‘The Invention of Sound’ An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk

Foley artists, if you are clueless, are the bad asses tasked with recreating the small, distinct sounds of an actor’s performance. They know quite a lot about designing pain, uncertainty, disgust and honest-to-goodness terror using sound. Whether it’s a stock sound from a database of over hundreds of thousands of footsteps or a SCHRZZZ saw sounds that someone somewhere decided to catalog for licensing or a scream that is invented and only exists for us, these artists are looking for the just-right split-second moments where the face squishes just a little bit more or the swing of an axe makes that nice solid thump. I mean, our lizard brains are programmed to associate some frequencies with, “Oh ISHT, bad stuff is about to happen”

The Invention of Sound has two main characters. Mitzi Ives is a Foley Artist and her job is to record the screams that get used in Hollywood movies. Gates Foster, had a daughter who was abducted years ago and ever since, he has been chasing people who might be connected to child abduction, still clinging to the hope that his daughter is alive. These characters seem independent of each other- readers can’t comprehend how they are all connected together while getting deeper into the story and well… no spoilers but this novel is Palahniuk at his best, rarely letting you pause for breath and leaves the readers with one of his most satisfying endings to date.

Dagobot: Is it appropriate to talk about your career arc? What act are you in at this point?

Chuck Palahniuk: To David Foster Wallace writing was like masturbation: First you do it for your own pleasure, then you do it for the approval of teachers and critics (part of his analogy I don't understand), but eventually you go back to jerk’n it for your own jollies. I’m still stuck writing because I can’t sleep. First Fight Club and now The Invention of Sound are about sleep issues. The search for sleep has killed Michael Jackson, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley. My career is still on the starting blocks, and I doubt if I’ll ever get to retire-retire, but on rare occasions I get a solid four hours of deep REM sleep. What act would that be?

D: The Invention of Sound is the first novel of yours to be published at Grand Central. Do you feel like you’ve hit a reset button?

CP: Doug Coupland, the author of Generation X, told me that he wished he’d been edited more harshly, early in his career. Once he had a hit book, he said, no one dared to really challenge his writing choices. He’s not alone. I’ve seen some big-name literary writers delve into comics and produce utter crap, again, because their comics editors were too star-struck to coach them aggressively. Me, I lost both my career-long editor and my agent within a few months of each other. It's very humbling to go hat-in-hand, interviewing to find a new publisher and new representation. I was a kid, again, but like a really ugly, old kid that no one wanted. Mostly I'm like an ancient, incontinent dog that needs to pull off a few impressive tricks if it wants to sidestep getting euthanized.

D: Do you believe that some might have the same reactions during a public reading of The Invention Of Sound like they did with Guts?

CP: Bear in mind Guts runs for eleven pages and can be read quickly. It's like getting hit in the head with a hammer. My novel The Invention of Sound is more like breathing asbestos: It takes longer to do its damage.

D: Should there be a disclaimer ‘Please read while sitting down’?

CP: Alas, what good would that do? Most of the Guts casualties were seated.

D: What are your favorite on screen screams?

CP: Hands down, the best screams were done by Mercedes McCambridge, in her voicework for The Exorcist. She gobbled raw eggs, chained smoked and guzzled whiskey to ruin her voice, then demanded the crew lash her to a chair so she could struggle as she screamed such gems as "The sow is mine!" and "Your mother sucks cocks in hell!" Sheer movie magic that was.

D: Are there any popular film scream origin stories that you cut out of the novel?

CP: The only anecdote that didn't fit in the book was about a lovely young actress who'd been cast on the 1960s Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. She was attending a Yankees game in her free time and cried out when a player hit a homerun. A stranger, a woman sitting a few rows ahead of her turned and said, "I know that scream! You're Kate Jackson!" So long before Charlie's Angels and The Rookies, Kate Jackson was just a good screamer.

D: Did you do a great deal of research on Foley Art for this novel?

