Interview with Chuck Palahniuk

Posted by Goodreads on May 1, 2018
To research his latest novel, Chuck Palahniuk spent the past six years talking to people in the alt-right and other extremist groups, trying to understand their grievances and the solutions they proposed. "If they all got their way," he wondered, "what would it look like? Why not depict how this might happen and ultimately the flaws that would emerge?"

The result is Adjustment Day, a dystopian depiction of the United States in which the 50 states have been dissolved—after a series of gun massacres—into a new land of ethno-states: Caucasia, Gaysia, and Blacktopia. The book is what you'd expect from the author best known for writing Fight Club: violent, kinetic, and deeply disturbing.

Palahniuk is currently touring the country to promote Adjustment Day as well as the paperback launch of his graphic novel Fight Club Two and his coloring books. Reached by phone in Portland, Oregon, Palahniuk spoke to Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw. Their conversation has been edited.

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Goodreads: Some early reviews on Goodreads are saying that Adjustment Day is scary, given how relevant the subject matter is to today.

Chuck Palahniuk: You know, my original publisher, Doubleday, rejected the novel because they were more frightened by the concept of the list, that online [crowd-sourced] list of people to be assassinated. They thought that was just too plausible and that people would actually create that thing.

GR: When I read about the list, I had the thought that versions of that happen on social media. While not a physical assassination, that's a form of character assassination. Was that on your mind when you were writing?

CP: It wasn't on my mind, but after the fact, I recognized that these big witch hunts start on the internet in exactly that way you described.

GR: How did you get strangers in the alt-right and other groups to talk to you?

CP: All I have to do is say, "Hey, I'm the Fight Club guy. Can I talk to you?" That opens all these doors on the left and right. So many groups have latched onto the Fight Club stuff: Antifa, the alt-right. Everybody is using pieces of it for their own political purposes.

GR: I was trying to see how long I could go without bringing up Fight Club. But since it came up, what's it like to see your work embraced by so many different groups?

CP: Boy, it's enormously flattering. I think that's something any kind of creative person wants. They want to contribute to the culture in a way that the culture adopts. After that, there's a kind of letting go because you realize you can't control these things.

It's very much like the narrator in Fight Club. Once he realized that the groups had grown beyond his awareness and beyond his control, he couldn't shut them down, he couldn't do anything to resolve them. You want to control your baby, and you realize your baby is living its own life. Parents must go through this.

GR: Can you talk more about how you got to know people in extremist groups? Did you approach them as a journalist, an academic, a friend?

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CP: I would just call up the ones that were available, accessible, and sit down and meet with them. There was one golden boy of the alt-right, Jack Donovan, and he's since distanced himself from them. We sat down for a few hours and just talked about the state of things. He writes books about men's rights, and I wanted to talk to him about those.

But he asked for a posed silly selfie, so I did a choke hold, as I typically do with people. And I didn't realize that he had all this classic tattoo flash art on the wall behind him. And part of that was a very small swastika. He put the picture up on social media, and some media outlets picked it up and said, "Look, Palahniuk's this Nazi, choking a Nazi in front of swastikas," when all I was trying to do is research a book.

GR: How did that make you feel?

CP: A little panicked because my father was killed by a white supremacist. I really didn't want to get linked in the public's mind with white supremacy. But I did want to know where people were coming from in order to write this book.

GR: I've read about your father, [Fred Palahniuk, who was fatally shot in 1999], and I'm very, very sorry.

CP: You know, it'll be 20 years next year.

GR: I wondered if this renewed interest in gun violence that we saw in March was resonant for you or if you even link your personal experience with this?

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CP: I don't, only because I see this cultural movement as wallpaper, because these school shootings, these workplace shootings, these in-group shootings happen on such a regular basis. They have become the texture of our society, the new normal. So in a way, in Adjustment Day, I wanted to take it to the ultimate extent, the gun violence that would seemingly end all the gun violence.

GR: To return to what you were saying about being linked with the alt-right, I think that our culture is grappling with this. What is the line between listening and learning and endorsing and enabling difficult views?

CP: Boy, I haven't thought of that in terms of enabling. You know, my degree is in journalism, and first and foremost my creative method is to go out and talk to people, to find out what their grievances are and also what solutions they propose.

