Chuck Palahniuk’s ten previous novels are the bestselling Fight Club, adapted for for the screen by David Fincher; Survivor; Invisible Monsters; Choke; Lullaby; Diary; Haunted; Rant; Snuff; and Pygmy. He is also the author of Fugitives and Refugees, a nonfiction profile of Portland, Oregon, published as part of the Crown Journeys series, and the nonfiction collection Stranger Than Fiction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.
Many people consider you a master of the short story; as do we so could you share with us what makes a good short story and why?
The man who taught me the writing style of Minimalism, Tom Spanbauer, says that a good story makes the reader laugh, and a moment later breaks his or her heart. I agree, but I’d broaden that definition to include any story that engages the reader with tension, quickly increasing tension, but not so quickly that the reader bails out. Tension cut with a small laugh allows for more tension. Another laugh allows for even more tension. Soon the reader is coaxed into some horrible place he or she would never willingly venture. A good story does all of this work using only physical actions and simple objects. A writer can’t dictate the reader’s reaction, but must create this moving line of cause and effect which acts in the same way a running squirrel will hold a dog’s rapt attention. Creating a sort of trance state. Once the reader is fully entranced, then you break his or her heart. Just to show your power and mercy, you might also include a small laugh at the end. For examples of this method, consider my stories “Guts”, “The Toad Prince” and “The Facts of Life.”
Which authors influenced you and your writing, regarding the short story?
I love the short stories of Amy Hempel, Thom Jones, Mark Richard, Bret Ellis, Nami Mun, Joy Williams and Charles Baxter. One quality common to them all is their ability to present the story without telling the reader how to react. Often they present tragedy as comedy, forcing the reader to have the appropriate, and often conflicted, reaction. Reading, you’re appalled to find yourself laughing at the horrific. Yes, long ago, I loved the stories of du Maupassant, Dickens and Poe, but the Minimalists have skewed my taste to shorter, powerful stories.
What are your favorite short stories and what makes them so special?
Among the stories which present the tragic as comic and ultimately have a huge impact, look for the following: “Strays” and “This Is Us, Excellent” by Mark Richard, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson in Buried” by Amy Hempel, “Dirty Wedding” by Denis Johnson, “Through the Safety Net” by Charles Baxter, and “Unbreak My Heart” by Thom Jones. Harder to find, but worth the hunt, are short stories that spiral into the absurd. I wrote my own version in “Loser” the tale of a college student on LSD who’s forced to participate in a television game show. Absurdity always, humorously, highlights the ludicrous aspects of so-called normal life. My favorite absurd stories are “Dusk in These Fierce Pajamas” by E.B. White, and “My Life with R.H. Macy” by Shirley Jackson. Both are hilarious and sweet and short-short. My opinion is not swayed by the fact that Jackson’s daughter, long ago, sent me her brilliant mother’s cremated remains.
How do you feel about Donald Trump running for the American Presidency?
I came of age during the Reagan/Thatcher era. The counter-culture was dynamic and productive. It always is when we have a Big White Daddy to hate. Sadly, during the Obama era the Left has begun eating itself with in-fighting and heroin. A Big White Daddy will unite the Left and give everyone a Something to prove.
What are the key differences between writing short stories and writing a novel?
A short story is a glimpse into a new world. A novel is a long vacation in a new world. Often far, far too long.
Do you enjoy working in one form more than the other?
The short story is my favorite form. You can present it aloud and listen for the laughs or the dull spots. Reading my story “Romance” on cross-country tours, I always got a laugh on the phrase “pitched my tent” but had no idea that was a euphemism for getting an erection. Once I understood, I could tweak the story for best effect. Unfortunately, the market for short fiction has vanished. Even subscription and retail websites require a short story to be a minimum of twenty pages. To me, that’s not short. Try reading twenty pages to an audience, even twenty excellent pages will flop. No, now the standard is to pay by-the-word, as if we’ve reverted to the mass circulation magazines of the 1890’s. Alas, longer does not make better. And a great seven-page story is vastly harder to write than a bloated, boring 50-page story.
Let’s talk about your new collection of short stories ‘Make Something Up’ which includes many fascinating characters. Do you take inspiration from real or fictional people?
There’s no such thing as ‘fictional people.’ Nothing springs from a vacuum. Every phrasing and action is inspired by the real.
The stories in ‘Make Something Up’ use different narrative techniques in order to capture the character contained within. How do you decide upon which narrative style to use for specific characters?
The crutches of spell-checking and grammar-checking software coach everyone into writing correct, clean sentences. But such sentences carry no sense of emotion or authenticity. The editor, writer, teacher Gordon Lish – the acknowledged inventor of Minimalist – teaches that the greatest authority comes across in broken, incorrect language. Warped language tells the story while creating a sense of the storyteller. It reinvents language and gives it greater impact and novelty. And it gives the reader the sense of joy and triumph he or she probably hasn’t felt since first learning to read.
Again, as a child of the Punk and New Wave eras, I’m also fascinated with the plodding drum machines used in so much of that music. To create the same effect I’ll use an unconventional phrase, repeatedly, as a conjunction. In the story “The Facts of Life” I create run-on sentences by linking everything with the phrases “even if”, “even when”, “even then” and “even so”. In the story “Cannibal” I link everything with the repetition of “because”, mimicking the way a child would tell a rambling story. In “Loser” I force sentences to double back by undermining them midway with the word “but”, “only”, or “except.” All of these experiments are geared toward making stories as “sticky” or “hooky” as popular music. As long as the “mistake” is used consistently it creates its own pattern and authority in the reader’s mind.
