “One day I got up in the middle of the night, and I got a glass of water, and then my father raped me, and then I thought, Oh, ice cream would be good, and then I laid out the dress I’d wear to school tomorrow.” When things are so evenly weighted, it suddenly becomes comic. And so often they’re still so sensitized to these horrific events that they can’t unpack them, they tend to gloss over them with clichés and with superficial writing. That’s why that should not be their first project.

Do you ever have a student come back and say, “I’m just going to go self-publish this now”? And how do you deal with that?

I try to dissuade them from it. If anything, I try to get them to focus on part of it to make a short story out of it. A plot point, something that can be self-contained, that can be sold alone. Because if they can do that, then they can recognize the quality that the whole thing should have. I think there were six chapters in Fight Club that were originally stand-alone short stories. I sold them to magazines, and they gave me such a sense of confidence. Also, eventually you’re going to have to take this thing on the road, and you’re going to need to have twenty minutes to read that you don’t need a huge set-up for.

What kind of reward do you get out of teaching and workshops? Has it become almost a surrogate family for you?

In some ways, yes . . . but only if I feel like I’ve shown something to someone that has just totally dazzled, that I’ve helped them make a connection in their work that they couldn’t have done themselves, and it doesn’t feel like I’ve done it but that we’ve done it together. That’s incredibly rewarding. One of the gentlemen from the Burnt Tongues anthology, Fred Venturini, got a deal from Picador, so he’s got a novel coming out this winter and I’m going to be helping him promote it. He read with me in New York on tour this last year, and it’s great to see how far his work has come.

On Burnt Tongues, I thought it was interesting that you had two co-editors, Richard Thomas and Dennis Widmyer, and that you went with a smaller press.

You know, that was all up to Dennis and Richard. I helped them take it only so far, and then I left the rest of the production up to them. I didn’t want to try to control everything. And besides — I don’t have a lot of experience in that area.

I did wonder what it was like for you to work as an editor. Was it intimidating for you to work with the writers, or did you take a more “hands-off” approach?

You know, because I’ve been in so many workshops and taught classes, it comes naturally — this idea of celebrating what works, and then looking at what could work better and strategizing how to make it work better. The frustrating part is when the writer you’re working with is reticent about making any changes whatsoever; it’s almost a moot exercise. You know they’re not going to change anything; they’re too attached to it.

Burnt Tongues is another book that’s been labeled “transgressive fiction,” and that’s been applied to a lot of your work. Do you feel like that’s accurate?

I had never heard the term until I saw it inside Fight Club; Fight Club is listed in the Library of Congress under “transgressive literature.” It’s a label that my editor had put on it, because he had edited Bret Easton Ellis, and he’d edited Irvine Welsh — these other writers that he clearly saw as “transgressive,” and so he’d labeled me as transgressive. But . . . boy, I don’t think it’s the case, but I can’t think of a better label, so I have to let it stand.

You mix elements of comedy, and noir, and certainly horror . . . but where the horror writer’s intent is first and foremost to horrify or disturb, there’s a different intent with you . . .

I’ve always adored the work of Ira Levin. Ira Levin’s work always had a comedic aspect to it, it had a political aspect to it, and ultimately it had a horror aspect to it. You’re watching Rosemary’s Baby, but if you recognize the context in which it was written — it was written at a time when women had no control over their reproductive health — he was creating this metaphor to point that out. The Stepford Wives . . . he was predicting the backlash against feminism years before Susan Faludi did, and he was doing it in a way that was palatable to people. It was kind of horror, kind of comic, but really super-political, and we just don’t have that kind of writing any more.

It seems like there’s an idea in the horror genre that horror can’t be political.

You know, Stephen King’s book Carrie was political in the way it kind of foreshadowed the school shooter.

And about the same time he wrote a book under the Richard Bachman name that was more directly about that, without all the layers of metaphor —

Rage, right? But Carrie was so much more sympathetic — it was a girl, it was the prom, it was more of a spectacle, and it was sexual, because it involved all these sexual events.

Lastly, I wanted to ask about your use of the word “commodified” when you describe many of the ideas in your books, because you do write about all the parts of our lives that are becoming commodified. Do you ever worry about Chuck Palahniuk becoming commodified?

Oooh . . . boy . . . I really don’t, because I think in a way I have an experience with as many of my readers as possible that’s really genuine. I love it when they write to me, and I’m able to send them things. I love meeting them in person, and even if it’s only for a moment I love having that physical, touching interaction. When I’m doing something physical with them — dressing them up, or we’re doing something goofy to make a really good selfie picture . . . I think everyone’s had a slightly different experience of interacting with me, so it hasn’t been standardized, and I think standardization is really the first step to something being commodified.

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.