Fight Club: The Cult Classic Turns 15
A Q&A with Author Chuck Palahniuk.
Chuck Palahniuk isn't afraid to mess with people. When publishers first rejected his novel Invisible Monsters because of its disturbing content, he wrote Fight Club as a means of showing them what truly disturbing would look like.
Except they loved it. And published it.
Three years after the now-seminal cult classic hit stands in 1996 – the story of an ordinary, nameless man who finds a friend who wants him to punch him as hard as he can and not tell anyone about it and to help him make soap and engage in a little mischief and mayhem – director David Fincher secured the rights to take the story to the big screen. He cast Edward Norton as the narrator and Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden – one of the most notable characters from late-twentieth-century fiction.
Chuck Palahniuk also isn't afraid to break the rules. The first rule of Fight Club is that you can't talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is that you can't talk about Fight Club.
But as the cinematic version of Palahniuk's novel celebrates its fifteenth anniversary, we broke the rules and talked at length about his new novel, Beautiful You, which comes out later this month; his writing style and how he still pushes his publishers; an alternative ending to Fight Club; and the highly-anticipated Fight Club sequel coming out in graphic-novel form in 2015.
Ben Speggen: Let's start in the present: You have Beautiful You coming out this month and two releases – Make Something Up and the Fight Club sequel – coming out next year. Give or take a year, you've managed to release a book nearly every year since 1999 when you released Survivor and Invisible Monsters. Are you ever not writing? Do you hate downtime?
Chuck Palahniuk: [Laughs] I spend a lot of my time not writing, but when I'm not writing, I'm usually putting together promotion or doing research. When I'm not writing fiction, I'm writing introductions for other people's books and writing small things.
Right now, most of what I'm writing are lectures about the craft of writing. So, it means looking at a lot of stories to find common devices, identifying those, and then teaching those to people, so it's not totally alien from fiction.
BS: I was just reading a piece on Esquire.com the other day about twenty daily rituals of great thinkers. Victor Hugo would go to the barber every day and insisted on keeping his clippings; John Cheever said he couldn't achieve his best work without having sex at least two to three times a week. Any writing rituals that you partake in depending on whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction?
CP: For fiction, I need to have a non-verbal environment – I can have music, but I don't want words in my music, or I have to get up early in the morning before anyone inthe house decides to start talking. I just need to be away from language so that my thoughts can be clear. I think that's why so many writers were 'walking writers,' because walking puts you into a non-verbal environment.
BS: Let's break the rules and talk about Fight Club a bit. So the story goes, you wrote Fight Club to disturb publishers even more because they had rejected Invisible Monsters due to its disturbing content. When they agreed to publish Fight Club, for you, was that liberating? Frustrating?
CP: [Laughs] It was a huge triumph – a gigantic accomplishment.
BS: Do you feel like you've been challenging yourself or daring publishers ever since then with the nature of your content? Are you still fighting the battle of The Great Gatsby versus the espresso machine and ESPN?
CP: [Laughs] I know that my work still troubles my publisher – we still do have battles about different parts of the books, and in next year's book, different stories in the book, the publisher did not want to include them. I had to make a real case for them.
BS: What's that sort of dialogue like for a writer of your stature – to have to go back and forth with your publisher and just say: "Trust me, this is a really good story and it needs to be in this collection"?
CP: Sometimes I'm able to show them empirical data, show them – if the story's published in a magazine – the reaction on the Internet of how many people really loved the story. Other times, my publishers will come to an event when I read the story and we'll see hundreds of people have a really strong, wonderful reaction, and that will convince them.
BS: At the San Diego Comic Con this year, you called Beautiful You a mash-up of popular chicklette novels, originally titled 50 Shades of the Twilight Cavebear Wears Prada. The publisher didn't go for that title? Felt like you were giving too much away?
CP: [Laughs] Right! No, I really like – and wanted – a two-word title, like Fight Club or Invisible Monsters, to be provocative, which wouldn't give anything away. It's also vaguely flattering. I've always loved the second-person [point of view] – writing in the "you."
BS:You once wrote that The Joy Luck Club, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and How to Make an American Quilt "presented a social model for women to be together" and that there was "no novel that presented a new social model for men to share their lives." Fight Club presented an answer to that. And in a way, it seems like Beautiful You – being inspired by that original working title, maybe – is again a response to what's on bookshelves. Does this make Beautiful You the Fight Club for women?
CP: Yeah, in so many ways, it does make Beautiful You the Fight Club for women. It's about an ordinary person who comes into contact with an extraordinary person and then becomes the only person aware of a huge conspiracy. In the way that the narrator of Fight Club tries to invade in the fight against Project Mayhem, we see Penny trying to invade the whole fight against the Beautiful You conspiracy. Structurally, it's very, very much like Fight Club.
