In 1995, a young writer of extremely dark fiction sent off one last novel to the mainstream publishers who had rejected him so many times before -- figuring it was his final kiss-off to the book industry. That novel, Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club,was not merely published; it opens tomorrow as a major motion picture, directed by David Fincher (Seven)and starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.
I met Chuck in San Francisco, where he was touring to promote his new novel, Invisible Monsters.
GETTINGIT: You know, the "fight clubs" actually exist. We heard about it from this guy down near Santa Cruz.
CHUCK PALAHNIUK: Really? Are you going to go to one?
GI: No... They have the same major rule as in your book... "The first rule of Fight Club is don't talk about Fight Club." So did people base these clubs on your book or vice versa?
CP: The funny thing is, there's something back East called Backyard Ultimate Fighting: Married couples get together and they have a few beers and a barbecue, and then they fight each other... And then they have a few more beers. Their relationships are not based on keeping up with the Joneses, but like, beating up on the Joneses.
GI: So did you tap into any of this? Did you see any of this going on?
CP: No, I think I just told the truth about what I enjoyed doing... Me and my friends and all of our adventures and all the things we're pissed off about. And it seemed like I was telling the truth for all these other people, too.
GI: So I assume these fight club people are just inspired by your book?
CP: Really, I don't know.
GI: [Cheerfully] You could have a big publicity-generating controversy at some point!
CP: I'd rather see someone doing it this way, you know, expressing and inventing in this kind of a structured, safe, consensual place, rather than walking into Starbucks with a gun and killing everybody and himself.
I mean, I think wrestling is great. Especially like the farm teams, amateur professional wrestling... People in the audience just go to scream their heads off, yell, and shove each other. And the wrestling is not even so hot. But it's like a Pentecostal revival. They just yell until they're exhausted. Oh, it's wonderful. I take all my friends.
GI: I finished Fight Club yesterday, sitting at a bus stop and a bus came by with one of these public service announcements about battered women. It said, "Violence is learned. It can be unlearned." And I thought, what horseshit... at least the first part of it. It's as natural as eating and sex.
CP: [Laughs] Right. And unless you have the way to get rid of it, it comes out in beating your wife, or road rage, or something else. So it's about time we acknowledge that and find ways to use it.
GI: I would hesitate to go as far as Salvador Dali though. He said that war was great. War brings out the most interesting aspects of humanity.
CP: I think that's just fantastically honest. We are in love with war. We love being a tribe, we love risking our lives, and we love being part of some huge cause and identity -- losing ourselves. It's like a vacation from your little shit ego when you're part of this huge mass thing. And I don't think it's just a guy thing. Maybe it's some metaphor for getting back to that mass consciousness of the godhead, or pre-creation, or something.
GI: And it's connected to sexuality, obviously. You know, it's all in the limbic system. Basically, it's the same rush.
CP: I never heard that. That could be like a totally different reason for women to go to this movie. My editor for Invisible Monsters said she was watching a screening of Fight Club and she found herself getting really turned on sexually, just fantastically aroused. She said she was thinking, "My God, I'm sexually turned on by what are, at best, homoerotic scenes of men pounding each other. What is this about? Why am I reacting so carnally to this?"
GI: Even though the characters in Fight Club aren't really subculture types, that same idea of going to extremes just to feel something and have an authentic experience has a lot in common with all of the body modification and S/M culture.
CP: People need to be broken and rebuilt, and to have scars to prove it. It's a time when we're acknowledging this need, and finding ways to fulfill it other than just buying stuff. Because everybody's sort of getting to the point where they've got the job they want, they can buy the stuff they want and have always been told they need. They're really finding out that's not the answer.
GI: So do you do anything in particular to have these intense experiences?
CP: Yeah. I'm always looking for the thing that most frightens me. I work at a homeless shelter serving breakfast at, like, 5 a.m.
GI: Getting up at 4 a.m. That's scary!
CP: I get there at five and we open at six. I spend the next three hours waiting tables on people that nobody wants anything to do with. I'm like their servant for three hours. I totally have to get off any idea about being me in the world, much less being special. And I also work with Alzheimer's patients, really old, old people... confused people... It's frightening and depressing. You know, I want to put myself in these situations long enough that I can see why I'm so threatened by them.
