I met Chuck Palahniuk at this past weekend’s Bram Stoker Awards convention in sunny Burbank, CA. Palahniuk’s phenomenal short story “Guts” was up for the short fiction award (surprisingly, it didn’t win). The convention’s organizers didn’t expect Palahniuk to attend; they figured he’d be too big-name and literary and Hollywood to have any interest in such a small genre con.
Turns out, the organizers were wrong; Palahniuk seemed really pleased to be there, and looked like he got a huge kick out of the assortment of horror fans and California goths who attended his late-night reading and signing the following day. When he signed books, he also put one of two stamps inside: one read “Haunted Tour 2005” and the other “Prison Library Copy”.
As much as I admire his work, I dreaded meeting him. It’s not uncommon for big-name novelists to be complete jerks; success leads to swollen, infected egos, and many authors begin to act as if dealing with fans and “lesser” writers is dreadfully beneath them. For instance, nobody’s been able to identify who the murdered Guest of Honor portrayed in Sharyn McCrumb’s novel Bimbos of the Death Sun is based on because there are so very many spoiled, nasty authors who fit that mold in real life.
My fears were unfounded; in person, Palahniuk is a very pleasant, gracious man. I sat across from him at the awards banquet; he preferred salmon over steak and has phenomenal table manners. With long hair, he looks a bit like a healthy version of Iggy Pop; with short hair, he bears a bit more resemblance to a thin Clive Owen. You might be tempted to apply the adjective “nice” to him, but “nice” just doesn’t cut it considering the sheer intensity of his work.
Before he read “Guts”, Palahniuk talked to us a bit about a writing workshop he’d belonged to as a beginning writer. The workshop’s leader had a background in acting, and thought it very important that his students learn how to be good readers of their own work.
So, to toughen his students up, the workshop leader would arrange for them to do readings of their work in wildly inappropriate places. Instead of quiet libraries and bookstores, he’d sign them up (often with no advance notice) at loud, busy coffeeshops and sports bars.
“This would lead to situations where someone would be reading their touching story about their child’s bout with cancer in some bar full of drunk guys who were watching the Patriots play on the big-screen TV. And these guys would just not give a shit about the person reading,” Palahniuk said.
The experience led Palahniuk to start writing each story as if he was eventually going to have to read it aloud in a place where he’d have to compete with a blaring football game for attention.
“Guts” is just such a story, and Palahniuk is an excellent reader. It’s hard to tear your attention away, even if the faint of heart might want to after Palahniuk reaches the horrifying meat of the story. He says that when he’s read the story for the public before, some people fled; those who could not flee have doubled over with their heads between their knees, trying to not listen to a tale that’s going to stick in their heads like an icepick.
The extremity of Palahniuk’s fiction was also formed by his admiration of Shirley Jackson’s work. When her short story “The Lottery” came out in The New Yorker, many readers were completely horrified by it and promptly cancelled their subscriptions with outraged letters of protest to the magazine.
“In this day and age, what kind of fiction would you have to write to get that kind of extreme reaction in readers? What kind of fiction has that power?” Palahniuk said to us. “And so that’s the kind of fiction I’ve tried to write.”
Palahniuk engaged in correspondence with one of Shirley Jackson’s daughters, and one thing led to another (he said he couldn’t go into exactly what), and in the end the daughter sent him part of Jackson’s cremated remains.
Palahniuk still remembers the day he got the cremains in the mail. His then-roommate hovered nearby as Palahniuk opened the box to find a foil package inside.
“Don’t you dare open that at the kitchen table!” his roommate exclaimed.
Palahniuk sent Jackson’s ashes on to his publishing company, who has them under lock and key.