Chuck Palahniuk on Violating the Rules of Minimalism in His New Book, Beautiful You

Chuck Palahniuk will speak about his new book, Beautiful You, on October 28.
Chuck Palahniuk will speak about his new book, Beautiful You, on October 28.
Allan Amato

Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, says the working title for his new book was Fifty Shades of the Twilight Cave Bear Wears Prada. In what became Beautiful You, he lampoons a few tropes from chick-lit and mommy porn. Palahniuk will be reading from the book on Tuesday, October 28 at First Congregational Church in Boulder, at an event where people are encouraged to wear pajamas -- "Just because I want the excuse to wear my pajamas," he explains -- and bring Sharpies. In advance of an appearance that will include "at least of couple of stories that will upset people," he says, we spoke with Palahniuk about Beautiful You, how his parents' pornography influenced the book, workshopping and Fight Club 2. See also: Chuck Palahniuk Predicts Columbine Porn

Westword: I was reading about Beautiful You and how you wrote the first draft in ten days, right?

Chuck Palahniuk: Yeah. That was fast.

Is that kind of like a normal thing for you or is that a little faster than usual?

You know, I don't think I've written a book that fast since Fight Club. Some books and stories just fall together so quickly and easily that it feels more like dictation.

Why do you think this one came so much faster than previous books?

Do you want my woo answer or do you want something that's scientific?

Either.

My woo answer is that my dog that I had for fourteen years died just before I wrote it, and I was frantically depressed. I was really just completely distraught. And this came out of nowhere and just completely lifted me out of that depression and it gave me something to laugh about really hard for that many days. It just seemed like a complete gift. It's weird because sometimes complete tragedy triggers these really absurd comedic ideas.

How has something similar triggered other books or stories?

Well, Choke was very much triggered by my father's murder in 1999. It seems like so many of the books are triggered by the death of somebody really close to me. It's almost like something snaps and gives me the freedom to write a story or sit down. It kind of settles me, puts me in a place long enough to work on a book.

With Beautiful You happening that fast, did your inner editor ever come into play? Do you think about what other people might think, or do you just put on the blinders and it's full speed ahead?

I put the blinders on and just charged through. I knew I wanted to use language of political empowerment but use it in a highly sexualized way, and I knew that I wanted to use the wrong word all the time. And after these long passages the whole thing would come down to, you know, a commodious sheep's bladder. It would just land on the wrong word. Did you read the book?

Yes.

The part when the Baba is taking her dead mother's desiccated finger out of her own vagina, you know? It's described as glistening and highly scented, and even in the dim light of the cavern, it was lovely. It's coming down to the word "lovely" after the entire gruesome passage. I just so loved doing it. Instead of choosing the right word all the time and trying to make things elegant, to just constantly choose the clinker word.

I know you've talked about that in the past. I forget the example, but there was the sentence about... I don't know if was about something you had read but it was all about a sunny day, and then I forget what happened at the end.

I know exactly the example. I read it years ago in the newspaper, right?

Yeah.

It was a warning. The weather has turned. Children all over town are going to be drawn to a neighborhood wading pool, blah, blah, blah... where they'll be attracted to the gentle suction of the inlet port, and be disemboweled. It was a beautiful sunny sentence coming down the word "disemboweled." [laughs]. You just feel like you've been kicked by a mule.

I also read with Beautiful You that you had to redo your whole writing style in a way, right? You almost had to relearn writing in way.

Exactly. To do it third person and to intentionally do all the very conventional things that I have been taught for twenty years not to do, to violate all the rules of minimalism.

Like what, for example?

Like adverbs galore. In minimalism it's about keeping your attribution really simple. He said, she said, almost in a Hemingway simplicity. But in Beautiful You it can be like, "Soon you will be his slave, she sneered." Nobody says anything -- they sneer it, or they quip it or they.... retorted.

Was that a challenge of sorts coming at it that way, and kind of retooling your whole writing style? Or was it fun, a fun challenge?

It was a fun challenge and that's part of what made me laugh, because all the pressure was off to do it the perfect way, and to be able to do it in all the clichéd tropey ways. In chick-lit there's always a best friend who's not quite as pretty as the main character but she's sassy. She's sassy and outspoken. She's always a character of color. She's always coded that way, that she's black or Hispanic. The best friend is always a character of color... and just go run with it. All those tropes. And some of them are really nasty.