BS: I couldn't put Beautiful You down. It felt so dirty and so good…
CP: [Laughs] It's so dirty! But it's so poorly worded!
BS: But it's just amazing in that sense – I love what you're doing with that. I don't want to give too much away, but what sort of, umm, "research" did you do to get inside the head of somebody like Penny to be able to write from that perspective?
CP: You know, [Laughs] I read a lot of my father's pornography as a child, because I loved those really pulpy, classic mechanical books, which were so upfront and so clumsy in how they depicted human intimacy. And I also read a lot of my mother's pornography, which was just as filled with sex, but it was all coded in these politically-empowered euphemisms from the 1970s. So I wanted to combine the graphic nature of my dad's pornography with all of these off-focused comic words that were in my mom's.
Also in college, I took a lot of women's studies courses, and I just loved the language of the empowerment and satisfaction and the self-esteem language that was being taught in the 1980s. In so many of the women's studies courses, you talk about those archetypal scenes in fiction where the frustrated woman would be taught how to masturbate by another woman. And that would be her first step to a self-fulfillment and a kind of enlightenment. You see that scene in The Color Purple where the narrator is taught how to masturbate. And we see it again in Pleasantville, where the daughter, Reese Witherspoon, teaches Joan Allen, her mother, how to masturbate. It's just such an odd aspect of feminist culture. And you probably won't want to use any of that [Laughs] – you'll get crucified.
BS: [Laughs] No, we're okay here talking about female masturbation in context of fine literature.
I'm sure there'll be a lot of great commentary on what your message with Beautiful You is, but if you want readers to take away the message in one word, what would it be?
CP: One word – boy. Huh. Okay: Power. All of my books are about people attaining a kind of power, and Penny, in the beginning of this book, is at that age after college when you're not sure if your career is ever going to launch, and by the end of the book, she is basically ruling the entire world. She's seduced by the power of that little device.
BS: I've read some critiques of your writing where you get labeled as a nihilist. And you've fought that in the past, arguing you're more of a romanticist. Do you still see yourself as a romanticist?
CP: Do you think a nihilist would write a book a year? [Laughs] All with happy endings, with so many couples getting together and people achieving new, more powerful senses of self? The only way they're nihilist is that the characters – in a way – have to destroy their previous self in order to obtain their new self.
BS: Great segue to – or back to – Fight Club. You're coming up on the fifteenth anniversary of the cinematic interpretation of your first published novel. When you were on the panel with David Fincher at Comic Con, he summed up Fight Club in one line: "[It's] about the most dangerous thing in the world – ideas." Do you agree?
CP: Yeah. I guess so.
BS: Do you and Fincher keep in contact? Any potential of working with him in the future on another book? Something else?
CP: He's been pitching me on the idea of doing something for Netflix. He's very much in love with Netflix right now. And House Of Cards is winding down to some extent, so for David, I think that's going to be his push.
BS: Are you open to writing something for Netflix?
CP: I would love to, but in the coming year I'm not sure what my obligations will be yet, promoting Fight Club 2. But I would love to work with David again.
BS: James Franco – whose literary cinematic ventures have been hit or miss lately – snatched up the rights to take Rant to the big screen. Have you talked with him yet about it?
CP: No, no – not at all. We're like two tweets that just keep passing in the night.
BS: When you worked with Fincher on Fight Club, was there a lot of back-and-forth between the two of you, or just a lot of trust in him with your story in his hands?
CP: There was a lot of back-and-forth except in terms of casting. Fincher had been so set on Helena Bonham Carter [to play the role of Marla Singer], and I was fixated on the idea of Courtney Love doing it. I'm glad David got his way.
BS: You don't think [that role and character] would've had the same effect if it was Courtney instead?
CP: I don't think so. I think that Courtney might have been swamped by being with two such good actors. Helena, I think, is one of the few actresses that can really hold her own with Edward and Brad.
BS: The sequel to Fight Club comes out next year. Why now – nearly twenty years after we're all left looking forward to getting Tyler Durden back? What made the timing right for 2015?
CP: Three reasons. I was getting a lot of pressure from friends to do a sequel and to do it as a graphic novel. And this seemed like a very attractive project that I could do with a group of people instead of working in isolation.
The second reason, I just did not realize that I was going to have to be talking about Fight Club for the rest of my life, so it just makes sense to continue the story so that I don't get bored talking about Fight Club for the rest of my life.
The third reason was that Fight Club was so critical of fathers that I wanted the chance to make the narrator a father and to show him failing just as badly as a father as he had felt his father had failed him. That seemed like a terrific thing to depict.
BS: Anthony Burgess had commented once in a forward to A Clockwork Orange that he didn't think that it was his best novel but that it's the one everyone seemingly wanted to talk about, and that as an author, you're at the behest of your readers' opinions of what they think your best novel is, not what you think your best novel is. What do you think your best novel to date has been?