GI: The terminal illness support groups in Fight Club...Were you doing that sort of thing when you wrote it?
CP: Yes. I worked at an AIDS hospice for a couple years as a volunteer. Mostly I did it because the problems that these relatively young people faced were so incredible next to my problems that I felt were so bad. So I'd walk out and go back to my mechanic job, and suddenly my problems were like nothing. I felt like the king of the world, just because I could get up and walk. You know, I could have solid bowel movements, which was way ahead of anybody in the hospice.
GI: One of the main things this book gets across is the freedom you get by going beyond fear.
GI: Do you experience this?
CP: There was a huge sense of completeness when my book came out. There was a long period where I felt like if somebody walked in with a gun, I could put myself in front of a bullet because my life felt so incredibly complete and satisfying that I wasn't scared. You know, that completion does that to you. You feel such peace that you're not afraid of anything because your life is so good.
GI: The anarchists' ideology in Fight Club is authentic, and the bomb recipes seem to be as well.
CP: It's funny. That came out of wanting to make fun of all those women's books, like Heartburn, Like Water for Chocolate, and Fried Green Tomatoes that had recipes throughout the narrative. That turned into such a cliché. I thought, why can't we have a guy's book with guy recipes throughout it? And my brother is a chemist, so he gave me all those formulas. But the book company made me change one ingredient in each one so they wouldn't work.
GI: Ahh. I thought you were pulling off a Loompanics [publisher of subculture books, including stuff about bomb making, murder, and mayhem] thing within your fiction.
CP: We worked 72 hours non-stop, getting drunk and coming up with these formulas. We could come up with three formulas for Napalm, alone. We were so proud of that, and it was sort of heart-breaking to change it.
GI: When you were writing this, were you also reading lots of anarchist literature and incendiary stuff?
CP: I read the Big Golden Book of Revenge. I had to send away for it special. That's about the only anarchist book I think I read. I was looking for some information about making light-bulb bombs: where you put gasoline in a bulb and you seal it over, put it back in the socket and when someone flips the switch it explodes.
Then I got a bunch of friends who worked at Intel, hardware design, to walk me through all the steps. I bought them breakfast and they walked me through it.
GI: Your writing has been compared to Pynchon and DeLillo, but I think Fight Club is more radical than either of them. Not in the sense that it's experimental, but the content is so extreme.
CP: That's because I never for a second expected to get it published. I sort of wrote it to really offend people who had always rejected my work as too dark and offensive. And I thought: Okay, if they thought that was dark, wait 'til they see this. This is going to be the last thing I ever write and send to those people. But they loved it!
GI: So who do you say influenced you?
CP: I really like the essay styles: Joan Didion and Nora Ephron. They write really light, easily read essays that are usually beautifully researched and often have a comic tone. I could constantly read both. But for fiction, I really love to study short stories. I don't think the payoff should just be at the end of the book. I want there to be a payoff in every chapter. And every chapter should function, in a way, like a short story. Each chapter should up the ante in its own twisted way. Like an album in which every song is good.
GI: So how did the movie come to pass?
CP: Well you know, I wrote the manuscript and sent it around in July of '95. This guy, Raymond Bongiovanni at 20th Century Fox in New York really, really loved it and he hammered everybody at Fox to read it. He got [the film's director] David Fincher to read it. [Fincher] called me one afternoon just to see who this maniac was in Portland, Oregon. And then Raymond died. It turned out he had advanced AIDS. His obituary came out in Variety, and the last paragraph was that Raymond's last greatest wish was that my novel become a movie. Then my agent calls me, he goes, "Man, I just came from Raymond's funeral and you got mentioned eight times in the elegy." He goes, "You can't find better press than that." So I credit Raymond right from the beginning.
GI: Were you worried about Brad Pitt starring?
CP: No. He is like America's ultimate good-looking psycho. He's like the Bruce Dern of the '90s. You remember in the '60s and '70s whenever they needed a good-looking psycho... The Big Valley, Silent Running, Coming Home.Even The Great Gatsby needed a good-looking psycho. And Brad is a charismatic, good-looking psycho. It's perfect for him.
R.U. Sirius doesn't want a piece of ya, no way.