a conversation with Chuck Palahniuk      


Bold Type: A lot of people are going to come to this novel because they loved your earlier books—most notably Fight Club and Choke . What's going to surprise them when they pick up Lullaby?

Chuck Palahniuk: My first four books, from Fight Club to Choke dealt with personal identity issues. The crises the narrators found themselves in were generated by themselves. Lullaby is my first book with a narrator who is less responsible for his situation. In the classic horror model, the narrator is a status-quo sort-of everyman who finds himself thrust into incredible circumstances. And he is floundering, way out of his depth.

BT: Your books always have really unique jacket art. I know most authors care deeply about what art goes on the cover of their books (despite the publishers' protests!), but your books especially stand out. Who does the art? Do you work on the concept together?

CP: No, I have almost nada talent for visual arts. I can't even choose a paint color for a room. Beginning with the transparent soap used on the cover of Fight Club in 1996, I've been blessed with the good ideas of very gifted people. And my agent's advice—Edward Hibbert has far more taste than me. In a way, I want no control over the cover. I just want to be surprised and dazzled.

BT: I think there will be a lot of attention given to the back-story of how you came to write Lullaby—a story you tell freely on the website for the book (and one that is really personal). Why did you choose to share the "story behind the story"? How do you think knowing that story might affect the way people come to Lullaby?

CP: After hashing through all my personal issues in this metaphoric way, it's easier to talk about them in public. In a way, I've exhausted the emotional power the issues had over me. Sort of like the "flooding" technique where you stand in a roomful of snakes until you're no longer scared of them. In fact, by then you're a little bored by snakes. Still, the book is such a warped—again metaphorical—telling of my story (i.e. my father's murder, the trial, the murder's pending execution) that I think the reader will forget anything I've said. If the story doesn't overwhelm them that way, I haven't done my job. I write in a noisy, distracting world so the books can be read there.

BT: The marketing copy for Lullaby uses the word "thriller" a lot. But, reading the book, I didn't really feel like I was reading a "thriller" in the way most people think of it. In fact, I felt a lot of different emotions while I read this book, but scared was not one of them. How do you feel about having Lullaby described as a "thriller"? If you got to write your own copy, how would you describe the book to readers?

CP: I'd call it "A time-released thriller." The goal is to change how you see the ordinary world. The scary part comes when you try to go back to life-as-usual. I call it "horror" because there are horrific moments in it.

BT: I have to admit—in the interest of full disclosure—this is the first of your books I've read. So, for me, picking it up was a totally new experience. One thing I noticed was your eye for detail particularly how you describe the physicality of your characters, especially the women. You put a lot of time and detail into describing the two main female characters in Lullaby , Mona and Helen. I found that a really compelling part of the book. What's your process for shaping your characters—especially when it comes down to the finest details?

CP: You could call me a stalker. I'll sit for hours, studying someone near me on an airplane, trying to find words to describe her hair. Or studying the way people talk, their gestures. All the little physical "business" people do in an otherwise static scene of dialogue. I HATE scenes in books that are just lists of attributed dialogue. He said, she said. Nothing is more boring. This can get to be a hazard—recently a mother watched me watch her teenaged daughter at a gym. I was taking notes and trying to document the way she stood. The next thing I know, the police want to ask me a few questions. Now it's a crime to LOOK at people too long...

BT: Your books always contain some "gore"—I'm not sure how else to put it. Why include all that stuff? Do you want to elicit or spur a specific reaction from the reader—to set the emotional stage, per se? What do the gory details add to Lullaby ? How do you decide when that one step—in some minds, too far—in a description should be taken? (A lot of people think gore in books is done fairly mindlessly...)

CP: Another technique of Minimalist writing is called "Going On the Body." You describe a physical sensation to evoke a sympathetic reaction from your reader. This gets the reader involved beyond an emotional or cognitive level. The reader feels a part of the story. One cliche of fiction writing is: "If you don't know what comes next, describe the inside of the character's mouth." The mouth, the nipples, the feet, these are all such sensitive areas. Oh, and the ears. This is prime territory for getting your reader to feel a part of the action.

BT: To shift gears a bit (sorry, it's bit drastic): you live in Portland, Oregon. I've never been there (actually, never to the Pacific Northwest at all), but I hear it's beautiful. What's your favorite thing about where you live?

CP: It rains enough that I'm stuck inside writing. Anywhere else, and I'd have a good tan but not a single book. Portland in particular is a cheap enough place to live that you can still develop your passion—painting, writing, music. People seem less status conscious. Even wealthy people buy second-hand clothes and look a little-bit homeless. The writer Katherine Dunn says all the "fugitives and refugees" of America end up in Portland, because it's the cheapest city on the West Coast.

BT: I've got to ask—what's next?

CP: This summer, I've done the first draft for another "horror" novel, called Period Revival. After a year of re-reading Ira Levin, I've taken my shot at a conspiracy-type plot. Plus, like Lullaby , it's loaded with my thinly-masked political bitching. And... I'll have a travel guide coming out in Crown/Anchor's Journeys series. It's a fairly upsetting, dark guide to Portland, Oregon. Oddball profiles and non-fiction tourist information will alternate with creepy/funny/disgusting "postcard-sized" essays about different events from my twenty years living here. So, next year, I'll be touring for the hardcover of Period Revival and the paperback of Lullaby (at the same time) and releasing the travel book, called The Fugitives and Refugee. And I'll be picking up some magazine assignments—just for the adventure.

Interview by Allison Heilborn

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    Photo credit: Chris Saunders