Chuck Palahniuk (2021) | courtesy of Amy Franklin PR
Chuck Palahniuk (2021) | courtesy of Amy Franklin PR

Still Stranger than Fiction: An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk

How, in this era of cancel culture, does the idiosyncratic and transgressive Chuck Palahniuk keep publishing? On this and his new work “People, Places, Things”.

People, Places, Things: My Human Landmarks
Chuck Palahniuk
Scribd Originals
October 2021

Let’s be honest: Chuck Palahniuk is a writer who needs no introduction. After all, his iconic debut novel, 1996’s Fight Club, from which David Fincher based his 1999 film, remains a pop culture phenomenon over 25 years after its publication. Since then, he’s penned over a dozen more typically twisted yet prophetic novels, from early classics like Invisible Monsters (1999), where the crazed plight of a disfigured fashion model makes readers question their own link between identity and appearance, and Lullaby (2002), in which a reporter investigates a lethal culling song whose ability to spread and infect foreshadows the detriments of modern social media, to modern satires like 2018’s Adjustment Day, wherein he creates an imagined holiday, classist purging, and totalitarian societal factions to reflect the political dangers in modern America. All the while, he’s sustained his one-of-a-kind knack for biting social commentary, shocking story surprises, and uniquely perverse yet relatable characters.

Of course, Palahniuk is just as adept at writing thought-provoking essays and creative nonfiction. Case in point: “People, Places, Things: My Human Landmarks”, his latest autobiographical endeavor released online by Scribd and the audio version narrated by Edoardo Ballerini. In a nutshell, it sees him once again employing his trademark sly witticisms and atypical narrative structures to explore how certain friends, family, acquaintances, and situations—across the Pacific Northwest—play an important part in his artistic development.

PopMatters chats with Palahniuk about the inspirations behind the essay, his penchant for macabre meaningfulness, the cause of adolescent toxic masculinity, and much more.

What led to you releasing this new memoir essay through Scribd simultaneously online and as an audio essay? Any plans to include it in a future collection?

The editor, Amy Grace Loyd, worked with me on pieces for Playboy and the e-singles publisher Byliner. She coached me through some of the best fiction I’d ever written – in particular, the story “Phoenix” [2013]. So, when she contacted me about writing a piece for Scribd, I ultimately agreed. My only hope was that the task would be easy. It wasn’t, and I’ve no plans to publish the essay beyond Scribd.

You’re very good at organizing details and events. Your work reads as if it’s stream-of-consciousness and off-the-cuff, but it’s also well planned. How did you organize all of the information in this essay?

First, I look for several themes I can intercut, all of which demonstrate largely the same thing. In this case, I chose the act of writing, as demonstrated by Suzy’s magazine job, and by my writing advice. That acknowledges the nature of this as a crafted story, and it adds a different texture of instructional [and] imperative information to contrast with the softer narrative bits. That buttressed the authority so that the remembered contents avoided a once-upon-a-time feeling. 

The other theme—the bigger theme—is human landmarks, beginning with the cartoonist [John] Callahan and progressing through darker examples like Ted Bundy. I try to keep the “camera” pointed elsewhere for as long as possible, only eventually bringing it to my experience. I also subjugate my presence by never quoting myself; that’s a lesson learned from writing Fight Club.

Finally, the intercutting is something I learned from writers like Ron Hansen (Wickedness) and Amy Hempel (In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried), both of whom string together thematic anecdotes and force the reader to carry the growing emotional burden.  In fact, I sent an early draft to Hempel with the note that I was borrowing her structure from Cemetery, but she wrote back that what I was doing was all my own invention. Thus, Amy Hempel is brilliant and modest.

Absolutely. You use several photos throughout “People, Places, Things. Did they inspire its direction, or did you have the essay done and then decide to incorporate photos afterward?

The photos came first. I’d heard these stories for years and never took them seriously—that is until I began corresponding with the historian of our small town. He sent me the older photos and confirmed the details about Sharon Tate and how our town came to be relocated. Without his verifying everything, I never would’ve ventured to write this piece. The photo of Circus Peanut candy, I took; the 1963 Sears Catalog is also mine, as is the photo of my parents as teenagers. 

You write anecdotal stories about odd/meaningful encounters in your creative non-fiction, and you’ve used them as inspiration for your fiction. Do you jot down/record these situations as they happen to draw from later, or do you remember it all and flesh it out later?

In the ’80s, people called this “brain mapping”. You’d write down a single memory or association and gradually surround that with memories as they came to mind. The process might take weeks or months, and it helps if you can consult with someone who shared the experience and can help fill in the gaps. 

