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Playboy Interview: Chuck Palahniuk
  • March 05, 2009 : 00:03
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PLAYBOY: What kinds of stories?

PALAHNIUK: A middle-aged woman came up to me after a Guts event. She said, "When I was in second grade, I was in the Brownies. One day I had a stomachache, and we had this heating pad with a vibrating function. My mom made me take a nap sleeping facedown on this heating pad. It slid down between my legs. I woke up with the most amazing feeling. I had never had such a feeling. Oh my God, what a feeling. So when it was my turn to host the Brownie troop, I said, 'Brownies, you've got to try this heating-pad thing.' All the Brownies came to my house and rode the heating pad and had pounding orgasms. It was like Sex and the City for seven-year-old girls. After that the Brownies didn't give a shit about earning merit badges. They didn't want to do public service. They just wanted to come to my house. Every meeting was at my house. For the first time in my life I was the most popular girl in my class. I went from being the girl who smelled like pee to 'Everybody wants to play at my house all the time.'"

It was very funny, but that wasn't the end of the story. She said, "So we did this until the day my mom came home from work early and caught us with the heating pad. She sent all the Brownies home and yanked the plug out of the wall. And she beat me with the cord. She was screaming, 'You piece of shit, you dirty fucking whore. What kind of a little whore cunt did I raise?' And she beat me and she beat me and she beat me and she beat me," the woman said. "And I haven't had an orgasm since the second grade, since I was seven years old." It's such a sad story, but then she said, "But if you can tell that Guts story, I know I can tell my heating–pad story. I can make it the funniest story anybody's ever heard." She seemed enormously relieved. Now she's going to craft it as an intellectual exercise, and she'll realize she can use this terrible thing that happened to her instead of being used by it.

PLAYBOY: You once said if you hadn't become a writer you would probably be an alcoholic. Why?

PALAHNIUK: When you have this thing to fuss and fret over, this totally fictionalized crisis to pour all your excess energy and anxiety into, you don't have to go out and deaden them with drinking.

PLAYBOY: You once said, "Before I started writing, I'd go out on a Friday night and engage in that big act of denial where you drink so much you forget you have to go to work on Monday morning."

PALAHNIUK: I don't have to do that anymore.

PLAYBOY: When did writing become a kind of therapy for you?

PALAHNIUK: Not until I was in my late 20s and I went to a writers' group. It wasn't my first group. I started in one with all these middle-aged ladies. When it was my turn to read, I read a scene that later went into Snuff. A young man is obsessed with a girl, so he buys a blow-up doll and dresses it like her; then he gets drunk and seduces it. As he unzips the back of its dress, the zipper snags the vinyl skin. He doesn't know, but as he starts to fuck it he realizes it's going flat, and it becomes this horrible race as the doll wrinkles and shrivels beneath him. He has to get off before it's completely flat. The scene ends with his being surprised by his mother walking in the door. He stands up, and the completely flat doll is hanging off his erection like a big pink flag. The end. Blackout. The ladies were so upset they asked me to leave the group. But the leader of the workshop, Andrea, was very kind and said, "There's a man named Tom Spanbauer who just moved to Portland. He studied at Columbia with this man named Gordon Lish, and he's teaching a brand-new style. You might want to move to Tom's workshop, because we don't want you here."

PLAYBOY: Were you discouraged when your first novel, Invisible Monsters, was rejected?

PALAHNIUK: Well, it's devastating. But you get really clear that you aren't writing solely for the public. You're clear that you have to find the more immediate rewards of writing. You might as well be in love with whatever you're working on whether or not it's a success. Writing is never wasted time.

PLAYBOY: Invisible Monsters was published later, after Fight Club.

PALAHNIUK: Some stuff I used in Fight Club came from that first book. Marla has a speech in Fight Club in which she talks about the condom being the glass slipper of her generation. That's stolen from that earlier book.

PLAYBOY: The line made it into the movie, too. What was it like seeing Fight Club for the first time on-screen?

PALAHNIUK: It was really nostalgic because by then it's so far behind you that you see you've forgotten a lot of it. It's like going through your high school annual and having this sort of sweet distance.

PLAYBOY: More recently, was it a similar feeling watching Choke?

PALAHNIUK: Choke is kind of clouded right now because Mom's been sick. It's about a son sitting by his mother's bedside and she's dying, so it's just excruciating and overwhelming for me now.

PLAYBOY: Growing up, you lived mostly with her, right?

PALAHNIUK: After the divorce.

PLAYBOY: What did she and your father do for a living when you were a child?

PALAHNIUK: My father worked for the railroad. My mom was at home until my parents divorced, when I was 13. Then she went back to school and became a bookkeeper.