I guess you'd be talking about Monique in Beautiful You, right?

[Laughs] Monique. We went around forever, me and my editor.... He's saying you've culturally coded her as black but then you describe her as a crunchy bohemian. You know, blacks can't be bohemian. We went around and around.

I just assumed she was black from the way she talked, but I don't think you mentioned that she was in the book.

No, she's not. She's morally, you know... You can make her anything. She's a crunchy bohemian hippy, dreadlocked vegetarian tofu-making... yeah. Keep reading for more on Beautiful You.  

I read that mommy porn was part of inspiration for the book. Can you expand on that, and maybe what it was that you wanted to tap into?

My working title was Fifty Shades of the Twilight Cave Bear Wears Prada. I wanted to have all the tropes from Fifty Shades of Grey. The man with power who's seducing the unseduceable, not quite pretty but very special young woman. And then you have the older, wise woman who is the Meryl Streep/Miranda Priestly character from The Devil Wears Prada. You've got all these tropes and then cram them all together.

You've talked about how you read you parents' pornography when you were a kid and that played into it as well, right?

Yeah, because each of their pornography was impenetrable but in a different way. I couldn't understand my father's pornography because it was graphic and I just didn't know the mechanics of human sexuality when I first saw those books. And on the other hand, my mother's pornography was so culturally coded with euphemisms that I no idea what was going on. So in a way, it was trying to put both of those different forms together.

As far as research goes for the book, did you read up on sex toys, ancient sex practices, nanorobots and things like that?

I made up a whole shitload of stuff. I did as much research as I could but I still made up stuff. I used my agent's name for an artery -- the Hibbert artery. And when he read the book, he was just thrilled. He though his family had an artery named after them somehow. And then my editor jumped in said, "Well, if Edward's going to have an artery, you've got to rewrite this book so that I'm in it." And so there's a Howard gland that she uses to express her pheromones near the end of the book, and that's named after my editor Gerry Howard.

Also, the bit the magnets. I think you call them...

[laughs] The Chichlache Married Stones.

Yeah, exactly.

[Laughs] All made up.

What's funny is that actually reminded me of a company in Denver called Zen Magnets. They've been under fire... they're these really strong magnets that come in sets and they're a little bigger than the size of a BB. What happened was that kids were swallowing them and they'd get stuck in their intestines and they'd pinch their intestines.

[Laughs] Oh, my god.

They're trying to do a recall and they sell them in pot shops and that way people over 21 will be buying them. But that kind of reminded of that, strangely enough.

Well, I was raised on cattle ranches where we always had to force these huge cattle magnets. You ever used those?

No.

They're magnets that are bigger than your thumb -- long and thin, like the size of a shotgun shell magnet. And you have to force it down the throat of a calf and it stays in their digestive tract their entire life. So if as they're eating they eat any portion of bailing wire, all the bailing wire fragments will accrete around this magnet and won't tear up their intestines. So in a way, I just based it on those cattle magnets.

Going back to the inner editor thing, has there ever been any fear in approaching your writing at all? Has that ever been an issue for you as far as writing goes? Or has writing just gotten easier?

It's gotten easier because there's this expectation that I can do anything that I want. And that people bring me stuff from their own lives that is shocking because I'm a safe person they can confess these things to. So the research process has gotten easier and the writing has gotten easier.

I guess your readers have given you that freedom in a way to kind of go wherever you want.

And it's also proven to my publisher that time is what really makes something successful. These things might seem shocking when they first come out, but if they linger in people's minds for a few years then suddenly they're completely acceptable. Years ago, when I first read "Guts" in public, my editor was so deeply offended and put off by the whole thing. He asked me not to read it. But a couple of years ago I did an event in Austin, Texas. It was a huge success. I overheard my editor talking to some people and bragging about the first readings of "Guts." You know, it just took some time to go by and suddenly he loved it.

You've been doing writing workshops for the last twenty years or so. How important have those workshops been in your work?

A lot of times when I don't know how to end a story or where it's going I'll take it into workshop and my peers will recognize a setup that's already in place that I never would have seen, and they'll say, "You put this in the very beginning. This is where it needs to go." They'll recognize that quality that I never would have recognized. Other than that, it's just that I write...really, my biggest priority is clarity. Do people understand what's happening in this scene? Workshop is the first place where I find out whether or not this is even comprehensible.