And so in this case, I talked to black separatists, the Hotep Nation people, the Farrakhan people. I talked to white separatists and race realists, a lot of Radical Faerie people. In a way, my job was just to be a reporter and try to make a unified field theory out of all of these people's fantasies so that it would be as much about wish fulfillment as possible.

GR: I wanted to know exactly how you were criticizing what's happening in the world.

CP: I'm not sure if I'm really criticizing anything. So much of my process is to take a social model, take somebody's fantasy about how the world should be, fulfill it, and then run it so that its flaws start to show, and then keep running it so that it starts to fall apart. Otherwise, you don't have a story.

I grew up in a little town called Burbank, in eastern Washington. It was 600 people, and they were all white. Theoretically, it should've been the Garden of Eden, but people still fought, and they still beat each other, they still took drugs, they still committed suicide, and they still murdered each other. And it was miserable. So in a way, writing Adjustment Day let me revisit this fantasy that just doesn't work out the way you think it will.

GR: In creating any art, there's the risk of putting yourself out there. But I'd imagine you take this double risk of both putting yourself out there and knowing people are going to misinterpret you.

CP: And there's something even more personal than that, especially with a short story like Guts, which is about being crippled by different ways of jerking off, and which makes people faint. When you read that in public, it's like committing suicide. You don't have a shred of dignity left by the end. It is so not about making the writer look good; it's about completely degrading the writer.

I'm always trying to escape the trap of producing work that's calculated to make me popular with people. That's how we're all so thrown. Our natural inclination is always to look good and to please others. Writing is one tiny part of my life where I can escape that.

GR: And yet, I suspect that in real life, you're not seeking to offend anyone. Stop me if I'm wrong there.

CP: No, it's never my goal to provoke or to offend anyone. It's always my goal to try and take something to a point where it shocks me. So if anything, I'm looking for my own limits and bringing myself to a point where I felt like I've gone too far. Because unless I go too far, I don't feel like I've gone far enough.

The best example is that line from Fight Club where Marla's in bed with Tyler for the first time, and she says she wants to get pregnant just so she can have his abortion. And I thought, "That is so offensive. That is so beyond the pale." But that's the thing I will not regret when I'm an old person.

GR: What about when you're a reader? What are you looking for?

CP: Oh boy. I'm usually looking for that kind of authority that comes from a character saying or doing something that's fantastically true but not politically correct. My favorite example is in Denis Johnson's short story, "Dirty Wedding," which is from Jesus' Son. Fuckhead is taking his girlfriend, Michelle, in for an abortion. And the nurse approaches him in the waiting room and says, "Michelle is at peace now."

And he says, "Is she dead?"

And the nurse says, "No, she's not dead." The nurse is very troubled.

And then Fuckhead says, "You know I kind of wish she was."

And when I read that line, I thought, "Oh, it's so honest, but it's still brutal." It's a glorious line.

Amy Hempel has this great line, "What dogs want is for no one to ever leave." I'll read a whole novel looking for just one fantastically true line like that.

GR: Are there other authors you can recommend who do this well?

CP: There's a Korean American author named Nami Mun who has a book called Miles from Nowhere. She's fantastic. Monica Drake is a friend of mine, and her work always inspires me. She always hits the nail on the head.

GR: You've attributed some of your success to writing workshops run by your longtime mentor, Tom Spanbauer. What about them helped you so much?

CP: You know, I run a workshop now on Monday nights that is pretty much based on Tom's method. And more and more, I recognize that the biggest thing workshop does is: number one, it creates an expectation that you will produce work every week. When people are in workshop, they write, and they write a lot. And number two, it gives them a beta audience to read their work in front of. So they can see exactly where it works and exactly where it falls down. And beyond that, everything else is gravy. But just those two things alone are worth it.

GR: What kind of feedback in a workshop tells you, "Ah, I'm on to something?"

CP: The best kind of stories are the ones that generate stories. When everyone is leaning forward and they have an anecdote that is a different version, usually a better version, of what you've just told.

Say I present Guts. It's such a humiliating story, but it creates this opportunity for people who have similar stories to rush forward and tell me theirs. And it's amazing what people will share that they've never told anybody. Guts gives people permission to tell their own story. I think that's what a great story does.