PLAYBOY: Is it true your father once almost cut off your finger with an ax?

PALAHNIUK: I was very young. I must have been four or five years old. One day I was alone at our house with my father, and I put a washer around my finger and it got stuck. I waited until my finger got swollen and black and it had lost all feeling, because I knew I would be in trouble. Eventually I went to my father and asked him to help me. He said, "I'll help you out this once, but if you do this again, you know, it's your problem." He had me help him get a hatchet we used for killing chickens and sharpen it. We washed it with rubbing alcohol so it was sterile. We went to the chopping block, and my father had me kneel down and put my hand on the block. I was thinking, My father's doing me a favor, and I deserve this. He said, "Hold still," and he swung the ax and just missed my finger.

PLAYBOY: These days that would be grounds for calling Child Protective Services.

PALAHNIUK: Well, it just made it very clear to me that there are consequences for whatever you do.

PLAYBOY: Are you resentful?

PALAHNIUK: You know, I'd almost forgotten about it because it was a story I'd never told anybody. I knew it didn't make my dad look very good, and my mother didn't know and I knew it would make her just explode. I'd almost forgotten it until I had this sort of bogus sénce at a haunted house. The psychic said my father was present and was apologizing for something that involved an ax and dismemberment. I'd never told anybody the story before, but she repeated the whole thing. She said my father was regretful. As a young man he had no idea how to resolve the situation and teach me a lesson.

PLAYBOY: He had his own traumatic experience when he was a child. You've told how he hid under the bed and watched his father murder his wife—your grandmother—and then kill himself. Your parents kept the story from you until you were 18. Were you angry that they hadn't told you earlier?

PALAHNIUK: They wanted to protect us from this truth, so I understood. But it was useful to know. It explained how horrible things had been for my father. Knowing helps you understand. Like when I was little my mom was just frantic about pulling all our curtains shut. Until I was an adult I didn't know it was because the creepy man who lived way down the road would come and hide in our shrubs and masturbate outside my sister's bedroom windows. My mother had started finding cigarette butts and soiled Kleenexes in the shrubs when she was gardening.

PLAYBOY: You've written, "I'm six years old again and taking messages back and forth between my estranged parents." Is that autobiographical?

PALAHNIUK: Yeah. My siblings and I were younger than 10. We had this game called "playing Henry Kissinger." We'd hear them fighting, and the four of us would hide in the basement. As soon as the fighting died down we would decide whose turn it was to play Henry Kissinger. You had to go upstairs and be sort of innocuous, entertaining and endearing and try to lessen the stress.

PLAYBOY: In 1999 you had another tragedy in your life. Your father and his girlfriend were murdered. How did you hear about it?

PALAHNIUK: A publicist at my publisher, W.W. Norton, called. She said, "I hope this is a joke, but a detective has called from Idaho, and they found your father's car outside a burned-down house with bodies in the house, and they think your father might be one of those bodies. Would you call the following number...." I did, and they said they needed someone to collect my father's dental X-rays and take them up to Idaho. My brother and I went up, and yeah, it was him.

PLAYBOY: How do you process something that horrific?

PALAHNIUK: The way I've always done it. I process things by gathering all the information I can and documenting it. I just went out and collected everything about the murder I could find. At the time, my siblings didn't want to know anything about it, so I thought I'd gather everything for them. I'd have it whenever they wanted to know. I went to see the autopsy photos and the crime scene. I read all the stories in the papers and talked to all the reporters. If my sister calls and asks, "What were Dad's last 20 minutes alive like?" I can dispassionately say, "He was shot at this angle. The coroner says the evidence was that his diaphragm was ruptured, his lungs began to collapse, breathing became difficult. He was assisted into the burning building by his girlfriend as they fled the gunman. They were already dead by the time the fire consumed them. The bodies were preserved because a mattress had fallen on top of them."

PLAYBOY: In what way does knowing the details help you?

PALAHNIUK: It's a distancing thing.

PLAYBOY: Do you also have to process it emotionally at some point?

PALAHNIUK: I did that when I was cleaning out his house, the horror of cleaning out his house and coming across all the things I knew about him.

PLAYBOY: What was the killer's trial like?

PALAHNIUK: Hard and tedious at the same time, but it was part of putting the whole story together.

PLAYBOY: What was it like to see the murderer in court?

PALAHNIUK: I didn't have any emotion attached to it. It was abstract. For the sentencing I had to be cross-examined by him, which was awkward and unpleasant. He said I was persecuting him. He also said he'd buried anthrax bombs throughout the area, and if he was sentenced to death, eventually these bombs would corrode to the point that they would explode underground and wipe out thousands of people.

