Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk shares his process
What's the reaction to the film been like?
You know, at Sundance and the LA Film Festival it was huge, there was laughter for two hours. Then we saw it screened in Locarno at midnight, and the subtitles were not translated very well, and it followed Nordwand, this German movie where everybody dies hideously, freezing to death hanging on ropes from a cliff face in a blizzard. There's this thundering opera music, and then they all die in the end. We had to follow that at midnight, and everyone's buzz was wearing off and there was general laughter but it was not nearly what it was in LA so we were a little stunned. It's either been really terrific, or it's been kind of milder like it was in Locarno. But the press screening at Locarno was really positive, so that made me feel good.
Are you happy with the way the film has turned out?
I am really happy with it. At Sundance there were some technical things that weren't happening. The whole humour with Clark Gregg's character, with the dialect and the olden speak and breaking character so often, didn't work because the soundtrack was kind of muddy. They then re-recorded the soundtrack and re-cut it and got Radiohead to add a song and now the film really works and I'm 100-percent happy with it.
That must have been a dream come true, getting Radiohead to be involved.
It feels so odd, when things like that happen or you meet somebody that you've always seen like Anjelica Huston or Brad Pitt, that it doesn't even occur like a real experience because it's so beyond what you ever expected. It doesn't feel real and you can't even remember it like a memory.
Your books frequently deal with ordinary people with things to hide. Do you think a lot of successful people are hiding things too?
That's why they're successful, jeez. But to a certain extent everybody has a certain sort of way of being a persona they learn how to be when they're really little. They figure out that if they're really funny or if they're really pretty or if they work really, really hard or if they're really smart that is what's going to get them by. That's what will make people like them. And then around the age of 33 they start to realise that that's a really limiting thing, that they don't want to be that funny person or that pretty person for the rest of their lives. That's when they kind of face a crisis.
That's sort of what I depict in my books people facing that crisis of either continuing to be that person, but being it in an angry way - like the angry beautiful woman, that hates you for the fact that you like her because she's beautiful. Or the angry funny person who's just mean. Or people kill themselves. A lot of them do, 33 for men, 36 for women are the ages when they typically do that. Or they get it together and reinvent themselves in a more thorough way which is always kind of preferential, always the best option.
How did Clark convince you to make his directorial debut with this material?
At the time that he bought the option he'd just gotten his first screenplay produced and that was What Lies Beneath. That turned out so well, people were so impressed by that, that it was kind of easy to hand it on to see what he would do with it. And also part of you doesn't expect that it will ever go into production, so it's kind of easy because you think that it's never going to happen, so why not?
Do some people approach you and don't get it, or want to change it a great deal?
You know that is less of a possibility now, because thanks to David Fincher being so faithful to Fight Club, the books have such a passionate following that I think people recognise that if they monkey with the story too much it is going to piss off the existing audience for that story, and they don't want to do that.
Does censorship bother you - is it necessary?
It really depends on the medium. I really love writing books, because nobody really gives a shit about books right now. Seriously, in the States, nobody really reads so it's not a big deal and that gives you this fantastic freedom. It's a freedom that movies and TV don't have. Censorship doesn't really bother me because it's not really a factor in my work.
Were you involved in the casting at all, and what do you think of Sam Rockwell in the lead?
Sam Rockwell's never occurred to me as an actor, everything I've seen him in I've always just associated him so strongly with that character. He's always been the crazy man in Green Mile, or the over the top guy in Hitchhiker's Guide, or the sympathetic character in Galaxy Quest. I never thought of that as Sam Rockwell, so he was not somebody I would think of, but he was perfect. I think it turned out for the very best.
When you write are you conscious of the attention on your books, after the [film] success of Fight Club? Do you find yourself writing something for the screen?
The style that I try to write in, the rules that I adhere to, are the rules of minimalism. And the rules kind of force the writing to be more filmic, to have the immediacy and the accessibility of film so that the reader really has to fill in a lot of the details, and really all that you're depicting in the story is the action that people are taking. That's the strongest thing about film, it's something that's constantly in motion. That is the strength of film, its accessibility and its immediacy.
But the strength of books is that freedom to really depict anything you want because people are going to be reading it in private. It's just one person reading that book and agreeing to read that book. So I'm always trying to write with the immediacy and constant motion of film but I'm also trying to write with the complete freedom of subject matter that books have. So if I'm kind of surprised when they do get translated into films because I always think my subject matter will preclude that.
Why do you think more of your books haven't been made into films - after all Fight Club was made in 1999?
In 1999 20th Century Fox had optioned Survivor, my second book, and David Fincher was really pushing them in their development and they had got Jake Paltrow - Gwyneth Paltrow's brother - to write a screenplay, and people were very happy with that and they were starting to cast it, and then 9/11 happened. That harpooned all transgressive comedies. It's a comic terrorist on a plane situation.
