Sunday, May 2, 2010

I talk to Chuck

I talked to author Chuck Palahniuk for The New Hampshire this past week...I'm the arts editor now which means a.) I get to talk to some cool people and b.) those cool people occasionally give me some free stuff. Here's the story:

Author Chuck Palahniuk has written some shocking things in his career. It might seem like nothing is off limits, but there is one place he hasn’t been: New Hampshire. That will change this week when Palahniuk reads from his latest book Tell-All at South Church in Portsmouth, in an appearance sponsored by RiverRun Books.

Palahniuk is the author of “Fight Club”, “Choke”, “Invisible Monsters”, “Rant” and seven other novels, as well as “Stranger Than Fiction”, a collection of non-fiction.

He is originally from Washington, and now splits him time between Washington and Oregon. From his home in Portland, Palahniuk talked to The New Hampshire about “Tell-All”, movies and his advice for aspiring writers.

“Tell-All” is the story of an aging actress who becomes ensnared by a young biographer, who is out to learn her secrets before she dies so he can publish them in a no-holds-barred biography.

“It’s a story about hatred,” Palahniuk said. “Told with the conventions of a romance novel. I always love having a paradox built into my books. “Fight Club” was about the bureaucracy of anarchy, and this is a story about hate told like a romance.”

To research the book, Palahniuk read the biographies and autobiographies of famous actresses from the 1900s up until the 1960s.

“[I was] looking for the thing they did wrong,” Palahniuk said. “They all made the same mistakes, and those mistakes formed this sort of master pattern. That pattern determines the course of the book.”

Palahniuk said he was inspired by the sordid tell-all biographies that were kept waiting at publishing houses, complete except for the last chapter, waiting for a famous person to die.

“These books sat around sort of in cold blood waiting for someone to be killed so the book could be rushed to market,” Palahniuk said. “I thought that was such a wonderfully vulturish, ghoulish thing.”

The book also tackles the nature of celebrity, and our fascination with the rich and famous. The inside flap touts the book as a “veritable Tourette’s syndrome of name dropping,” and Palahniuk emphasizes this by bolding every proper noun in the book.

"I was talking to Sam Rockwell, who was in “Choke,” [the film] which was made out of my fourth book, and he was talking about being in a movie with Brad Pitt,” Palahniuk said. “And he stopped and said, listen to me, blah blah Brad Pitt blah blah Brad Pitt, like I have some kind of name-dropping Tourette’s syndrome.”

The protagonists of “Tell-All” are women, a famous movie star and her lifelong caretaker, (and the book’s narrator). Palahniuk says that he does not see any obstacle to writing female characters as a male author.

“I don’t see it as any kind of a hurdle,” Palahniuk said, his voice growing quiet. “I don’t see the two genders as being that different. I just see it as verbs—human beings taking action and seeking affection.”

“Choke” was the second of Palahniuk’s books to be made into a movie, the first of which was the cult classic “Fight Club.”

Despite the success of the film adaptations, Palahniuk said there are places books can go where movies can’t.

“The thing that I think is the one strength that books have [over movies] is that books can deal with subject matter that’s just too extreme for films,” Palahniuk said. “Films have to reach a really huge passive audience to make their money, so they just can’t risk going to those places.”

Palahniuk has enjoyed not only critical but also commercial success, and he has a considerable fan base – his official fan site is even called “The Cult” – but he thinks the rise of e-readers might also be the decline of instant bonding over books.

“With books, you want to turn that object [the physical book] into something that will single a certain taste, be a sort of badge to people around you,” Palahniuk said. “Something like the Kindle doesn’t give you that iconic blue cover or something that would have people approach you because they also like that book.”

Palahniuk’s advice for writers is simple: cross the T’s and dot the I’s.

“I didn’t understand at first why everything had to be spelled absolutely perfectly, why everything had to be punctuated as accurately as possible, but now I see that all those things are little ways of proving your professionalism, proving your discipline,” Palahniuk said.

“Every little inaccuracy proves otherwise. All those tiny little things that seem so trivial to get right are all little tiny proofs to the world that you’re worth the investment of their time and energy.”

Portsmouth will be the first stop on Palahniuk’s eight-stop book tour. The appearance, which includes a reading, a question-and-answer session and a book signing, will be held at on Tuesday, May 4, at the South Church at 292 State St. in Portsmouth. The event starts at 7 p.m., and the $25 admission includes a signed copy of “Tell-All.”

“Do you know how many people are expected?” Palahniuk wonders aloud before he hangs up the phone. “I guess there has to be a first time when no one shows up.”