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Playboy Interview: Chuck Palahniuk
  • March 05, 2009 : 00:03
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PLAYBOY: You write about the eclectic variety of items emergency-room doctors have had to remove from people's rectums. Did you make them up?

PALAHNIUK: I didn't invent them, no. I hear about them all the time. A doctor last week wrote this fantastic letter about a guy who had come in a couple of weeks before saying someone had come into his apartment in the middle of the night and assaulted him with a bell pepper. Well, the moment he said "assault" they had to call the police. The doctor wrote about drugging this guy in the operating room and then having to remove soiled pieces of bell pepper from his rectum. They bagged them as evidence, with police detectives standing by.

PLAYBOY: In Choke, your protagonist, a sex addict, loses a large anal bead up there.

PALAHNIUK: Right, and it creates stress into the third act. It's like the character is crippled until all his secrets come out. It's Rosemary's Baby. You put the devil's baby inside somebody, and the story's over when the baby comes out.

PLAYBOY: Do you ever think you've gone too far with any of the more horrific moments in your books?

PALAHNIUK: Nothing's going too far. Whenever I get to the point where I think things are going too far, I know I have to go there.

PLAYBOY: It has also been reported that your readers have copied Tyler's example and intentionally burned themselves with lye.

PALAHNIUK: And other stuff, yes. People have told me they've done it.

PLAYBOY: What inspired that ritual in the book?

PALAHNIUK: My friend Alice was making soap; she taught me how and told me about the lye burns you get on your arms when you make it. I wanted to have the gesture of someone kissing someone's hand and scarring it. It seems so Christ-like. So yeah, people have said they've done it. I also see a huge number of tattoos based on images in the books. I've seen people tattooed all over their body with all the covers of my books. God bless them. I understand it. It's an aspect of books that I like—the badging ability. If someone wears an image from Fight Club, they'll attract like-minded people in a way they won't if there's an iPod in their ears.

PLAYBOY: You offer recipes for homemade bombs in Fight Club. Where did they come from? Do they work?

PALAHNIUK: My brother is an electrical engineer for Chevron. We spent a weekend coming up with these formulas. It was a game to play. Yes, the formulas worked before my publisher got its hands on them. The real recipes made it all the way to typeset, but then somebody freaked out. They asked me to change one ingredient in every recipe to make them useless.

PLAYBOY: Besides real bomb-making formulas, what else has your publisher prohibited you from including in a book?

PALAHNIUK: In Fight Club my editor thought I'd gone too far when, originally, the Project Mayhem guys castrated a cop. He said the characters would lose all sympathy if they went that far, so I stopped short of their castrating him. That was maybe the only concession I made to my editor, who also said I couldn't have them make soap out of liposuction fat stolen from doctors' offices. He said it was too distasteful, but I wouldn't give on that point. I wanted something that was a metaphor and visceral. In Pygmy, my editor said I went too far in a scene where the father is doped on Rohypnol and wets his pants. He thought it was just too humiliating. I said, "You know, they dig a vibrator out of the mother's vagina underneath the Thanksgiving dinner table, but peeing in his pants is too humiliating?"

PLAYBOY: Given moments like that, does it surprise you that, as you've said, people assume you are like Tyler Durden or even Charles Manson?

PALAHNIUK: No, but I make an effort to destroy that image. In my interactions with people I try to comfort them in some way. I try to soften the blow.

PLAYBOY: How do you soften it?

PALAHNIUK: Often people come to events and want photos with me. So I'll take wedding veils and big bouquets and dress them up as Ukrainian brides, and then we'll have our picture taken.

PLAYBOY: How does that soften the blow?

PALAHNIUK: Suddenly they're holding flowers. I'm touching them and grooming them. It's very human and intimate. Then we do fake wedding pictures. Last year I took all these costumes from the Choke movie, colonial wigs and cravats and tricornered hats, and did the same thing. It's so stupid, but I cut through all the tension they may feel. Also, if I'm being the stupid person, they don't have to worry about being the stupid person. Meanwhile, it makes it so much more fun for me. Another thing I did for several years was buy all these hyperrealistic bloody cut-off arms that had a bone sticking out. I'd throw them out into the crowd. I started that because people were always asking me to sign their limbs. I'd come back a year later, and they'd have tattooed my signature on their arm. So instead of that, I gave them limbs. If they wanted, I'd sign them. It was just a blast at the end of the events to take those and hurl them into the audience. It was like feeding time at the zoo. It would leave me winded and euphoric.

PLAYBOY: On the Snuff tour you handed out blow-up sex dolls. How did people respond?

