This article was originally published in May 2009.
Chuck Palahniuk is one of the most popular, outrageous, shocking—and scarily talented—contemporary American writers, a “gross-out-thriller author extraordinaire,” according to The New York Observer, and, says The Washington Post, “one of the most feverish imaginations in American letters.” He has been compared to Jonathan Swift and Kurt Vonnegut, and his dozen books have sold a total of 4 million copies. Author of such mega-sensations as Fight Club and Choke, Palahniuk has a zealously devoted cult following and, increasingly, a mainstream one as well. People magazine wrote, “Among sick puppies, Palahniuk is top dog.” It was meant as the highest praise.
Pygmy, Palahniuk’s latest novel, is typically inventive, hilarious, moving and deeply disturbing. Written from the perspective of a killer disguised as a foreign-exchange student and bent on the destruction of America, the book is replete with severed body parts and spewing bodily fluids, contains a grotesque rape and is a vicious, comical satire of everything from Christianity (“the bogus faith of a false prophet”) to education (calibrated to “degrade all dignity”) to the sexual peccadilloes of the rich and famous.
Fight Club remains Palahniuk’s signature work, having been made into a movie by director David Fincher, starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden, charismatic and terrifying, compelling and sadistic, has his own following of fans who celebrate (and sometimes emulate) his antics, which are designed to instill mayhem and express disgust with the status quo. Durden, working as a waiter in the movie, “farted on the meringue, sneezed on braised endive and, as for the cream of mushroom soup, well.…” Like Durden, fans of the book have founded real Fight Clubs where men come to beat the hell out of one another.
Along with his books and the movies based on them (Choke, starring Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston, was released last year), Palahniuk is also known for his packed book-tour events that are part reading and part performance art. Touring for the 2008 book Snuff, about a porn star aiming to set the world gang-bang record (her goal is 600 “fornications” in a day), Palahniuk tossed inflatable sex dolls into the audience. Other events have elicited dramatic reactions from some audience members; at readings of Palahniuk’s short story “Guts,” originally published in Playboy, more than 200 people have fainted.
Palahniuk’s own background story reads like one of his more horror-filled novels. Born in 1962 in Pasco, Washington, Palahniuk has said he had “a regular, tense American childhood.” The truth is it was tenser than many. When he was five, his father came close to severing one of Chuck’s fingers with an ax, on purpose. His parents divorced when he was 13. Later Chuck was let in on a family secret: As a child, his father had hidden under a bed and watched his father, Chuck’s grandfather, murder Chuck’s grandmother and then shoot himself. Calamity and terror continued when, in 1999, Palahniuk’s father and his girlfriend were shot to death by her ex-husband.
Palahniuk graduated from the University of Oregon and has worked as a diesel mechanic and journalist. In his mid-30s he began to attend writing workshops run by novelist Tom Spanbauer, a renowned Portland, Oregon writer. Spanbauer’s concept of “dangerous writing” inspired Palahniuk’s close-to-the-bone subject matter.
Upon the publication of Pygmy, Playboy sent Contributing Editor David Sheff to meet Palahniuk in Portland, where the author lives. “Palahniuk was correct when he said people expect Tyler Durden or Charles Manson when they first meet him,” Sheff says. “I did. But he’s far from either. Instead, he’s soft-spoken, gentle and extremely thoughtful. He’s also a captivating storyteller. He has you hysterically laughing, and then his stories, much like his books, take a sharp turn, often to the macabre or heartbreaking—or both.”
Playboy: Your new book, Pygmy, isn’t the first in which your characters are determined to bring about the apocalypse. Your narrator, Pygmy, plans to destroy America, and his Operation Havoc is reminiscent of Project Mayhem in Fight Club. Do you really want to blow the whole thing up and start over?
Palahniuk: I’m just having some fun. I find it nice to put two words together that are almost a paradox.Operation sounds so officious and havoc so chaotic. The same with project and mayhem. Mayhem sounds like fun.Havoc sounds like fun. Fight Club does too. I mean, it’s a club.
Playboy: Pygmy looks at humanity with disgust. Do you?
Palahniuk: It’s just that I’ve always been fascinated by imagining the way someone would see us if they had no context or if their perspective were coldly objective. Pygmy witnesses kids downloading porn onto their cell phones. He thinks they’re instructional videos. But he thinks the instructors must be complete idiots because they can’t manage to get the semen inside the vagina. In fact, it goes everywhere but into the vagina.
Playboy: You’ve said Project Mayhem, Tyler Durden’s organization devoted to disrupting and bringing down society, was inspired by a real group called the Cacophony Society. Are you an active participant?
Palahniuk: I haven’t been for a very long time, but I used to be. I did a Santa event once.
Playboy: A Santa event?
Palahniuk: Thousands of Santa Clauses, all masked, are let loose in the middle of a city. They cause all kinds of problems—traffic congestion, confusion and chaos—which is the point. The females have gotten into some trouble for indecent exposure. They’re masked and identity-less, so they tend to flash their tits a lot.
Playboy: You once said Fight Club is a kind of Joy Luck Club for men. What did you mean?
Palahniuk: There are many templates for how women can come together and talk: The Joy Luck Club, How to Make an American Quilt, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. They present all these arbitrary social groups that allow women to come together and talk about their experience. Men don’t have those sorts of things. More than anything else, that’s what Fight Club is. It’s a place for men to be together and talk.