Could it be revived?
It's likely that it will be made this year or early next year. Francis Lawrence had the option, and he's written the screenplay and he said several times it was going to be his project after I Am Legend. I'm hoping that one of these days there'll be a call about that.
Are you planning to work with David Fincher again - on a Fight Club musical?
Once a year for the last few years Fincher has called and said: 'Are we still doing this? Do you still want to do this?' Every time I think it's dead somebody tells me that Fincher is still working on it. I thought it was dead this winter until I talked to a reporter for either Rolling Stone or MTV who had just interviewed Fincher and said that Fincher was still talking about it, so maybe. All I know is that Fincher is still talking about it!
Has Snuff been optioned?
No, it hasn't. I kind of wrote Snuff with the idea that I was hoping it would eventually be a stage play. By keeping the settings really limited and the number of characters really limited it seemed like the situation would be perfect for a play. That's been my private dream.
Would you consider writing your own screenplay?
You know, it's funny, I always think that would be the dream until I talk to people who do it for a living. They say: 'You people who write novels have it made, because you get it your way, and it's never changed and what is ultimately brought to market is your vision, whereas a screenplay is monkeyed with by everyone who touches it.' Everyone who is involved has to make some change. Screenwriters get paid a hell of a lot more money but their level of frustration seems to be so high that I just don't want that.
You must be pleased though that the two films made from your novels have been such great adaptations, as many authors are disappointed with the results?
Maybe it depends on how emotionally attached they are to it, but my goal has always been to have a really good time while I'm writing the story. And to have such a great time that by the time I can let the story go I'm having a great time with a different story. And so that really, really helps distance me from the last story because that really comes in handy in the next year when it comes out and maybe the critics tear it apart, or something horrible happens, or it gets a cover that you just hate and it's totally beyond your control at that point. So it's always nice to be fully engaged by the next thing. And at this point I'm like nine things later.
Can you describe the research process that goes into your books?
Jeez. It used to be that I would go to places where people felt really safe telling the truth, sort of making their confessions like they used to do in church. People would go to support groups for illnesses and tell the truth and present the worst parts of their lives. Or they would go to recovery groups and tell the truth, or they would go to twelve-step groups. Or, for one book I called phone sex hotlines and people would just completely tell you everything. I could just sit there for hours and take notes, they used to be those lines where 20 people could be on the line, so you had this constant selection of people telling the most sordid, upsetting stories from their lives. And it was just like a constant buffet of stories, and if one got boring you could press a number and go to another one.
They were all live people, you could copy down their speech patterns and copy down their phrasing and then copy down the stories they were telling as well. They were telling them in a kind of broken, passionate way so you could tell they were true stories. Places like that, where people would really tell the truth about themselves, were the places I always went to kind of gather stories. More and more I can't get away with that because I've lost the anonymity, but now my new method is to take a little tiny story from my life and to tell it at, say, a party and to see if it resonates with other people, and if they tell me a story back that's very similar. This way you can demonstrate themes with a lot of different anecdotes from the lives of hundreds of different people that are so much stronger than your own example. It's kind of a process of a field study, doing a huge survey or an anthropological study but it's less anonymous.
Does it feel weird to be a celebrity author, especially on the internet?
God bless the internet, I never go there. It just drives you crazy, that's something as a rule for a minimalist writer or in minimalist writing you can never use abstracts. You can never have a six foot tall man or a hundred-degree day. You can never have somebody who's 45 years old because these are all abstracts. When I say 'the man was six feet tall' what I'm kind of cheating in is I'm missing an opportunity to describe myself by how I would describe that person.
So you always have to avoid the abstract because how the character describes the world is really them describing themselves. And when I see people on the internet talking about me or my work it's almost always more a description of themselves. So in a way you become this Rorschach test that they project themselves on. And so I never really think of myself as anything more than who I always was. And as a writer you're really not recognised, so it's not that kind of a notoriety.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I was teaching at Seattle, at the University of Washington for a lot of this summer, teaching in the writing programme, and the thing that I was really pushing was, along with the 400 rules of minimalism, the idea of not writing something so that it's liked but writing something so that it's remembered. So that it lingers in peoples' memory. When I was writing Fight Club I was doing it with such anger and resignation that I was thinking 'yeah, these people have hated everything I've written, and they haven't bought it, and they're going to hate this - but they are not going to forget this. This is going to stay in their mind. They're not going to buy it but they're not going to forget it, it's going to be their burden for the rest of their lives'. And that was the one that they bought.
So the idea is that the public taste changes, and the aesthetic of a culture changes over time. The idea isn't to appeal to the aesthetic of the moment, what people will like right now. The idea is to somehow keep yourself in the public memory so that as taste evolves it will eventually come to embrace your thing. So it's about writing to be remembered rather than writing to be liked.