Is it true that you have a collection of short stories based on Animals which you successfully used during ‘Make Something Up’ if so when would this be released?
True, but it probably won’t see daylight. I’d written a series of Cheever-esque stories, depicting middle-class, suburban dramas, but using totem animals. The animals gave the interconnected stories a mythic quality, suggesting Native American culture and Aesop’s Tales. These included the few animal stories now in “Make Something Up” as well as stories depicting a hippopotamus, a hamster, a water buffalo, etc.. They were all connected in a web-like pattern, appearing or being mentioned in each other’s far-flung lives. It was a blast to write. Then someone told me about the David Sedaris collection “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” and I lost all confidence in my newly completed book. The few stories you’ve seen are the only ones I’ll release. It takes so little to undermine me.
What is your personal favorite short story in ‘Make Something Up’?
My favorite in the collection is “Eleanor”. In it, everything supports the theme of Context. My greatest dream is always to test the reader’s intuitive reading skill. We all hear so much nonsense, but our minds organize it so that we can comprehend the meaning.
In writing I want to test the limits of reader comprehension, creating chaos so I can trigger a sense of triumph and freshness with every story.
A favorite of ours ‘The Facts of Life’ which is fairly gruesome and contains an ‘explosive’ ending that perfectly couples the horrific with humour. Where did this idea come from?
Sadly, the kernel of the story is true. In recent history a local child was in the hospital. She’d used copious amounts of hand sanitizer gel before someone presented something innocuous – a Christmas candle or a birthday cake with burning candles – and she was enveloped in flame. She survived. That’s a story I could never tell, but the “where do babies come from” talk is a perennial laughfest. Most people have their own funny version of how their parents attempted to explain human reproduction. If you want laughs at a party, ask people to recount their childhood lectures on the topic.
How many stories didn’t make it into the collection and how do you make the decision on what to include or not?
Most of the animal-Cheever stories did not go into the collection. Neither did a few stories I’d read on past book tours, stories such as “Love Nest”, which many people liked but I never felt got a strong enough crowd reaction. The story “Mr. Elegant” was discarded until my agent urged me to include it. Another story, which took place aboard a jetliner, was scrapped so we could include “The Facts of Life”, a story I wrote quickly in one sitting, even as my editor was tapping his foot impatiently in New York and the presses were waiting.
How do you keep your ideas fresh?
Define “fresh”. Some of my seemingly fresh ideas are tiny anecdotes I’ve carried in my memory since childhood. For example, all of the monstrous jokes in the story “Knock-Knock” were jokes I’d heard as a seven-year-old in second grade. If you collect enough anecdotes you can begin to puzzle them together to demonstrate a larger theme.
Several of your novels are making waves in a variety of mediums (RANT has James Franco signed up, Survivor is being lined up for a television series) could you tell us more about how these projects are progressing?
Forgive me, but I must evade your question. In the past I’ve been rude and announced the progress of such projects, effectively stealing the thunder and wrecking the careful publicity plans of the people developing these films, plays, television serials, animated cartoons. The worst example is me spouting about David Fincher’s plans to create another project from “Fight Club”.
I must learn to shut the fuck up.
You are scheduled to release a colouring book. How did this come about and why did you decide to explore this format?
Adult coloring is big. It’s huge. The new Sudoku. So big it’s saving conventional publishing. Personally, I loved working with the artists who contributed to the “Fight Club 2” graphic novel, and I wanted a project which would maintain our collaboration just a little longer. I goaded the artists to depict lurid, outlandish subjects, and they didn’t just meet the challenge. They produced images that shocked me. It’s nice to share the blame. But it was my idea to pair short stories with illustrations the reader would eventually color. Perhaps this new model will revive the short story and make it profitable, again. Like I said, every project is an experiment.
What might you imagine of a road trip with Tyler Durden, Victor Mancini, and Tender Branson?
Each character has developed a strategy for winning. Tyler plays the alpha male. Victor plays the victim. Tender plays the obedient good boy. Tyler will bully. Victor will whine. Tender will simply observe them. That’s the perfect model of 20th Century American fiction. The brash character is killed/murdered. The passive character commits suicide. The witnessing character records and recounts the story. A lesson in moderation. This is the formula for “The Great Gatsby”, “Gone with the Wind”, “The Valley of the Dolls”, “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and a million other novels. Including “Fight Club.”
You mention a short story of yours called ‘Reece’s Faeces’ which you workshopped and decided not to publish. Where is this story now, and might we be granted the gift of an exclusive read?
Look for that story, renamed as “Mud Slinger” and vastly rewritten, in the new coloring book “Bait: Off-Color Stories for You to Color,” due out October 25th. It’s a retelling of Lewis Hyde’s brilliant explanation for the infamous “Piss Christ” photograph created by Andres Serrano. Hyde is a total smarty-pants who occasionally publishes insightful books, most of which I love. His book on intellectual property… not so much. But he’s another author to revere and has a cushy university job and full health care benefits.
I, on the other hand, must write and publish quickly and often, and hope to die a quick death because I have no health care coverage. Just one of the many pitfalls of being a professional short story writer.
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Interview by Ross Jeffery for STORGY