I always keep a notebook on hand to help collect the half-mapped ideas I hope to use in the future. Plus, if an idea clicks, I can use it to collect examples of similar experiences from other peoples’ lives.

Do you think that people tell you these stories because they know who you are and believe that you’re down for whatever kind of wild story they’ve got?

That’s one aspect of it. People trust that I won’t judge them and that I’ll honor their story by telling it well. The greater tendency is that people need to tell their stories in order to process their history. 

Very few people are good, attentive listeners, and I think they recognize that quality in me. It was a boon when I was a newspaper reporter. People would tell me amazing details about themselves, things I could never include in the public record. To do so would’ve devastated them.

You mention the “coping strategy” that writers use to merge real “horrors” with “a new reality where chaos and absurdity [are] the norm”. When did you first realize that you were capable of doing that well? Are there any newer writers whom you feel do it well, too?

Define newer writers. I think Jon Krakauer does it well, as do Susan Orlean, Mary Roach, and of course, Amy Hempel. Joy Williams does it beautifully in her collection Ill Nature, too. Jo Ann Beard did it very well in her collection Boys of My Youth – particularly in her essay about being trapped during the Virginia Tech shooting.

I realized I could tackle the hard topics when I was asked to write about my father’s murder. He’d been a contest junky, entering everyone in the family in every drawing and contest he could find. After his death, we were suddenly showered with unexpected prizes from myriad companies. 

These were the last-place “consolation” prizes, so that became my angle into writing about my grief while getting cheap coffee mugs and golf towels in the mail. Uncountable strangers told me they’d also been deluged with such gifts after a loved one had passed. None of us are really alone in how we endure our losses. 

Your story about Noburo Fukuda and the garden is beautiful. Are any pieces of art or entertainment—writing, film, TV, music, paintings, etc.—that left a similar impression on you, wherein you “stood in for only a few minutes but never really left”. Do you think that anything you have written has, or could, provide[d] that kind of a feeling for someone else?

Of everything I’ve written that might provide such inspiration, it would be my travel guide, Fugitives and Refugees [2003]. It documents the outsider events and landmarks of Portland, Oregon. These were local landmarks, such as the Church of Elvis, the Self-Cleaning House, and SamTrak, the world’s smallest railway, run by a man named Sam. 

As outsider things, they’re so fragile and seldom get recognized or documented. But they can provide huge inspiration because they’re the pure vision of individuals who aren’t pandering for public funds or hefting a social message on people. 

Such outsider places and events are pure expressions of personal joy, and that’s infectious and empowering to people. Especially to young people. Part of me will always be wandering through the haunting and long-defunct Van Calvin Mannequin Museum, where – in one expansive room – hundreds of naked child mannequins sat on the floor watching a flickering black-and-white console television. A magical nightmare.

You mention Callahan calling you “Portland’s flavor of the month” during the launch of Fight Club, which, I have to say, I’ve been teaching every semester for over a decade. Have you ever felt that you’re the “flavor of the month”?

What does it say in Matthew 13:57? “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.” If someone in Portland appears to succeed and fails to move to a bigger city, they become a sort of joke locally. 

This only matters if you care what people think. Stephen King is probably a bit of a local joke in Bangor. Familiarity breeds contempt. 

You mention the subgenre viral video “2 Guys 1 Horse” in the essay. Why do you think people are fascinated by such shocking and taboo clips?

Among my heroes is a friend, Geoff, who went to see the film Jurassic Park with me. We were among the last people anywhere to watch it in theaters, and the buzz had been huge. Midway through, Geoff stood in the middle of a sea of people and shouted, “This is bullshit drama! Those dinosaurs are never going to eat those kids! The dinosaurs will eat the fat guy and the lawyer, but not the heterosexual white people or their kids!” 

Like me, he’d been raised in the ’70s era of romantic fatalism in movies. To us, a good movie showed something raw and unhappy and found redemption nonetheless. In watching the graphic videos you cite, I think people are looking for a balance to the sugar-coated Spielberg/Lucas stories that we’re fed by the mainstream.

Did you have stories that would have fit well in “People, Places, Things but you chose to leave out? Are there ever any stories that go too far, even for you? I mean that in a complimentary way.

To my mind, any story can be told if you respectfully ease the reader along. If I left anything out, it was the supreme beauty of what was created at the end. As a last-ditch effort to please my mother, my father had huge boulders trucked in and arranged to create a mountainous “Japanese” garden for her to plant with moss and dwarf conifers.