One heartbreaking moment was when I finally got an agent, I visited this agency in New York and they said: 'We shouldn't show you this, but check it out,' and they brought out these huge rolling carts of manuscripts. They said: 'We get 900 unsolicited manuscripts from wannabe writers every week.' Nine hundred a week, a roomful every week, and almost every one was about current events. People don't realise that by the time this thing is produced as a book, even in the best case scenario, it will be a year later. So writing to be liked at the moment, or writing to somehow resonate with the moment just doesn't work. It's always about writing to be remembered.
What are your writing habits like?
It's more like self-mutilating. When I'm with people and somebody says something, just a really fascinating fact or anecdote or phrase, say they say this really odd phrase I'll write it on the inside of my arm. And at the end of the day I'll take the very best things that are on my arm and I'll copy them into a notebook that I always carry. Only when the weather is absolutely terrible will I really key the best of that notebook into the computer. At that point it's already been censored twice, only the best things go from the arm to the book. Only the best things go from the book to the computer. And this way I have a way to be with people and I can be in the world where ideas actually happen.
Is there any subject that you wouldn't write about, that you would consider too controversial?
Did you ever read Irvine Welsh's Marabou Stork Nightmares? There's a scene where he tortures and kills a German shepherd. After that was published my editor, who publishes Irvine Welsh in the States said: 'Never kill an animal in a book. It is just not worth the hassle, that just pisses people off more than anything.'
I wrote one story, a fictionalised story of a friend of mine in college, she and her boyfriend paid for college by every weekend going out as this well dressed, nice married couple and they would adopt pets from people. And then they would take those pets and sell them to product testing laboratories. It was just this hideous, cold thing that they did for money. I wrote a story about them and my editor just kicked it right back and said 'no way'. He said this was just going to make more people hate me than anything I could ever possibly write. Torturing or killing animals in stories is just beyond the pale.
Is that purely from an editorial standpoint or a personal choice?
I think it's really the one concession I make to my editor, Jerry. Jerry should be glad he's not Cormac McCarthy's editor.
Are you still involved with the Cacophony Society?
As much as I can be, in a way I'm more involved with the San Francisco Cacophony Society which is the original society and they have a lot more events. But I've kind of lost my anonymity in Portland so if I'm going to do something like Santa Rampage it's more fun to do it in another where I'm just another Santa.
If you could fight one person, who would it be?
You know, the one thing I cannot stand is when I do interviews, when I interview people and I listen to the tapes and I hear myself talking and I hear myself stumble and stammer and I hear the horrible sound of my own voice, or God forbid I see myself on video. There is that complete revulsion of seeing how I occur in the world, that I think it would be interesting to fight me. I think that would be absolutely overwhelming and I think in a way that was the inspiration for Edward Norton, for that character, kind of fighting himself as the basis in Fight Club. The idea of constantly wanting to destroy this thing that you're not really happy with.
So you collaborate with the filmmakers who adapt your books?
So far I've really, really not wanted to control what people do because they do they do these things a lot better than I do them. And I know their intention is not to f**k them up, they're not saying: 'I want to pay a huge amount of money so I can burn Chuck Palahniuk'. They really want to do the best job they can do, and in a way I kind of stay present so that I can validate their interpretation and let them surprise me with where they take the story.
Sam Rockwell, when I met him and we were hanging out while they were filming the movie, he said that he really saw the movie as Hamlet, the unresolved mother-son relationship. He also saw it as James Dean and the character of his mother in East of Eden, and that's really how he wanted to play it, in these classical unresolved mother-son relationships. I had never made those connections, so if I tried to take control I would preclude things like that that are still kind of brilliant.
Is there going to be anything happening for the tenth anniversary of Fight Club?
Dear God, I have no idea. We did the tenth anniversary of the book a couple of years ago, so I don't know, I don't know.
Have you ever been genuinely surprised by a reaction to one of your books?
Yeah, and it kind of goes back to what people are saying about things being more about themselves. It's kind of a classic example that I've said a lot of times. I was flying to Los Angeles and I was sitting in my seat and a flight attendant comes down the aisle. He's got the passenger manifest and he checks out my seat number and he says: 'Are you the Fight Club guy,' and I said I was. He said: 'Would you tell me the truth, because I think I've figured out what Fight Club is about.'
And he goes: 'Fight Club is really about gay guys at bath houses f****ing each other in public, right?' And I realised in that moment what his life is about. What do you say? I thought the diplomatic thing was just to say [whispers]: 'Don't tell anybody.' And it made him so happy, he was just lit up and he gave me free drinks all the way down and every time I'm on a plane that he's on I get free drinks. So there have been a lot of reactions like that and I see it as my job to agree with them and make them happy, because this is a person handling my food.