Chuck Palahniuk talks sex dolls, strippers and the one subject he won't write about

The disciple of 'Dangerous Writing', Chuck Palahniuk, reveals his unusual creative process, and the one place that he won't go in his notoriously bad-taste fiction

Matt Thorne
Sunday 13 July 2008 00:00

Two minutes into the interview and I've managed to disgust Chuck Palahniuk. This is no easy thing to do. Fans of his nine novels to date, from the cult hit Fight Club to his latest provocation, Snuff – the story of a porn queen named Cassie Wright who sets out to break the world record for serial fornication by having sex with 600 men in a row – will be aware of his love for forensic detail, usually biological. His story "Guts", about a man who loses part of his lower intestine in a masturbation incident, is so graphic that it has caused 73 people to faint at reading tours to date. But now he's the one looking like he might struggle to finish his lunch.

"Oh my God..." he gasps, after I tell him my X-rated gossip about a declining Hollywood star, "that is so vile. Coprophilia is one thing I can never find anything to laugh about. When I was writing Fight Club and I'd written a story about waiters fouling food, my writing teacher at the time, Tom Spanbauer [famous for originating the concept of Dangerous Writing, where you write about what personally scares or embarrasses you in order to explore and express those fears honestly] said, 'ooh, have them shit in something,' and I said no, that's the one thing that they cannot do because it's too enormously vile and would lose all sympathy and any attachment or engagement with the characters. That's beyond the pale. I just can't do it."

What Palahniuk can do, however, is write a novel about the prosaic details of pornography, from the conversations between the lined-up men, eating potato chips and waiting for their moment of glory (or humiliation), to intimate descriptions of his porn star's beauty routines. The latter descriptions, Palahniuk told me, were included at the insistence of the writing group he's been attending since 1991. Unusually, Palahniuk road tests almost everything he writes by reading it out to this group, which meets every week. Vladimir Nabokov famously wrote that showing early drafts was like passing round samples of one's sputum, but for Palahniuk, it's an essential part of the creative process. For his latest novel, this mainly female writers' group helped Palahniuk ensure that his book wouldn't repel women.

"They coached me to take the story to places I never would have taken it. They talked me into adding a female producer character because in the first draft it was just the three men alternating, and they really wanted a female voice and they really felt that Sheila played too large a role to be shut out of the narrative. And they also said, you have to address the idea of why didn't Cassie Wright have an abortion, you have to address preparatory waxing scenes."

This writing group grew out of Spanbauer's workshop. The participants still follow his terminology when deciding how to meet and present their work, and perhaps more surprisingly, even continue to follow his rules on how to write. "You can't use abstracts, no adverbs, you can't use latinates, because they're just fancy language that makes you look smart... everything has to be unpacked. Always try not to use any form of 'to be' or 'to have'. It's a lesser form of any active verb. Some people in the workshop are writing incredibly commercial chick lit and we can still say 'this is a moment where you need to go "on the body",' where you describe the physical sensations of the character at that moment or you really describe the visceral as a way of cutting. We like ways of demonstrating things that are more filmic.

"Fiction is no longer the dominant storytelling device of our time," he argues. "In the 19th century it worked great and fiction was the king, but it's not the king any more. And the audience for fiction now is the smartest audience that's ever existed."

Spanbauer's legacy also informs Palahniuk's approach to public readings, where he incorporates gimmicks, competitions and props into 90-minute events. Last time he came to England he gave away car air fresheners that smelt of bacon; this time he's packing his suitcase with as many sex dolls as he can get, a prop that has already lost him some events on his US book tour.

"The store said it was too upsetting and distasteful and they didn't want to risk their reputation. There's been more and more conflict between the public nature of a book event when you're standing up in front of a lot of people and the extreme, intimate nature of what I write. There were lots of pissed-off bookstores who had no idea who I am, asked for events and then got enormous crowds and were stressed by the size of the audience and the topics that I openly discuss."

Palahniuk only ever reads work-in-progress on tour. "People get something exclusive that no one else is ever going to get. It's like how Vaudeville used to be, you really wouldn't sell something until you'd toured with it to see when the pay-off needed to be more gradual, and by the time you're done with a story on tour you've got a much better story or anecdote."

In the week before I meet Palahniuk I spent some time in Portland, the author's home and a central part of his work. In his non-fiction book on the city, Fugitives and Refugees, he writes that in 1912, Portland's vice commission investigated the city's 547 hotels, apartment buildings and rooming houses and found 431 of them to be "Wholly Immoral". I ask him if this is still the case and if it is because of this that sex features so prominently in his novels.

"It's always been a battle between a kind of Wild West frontier sex industry and the puritan church industry. At one point there was a saying that you couldn't throw a stone in Portland without hitting a brothel. There were more brothels than churches, and there were a lot of churches. It's hard to find a bar that doesn't have nude dancers in Portland. People just end up going there by default to have a hamburger and there just happens to be strippers. Strippers are as ubiquitous as pinball machines, or video poker."

This is undoubtedly true. Throughout the week, almost every time I go for a drink, there's a woman taking her clothes off in the corner. But instead of the usual stripper music, she's usually doing it to Sonic Youth. Even the local beer is called Panty Dropper Ale.

"When you think about Fight Club, that was underground battles versus the above ground nature of things," Chuck continues. "Our minds are compartmentalised between the higher things and the lower things. But the lower things are just as structured and ritualised as the higher things are. So that could definitely be a Portland creation."

While talking to Palahniuk I'm increasingly aware that this is a man for whom rules are very important, something which is reflected in all of his work, whether it's the sex addiction meetings in Choke or the famous instructions at the start of Fight Club. Palahniuk began his career after attending a self-help course called Landmark, and he tells me that although he hasn't attended a course in several years, it still informs his attitude to life. But I'm interested in how this incredibly controlled man, who shows up for our lunch in a black Cadillac with tinted windows and likes to write covertly in hospital waiting rooms, quantifies his success. He's sold over three million copies of his books yet his prose is often savaged by critics.

What's most valuable to you, I ask him. Is it the reception from your group, audiences at readings, making money, the numbers of copies sold, good reviews, or whether the book gets made into a movie? "No," says Chuck, "it's 'did I have fun doing it?' because before I ever got paid, before I sold anything, I was thinking, am I having fun doing this, and if not can I do it in a different way so I am having fun?"

But surely sometimes writing should be painful and difficult? Or am I doing it wrong? He laughs. "No, you're doing it wrong. It's like sex, if it hurts and it's painful you're doing it wrong."

For Palahniuk, writing is his way of dealing with things he can resolve and exhausting his feelings around them. "Because when you're writing you can arbitrarily choose which crisis to be upset about and you're upset about the house burning down in the story so you don't have to be upset that the plane was cancelled or the food got burned or the dog pooped in your hotel room..."

He remembers the anecdote I told him at the start of our lunch and starts laughing again. "You know to begin with I thought that was such a disgusting story... but now I can't wait to tell it."

Chuck Palahniuk's new novel, 'Snuff', will be published by Cape on 7 August

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