CP: To tell the truth, I am so enamored with Beautiful You. Before that, I loved Pygmy because it had that intentionally broken language. Beautiful You is just as broken, but it's broken in a different way; it's not writing to be clear and to be beautiful and eloquent – it's writing really to get things wrong and there's so much fun in that.
BS: It seems like you're still having a lot of fun. One of the things I sense in your earlier work is a blue-collar angst that seems to come from your background – these blue-collar characters who struggle against the ordinary world. How do you feel that's changed as you find greater success and find your own world so different now?
CP: Part of it all always goes back to a punk-rock sensibility – that no matter what I'm trying to write, I'm trying to mess up the language, chop it up and make it abrasive. And to tell the truth, my more recent books have featured characters who are isolated, cut off, because that's how I've felt more and more in recent years. Damned had the character alone in lavish situations, Beautiful You definitely has a character alone in that Parisian penthouse quite a bit, and I guess that's because I find myself alone in these luxury hotel rooms a lot these days.
BS: Do you find that that's daunting to be on the road so much? How does that affect you as a working writer just looking to get back to writing?
CP: Boy… [Long pause]. Sometimes, it's fantastic, and the lack of sleep and misery of being on the road really spurs new ways of thinking. But as I grow older, I'm miserable a lot of time [Laughs]. That's kind of a lame answer – I wish I could give you a better answer.
BS: John Waters had talked about that grind of being on the road touring, bouncing from hotel room to hotel room. He had talked about the grueling pace of it all and that he had gotten in the habit of going to bed early and waking up early before anyone else was awake so that he could work on new material before the rest of the world came knocking.
CP: Yeah. And I live in a house that's up in the woods – mostly isolated – and I can live for days without television, or music, or radio, and those are the times that I can get the most work done. Just this past Sunday, I think I worked sixteen hours straight working on a seven-page addition to the Fight Club graphic novel script that re-writes the end of the book. It's going to be published as [part of Free Comic Book Day].
BS: An alternative ending to the original Fight Club?
CP: Right, exactly – something that Cameron Stewart, the illustrator, could turn into maybe a ten-page version that Dark Horse [Comics, who are releasing Fight Club 2] will be giving away.
BS: Really? One of my favorite debates is over the ending in the novel versus Fincher's cinematic take. Any hints on the new ending?
CP: No – I'm not going to give anything away because I'd end up giving away too much. But it will upset a lot of people – and that's not something I dread. I'm looking forward to upsetting people and messing with their idea of what they thought was taking place.
BS: I think perhaps you're messing a bit with people already by bringing back the story with the sequel and not only bringing it back but not picking up right where it left off. Instead, we're ten years down the road in the plot from where we're left wondering what took Tyler so damn long to come back as well as just how much breaking up of civilization to make a better world has occurred at the hands of Project Mayhem.
CP: Yep. And that will all be covered in ten issues.
BS: Was that length something you started with in mind first, or was it just appropriate for the arch you wanted to create?
CP: Originally it was seven issues, but they were going to be so long that we decided to stretch them to ten and broke them up differently. Because of my current publishing contract with Random House, each issue can only sell at a certain price point or it would be in violation of the non-compete clause. So we had to make sure the issues of the Fight Club sequel would be priced low enough that Random House wouldn't sue us.
There are a lot of legal considerations – we had to be careful that we didn't depict anything that 20th Century Fox might have brought to the story because we didn't want to violate Fox's copyright.
BS: What's it like working in the graphic novel medium? You have your image of the characters you've created and Brad Pitt and Edward Norton clearly affect how we see them. How do you go about drawing up those characters with illustrators you're working with to make sure you capture Tyler Durden the way we all perceive him already?
CP: You know, it was so basic because the characters were really based on people in my life at the time, so I just gave the illustrator photos of the real people that the characters are based on. And so, Cameron just worked from the photographs of my friends.
BS: As an author with a huge cult following, you probably get a lot of fans running up and citing their favorite lines. What lines of yours do you hear the most?
CP: Invisible Monsters is still one that people just attach to so firmly. It's also kind of controversial because a lot of transgendered people feel that it's full of transgender hatred, but at the same time, even more transgendered people say it's their favorite book, so that controversy comes into play a lot of the time. There's a surprising number of people – especially women – who love Diary. I think because they see themselves as artists and that's why Diary is their favorite book. Those are the two that always surprise me.
BS: You've said that Denny from Choke is the character you've created that you have the most compassion for, so maybe this is more of a nerdy, bookish question here, but do have a favorite sentence, phrase you've written – one that you perhaps think is your best?
