Chuck Palahniuk is one of the most popular novelists in the world. Now, back in the day (before Fight Club), he would attend a writers workshop hosted by Tom Spanbauer. Spanbauer, an accomplished author in his own right, taught what he called “dangerous writing.” His influence and the benefits of exploring personal experiences in minimalist, direct prose bled into Palahniuk’s works. A workshop with a teacher or a writing group with a strong leader can be crucial for those who are just starting to learn the craft. The best way to become a writer is to read and write as much as possible. When successful writers become teachers, they naturally use their own experiences as a model for how to get it done.
Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different is Palahniuk’s new book about writing. Part memoir and part how to, the novel alternates back and forth from short, conversational discussions on literary techniques and devices and humorous, often mystified tales about his own experiences with book tours and events. I’ve read it twice now and well, I had some questions. Luckily, Mr. Palahniuk was available to answer them.
In seventh grade a beautiful girl moved to our small town and became instantly popular. At the time I thought I was slightly popular because I often tutored slower kids or outright helped them cheat on tests. The girl, we’ll call Alice here, was at her locker when a book fell out and broke the strand of beads she was wearing as a necklace. As I helped her collect the beads Alice smiled an amazing smile at me and confided, “You’re so sweet! You know, when I moved here, everyone told me ya’ll was a retarded boy!” I had to re-calibrate my entire life. The truth was that I was not well liked. This is only one of countless such moments that continue to haunt me.
Can you imagine stopping writing, not writing?
Writing is an extension of internal storytelling. As per Descartes the only way to not think is to not exist. As per my novel Adjustment Day the only way to not die is to plant your thoughts in the minds of other people. Thus, you think therefore I still am.
Is writing an addiction for you?
No more so than eating, urinating, breathing. Yes, that implies that writers get paid to urinate. As do only the best prostitutes.
What is the guaranteed formula for success?
Write about some issue no one can resolve or even discuss. Murder on the Orient Express was a success because it gave people a huge cathartic reaction to the Lindbergh kidnapping. Likewise, The Boys from Brazil allowed readers to kill dozens of Hitlers. People in publishing tell me that The Lovely Bones hit big because it expressed everyone’s grief after 9-11.
What formula fails from overuse?
On my first visit to my first agent, he trotted out a rolling cart heaped with a week’s worth of unsolicited manuscripts. They were all about boys sexually abused by priests, inspired by the then-recent events at Covenant House in Manhattan. The year-long lead time on a book makes it impossible to chase anything timely. Your topic will be instantly outdated.
How do you decide which words are unnecessary and which words are required for the telling?
I don’t decide. The POV character decides. Once you’re writing from within the character’s perception the protagonist dictates everything.
In Consider This, you write “You asked my advice on writing, and I’m telling you what I was taught: no dreams” … any new irksome ‘fake stuff’ you’d be willing to share?
It’s not new, but I dislike song lyrics used in fiction. They’re tough to license and feel like a crutch that’s seldom worth the effort.
In Consider This, you write “Readers have all moved on to watching films and playing computer games.” Do you think that reading occupies the same importance for people today?
People read more now than ever, but not novel-length prose. Men, especially, want more reward for the investment of their time. In the novel Beautiful You I tried to nail the idea of arousal addiction, using sex toys in lieu of video games or porn, because my impression is that readers want giant pay-offs with minimal set-up. Just those nasty “compilation” videos without so much as a person’s face. Soon the only thing they’ll be reading-reading is old pirated essays by Fran Lebowitz.
What incomplete things are you tolerating at the moment?
Is there one book in your catalog you think you botched?
A good friend once told me how he was roped into doing research for Lillian Hellman. Soon after, Hellman published her memoir Pentimento which many people accused her of inventing from whole cloth. My friend was appalled. Much of his work had gone into the beautiful story of “Julia” and he worried he’d be culpable if the book crashed in a James Frey mess of a thousand little pieces. His story inspired my book Tell-All which I enjoyed writing—all books are experiments and must be judged as successful, even if they disprove something. However, sans my friend’s background story, people imagined I had just read “The Group” and was channeling Mary McCarthy. That was not the case.
Do you think about which of your books will last?
Never. Maybe the next one will last. We live in hope.
When you look back on your novels, do you group them in any way?
Yes. The first four are Transgressive. The next three are experiments with the horror genre. The next few are nostalgic, especially Rant. The most recent are rebellions against written language, namely the coloring books, the short stories, and the graphic novels.
In Consider This, you write “…cut your narrative like a film editor cuts films.” How did you cope with the editing process early in your writing career? What about now?
The editing is always different. Working with some editors is a joy. Others, not so much. One editor, apropos of nothing I can recall, asked me, “What do you think people would say if they knew Fight Club had been written by a big fag?” Yeah, a New York intellectual who was editing one of my novels actually asked that. It was a prickly moment.
Is there any advice that landed on the cutting room floor that if we were your students we should consider?
If it came to mind, I included it. But I forgot to mention Tom Spanbauer’s attachment to the idea of “woo-woo”. That meant the magical times when a writer tapped into something universal. At such times a story resonates with everyone and seems to express something everyone has experienced but no one has ever named. Woo-woo is the entire reason why we read and write so of course I forgot to put it into the book. Big sigh. Chuck slaps himself on the forehead.
Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different is available now from Grand Central Publishing. Support local booksellers.
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