GR: So for a writer, it would really matter with whom they surround themselves?

CP: It does, but I know a lot of screenwriters who have to sit through preproduction meetings where they have to take the feedback from every actor and every producer and everybody associated with the project. They just become very good at writing down the good stuff and then just nodding and thanking people for the stuff that's not good.

GR: What advice do you give writers?

CP: Write to please themselves or shock themselves or entertain themselves. And if anything, to surprise people in workshop. There's a linguistic anthropologist named Shirley Brice Heath. Jonathan Franzen has written about her quite a bit. She says the one aspect of writing that people value most is the element of surprise. If a story can surprise the reader, subvert an expectation, then the reader will really treasure that story.

I noticed that my more recent writer's workshop—one that I'd been in for, geez, 20 years at least—fell apart about the time I started writing Adjustment Day. I think it was because I was starting to pander to them. Someone in the group, a dear friend of mine, told me I couldn't use the word faggot anymore, that I would have to leave the workshop if I was going to use the word in a story. Another friend objected to a different word.

And I found myself having to write within the constraints of people's sensibilities. There was no way I can write the kind of challenging in-your-face stuff that I love to write. And so I left workshop, and in doing so, I was able to write Adjustment Day. But I think my last few books have been more perhaps frivolous because I was writing to please people in workshop, and that doesn't work. I try to tell people not to do that.

GR: It can be so hard in any group to tune out what people think of you.

CP: And ultimately it comes down to not what they think of you but what they think of the story. You wanna separate yourself, so they can still like you, still tolerate you, but they can still be offended by your story or they can be really entertained by your story, regardless of how they feel about you.

GR: So much of your writing explores social order. In your life, what helps you make sense of the world?

CP: Writing. It is my ongoing coping mechanism. It's what I would do even if I hadn't made it my profession. It's mainly to be with people. I host these evening work sessions where people come to my office. It'll be 25 or 30 people, all with their laptops, in such complete silence that you think you're alone. And it's such a comfort to just be in the presence of other people who are all writing.

GR: You once said, "The meaning of life is to find joy in everything you choose to do, every job, relationship, home. It's your responsibility to love it or change it." Is that still your take?

CP: That's all I got. I got nothing better than that.

Comments Showing 1-32 of 32 (32 new)

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message 1: by Chris (new)

Chris Berko Great interview. Chuck P always brings the noise!

message 2: by Gayendra (new)

Gayendra Abeywardane What better than a Chuck Palahniuk interview.

message 3: by Darren (new)

Darren Rogers How refreshing. He openly admits to the inconsistency of his recent works and blames the confines of the groups. I understand that struggle.

message 4: by Nico (new)

Nico Diaz Excellent interview.

message 5: by Karlina (new)

Karlina 💕

message 6: by Donald (new)

Donald Jans Awesome interview. And I feel very fortunate to be in his Monday night workshop.

message 7: by Dan (new)

Dan Witte Great interview. And now I *wish* I was in his workshop.

message 8: by Zoë (new)

Zoë Birss Excellent. Thankyou. I hope to start reading this book tomorrow.

message 9: by Rafael (new)

Rafael Looking forward to reading the book. It's always refreshing, in an Ice Bucket Challenge kind of way, to read a new Palahniuk book.

message 10: by Ryan (new)

Ryan Ard I absolutely love Palahniuk. If he comparable Adjustment Day to Guts and Haunted it should be great!

message 11: by Robert (new)

Robert Martinez This was a great interview. I love this part of the interview "The meaning of life is to find joy in everything you choose to do, every job, relationship, home. It's your responsibility to love it or change it."

