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Choke

Chuck Palahniuk

(Doubleday & Co.)

About to Choke: An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk

You’d think that if your first novel set off a big-time literary cult lightning storm, sunk its fist-loosened teeth into a raw wound in that ever-evasive cultural zeitgeist, and got reverentially rethought into one of the most fiercely debated American films in recent memory, you’d be pretty pleased.


But then, you don’t have people calling you “that Fight Club guy” all the time.


But then, maybe Chuck Palahniuk won’t anymore, either.


Choke, the novelist’s fourth and most recent extreme wrestling match with personal apocalypse and postmodern desperation, entered the New York Times best-seller list at #10 shortly after its release in late May. The story of Victor Mancini, a medical school drop out and sex addict who works in a Colonial theme park, chokes himself to near-death on a nightly basis for spare cash, and may or may not be Jesus’ son, Choke could turn out to be a well-regarded underground artist’s unlikely mainstream circuitbreaker — think a diorama-scale “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Pulp Fiction.


It could also be the book that writes Palahniuk out of the errant authorial paper bag Fight Club wrote him into, a graveyard reserved for one-trick ponies and victims of premature career definition. Or it could just be heavy flirting with the bright lights from a fringe operator too determined to work out a single theme to truly crossover or grow up.


Over the course of the last several weeks, Palahniuk took time in between doing rewrites on his forthcoming horror novel Lullaby, running the promotional circuit for Choke, and gathering research for his next novel to construct an e-mail interview with PopMatters. From Victor to tax-deductible research beer to Nine Inch Nails to gardening, here’s how it went.



PopMatters:

I read in Spin that you like to write about things that scare the hell out of you. What in particular scares the hell out of you about Victor?



Chuck Palahniuk:

What scares me about Victor is how he lets the world jerk him around and tell him who he is while he hides his head in sex. He risks wasting his entire life just escaping through sex. He may never find his real passion in life because he’s anesthetizing himself with casual sex.



PM:

Choke builds on certain key thematic trends that have turned up in each of your previous novels, particularly the idea of toying around with social deconstruction and anarchy as a means to personal revelation. What drives you to reexamine these spaces, and do you worry that people will accuse of covering the same ground this time out?



CP:

I’m taking baby steps here. Fight Club was about anarchy and questioning the status quo. Choke is about taking the next step, what Soren Kierkegaard would call the “leap of faith” where you actually stand for something new. Instead of defining yourself in opposition of something, and being a reaction, Choke is about defining yourself by what you contribute, by what you stand for.



PM:

And what does Victor come to stand for, as far as you’re concerned?



CP:

Ironically, Victor is the ultimate Victim. His entire life is determined by outside forces and circumstances. He’s always re-shaping himself to please the people around him. He’s letting the world define him instead of declaring and defining himself.



PM:

Well, on the surface, Victor is a college-educated med school drop-out working in a theme park, choking to death for money on a nightly basis, and fucking sex addicts in public restrooms. Most people in the outside would see him as a halfwit and a loser, but he’s probably smarter and more of an obsessive thinker than anyone else in the book. Does Victor cop out because of or in spite of his intelligence, or is he copping out at all?



CP:

What good is intellect if it leaves us immobile and frozen in indecision? At some point, despite all the other options, you have to commit yourself to a path. Being flexible if fine, it’s maybe the greatest talent you can have, but in order to define yourself, you need to pursue your passion. There will always be good reasons not to do something, or to do something else, the world is full of women more beautiful than your wife, you can never choose the best car, there’s always a cheaper air fare. What’s most important is that you choose and get on with your life.



PM:

There’s a ton of medical education references and grab-bag facts floating around in ‘Choke’, about everything from crisis situation code words to the root of ‘ring around the rosey’ to the names doctors have for different patient disorders in nursing homes. How much research went into writing the novel, and how much just comes from things you’ve picked up along the way?



CP:

I read a couple dozen non-fiction books in order to write each novel. Plus, I tend to interview everybody I meet. I want to find out the nuggets of odd wisdom everybody has. One friend let me dissect cadavers. Another friend told me about working at Disneyland. A doctor explained the moles on an exotic dancer. I wish I could tax-deduct the beer is takes to do research.



PM:

You hear a lot about characters living inside actors and writers after they’ve finished playing them. Is it personally hard for you to disconnect yourself from the worlds of the characters you write about once the story is over and done with?



CP:

By the time you proofread a novel for the third time, then tour with it, you never want to see it again. I love people. I even love some novels. I don’t love my own books. Always, I think they could’ve been better, somehow they could’ve been perfect, but I always fail.



