We Talked About Fight Club: Our Interview with Chuck Palahniuk
Chuck Palahniuk is best known for his novel Fight Club, and for public readings that are so intense his fans occasionally pass out. But in certain underground circles, he's also known as one of the more famous members of the Cacophony Society, those former purveyors of cultural mayhem who did so much to help create Burning Man, SantaCon and Flash Mobs.
Palahniuk became a member of the Portland chapter of the Cacophony Society in the early nineties, and is coming to San Francisco on Monday to participate in a Commonwealth Club discussion about the group. He also wrote the introduction for their recently released book Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society.
SF Weekly caught up with Palahniuk via email in the week leading up to the event, to discuss his connection to the Cacophony Society, writing methods, and why a story should be like hot tantric sex. And yes, we did talk about Fight Club.
The Cacophony Society has a kind of legendary status in the underground art scene in San Francisco. How did you get involved with them?
Before there was Tweeting and whatnot, before all wifi technology, people used to staple colored sheets of paper to telephone poles. That's how you found out about Nirvana doing a local concert, or the Protestant Reformation. Paper hanging on wood. One day I was walking and saw a photocopied poster for "Con-Tiki 2000," a party of tropical music and "voodoo weddings." It sounded like fun. Of course, it was a trap.
Yes, it was a well-laid trap. Hundreds of hipsters were corralled and subjected to a rain of blood ála the movie Carrie. The full story is in the introduction I wrote for the Cacophony book.
How did the Portland chapter differ from its S.F. counterpart?
Please don't get the impression that I was a founding member of the Portland chapter. I was a peon who waited anxiously for the local monthly newsletter. Our chapter seemed to follow the San Francisco model, hosting Santa Rampage and art cars, and exploring little-known, derelict urban spaces. But we generated most of our own ideas for events. Each of these went into the monthly calendar, making the newsletter like an experiential menu from which you could choose zany stunts that would fit your schedule.
Portland invented "Le Art Mal" -- a fake gallery situated in the center of the arts district, and only open one night, the "First Thursday" when all the legit galleries unveiled their new shows. In contrast, our gallery showcased the ugliest, craftiest art we could pull together. We threw every cliché at the art mavens, from bad red wine to bad French mimes. The cultured hordes traipsed through, appalled. It was wonderful. Big sigh.
In a recent column about the Cacophony Society, our staff writer Joe Eskanazi used the Bay to Breakers salmon run, SantaCon and Burning Man as examples of events the Cacophony Society conceived and then lost control over. He said that SantaCon turned from a statement about consumerism into a frat party and "red-suited, vomit-encrusted saturnalia devoid of any meaning." He also called Burning Man "the child that devoured its parent" in reference to how much of the Bay Area's creative energy gets sucked out of the region for the festival. What's your take on the sudden mainstream appeal of events like SantaCon and Burning Man?
The cultural anthropologist Victor Turner described "limnoid" events as small experiments in altering society and identity. These limnoid events - like Burning Man or SantaCon - occurred only once and all participants were considered of equal status, united in a pleasant feeling of communitas. If the "experiment" is a success, the event becomes an institution, as Burning Man has. The cultural expert Lewis Hyde points out that Martin Luther demanded his reforms during the similar, luminal, atmosphere of Mardi Gras. Even Saturnalia was a liminal event, when slaves could drink and carouse to the point of illness, thus they never wanted control over their own lives. Burning Man has followed the age-old pattern of beginning as a limnoid event that threatens the existent culture, but quickly became a liminal event that reinforces the culture. You can stop yawning now, I'm done.
Is it true that the Cacophony Society inspired large parts of Fight Club?
Fight Club -- or more specifically Project Mayhem -- emerged from the Cacophony Society, the lectures of Joseph Campbell, and Robert Bly's book The Sibling Society. Almost all of my books depict the kind of social experiments that Victor Turner described in his work.
Fight Club was your first book and it's blown up into a whole cultural phenomenon. What's it like to have such a big success right out of the gate? Does it add pressure to your later work?
But Fight Club was not a success. The book garnered a $6,000 advance, and most of the first print run didn't sell for years. The film closed within a week of opening. It's taken a decade for the story to find an audience. And the critical reviews, golly, they were just awful. Selling my work has always been difficult, but writing it is such a joy that I can never stop.
In that case, is it strange to have a work that you didn't consider a success find such a wide audience 10 years later?
Once I've launched a book I never look back. Knowledge of whether it fails or succeeds won't help me write the next one. My passion and attention is always centered on the current unfinished project. But now that I'm writing the sequel to Fight Club, I've reread the original book and am impressed with all the "hooks" and devices that I can bring forward for new uses in another book.
You're best known for fiction, but have published quite a bit of nonfiction, and also work as a freelance journalist. Do you have a different method for each?
If anything, my fiction is more honest. The real world is so incredible that I usually have to dilute facts in order to make them "believable." Only in fiction can the world come close to being as astonishing as it actually is.
What do you tell people when they ask where you get your ideas?
I tell people that I get my ideas from people. After all, my degree is in Journalism. At a party, I might just listen and wait for someone to introduce a premise that makes everyone present take notice. Or, I might talk about some unresolved issue in my life and test to see if listeners engage with the topic. Whether I introduce the idea or someone else does, a great premise hooks people and excites them to share unresolved versions of it from their own lives. Once everyone is competing to share their version, I simply harvest the best ones.
You have three books coming out in the next couple of years (Doomed in Oct. 2013, Beautiful You in Oct. 2014 and Make Something Up in Oct. 2015). How do you maintain a writing schedule that allows for planning a book release two years ahead of time?
That's the difference between reporting stuff and inventing stuff. Nowadays people flock to me with their darkest secrets, knowing that I won't judge them. I've become a kind-of priest or therapist to whom they can confess. My job is to find a shared pattern in the experiences of these disparate people and quilt their anecdotes into something larger. For example, the infamous Guts story I tell, it began as anecdotes whispered to me by three people who'll never meet one another. I remembered the details for years until I invented a structure for presenting those stories as part of a larger theme: How we self-isolate from our families as our sexuality develops. Lofty, scary stuff. And it makes people faint.
Your work is often described as "transgressive fiction." What does that mean?
From the launch of Fight Club my editor has described my work as "transgressive fiction," likening it to books like Trainspotting, American Psycho and The Monkey Wrench Gang, novels where the protagonist commits transgressions in order to find insight or enlightenment.
You're known for helping aspiring writers and fans through your Writer's Workshop. What type of method do you use to teach writing?
Here's what I hate -- paying thousands of dollars to attend a writing workshop where the "teacher" does nothing but nod his head and say "good work, keep going." There are so many bullshit writing courses where it's clear the instructor knows nothing about plotting and creating tension. To avoid wasting time with flabby, meandering fiction, I ask my students, "What is the purpose of this scene?" Is it creating stress? Lulling the reader before a shocking reveal? Lessening tension with a laugh? Is it creating tension by raising a question? How does this part serve to drive the momentum of the story? A story should be like hot tantric sex. Nobody wants to read 300 pages of foreplay.
What do you do when you're not writing?
Read. Exercise the dogs. Worry about death.
Chuck Palahniuk and the SF Cacophony Society: Creating Culture from Mayhem starts at 6:15 p.m. on Monday, September 23rd at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F. Tickets are $15-$75; call 597-6729 or visit commonwealthclub.org.