Playboy: A place where they beat the hell out of one another.
Palahniuk: Well, it does seem to help if we’re doing something physical. Men don’t usually sit around just talking, as women do. More often we’re doing something. It’s like when I was with my friends talking while we were pulling down Sheetrock in my office, and all these live mice—hundreds of them—were raining down on us and running around everywhere.
Playboy: People have created real-life fight clubs after reading your book. Does that surprise you?
Palahniuk: I think they’ve always existed. There’s a long tradition of them, though maybe they weren’t called fight clubs. Many cultures had regular places where people would fight as a ritual. Often it was a mating ritual‚ a contest for males to find a reproductive mate. The winning fighter presents himself as the more viable, dynamic reproductive partner.
Playboy: Have you been to any modern-day fight clubs?
Palahniuk: No, but I’ve heard people have this cathartic, almost religious experience as two people battle.
Playboy: Are you a fighter?
Palahniuk: I was in a fight when I worked on the assembly line at Freightliner Trucks. I was installing front axles. It was a hellishly hot summer day and even hotter near these baking ovens. If you didn’t do your job right, you’d be towed into the oven along with the trucks. It was misery. The only ventilation came from giant rotating fans. There was so much oil in the air from the pneumatic tools that the grilles of the fans were furry with black filaments of oil and dust. One day I was behind schedule installing a front axle, and a co-worker at my station, Jimmy, said, “Look up.” I looked up just as he took a broom handle and hit the fan. All that accumulated filth flew into my face, and I was completely covered with soot on top of the sweat from the heat. I was already behind in my work, and I just lost it. I chased Jimmy down the assembly line and tackled him. I just beat on him. We fought and fought. Everybody on the assembly line cheered. When it was over we all just went back to work. I realized in that moment we’d expressed this horrible misery that everybody had been feeling that day. After that Jimmy was my best friend, and I couldn’t get rid of him. Since then I’ve been fascinated by the dynamic of that day.
Playboy: Did you feel like the guys in Fight Club feel after their fights? More alive?
Palahniuk: I felt exhausted. I compare it to the experience of Pentecostal church services or, in 1984, George Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate—those really intense, exhausting venting rituals we have. So Fight Club provided one. I thought of it as a disco but with fighting. You’d ask someone to fight, and they’d say yes or no. Like my experience at Freightliner, fighting brings exhaustion and also the permission that comes from being injured.
Playboy: What permission comes from being injured?
Palahniuk: Permission not to have to handle everything for a moment, to shut down for a moment. Everything else disappears.
Playboy: You describe your Fight Club narrator as a “tourist” who visits support groups for people with serious illnesses like testicular cancer and leukemia. What inspired the idea?
Palahniuk: I had volunteered at hospices and was around all these people who were dying. I saw that people open up in a different, very raw way when they’re dealing with death. Around death you can have bold, cathartic experiences. We miss them in life. Maybe every once in a while you can get them from a movie but not very often. Sometimes you get them from a funeral. It’s similar to when something horrible happens in your life, and you come away from it shaken but also in a way settled and peaceful. The support groups were an awful and intense way to schedule a kind of structured chaos that would allow the rest of your life to be calm by comparison.
Playboy: Besides your fans who have formed fight clubs, readers of Choke have reportedly copied your narrator, intentionally choking themselves on food. The narrator does it to have an intimate moment with people who would then feel responsible for him. After the experience they send him regular checks.
Palahniuk: Yeah, a guy was doing the choking behavior in Florida to meet attractive women. He’d try to get them to save him and embrace him. He was arrested, but they found there were no laws that forbade it, so he was released.
Playboy: If someone were hurt or died in a fight club or by choking that was inspired by your books, would you feel responsible?
Palahniuk: My big defense is if I can think about something, whatever it is—the choking thing, a fight club—a million other people can and probably have too. For example, in Fight Club when Tyler works as a projectionist in a movie theater, he cuts pornography into the films he shows. People in the theater get a glimpse of a penis or some sex act. I wrote it in the original story, and someone said, “You can’t write that. Someone will get the idea.” But someone already had the idea. People were doing it. I’d heard about it from friends. Then when the Fight Club movie went into production, the director, David Fincher, said, “I was the projectionist in my high school. I used to do it.” He spliced porn into movies too. It’s like the stories of Disney animators inserting a frame or two of porn into Disney movies. It’s the same impulse.
Playboy: In Fight Club Tyler Durden pees into the soup he’s serving and farts on the food. Do you know people who have done that?
Palahniuk: I knew people who worked at the big hotels in downtown Portland, and yeah, they would tell stories like that. There was a kid in England—a very handsome, well-presented kid—who told me, “I work in an upscale restaurant in London, and we do things to celebrities’ food all the time.” I said, “Tell me one person.” He said, “I can’t because there are only two of these restaurants, and it’d be too easy to find me.” I wasn’t going to sign his book until he told me one person. So he sheepishly goes, “Margaret Thatcher has eaten my sperm.” I started laughing. As soon as I did, he got bold. He said, “At least five times.”
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 cutoff 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.
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 Cityfor 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. Maria 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 séance 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 others’ 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 you’re 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.