Chuck Palahniuk's Greatest Treasures Are His Past Mistakes
The Fight Club author talked to BuzzFeed about his new short story collection, Make Something Up, his experience as a writer, and what he wishes he could tell his younger self.
When Chuck Palahniuk published his first book in August 1996 — you might’ve heard of it before, it’s titled Fight Club — he didn’t know that it would ultimately lead to an exceptionally accomplished literary career and shape the rest of his life.
Almost 20 years later, Palahniuk has written 19 novels, countless short stories, and even a new comic series that’s also a sequel to his cult classic premiere novel. While the author has seen an abundance of success in the last two decades, he doesn’t shy away from his dark past; a past he admits is ridden with mistakes and setbacks, but one that is also responsible for his current existence and where he is today.
On May 26, Palahniuk will publish a short story collection, Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread. The 23-story collection includes a mixture of new tales, familiar narratives, and the reappearance of the infamous protagonist Tyler Durden, in a Fight Club prequel titled “Expedition.”
BuzzFeed had the chance to catch up with Palahniuk and discuss his latest projects, the importance of failure and resilience, and the mistake he says first-time writers tend to make. Here’s what he had to say:
On the art of storytelling:
BuzzFeed: You’ve written nearly 20 novels, countless short stories, and you’re constantly churning out a lot of work on a regular basis. Does it ever feel like hard work? How do you keep up with all of it?
Chuck Palahniuk: My degree is in journalism, so I very much have a Studs Terkel creative process. I've become the person that people come to when they want to tell the stories they can’t tell to anyone else, and so I’m barraged by even more extreme stories, and to process those stories I have to turn them into something. And a lot of times I’ll kind of fish for stories by telling stories, and human beings — their experiences are so similar person to person that even one person’s extreme secret story will resonate with another person and enable them, create the permission for them to tell that story.
So it doesn’t feel like hard work; it just comes naturally to you and you enjoy it?
CP: It’s a blast.
On his writing process:
How is writing short stories different for you than writing a whole novel? Do you prefer one over the other?
CP: Originally, my novels started as short stories. When I was writing Fight Club, I wanted to do character studies the way a painter might do a series of sketches, so I did one short story which eventually became Chapter Six about this club you could go to. That was just a story to experiment with using rules as a touchstone — so I could jump around the way a film editor jumps around so effectively — without having wordy transitions between all of these nonlinear scenes. I wrote short stories as treatments to see if each of these things would resonate with my writing group and to see if they were all ideas worth pursuing. Since they all got a positive response from my fellow writers, I found a way to bridge them all together and make a novel out of them. That’s still the way I work: I find a premise and see if people relate to that premise, and it usually generates a lot of other stories from people’s lives. [They say], "Oh that happened to me, let me tell you my version, and then it becomes a book."
On Make Something Up:
Is there a significance to the order in which the short stories appear in Make Something Up?
CP: I wanted to open with a Christmas story and end with a Christmas story, but my editor said that the “Eleanor” story with all of the malapropisms was just too much of a hurdle to start with. So instead, we opened with “Knock Knock,” which is just filled with racist, sexist, homophobic crap, and is apparently not a hurdle to start with.
Is there a story you enjoyed writing the most in the collection?
CP: The “Eleanor” story, actually. It was just such a crazy story; it was about unlearning everything about writing and doing everything wrong, and it was just such a joy to write. But it messed my head up for days afterwards.
Are we going to see any of the short stories in Make Something Up turn into a novel someday?
CP: People are already asking for a novel from the story “Zombies” about the kids with the defibrillators, and I’m already trying to make a novel out of “Eleanor," the story with that strange aspirational-speak, but I think it would exhaust the reader. It’s just too much wrong language for the reader to consume.
On the importance of mistakes:
Before you even get into the story, you quote Marquis de Sade at the top of the page and write, “In order to know virtue we must first acquaint ourselves with vice.” What does that mean to you? What does that mean for Tyler Durden's story?
CP: It kind of goes along with a philosophy that speaks to how I’m really glad that I made a lot of mistakes, poorly chose my friends throughout my twenties, and didn’t have a rocket trajectory that set me on one path without making any mistakes or having any setbacks. The older I get, the more I realize that it’s all of these failed, horrible things from my past, and the stories that they generated, that are the things I will draw on for the rest of my life. I’m really glad that I spent my twenties messing around and having disaster after disaster — with people who were doing likewise — because it’s really my greatest treasure now.
On the Fight Club prequel:
Let’s talk about “Expedition.” Tyler Durden is back and everyone was really looking forward to this story. What is it about Tyler’s character, story, and essence that made you want to write this prequel?
