Chuck Palahniuk found an audience for his writing and social commentary when Fight Club became a defining event for a generation. His books include Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, and now Lullaby (Doubleday).
What made you want to be a writer?
Mr. Olsen in the fifth grade made me want to be a writer. He said, "Chuck, you do this really well. And this is much better than setting fires, so keep it up." That made me a writer.
How would you describe your writing?
On one level my stuff is about me going into the world and picking up what people are talking about and things that are common archetypal issues in the lives of all my friends. I then find some way to portray those and demonstrate them in a story.
On another level my stuff is really my stuff. Lullaby is me hashing out whether or not I recommended the death penalty for the man who was convicted of killing my father in 1999. Every one of the books is really me wrestling with [personal issues] but in a very fictional way. So in a way it's the world, and in a way it's me.
What impact have tragic events had in your life and your worldview?
There was a part in Fight Club where I talked about my grandmother. She had breast cancer. She went in for a partial mastectomy. Coming out of the hospital, my grandfather was carrying her suitcase and he said, "Darn, I feel lopsided." And she said, "You feel lopsided?"
It was such a wonderful, funny, dark joke about something so tragic as losing a breast to cancer. That is how my family deals with everything, by finding the really dark funny thing that is present in all tragedy.
When we were cleaning out my father's house, my siblings and I were alternately laughing and crying because there was always something very funny to remember. Personally, I felt very relieved I was not going to have to introduce my father to Winona Ryder, because he had been really pressuring me for an introduction.
How do you come to understand people's minds and the way they talk?
I am socially retarded in that when people talk about The Sopranos or Friends, or Seinfeld or Sex and the City, I have never seen these shows so I have nothing to add. But by the time something makes it to television, it has been through so many committees, so many processes, it is such a commodity, it has been so edited and produced and art directed, that I don't think there's really anything original there.
I want to be talking to people in the Laundromat and on the street and in the airport, and hearing their stories, the stories of the people next to me on the bus.
Everyone I talk to has got stories that are so much more compelling and entertaining and hilarious than anything I would ever see on television or almost any movie I could ever watch. And I'm always so much more entertained by real people, even total strangers, than I am by what's on that screen in front of me.
I would really like to see more people expressing themselves and bringing their views and their stories into the culture. You know, there's a million movies out there that are better than the movies that come out this week, but they're just not being made. People are just not making the effort to sell their stories.
What effects of the media have you seen on our culture?
So many of our enormous emotional crises are lived through the media. They're lived through movies, they're lived through what we watch on television, they're not actual events in our life. And in a way they don't really exhaust or fulfill anything for us because they're just things that we experience in this detached voyeuristic way. We don't have friends, so we watch Friends on TV.
We don't have tragedy in our life because we won't really swing out and risk anything so we have to watch other people's tragedy on the news. It's a patch on the lack of actual experience in our lives.
People have to take hold of our culture; they have to express themselves and entertain themselves. They can no longer pay other people to hold conversations like this for them. They need to be holding these conversations themselves. They need to be creating their own culture, in addition to raising their kids, in addition to paying their bills. They can't defer self-expression.
When you look back now at Fight Club, what was it that people connected to?
It was people acknowledging the fact that people don't feel grown up. Men especially don't have something that makes them automatically adults. In a way we're sort of scrambling for some sort of rite of passage that will acknowledge and make us feel like we're adults.
How would you summarize Lullaby?
It is about a newspaper reporter who is asked to do a five-part series on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and he finds out that each of these children was read the same nursery rhyme from a very cheap anthology of nursery rhymes and lullabies the night before it died. Whoever published this book, had accidentally picked up an ancient African curse for euthanizing people in their sleep.
How in the world did that idea occur to you?
I went to Bed, Bath and Beyond and I started seeing all of the sort of beautiful religious symbols of every other culture suddenly being used on bath mats and toilet seat covers and wallpaper borders. We've trivialized these things that had sacred power in the same way that we've trivialized language so language has no power either.
The book expresses anarchistic ideas similar to the theme of Fight Club. What does it represent?
It's the death and the resurrection. Things have to come to that point of the death, whether it's Christ's death or the satori that Buddha achieved. They have to come to that point of ultimate destruction before they can really be redeemed.
There's a lot of theology in Lullaby. There's a lot of references to biblical stories, Adam and Eve, and God.
They're stories that stay with you, and they're stories that connect you to everyone else. And I love finding things that are archetypal in everyday life that, when you tell your story, everyone has a similar version of that. It allows them to tell their story. Suddenly you realize in a way you are each other's family.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Visit DickStaub.com for audio and video of his radio program (4-7 p.m. PST), media reviews, and news on "where belief meets real life." The full text of this interview will be for sale on the website soon.
Earlier Dick Staub Interviews include:
Frederica Mathewes-Green | The author of Facing East and The Illumined Heart talks about her spiritual journey and transformation. (Oct. 1, 2002)
Chris Seay | The author of The Gospel According to Tony Soprano talks about men who want to be in the "Christian mafia." (Sept. 24, 2002)
John Sloan | The author of The Barnabas Way says Christians need to kiss more frogs and reconsider their prayers for blessings. (Sept. 17, 2002)
Nancy Guthrie | Two years after sharing her story of Hope with Christianity Today, the modern Job tells of losing another child to Zellweger Syndrome (Sept. 10, 2002)
Stephen L. Carter | The Yale University law professor and author of The Emperor of Ocean Park talks about the lack of religious characters in modern fiction (Sep. 3, 2002)
Francine Rivers | The fiction writer says she starts each book with a question that she doesn't know the answer to. God provides the ending. (Aug. 27, 2002)
Ben Heppner | The acclaimed dramatic tenor speaks about getting into opera, his faith, and P.O.D. (Aug. 20, 2002)
Morton Kondracke | The political commentator talks about how being saved from alcoholism, and trying to save his wife from the ravages of Parkinson's. (Aug. 13, 2002)
Mike Yaconelli | The author of Messy Spirituality discusses God's "annoying love." (Aug. 6, 2002)
David Brooks | The Weekly Standard senior editor talks about the spiritual life of Bobos. (July 30, 2002)
Calvin Miller | The author of Jesus Loves Me: Celebrating the Profound Truths of a Simple Hymn talks about childlike faith (July 23, 2002)
Kathleen Norris | The author of The Virgin of Bennington talks about being found by God in the midst of sex, drugs, and poetry. (July 16, 2002)
Thomas Moore | "To really live a secular life and enjoy it is part of being a religious person," says the author of Care of the Soul and The Soul's Religion (July 9, 2002)
Os Guinness | Whether we're seeking or have already been found, we're all on a journey. (July 2, 2002)
Oliver Sacks | The physician author of Awakenings talks about his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, order in the universe, and testing God. (June 25, 2002)
David Myers | People say they know money can't buy happiness, says the Hope College psychology professor. But they don't truly believe it. (June 18, 2002)
Richard Lewis | The comedian, actor, and author talks about his humor, addiction, and spiritual journey. (June 11, 2002)
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