PLAYBOY: Through this experience did you conclude he was insane or evil?

PALAHNIUK: I lean toward evil. They told me about his history. It was hard to see years and decades of someone's life devoted to victimizing people and not start to think of that person as evil. It was hard to have any kind of sympathy for somebody who had made so many people suffer.

PLAYBOY: Did you already have an opinion about the death penalty?

PALAHNIUK: I didn't have an opinion because it was never anything I felt any kind of connection to.

PLAYBOY: Was asking for it a difficult decision?

PALAHNIUK: It was and it wasn't. A lot of it seemed symbolic, because people aren't executed for decades after the trial. We think of death as the ultimate resolution, but it seldom is.

PLAYBOY: You ultimately testified that the killer should be put to death. Do you still feel that way?

PALAHNIUK: I wouldn't change my mind, no.

PLAYBOY: You've said that, driving home after your father's funeral, you wanted to stop the car and lie facedown in the middle of the street until someone came along to help you. Why?

PALAHNIUK: I wanted somebody in authority to hold me, comfort me and say all those clichéd things—somebody with a gun and a badge who was definitely in charge, saying, "You're okay. Everything is going to be all right." They'd feel the side of my neck for a pulse. I'd feel their warm fingers. There'd be a physical reassurance that I was alive. It was a little like the desire for the kind of physical connection that happens at readings a lot of times when people say, "Will you choke me?" for a picture. I'll put my hands around their neck: I'm choking them. Suddenly they're a real person. I realize this is a person and they're going to die, and it just kills me. I feel their pulse quicken, and I realize they're scared. It breaks my heart when I feel their racing pulse. I just want to weep.

PLAYBOY: You said research helped you process your father's murder. How about your writing?

PALAHNIUK: Of course. I specifically explored it in Lullaby. I think every stage of life comes with its own terrors, the things you cannot fix or at least haven't. If you can't resolve them, you have to somehow continue to exist with them inside you, controlling you. You stay afraid of them. In every book I approach these anxieties and fears and try to fully explore and exhaust my emotions around them by using metaphors that make them big enough for other people to enjoy.

PLAYBOY: Is it conscious?

PALAHNIUK: Usually I don't realize it until afterward, which is good. If you know too much, you won't fully explore the fear. Sometimes a year later you're on tour, sitting in some radio station, and you realize just how much of yourself you actually revealed. The process keeps me working. I'd do it regardless of whether I was getting paid for it. It serves me in that it expresses something I'm not really sure about. Maybe the thing being explored is the present problem in my life, but it also shows how we're all connected. For others, maybe it expresses an almost duplicate experience in their life. Going through it together is like a rite of initiation or a hazing.

PLAYBOY: How is it like a hazing?

PALAHNIUK: Hazings are rites used to test and bond us. On the first day of my job at Freightliner on the assembly line, they sent me to get back a squeegee sharpener. They said, "If you can't do it, you're fired." So I went to every workstation, trying to borrow back this squeegee sharpener. Everybody I asked tore into me, humiliated me, abused me. By the end of my shift I realized there was no such thing as a squeegee sharpener, but I'd gone through a ritual of humiliation everyone had experienced. After that I was part of the club. I've heard other's stories about their own initiations. In France a couple of years ago a man came up to me and said he was a veterinarian. He said it's really hard to get into the Academy of Veterinarian Sciences in Paris. Once youre accepted they throw a party for you in the labs late at night. They give you wine and put animal tranquilizer in it so you black out. Then they take off all your clothes and ball you up really tight and methodically sew you into the belly of a gutted dead horse. They continue to party around the dead horse.

PLAYBOY: And this is a good thing?

PALAHNIUK: Well, you wake up and your head hurts so bad from this horrible animal tranquilizer. Your head aches and your stomach aches and you just want to throw up and you can barely breathe and it stinks. You're disoriented and so ill in this tight, tight space, but you can hear them out in the darkness around you. You can hear them drinking and laughing. The moment they see you move inside the horse's hide, they start yelling for you, abusing you. They're saying, "You think you can just pass a test and be one of us? You've got to fight to be among us. So fight. Fight!" You start to thrash and claw against this leathery, damp, horrible skin. Finally you get a hand through. You claw your way out—you birth from this dead animal. You're covered with blood, and you're naked and shaking. They put a glass of wine in your hand and say, "Now you're one of us." He said after that, on the days when everything goes wrong in your practice and all the kitties die and the puppies die, it's never as bad as waking up inside a dead horse. You've come through it. Like coming through one of the stories in my books makes it easier to go through something in your life. You can get through whatever comes your way in life, because you realize it's never going to be as bad as waking up inside a dead horse.
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