CP: I was in Spain last summer and I set myself the goal to write an [H.P.] Lovecraft story — and Lovecraft kind of wrote like Poe, he wrote like Hawthorne, and there’s this long history of that fake Gothic writing — and so I read all of Lovecraft, I read a lot of Poe, and I really set out to try and mimic Lovecraft’s little tics, the little inventions of words, and putting a long porch on the front of the story before you actually settle in to the story. I had to unlearn all of the minimalism I had been practicing for years in order to write a Lovecraft story, and also to expand on the Tyler Durden mythology. With Fight Club 2, the idea was to take the story into the future but also to expand it into the past as well, so that the original story didn’t just seem like one episode that happened to one man and was fully resolved. We got to see it as part of a much larger pattern.
It’s interesting that both the prequel and the sequel were published at the same time because the reader learns about Tyler's past and future all at once. Did you think about that when you were writing "Expedition"? Did you let the sequel affect how you wrote the short story?
CP: It did because I don’t think “Expedition” stands on its own. It requires some of the reveals that come in, I think it’s issue 8 or 9 of the 10-issue sequel with Dark Horse [Comics].
Why did you decide to set the story in 19th-century Germany?
CP: Because it was in Hamburg, and they had those walls up, and the people I were with said, this is why the doors open opposite each other, and this is why women can’t go in, and this is why these women are standing out here with their arms folded and their heads down. Because this is the sex district and if a woman who’s not a sex worker walks through, the children of the sex workers will pelt them with urine-filled condoms. That’s all real and it’s all happening right now.
On Fight Club 2, the comic:
When you originally wrote Fight Club back in 1996, technology was different, politics and the social climate were different, the world was a really different place. How did that impact the way you wrote Fight Club 2 as a comic?
CP: The comic has a lot more cell phones in it and a lot more texting. It’s not overly reliant on that, but it does have these devices. Instead of [Tyler] looking in the newspaper for support groups, he’s online checking out [his partner's] search history so that he knows what support groups she’s been going to. The ways that information is delivered are updated, but that’s about it. Everybody’s still miserable in the same way they’ve always been miserable, and he is taking a lot of anti-anxiety, psychotropic drugs, which more and more of my friends — especially my male friends — find themselves taking. It seems like everybody I know is wondering if they’re really who they are, or once the prescription runs out, will they become someone different?
How was it different for you to collaborate on the comic book? What was the writing process like?
CP: The only reason the comic happened was because the short story collection (Make Something Up) was going to be my next book and for the most part it was done, so suddenly I had a year and a half to learn an entirely new form of storytelling. I took the time to study with Scott Allie, my editor at Dark Horse, and Cameron Stewart, the comic's illustrator. The greatest hurdle was learning how to write the page-turn reveal: The concept is, as you have two pages you scan both pages and you get a rough idea about what’s going to happen in those two pages. The only place where you can really surprise or shock the reader, or make someone laugh, is on the lower righthand corner — the very last panel — so as you turn the page, the payoff is in the upper lefthand panel. To pace every story so that there’s a setup and a payoff at the page turn was a huge challenge; it’s a part of the medium and you really have to learn what can be done in the medium.
The other thing is, in comics things can be spectacular. That element makes certain aspects of the story possible, like the children with progeria who are dying but are also going to be ongoing characters. You couldn’t have small, dying children in a movie without really bringing everyone down, but you can in comics. Cameron Stewart can draw these things in a cartoonish way and give people enough unreality that they can tolerate really challenging, upsetting things without being overwhelmed by them. That’s the strength of cartoons and comics.
On the Fight Club musical:
Is there going to be a Fight Club musical?
CP: David Fincher has optioned the stage rights [to Fight Club] and has a deal with Trent Reznor. After Trent did the music for Gone Girl and the Social Network, David convinced Trent that he can do the soundtrack or the score for a rock opera based on Fight Club. Trent is going to take one year to do most of the primary songs and then they’re going to start production. David’s idea is that every generation has had a rock opera, from Tommy to The Wall, and millennials really haven’t had one. David has consulted with Julie Taymore about how to create the kinds of gigantic spectacles that she’s known for, like Spider-Man and The Lion King. David’s idea is to do these gigantic spectacles but to open them in several cities at the same time.
On what he wishes he could tell his younger self:
If you could go back in time and tell your teenage-self something, what would you say to 18-year-old Chuck?
CP: I would’ve come out to my father. I never came out to my father and then bam, he was dead. My father and I never really had any kind of a personal relationship; I showed him who I thought he wanted to see and we talked about everything except for ourselves. I would’ve come out to my father.
On his advice for new writers:
What piece of advice would you give to another writer who wants to tell a story but doesn’t know where to start?
CP: So often with beginning writers, the story that they want to start with is the most important story of their life — my molestation, my this, my horrible drug addiction — they want to tell that most important story, and they don’t have the skills to tell it yet, so it ends up becoming a comedy. A powerful story told poorly becomes funny, it just makes people laugh behind their hands. The last story you should write is the most important story. You should start with a story that is just an amusing, entertaining, fun story to write and learn your writing chops with the least important things before you start applying them to the most important things.