CP: Yes and no. I did a lot of research but left most of it out. To include too much would make this a textbook about dubbing. Instead, I talked to recording engineers and collected stories about older equipment and recording mistakes that later became intentional effects in hit songs. One unsettling pattern: Recording studios seem to attract a high number of suicides. Is it the silence? The hours? The isolation in the booth? Now I watch the mental breakdown scene in Inside Daisy Clover, where Natalie Wood freaks out while singing a circus song a million times, and I recognize that she's not really acting.

D: Did your research lead you to stumble on any other interesting Hollywood secret rituals?

CP: This is too good to keep secret. When David Fincher wanted to avoid an X rating for Fight Club he took out a layer of meaty, fleshy impact sounds during the fight scenes. Minus those visceral sounds, the movie got the better rating. Then, the sounds went back into the final print.

D: Did you experiment on which foods make the grossest sounds associated with on screen bodily harm?

CP: Nope. Not even research could induce me to go into a kitchen.

D: What is the closest known human equivalent to Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp?

CP: Kate Jackson's scream when Barnabas Collins hits a homerun on her neck.

D: Where do your character obsessions come from. Do they come from fear? A nightmare? Something that you are trying to purge from your personality?

CP: For me, fiction is purging. I take a problem I can't solve in real life, blow it up beyond all reasonable proportions, and exhaust my emotional reaction to it. Once I've become immune to the gripe, it disappears. But I am always curious about consumerism and how it eventually turns consumers into a commodity. This dates back to buying a tombstone for my grandparents. The mortuary salesperson showed me a catalog of all the corporate logos I could have engraved on the stone, to demonstrate what my grandparents had enjoyed in life. Coke vs Pepsi. John Deere tractors vs International Harvester. The salesperson showed me the graves of teenagers who'd had Nike swooshes and Voit volleyballs carved on their tombstones. Rows and rows of corporate badging, like a new religion. Most of my stories depict how our lives are bought and sold. Fascinating stuff.

D: What were (are) you going through that made you want to enter these characters' minds in such a detailed way?

CP: Like my female character, Mitzi Ives, my job is to take Ambien, drink wine and slaughter people in creative new ways. Like my male lead, Foster Gates, I miss the child I never had. It's healthy to embrace these aspects of myself and accept them, warts and all.

D: Is it better in fiction if evil goes unpunished?

CP: My guess is that horror fiction plays off our mortality. Sure, we might be able to evade the monster/asteroid/slasher today, but we're still going to eventually die. And because we can never resolve our mortality, we can only resolve evil for the short term. Such is existentialism.

D: Are you using the reader for therapy?

CP: The author and the reader use one another. I road test my ideas by proposing them to a wide range of people, to see if those people readily engage with the idea, and whether or not they can help flesh out the idea/theme with experience from their own lives. In that way the story becomes a composite drawn from a wide audience and more likely to resonate with a wide audience. The book or story is an inquiry—imagine a detective conducting interviews—into a topic, from many perspectives. At a class I was teaching, recently, a student mentioned "the big box of porn in the woods." It seems everyone present had once, as a child, found a stash of porn hidden in some wild setting. The topic got everyone talking at once, and we resolved to collaborate on an anthology of stories to be titled "Children of the Porn." Patricia gets credit for the book's name. Putting "children" and "porn" together pretty much guarantees that the book will ban itself. But what matters most is that we all got to tell our childhood porn discovery story to SOMEONE.

D: Do you believe that we are all a product of our own invention?

CP: "Invention" might be too strong a word. We pick and choose aspects of self, but who creates anything out of thin air? And these days we so seldom get the solitude and silence required for clear thinking and the ability to recognize something unseen by the world.

D: What ethos about life has made you a better writer?

CP: Put all your negative impulses on the page. Whore around, do drugs, commit murder and torment in your writing, and your real life can be peaceful and productive. Anyone who's a saint on the page is probably a demon in real life. In short: Always make your guru wear a condom.

The Invention of Sound is available now from Grand Central Publishing. Support local booksellers.