Writing is a pretty lonely process but workshopping brings people together.

It does. You know, in my formative writing study we all read our work out loud, so performing your work is a big part of it. Workshop gives you that audience and that spontaneous feedback of people laughing or groaning or whatever they do.

I've read Burnt Tongues [the anthology of transgressive that Palahniuk edited] and there is some great stuff in there. That book has been a few years in the making, right?

It has been. I had no idea how tough it is to kind of do editing and that kind of organizing back and forth long distance, even with the Internet. We had such a large group of people. It really was like herding cats just because there were so many people and so many stories involved. But I'm really proud that one of the people, Fred Venturini, has since gotten a book out with Picador called The Heart Does Not Grow Back. So I'm really thrilled to see these people moving ahead with books of their own. A couple of the people are going to be joining me on tour to read as kind of an opening act -- in Seattle, one in Boulder and there might more.

I was surprised to find that first story in the book, by Neil Krolicki, was from a guy based in Denver.

And that's the guy who will be with me in Boulder.

Moving on down the road, you've got Fight Club 2 coming up and Making Something Up coming out next year.

And knock on wood, there will be the [James] Franco movie of Rant. That would be terrific.

Any plans for the third book in the Damned trilogy in the near future?

[Laughs] So much is happening so fast. You know, it's out there somewhere. I'm already talking to Dark Horse and if the Franco movie comes out, we're talking about doing the Rant sequel as a graphic novel, following the pattern that we have with Fight Club.

Can you talk more about Fight Club 2?

It's a ten-issue series that will eventually be all bound in a single volume. The first issue will come out in May of next year with a volume coming out in May the following year. And there is something in graphic novels culture called Free Comic Book Day. Are you aware of this?

No.

Apparently, with Free Comic Book Day all the graphic novel publishers produce these collectors' editions that are given out for free as a big goodwill gesture. And people stand in line around comic-book stores for days ahead of time to get these things. So, Dark Horse is doing a big free comic book that is Fight Club but with the book's ending instead of the movie's ending. It's a way of introducing how the characters are going to look in the graphic series -- but as early as April for Free Comic Book Day this new Fight Club redux is going to be introduced, and then the actual sequel starts in May.

I'm so glad the artist we went with is this guy named Cameron Stewart. He lives in Germany but he came here and spent most of spring and summer here working with me.

Why did you decide to go with the graphic novel format versus a traditional novel? Well, you know, people like the book so much that a sequel will be automatically compared to the original book and it would have had a really tough row to hoe that way. If it was a movie, it would be compared to David [Fincher]'s movie, which would be almost impossible to beat. But by going with that third form, the graphic novel form, it's not going to have to be directly compared to either the previous two iterations. It can have more of a chance of succeeding on its own.

You've said, "I never set out to offend. Each book or story is an experiment in dread that begins with a question, 'What's the worst that can happen?'"

Yeah, I never really do set out to be provocative or offensive, but especially with minimalism keeping your elements, your characters, your settings, keeping those all to a really strict minimum just makes your plot escalate so quickly that since you're not constantly introducing and describing new things, the existing things just accelerate to absurd levels so quickly. And I think that's why my stories come to such extreme places because minimalism forces you to do that.

I've always been fascinating with dualism, the duality of man... the whole concept of people having the dark and the light where people can look fairly normal on the outside but have darkness inside of them. Do you ever think about that concept?

Most of our lives we're raised to be a good person and you're taught all the rules and if you follow these rules, you'll achieve a kind of success and fulfillment. Then around the age of thirty, after you've been out of college for a few years, you recognize that the rules of being good are only going to get you so far. And if you want to move beyond just being that obedient child, you've got to do something wild and break out.

In Beautiful You it was just about her questioning, "You know, I've been given all these political agendas, all these things to strive for and all these ideals, and I'm taught to just regurgitate. What am I going to do with this that makes it innately my own?" In Fight Club it was the same thing. It was the good boy who has the boring job and is just going to have to break something to get beyond it. So, so much of my writing is that.

Chuck Palahniuk will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 28 at First Congregational Church in Boulder. Find out more here.



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