PALAHNIUK: First, I'd throw maybe a hundred sex dolls out there at an event and have contests to see who could blow them up the fastest. They had to blow them up so they could hold them by the ankles and they'd stand. It really dresses up the auditorium. Then I'd throw out more dolls—200 or 300. After the event you'd be on the street or on mass transit and see hundreds of people with blown-up sex dolls under their arm. It's really funny and sweet.

PLAYBOY: Snuff is about a woman who decides to set the world fornication record, as you explain it in the book. She plans to have sex with 600 men in one day. How did you come up with that premise?

PALAHNIUK: It's based on Grace Quek, a.k.a. Annabel Chong. When she was 22 years old, she had sex with 251 men in 10 hours. She was a gender-studies student at the University of Southern California and had done a couple of porn movies. She was researching the Roman empress Messalina, who was called a female Caligula—this voracious, sexually aggressive empress who would go to brothels and challenge the leading prostitutes in ancient Rome to see who could service the most guys in a night. Messalina would always win. As a feminist statement, Quek wanted to make a movie, the world's largest gang-bang movie. She set the rules. "The guys will come in five at a time, and whoever gets an erection first is the one who gets to fuck me, and the other ones get to beat off; if they haven't come in three minutes, they're all out of here." Something like 67 percent of the guys who waited in line couldn't get an erection. A lot of people stood in line to say "I love you" to Annabel Chong: "I have all your movies. I adore you." They wanted to express their affection. The last thing they wanted to do was fuck her.

PLAYBOY: People expected Snuff to be pornographic, but it's about the men waiting in line for their turn. You once said the book isn't about sex, just as most sex really isn't about sex. What did you mean?

PALAHNIUK: Sex is just a physical business that goes on. It's just what you do with your hands and feet while you're communicating something else completely.

PLAYBOY: Is it fair to say Snuff is also about death? The men wait for their number to be called for sex, a symbol for all of us waiting for our number to be called to die.

PALAHNIUK: Often I've looked for ways to present death so people can accept it and go beyond their fear of it. How do we talk about the idea that you're going to die and I'm going to die and we're going to watch people we love die? I acknowledge it and show that people can face this reality and live. We love seeing people live through our worst fears. It shows us that we can, too. Accepting death seems terrifying, but it's freeing.

PLAYBOY: In Survivor, you write, "The only thing I know is that everything you love will die." You were talking about a fish, but later in the book you write, "The first time you meet that someone special, you can count on them one day being dead and in the ground." Does the thought depress you?

PALAHNIUK: I think everyone has fears like that, though maybe they're repressed. Like with fearing your own death, you go through this fear, too, and there's a freedom. It's like confronting the fear of being humiliated. In a story you see a strong character devastated and humiliated in an incredibly awful way, but they still venture forward. It reassures people that if they were ever humiliated in the way they would most dread, they'd move past it and survive. It wouldn't be the end of them. For people terrified of the idea of being absolutely humiliated and degraded in public, the story Guts seems to say something to them. I think that's why people respond so strongly to it.

PLAYBOY: Guts is a story that involves masturbation, a swimming-pool pump and once-internal body parts that don't remain internal. Some people respond by fainting. Is it true that hundreds of people have passed out during your readings?

PALAHNIUK: Yes, and it's an amazing thing to watch from up front where I can see it all happen. People come into the auditorium and are all hating the fact that they're packed in together with too many other people. They're hemmed in, forced to share the same space. Then I read Guts. They can't all see what's going on, but from up front I can see the moment one person begins to quaver. His head goes down, and then he slumps into the lap of the person next to him. I see horror on the face of the person being slumped on. The face says, "How dare you touch me. Get the fuck off me." Then something happens. It's as if they feel the person has, in a way, died. Soon the entire audience catches on and jumps up. For them, too, it's like seeing a person die. Everything stops, and the person who has passed out is the center of everyone's attention. The whole crowd of 800 people goes from hating one another to being one. Everyone is focused on and concerned about this one person who's on the floor, unaware. This person is gently served and catered to until they come back to life, resurrected. Everyone sees that person resurrect, and their relief is tangible. I'm watching it, and it's just glorious. At that point, instead of hating one another, people have bonded over this shared experience, this witnessing of death and resurrection, and they're euphoric.

PLAYBOY: Is someone fainting a sign of a successful reading?

PALAHNIUK: It's one sign, yes.

PLAYBOY: Could it be considered perverse that you delight in making people faint?

PALAHNIUK: I don't believe that. When people are exposed to extreme things—things so memorable and hard to assimilate into how they think of the world and how they think of themselves—they're freed. It helps them digest their fears and experiences. It's similar to how writing is the way I digest my fears and experience. People hear these stories and become so open they want to tell me things they've never told anybody else. They feel it's safe to tell me things. The stories people tell will stay with me for the rest of my life.
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