CP: In my short story, "Romance," about the man who marries the woman who he thinks is just stoned all the time. When he's first describing how beautiful she is, he has a line in that story that says, "You only need to look at her to know all you need to know." I just love that. I was just so shocked at how poetic and stupid but sensible that line was.
BS: I really love Survivor and the lobster scene was the first time I ever had a physical reaction with a book. I gagged and then dropped the book while I was sitting in a waiting room. You've said before that your journalism background leads to you to not fudge facts and details. To satisfy my own curiosity, did that scene actually happen to you or someone you know? How many lobsters did you go through to experience that?
CP: [Laugh] No – it did not happen; I've never cooked a lobster, but someone must have told me a story at that point.
BS: Erie filmmaker John C. Lyons was telling me about the two writing conferences you've done at Edinboro, a recently released anthology of stories you helped edit from members of your cult website, and that you even gave John a couple of pullout quotes from his film Schism after you saw it and then handed out copies of it at your readings. It seems that you want to be an active part of giving young artists a shot at finding success since you've found yours. Is that because you didn't have those opportunities when you were starting out? Was it because you want to give back to the fans who have helped make your career what it's been thus far?
CP: When I was first starting out, I would have never thought to approach someone, asking for that kind of exposure – I just wasn't aware of how things were marketed. It just feels like the thing to do and it lifts my mood. I find that I cannot simultaneously dislike someone and give them something. So even when I'm miserable – when I'm really tired or really hungry or not feeling well – that that gesture of giving things away ways kind of redeems me, makes me like what I'm doing, and it trumps any kind of bad attitude that I may have. So in a way, that's the real payoff for me – the helping, the giving away of this thing if I really value it.
BS: I posted on Facebook and Twitter that I'd be interviewing you and a lot of people chimed in with things they wanted to ask. One was along the lines that you're a master of societal observation; based on your observations: Optimistic, pessimistic, realistic with how things are going in 2014?
CP: Oh, I would say optimistic. I've lived long enough to know that we've lived through worse times than this, and in so many ways, life is better now than it was even two or three decades ago. In the '80s, we all thought we were going to die of AIDS – we didn't. I've kind of learned to take these things in stride and to recognize progress and happiness.
BS: Here's another one: Craft beer is beginning to boom here in northwestern Pennsylvania. You're from the Pacific North West where craft beer's been going strong for a while. Favorite brew?
CP: Oh, no – I'm a wine drinker!
BS: Well, we happen to have a number of wineries on Lake Erie here. A particular wine you drink most often?
CP: [Laughs] I always drink Malbec.
BS: You signed a copy of Fight Club that told Jason Lavery – a local brewer who asked that beer question – to "Let the opal do the work FOR him."
CP: I tend to make jewelry out of stones that I find when I'm traveling. My dad used to be a rockhound and this is my way of remembering him. So I would bet that he wrote to me initially and that's how I get the jewelry to them when I write back.
BS: Two final questions that I'll keep simple: What question do you hate being asked the most during interviews?
CP: "What music do you listen to while you write" – I'm really tired of that one. Let me think… Another one is: "Where do your ideas come from" – it's such a huge question; I don't hear that often any more, so I'm glad that one's out of circulation [Laughs].
BS: Glad I didn't ask either of those then. Here's the follow-up: Is there a question that you wish an interviewer would ask you that's never been asked before that you're just dying to talk about?
CP: I'm always dying to talk about friends of mine whose work I want to make part of the public consciousness – not even always friends, just people whose work I really love. I always like to reel off the names of my favorite writers, so I'll start with Chelsea Cain, because right now she has a new book and a new series called One Kick. And Monica Drake, who had a new book last year called The Stud Book. Another writer: Nami Mun – she's got a fantastic collection of short stories called Miles From Nowhere. So those are the writers I'm really pushing right now.
BS: Okay, I lied – just one more question. Advice for any writer who's struggling to make it and has been turned down by their publisher and needs to make a critical decision: Hang it up or write a more disturbing book?
CP: [Laugh] My advice is that it really doesn't make a difference, because if you succeed, you still have to write another book. If don't sell the book and it dies, you still have to write another book. So you come to the same place regardless of whether the book sells. What Tom [Spanbauer] always told us was to write in such a way that the act of writing is its own reward – and that it's so much fun that it doesn't matter whether the book sells. The one fact is that you will always have to write another book, so get used to it.
BS: That's a very Sisyphusian answer to that.
CP: It's a fun Sisyphusian answer [Laughs].
FILM at the Erie Art Museum will screen Fight Club Wednesday, Oct. 15 at the Erie Art Museum, located at 20 E. Fifth St. – fifteen years to the day from when it first screened. After the film, Chuck Palahniuk will join the audience for a Skype Q&A led by Ben Speggen.
Photo credit: 1: Allan Amato; 2:chuckpalahniuk.net.
Ben Speggen can be contacted at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @ERBenSpeggen.