Chuck Palahniuk: the reluctant showman

His novels are so extreme they make readers faint. But really he's just a shy romantic, he tells Geoffrey Macnab
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It's a sweltering morning in Locarno, Switzerland, and the author of the notorious Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk, is cheerfully reminiscing about his near disastrous flight to nearby Lugano the previous day. "The hydraulics failed. They were about to land, then all these alarms went off because the hydraulics had failed on one side of the plane. They had to fly all the way back to Zurich with the landing gear extended and land there. It was a very rough landing and it became chaos after that."

In the days before he became one of America's most famous and controversial novelists, Palahniuk used to be a diesel mechanic at Freightliner. When he discusses the hydraulics of small Swiss passenger planes, you get the sense that he knows exactly what he is talking about.

Meeting Palahniuk is a disarming experience. If you know him only through his novels – stories of alienation and perversity like Fight Club, Choke or Snuff – you would expect to encounter an angry, streetfighting-type, full of malice, mischief and rage. In fact, he is tidily dressed in a button-down shirt, and turns out to be extraordinarily polite.

"All of my books are really romances, typically love triangles," explains Palahniuk, in town for the Locarno Festival premiere of Clark Gregg's film version of Choke. In the film, the points of the triangle are represented by the hero, Victor (played by Sam Rockwell), a sex addict with a dead-end job, his overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) and a young doctor (Kelly Macdonald).

Palahniuk may call Choke a romance, but it was created in macabre circumstances. His father had been killed in the summer of 1999, just before he started writing the book. The novelist talks of "the enormous stress" of having to sort out his murdered father's affairs. "I was driving home in the middle of the night after having been to my father's house. In the mountains, I began to imagine the story of someone, probably a travelling salesman, who had to travel a great deal. Periodically, when he felt overwhelmed by the circumstances of his life, he would park his car by the side of the road, leave the headlights on, walk a few paces in front of the car and then lie down as if he was the victim of an accident or a heart attack or a crime."

The idea was that the salesman would wait to be rescued by a policeman, who would gently feel his neck for a pulse, embrace him and tell him everything was going to be all right. As he was driving that night, feeling overwhelmed by stress, Palahniuk seriously thought about playing out this little masquerade for real. He didn't – but his chain of thought gave him the idea for Victor, the anti-hero of his novel who pretends to choke in restaurants so that people can save him. "He could have this enormous, cathartic emotional outburst in their arms. People would console him and tell him that everything was going to be all right. That is what the story [Choke] started as... me in the dirt."

While researching Choke, Palahniuk spent time at clinics for sex addicts. He recalls meeting a man called Phil who "was enormously striking in his ordinariness." Phil was a building contractor, a big, strapping man who was happily married and had several children. However, his secret life involved putting on women's evening clothes and engaging in casual, anonymous sex with strangers. "The contrast between what I would have thought of this person had I seen him on the street and who he really was was so shocking. It made me look at people in a different way and realise that seemingly the most boring person may have the most fascinating inner life," Palahniuk reflects.

The novelist admits that he is shy and hides in the corner at parties. "I have no idea what to say to people. I have no idea how to be with people." That is why he studied journalism – it gave him the licence to talk to people and ask questions. Writing fiction gives him a similar freedom. But despite his shyness, when he appears at author events Palahniuk is always determined to put on a show. "So many author events can be boring and pretentious. I really don't want those kids to be bored. It is worth the effort to make the events crazy so that it's more likely they will come back." And the events are certainly crazy – Palahniuk is famous for causing audience members to faint during his public readings. No one is saying what he'll do on Saturday when he appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to publicise his latest novel, Snuff, but there are reports that sex dolls could make an appearance.

Watch the trailer for Chuck Palahniuk's new film, 'Choke'

To call Palahniuk a contradictory figure is an understatement. This seemingly reticent figure clearly relishes being in the public eye. We know a huge amount about his private life and troubled family history – the fact that his father was murdered and that his grandfather killed his grandmother. There have also been many articles and internet blogs asking whether or not he is gay. Palahniuk refuses to be drawn on this: "My private history in terms of people in my life who are dead is very easy to discuss. I don't feel those people can be threatened or intruded upon now. But I am enormously protective of the people who are currently in my life, my existing friends and family. That is where the curtain is drawn." He claims that he would be perfectly comfortable discussing his sexuality but that friends have asked him not to and that his family was uncomfortable when he did.

It's clear that he would far rather discuss writing. Ask him about F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a book he regularly re-reads, and he immediately becomes enthused. "It's about doing everything you've been taught to do as a child and then realising you don't know what to do next, and also realising that those nice things you've been taught to do are only going to get you so far and unless you do something differently, you're going to be that disappointed child for the rest of your life."

In other words, if you really want to know where Fight Club, Choke et al sprang from, look no further than Jay Gatsby...

Chuck Palahniuk will be talking about 'Snuff' at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday (; 'Choke' opens in the UK on 21 November