The explosion of beautiful gardens inspired by “Peanuts” [Fukuda] was too much to fully include so late in the essay. Use Google Earth, and you’ll see that all of those gardens have been destroyed. It was all too much to gain and lose so near the end of the piece. 

You also mention your football coach encouraging you to lift weights, as well as David Sedaris writing about boys being “given speech therapy to stop their lisping”. That reminded me of an essay I teach, C.J. Pascoe’s “Dude, You’re a Fag“, which explores the link between adolescent boys, homophobia, and the constant pressure to assert masculinity.

How do you view that link, and has it changed over the past several decades? (\In other words, are boys raised to be homophobic and toxically masculine/heterosexual in ways that girls aren’t? Has that changed alongside more open discussions and adoptions of gender and sexual fluidity?

Don’t mistake me for Camille Paglia or Roxane Gay, but I think the acceptance of lesbians rises from the male gaze. Lesbians have long been a staple in heterosexual porn, whereas gay men, never. In regard to homophobia among boys, I’d wager that it’s just a small part of the constant testing and put-downs that boys use to bond. Such seeming abuse is not done to wound so much as to prove mutual respect and even affection. 

To me, the larger part of such gentle abuse from peers—be it calling out race or sexuality or physical limitations—is to test and harden one another. It makes boys less reactive to more substantial assaults in the future.

Do you feel that modern America, with its penchant for “cancel culture”, “trigger warnings”, “social justice warriors”, etc., limits how open and descriptive such writing can be?

The real proof that you’ve processed through—completely through—a trauma is when you can tell it for your audience’s benefit instead of your own. That’s what I mean by “the emotion is out there“. 

Telling a story well isn’t like vomiting it to your therapist. Telling it well demonstrates that you’ve mastered the past and can craft it for others to experience and benefit from. Doing so should keep you well clear of assaulting and offending your audience. 

On that note, would you say that the Sharon Tate story/incident is an example of you losing your innocence as a kid? Or, maybe not losing your innocence, because you thought your mother was talking about your babysitter, Sharon Ferrians?

This is a subtle shift, but rather than losing innocence, I saw the incident as me gaining wisdom. As an adolescent, I could see how the Sharon Tate story had become a cautionary tale designed to keep young people in our small town. It suggested that any dream or ambition would end in annihilation and that we should all stick around and get jobs at the paper mill.

You write that when you told people about your babysitters, they’d reacted awkwardly. Do you think that people who have such stories have a responsibility to tell them? Maybe to help bring more context and understanding to the [in]famous tale and the people/places involved?

The main priority is not just to tell those stories, but to tell them well. Such stories must be honored, or they become silly and exploitative.

To tell them well, we have to pace them so they build slowly from the plausible. The slow build allows the storyteller to include the audience by showing the topic as part of a more considerable pattern—in this case, human landmarks—that everyone can relate to.

Definitely. It takes time and skill to get to that point, of course. I’m struck by your notion that “there’s an opposite to dementia that’s just as bad. Worse, even. You can remember too much.” How do you think your writing—and career—would’ve been different if you didn’t have too much to remember?

Have you seen the television program Hoarders

No, but I’ve heard of it.

That’s how the inside of my head looks: endless bags and bales of things heaped together. No memory is ever thrown away. Beginning in grade school, I’d memorize epic poems. It was the age of the ballad in popular music, and I knew the lyrics of [songs such as] “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, “American Pie”, and “Diamonds and Rust” by heart. 

This compulsion to organize and preserve everything drives me to write. If I wasn’t such a packrat of memories (the Waltons’ dog was named “Reckless”), I doubt if I’d be a writer at all. My fiction is simply a coded diary, and not just a diary of the past details, but a diary of the moments in which I was writing that diary. I treasure every hotel bed where I could sit and keyboard all day while drinking room service coffee. 

So for you, writing is as much a passion as it is an obligation. How do you think your friend Suzy will react to this essay? Your brother? Did you speak to either of them about it beforehand?

My gut tells me that Suzy will be charmed that I remembered her old side hustle writing gig for magazines. She actually did have to invent the captions because, by the time she saw the gardens in question, they were ruined by neglect. She’ll be tickled to see herself as the throughline metaphor. 

As for my brother, he and I share a certain amount of sorrow over our family. Despite the sweetness of our childhoods, our parents’ constant battles made us leave that house as if we were leaving a burning building. Unless I misjudge him, my brother will be glad to see some aspect of our shared past recognized and recorded.

That’s a hopeful way to look at it, and it’s good that your childhood hardships helped bond you.

Our parents are beyond being hurt, so now we can love them with a fuller awareness of who they actually were.