You could describe Chuck Palahniuk’s writing style as telling you a joke whilst punching you in the gut. And so it is with his 12-years-in-the-making short story collection Make Something Up. But that is not all there is to discuss. There is talk of the Fight Club 2 comic, his thoughts on adaptations of his work (including his favourite part of the Fight Club film) and which book is next in line for big screen treatment.
But to the most pressing matter first. The magnificently titled Make Something Up (Stories You Can’t Unread) has, aptly, a funny story behind it.
“The title comes from tragedy,” Chuck explains. “It was a story I worked on forever about a very aristocratic man on board the Titanic. As the ship was sinking, his Irish-Catholic valet was begging him for a comforting story about the Beyond and God and the Afterlife, which the aristocrat didn’t believe in. So he was finding himself forced to invent a theology to placate this panicking man that he felt responsible for. That was to be the title story - about this man aboard the Titanic creating this fantasy for another doomed man. And I could never make the story work. I’m on the cusp of making it work now. But it’s ironic that the title story never made it into the book.
“There’s irony in the title too in that you can’t really make something up,” he says poignantly. “You might think you’re inventing but things already exist. Everything you think you’re inventing is something you’re just following."
In previous interviews Chuck has revealed fan letters to be a primary source of inspiration for his short story work. Is this still the case?
“It really is,” he beams. “There are some stories in there that I should just plain call the Penny and Matthew stories. They’re a married couple with one child who are close friends of mine and I go and spend an evening with them at least once a week. I’m always hearing stories about their lives. The Phoenix story [in the collection] about the cat is very much a Penny and Matthew story, as well as the one with the coyote driving around with a baby on the backseat. A lot comes from this one small source.”
I wonder if Chuck worries he will offend those close to him by including them in his work.
“I always say my family is off limits,” he says. “That was validated when [American humorist] David Sedaris told me writing about his family alienated them; that his family had suffered by becoming public figures of his work. In the US, also, when you make people into public figures they have less legal rights for slander and so I don’t want to do that to those I love. Whereas my friends seem to be flattered by it.”
Unlike an album in the modern age, where people increasingly pick and lift individual tracks, a book is still enjoyed sequentially. As such, with the stories ranging in style and length, was much sweat exerted over the story order?
“My original sequence had the Eleanor dog story at the beginning because it’s a Christmas story and I wanted to bookend the collection with Christmas stories,” Chuck says. “But the publisher felt Eleanor was too difficult a read first up (it’s written from the perspective of a dog). They thought Knock Knock would be a little more reader friendly. The only other consideration was to put the novella toward the back, similar to how Breakfast at Tiffany’s was placed in that collection. Always put that long weighty thing at the back.”
I can’t help but smile at the notion of Knock Knock as ‘reader friendly’, brutal story that it is. It’s something Chuck loves about short stories.
“It’s still my favourite form,” he enthuses. “I can read them in totality in workshops and get such effective feedback; with a longer story you’re just reading a chapter a week. They’re also fantastic to test a premise to see if it’s worth expanding into a novel; putting your toe in the water and seeing if people instantly engage with an idea.”
Chuck has revealed in the past that he deliberately makes his books a certain length, largely to avoid overstaying a story’s welcome (“Extend comedy past the 300 page mark,” he said, “and it just falls apart). Would he ever consider a larger magnum opus?
“I would love to write something as long as Confederacy of Dunces,” he says. “It’s such a big fat epic that maintains such energy the entire time. I’m just not sure if I'm that kind of a swimmer, if I have that kind of breath. Also there’s an enormous psychic weight when you have something incomplete, and you have to be with this incomplete thing for years at a time. That’s exhausting and crippling. I would go crazy. David Foster Wallace was driven to suicide with his huge incomplete book. I don’t want to do that.”
Instead, Chuck is turning his wicked eye to the comic form for the first time in the highly anticipated sequel to Fight Club - the fiendishly titled Fight Club 2 - which sees our Narrator trying to keep Tyler Durden at bay with psychotropic drugs.
“It’s going great,” Chuck enthuses. “I was really glad I had written all ten episodes beforehand so that the artists would have an idea of what elements would stay with the story what they should really focus on. I can see this series being ongoing beyond that.
“Comics are going to make me a better screenwriter due to the similar storyboard style and I already have a few little screenwriting jobs coming up,” Chuck continues. “I’m going to be a co-screenwriter on the movie treatment for my book Lullaby. A Portland filmmaker Andy Mingo bought the rights a few months ago. Andy had made a short film of that story Romance that’s in the collection.”
With the new form, Chuck feels somewhat like he’s starting anew, and he loves it.
“I appreciate with the comics each episode my Editor gets back to me with a long list of questions and suggested revisions,” Chucks says. “The more I write the more I really appreciate editing and questioning but the irony [with prose writing is] the more I write the less likely it is people will question my work. I’m more happy to do that now later in life than I’ve ever been. There’s always room for improvement.”
With Chuck’s free and easy approach to people editing his work, it seems this extends to adaptations too.
“I wish people would be a little less attached to my version of the story and willing to do new things with it,” he says, “because when I get a treatment, or script, of one of my books and it’s so faithful it just bores me.”
This sentiment leads Chuck onto further praise of David Fincher’s Brad Pitt ‘n’ Ed Norton sporting adaptation of Fight Club.
“I think the most powerful parts are where David takes advantage of the film medium and makes fun of the fact we’re watching a film. The splicing, the sprockets. That way he makes it even more real by acknowledging it’s unreal.”
With short stories, screenplays and comics, Chuck is certainly given his fervent fanbase plenty to chew on, showing he is not short on ideas. Proof that inspiration can strike anywhere, Chuck reveals that hopefully it won’t be 12 years before his next collection.
“On tour this year, the ticket agent wanted to do something special with his computer," Chuck says. "Just as he was about to switch it on, he looked at me bright-eyed and said, ‘Let’s see what happens!’. And that seemed like such a funny, innocent phrase, but so loaded with expectation. I think that will make a great name for my next collection.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Make Something Up is out now through Random House.