Sunday, 17 November 2013

Meeting Chuck Palahniuk

Telling a story is like being a stripper,” says Chuck Palahniuk. “Don't take it all off and show your pussy. Take off one thing at a time; take steps towards what's going to happen.”

The first thing I hear when I arrive at The International Anthony BurgessFoundation is that there will be no meet-and-greet, no photos and no dedications involving the Oregon novelist. The IABF representative says Mr. Palahniuk has another event in another town to attend after this one.

To a seasoned celebrity stalk- I mean, erm, enthusiast, this is obviously a gutting setback. We'll see, I think. I've been to a lot of book signings out of curiosity and a general passion for stories, but Chuck Palahniuk has been a favourite for over a decade.

My old pal Fat Roland is on the door, and he tells me Mr. Palahniuk is in the back room, signing books. I wonder- can I get a photo-bomb? When the staff let us, I follow the crowd into the main room, nipping past the tall guy in Santa pyjamas to get to the front row.

The IABF representative takes to the mic to introduce the man, whose first novel Fight Club went on to define a generation and inspire countless other movies, and copycat clubs. Mr. Palahniuk takes the mic.

Tonight,” he says, “there will not be any bullshit beautiful stories.” But he reads a story that, well, you could call it beautiful in its own way. Beautifully graphic and shocking, but a delicately sentimental tale: a geek, his hot but totally mental girlfriend and a bus journey that takes what you could describe as a very wrong turn.

It isn't any of his numerous shorts that he's here to discuss, though. Doomed is the new novel he's promoting tonight: his first sequel. The book, following on from Damned, is the second in a trilogy, a collection that he's writing for catharsis, he says, to give him time to overcome the death of his mother and father.

In writing,” he says, “there's no reward. So always write what's personal to you so you get the therapeutic benefit, even if no-one buys it.”

And this is the first of a number of wise sound bytes from the author, during probing questions from the rep, describing his writing techniques and processes. (“Make the reader feel smarter than the character. We'll want to care for her. We don't care for people that are better than us. Make it so we wanna fix that.”)

The correct crafting of the answer is important to Mr. Palahniuk, and we can tell this by the consideration that goes into his responses, the anticipatory silent pauses as he finds the starting point for his explanatory anecdotes.

The rep throws out the questions to the audience. A 19-year-old budding writer asks Mr. Palahniuk about his story-writing processes.

Y'know, at thirty,” Palahniuk says, “you see the breakdown.” He doesn't explicitly mention it, but he's clearly talking about life. “In Fight Club, the narrator gets nurturing. In the second act, that nurturing falls apart. At thirty, you can't use your plan any more. You have to wing it. But that third act... that's when it all comes together.”

Next, a girl in her early twenties speaks up. “First, thanks for making me too scared to eat out anywhere,” she says. (She's referring to Fight Club's Tyler Durden, a part-time waiter who would lace his bodily fluids into the high-priced meals he served.) “It's made me a really good cook. I was wondering, do you find it hard to eat out?”

Palahniuk sighs. “The world is full of such atrocities. One time I was at a charity dinner with an oncologist. I had my wine glass; a woman next to me, a chatty woman in her forties, she didn't. But she was obsessed with wine. She was saying, 'I love wine, but every time I drink it, I get a burning feeling in my throat afterwards. I decided eventually that God didn't want me to drink wine any more, so I gave it up. But, boy, do I miss wine.'

This oncologist, he interrupts, and says, 'Miss, I'm a cancer specialist. That is not God talking to you. You probably have stage 4 Hodgkin's Lymphoma.'”

Nervous laughter bounces off the Foundation's bare brick walls.

'Here's my card. You're gonna need 6 months treatment. It's not too late.'

She's not so chatty any more.

The oncologist, he says, 'after treatment, that first drink will be the worst drink you ever taste. But if it doesn't hurt, the second drink... that will be the best tasting drink. Sorry about that!'

I found out months later after the woman's GP phoned me: the oncologist was right.”

The IABF rep says there's time for one more question. My hand shoots up and he picks me.

I believe you were a journalist before you got into fiction. Given that blogging and citizen journalism is now becoming so popular, how important do you think qualifications in journalism are, and how do you see the future of journalism?”

A lot of us entered journalism because of the Watergate scandal. We all wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. Then when we graduated, there were no jobs. I went and worked on a freight-liner. But I never wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to write fiction! So, if you want to write a lifetime of books, a background in journalism will help.

I remember on my first day on this freight-liner, the manager sent me to the foreman to get a squeegee sharpener. The foreman didn't have one, so he sent me to another foreman. I fell for it, but that day, I met every foreman I might ever work for. Another job I had, at Target, they took up a whole of my day sending me to look for a shelf stretcher.

I told this story at a party to a paediatric surgeon. He said, that's nothing. This surgeon, he told me that on his first day he'd been paged and ordered around the hospital all day, when he hears screaming from this other room. He goes into this room, a dark, unused ward, and follows the sound of this screaming to a hospital bed. He looks underneath it and a woman thrusts something into his hands and it's slick with blood and she screams 'YOU KILLED MY BABY YOU SON ON A BITCH!'

The lights go on. The woman, she's one of his team. What he's holding is a resuscitation baby, a training doll, drenched in fake blood. Behind a separation screen, the rest of the team are watching him, trying not to laugh.

I was in Paris talking to a veterinary scientist. What they do when they graduate is, the vets take you to an all-night party and ply you with wine. If you don't faint, they hit you with an animal tranquilliser. Then they strip you naked and sew you into the belly of a dead horse. When you wake up, your head aches, you want to vomit, and it's so tight and dark and the smell is awful. Your team-mates- you can hear them from inside the horse. They start yelling at you. 'If you wanna be part of this team, you're gonna have to fight. This is a terrible job!'

So you fight, you push against the wall and you start your rebirth. You find an opening and you thrust out your arm and someone hands you a glass of wine and you burst out of the corpse to rapturous applause, and from that moment on... nothing in your career will be as bad as waking up inside a dead horse.

I got these stories by coaxing this information out of people, and that skill came through journalism training.”

With that, the IABF rep stirs up one last well-deserved round of applause before the staff walk him through the crowd. He stops for a few moments for pictures, at which point I pounce...

and I slip him my blog card and the staff ferry who could be my biggest living literary hero briskly out of the room.

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