Avinash (pookreads) I'm so excited for Adjustment Day and I'm really looking forward to know what he's working on next (I hope it's the sequel to Rant) 🤘🤘🤘

message 13: by Jeff (new)

Jeff Wade 'The Turner Diaries' sounds like the real life version of his latest book. Written by a real neo-fascist gun nut. It inspired Timothy McVeigh to do his bombing. Hard reading because you know those people are still out there.

message 14: by Kenny (new)

Kenny Chaffin Excellent Interview with one of my favorite Writer's Writers.

message 15: by Annie (new)

Annie I also went to school in Burbank. Chuck is not wrong...

message 16: by Sabrina Sellers (new)

Sabrina Sellers This is great, can’t wait to read Adjustment Day. Good to hear from someone who knows the difference between BEING an ‘ist (racist, sexist, etc.) and telling a story that is offensive and makes ppl think. And thinking is NEVER a bad thing.

message 17: by Jan-Peter (last edited May 02, 2018 05:35AM) (new)

Jan-Peter Scheffer Pam wrote: "I am not alt right, nor extreme right. I am considered right however. I love my guns. I love to shoot targets, enjoy hunting and save a fortune in grocery bills being able to shoot, butcher, wrap, ..."
To call the legitimate response of the youth, as you must be referring to the March for Our Lives, "hysteria", is adding an unnecessary major insult to multiple unnecessary major injuries. Are you sure you want to do that? I hope the youth changes the US for the better, and it will, because it's had enough of the old, which doesn't work for them anymore.

message 18: by Jan-Peter (last edited May 02, 2018 05:47AM) (new)

Jan-Peter Scheffer He's a meticulous observer who writes meticulously about what he observes in society, and about the probable ultimate consequences of it, and we direly need those, since much of the mainstream media are failing to observe and analyse, but rather facilitate dangerous lies and dangerous escalation, being the instruments of ignorance and arrogance that they are.

message 19: by Gary Reehl (new)

Gary  Reehl He makes me want to be a writer. The movie Fight Club was very affecting. But I do worry that by writing exclusively about fringe people you are giving the margins more identity than they desearve. Writing about the actual more complex negotiation in everyday agendas is more of an art. That’s where a quote like “ dogs want no one to leave” seems to come from.

message 20: by Dywane (new)

Dywane Awesome?

message 21: by Tom (new)

Tom Great interview. The irony is, if everyone in the world thought along the lines of CP he wouldn't have anything to write about.

message 22: by O22 (new)

O22 @Pam
Really, is that it, you've never found anyone who could tell you why states with the most strict gu.n laws have more murders violence - that'd what it's all about for you,?, "if I can answer that f you will you give up your guns? I'll pretend that you said" yes" to save time : it's because the states with the most crime are the ones who make the most strict gun laws, f that's what follows logically if you think about it, for example, why would states without much crime make their laws more strict? Where I live there's no law about putting chains on your tires. Know why....? It never snows. See how that works?

message 23: by Doris (new)

Doris 💖

message 24: by Jules (new)

Jules R. Solid interview, as always!

message 25: by Gregory (new)

Gregory Great interview, Palahniuk is the quintessential troll.

message 26: by Opal (new)

Opal Can't wait to read it.

message 27: by Li (new)

Li "... it's never my goal to provoke or to offend anyone. It's always my goal to try and take something to a point where it shocks me. So if anything, I'm looking for my own limits and bringing myself to a point where I felt like I've gone too far. Because unless I go too far, I don't feel like I've gone far enough."

Your above sharing sticks with me. It takes fearlessness -- or, if not fearlessness, a Paul Atreidian Litany of Fear mode of creating -- to do what you do in your work.

Thank you for your explanation on why you left the 20+ year writing group, as I read in another article/interview you'd left it and wondered why at the time. It ties in with the above.

message 28: by Rachael (new)

Rachael Ross Fantastic author and a really entertaining interview. No one can match Palahniuk’s creativity.

message 29: by Bon Tom (last edited May 31, 2018 08:26AM) (new)

Bon Tom Chuck's definition of meaning of life is almost like something Tow Mater from Cars franchise would say, but it's fantastically true.

I believe it could be argued it's the root of his books being so great. I'd have to revisit them though to check if I'm right, but aren't they all about characters dissatisfied with their current situations, in one way or the other? Taking steps to change it, for better or worse?

Yes. His books are about meaning of life. Not so obvious perhaps, but it's there. Archetype of ideal writing.

message 30: by Toby (new)

Toby Wells Amazing interview!

message 31: by Sierra (new)

Sierra I’m not usually into interviews, but I enjoyed this one. Thank you for emailing me about it. Now I have even more books and authors on my TBR list, and find Chuck to be even more relatable.
Favorite author. Hands down.

message 32: by Katelyn (new)

Katelyn this was just what i needed to read to start writing again!

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