PM:

How do you think you’ve “failed” with Choke?



CP:

I’m still not comfortable with writing in the third person, even though it’s thinly veiled first-person. I do wish I’d added an early scene in which Ida Mancini asked for Victor to kill her. That would make her accidental death more palatable, but seems to put too neat a bow on the plot…either way, I wouldn’t be totally happy.



PM:

How long Choke take you from A to Z?



CP:

Six months, including first draft and re-write. But it drew on years of odd research and experience.



PM:

How does that compare with the working pace on your previous books?



CP:

A little slow. Fight Club was three months. Survivor, four months. Lullaby, on the other hand, was six weeks.



PM:

Tell me a little bit about your writing process.



CP:

I never sit down to write until I have at least a chapter/scene in my mind. Looking at a blank screen is pointless. Ideas come at any moment — except when you demand them. Most ideas come while I’m physically active, at the gym, with friends, gardening, so I always carry pen and paper. My first draft is always written longhand. But once the first dozen chapters, more like short stories, are written, then momentum builds until I can’t leave the project until it’s done.



PM:

You often get compared to Don DeLillo and Kurt Vonnegut, and grouped with contemporary writers like Bret Easton Ellis and Irvine Welsh. Do you care for that sort of group identification, or is it just something nice for a critic to cite or a publisher to slap on the back of the jacket cover?



CP:

It does tend to encapsulate a person. I read Ellis. I’ve only read DeLillo’s Great Jones Street. And I’ve read Slaughterhouse Five but my work owes much more to the writers Amy Hemple, Thom Jones, and Mark Richard. Maybe those names aren’t big enough to use in marketing talk, but they’re my favorites.



PM:

You reference popular music in your work, and your books feel like at points like they could be text cousins of a Nirvana or Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails record. How much of an influence does music have on your writing?



CP:

I talk about the music I listen to while I write, but I’ve never quoted or referred to any popular song in any of my books.



PM:

There’s one Radiohead reference in Choke, one of the stoners at the theme park is banging a broomstick along to the bassbeat of a Radiohead track.



CP:

Damn! I forgot about the music references in Dunesboro! You got me. Listening to NIN and Marilyn Manson and Radiohead always impresses me. It gives me the freedom to tell the truth about myself and toss out some pretty caustic things I hear my friends say about their lives.



PM:

Any particular example of that that stands out to you in Choke?



CP:

Good examples would be “Creep” by Radiohead — the most male masochistic song ever recorded (and possibly the most honest, too). And Trent’s line: “You can have it all, my empire of dirt . . .” Music that’s angry but also self-deprecating.



PM:

What are you reading and listening to right now?



CP:

Can you wear out a CD? If so, I’m wearing out NIN’s “Fixed” while writing a horror novel. I’m reading a half dozen novel manuscripts and a handful of screenplays for friends. It seems as if everybody is finishing a first draft and wants some feedback. I just read a pre-publication novel called The Subject Steve and laughed out loud. Look for it in a couple months.



PM:

Fight Club was a real phenomenon, first underground as a novel and then as an op-ed centerpiece as a film. Do you ever worry about being labeled the Fight Club guy forever, despite the fact that it was your first published book?



CP:

Too late. I’m already that “Fight Club Guy.” Now my mission is to be that “anything else” guy. And eventually to be one of the founding partners for a Pacific Northwest writers/artists retreat center. I’ll be that “Fight Club Guy” if it earns me enough money to endow a retreat center ad infinitum.



PM:

Choke is, more or less, Victor’s fourth step, his addict chronicle. If someone found yours, what would it be about?



CP:

My fourth step would be my garden: how many sacks of concrete, tons of rocks, plants, bags of steer manure I’ve dragged home and heaped around this place. A friend, Mark, makes concrete ornaments in a factory and gives me the broken statues and urns and fountains, and I heap them in the woods. Moss covers everything in Western Oregon. It instantly becomes the relics of an ancient civilization. After only four years, people come here and look at the overgrown ruins, the big plants and vines and busted pillars and walls and statues, and they say, “Wow . . . What used to be here? What was this place?”



PM:

So what happens next? Or is “next” something too far off to even talk about yet?



CP:

Man, oh man. I have a stack of books, and every day somebody gives me another part of the puzzle for an incredible new book. I know the context, some of the plot, and I know what non-fiction I need to read and ask people about. Now I just need the time to go back under a rock and work.

Tagged as: choke | chuck palahniuk
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