An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk

The author of fourteen novels—including Fight Club and its new graphic novel sequel—talks comic books, Brad Pitt and the resurrection of Tyler Durden.

Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk is definitely literature’s bad boy. His stories are dark and devious and a little bit ribald, but Palahniuk’s writing wrestles with the very issues that are too often swept under the rug: addiction, consent, and the need to be loved—by anyone. Following the cult-like rise of his novel Fight Club, which was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton and directed by David Fincher, he’s gone on to publish gripping novels like Survivor and Haunted, a collection of short stories, nonfiction essays, and even a coloring book titled Bait: Off-Color Stories for You to Color. Recently, his follow-up to Fight Club, called, of course, Fight Club 2, is an entirely different reading experience. Written in comic book format and illustrated beautifully by artist Cameron Stewart, the familiar characters are all there—Tyler Durden and Marla and Sebastian—but the way readers consume the story is entirely new.

Curious, Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright talked with Palahniuk about why he elected to write a sequel to Fight Club, and why he specifically selected the genre of graphic novel and the thing that’s too far over the line—even for Palahniuk.

Read it Forward: Chuck, congratulations on Fight Club 2. From the cover and the illustrations to the story line, this book is such a work of art—in more ways than one.

Chuck Palahniuk: Oh thank you, it’s such a collaboration between a lot of people all over the world who are the best at what they do.

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RIF: In Fight Club 2, we see the return of Tyler Durden. Has he been kicking and punching around in your head for the last ten years?

CP: Not in the slightest.  You know, the character of Tyler Durden was completely kind of co-opted by Brad Pitt in my imagination, so part of this writing the sequel was just a re-seizing of control and returning the character to the people who originally inspired him—friends of mine.

RIF: Where do we pick up with the characters from Fight Club?

CP: On a literal basis, we pick up with the characters ten years after the end of the original story.  The two primary characters are married with a child and their marriage is really hitting rock bottom. Because of this unhappiness, the female character, Marla, starts to titrate her husband’s medication in order to prompt the return of Tyler Durden—if nothing else, then for better sex.  Tyler comes back and things fall to chaos.

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RIF: Marla’s still got it, I was glad to see.

CP: Another one of my goals was to expand the story into the past and the future simultaneously.  To insert a lot of the character’s past, which, you know, we didn’t really see in the first book or the first story—there are passing references to his parents and that was it—but also to stretch the story back across centuries of time.

RIF: Why was it important for you to write Fight Club 2?

CP: Boy, I had no idea the story would have such legs, that it would infect the culture and would become so many memes used by so many people and so many tattoos.  It just seemed that, as I grew older, part of my responsibility was to write the story from an older man’s perspective and not just blame fathers, but, you know, have the character become a father and have him struggle with what it is to be a good father and why it’s so easy to fail.  So, that seemed the morally responsible thing to do was to take the opposite tact and accept responsibility in fatherhood, blah, blah, blah.

RIF: Why do you think it’s important for readers to return to these characters again, and on the page instead of the big screen?

CP: I think this book deals with a lot of issues, especially around consent and conflict.  You know, when I was a child, I thought that I lived in aberrant times because I thought that all this conflict was someday going to just evaporate, that we were moving towards a society without conflict and warfare.  But things are actually far worse now than they were in my childhood.  So, I wanted to again explore the ideas of warfare and conflict and consent and why it is so perennial. That’s a better tact to take than to just deny it.

RIF: Fight Club 2 is a graphic novel. What made you choose this medium?

CP: Well, for a couple of reasons.  Number one, the film and the book both had such passionate followings that a sequel done in either of those formats would have been compared directly to the original and would have suffered.  So, I thought, a new medium would allow the sequel to create its own authority.  It would be such a different thing, that it couldn’t be compared directly to the original in either form.

And number two, I wanted to expand my own storytelling skills. There are a lot of Portland, OR-based comic book artists like Brian Bendis, Matt Fraction, and Kelly Sue DeConnick, who very graciously offered to teach me this whole new storytelling form.  And I had the time because most of the stories from my story collection Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread were finished.  So, for the first time in my writing career, I had a year or more to learn a whole new style of telling things and that was another reason I explored the graphic novel format.  So, I wanted to establish some authority over the narrative and also to learn a new skill set and be the student again.

And also, as I grow older, I want to reconnect with things that I enjoyed as a child.  And as a child, I absolutely loved comics.  So, this was a way of sort of reconnecting with that passion I had as a kid.

CHUCK PALAHNIUK

RIF: In what ways is writing the story for a graphic novel different than sitting down to write a novel?

CP: Oh my gosh, in some ways it’s so easy because you have that built-in structure of panel, panel, panel, panel, panel, page turn.  The way the story is propelled forward is all right there— you just have to come up with the images. That part was terrifically easy compared to a novel. In a novel, you have to use all these devices to imply the passage of time or to change the scene or alter any aspect of the story, whereas, in a comic, it’s like cutting film.

The toughest part was keeping dialogue to an absolute minimum and coming up with still images that imply motion.  Also, the plotting has to be fairly intense because the only time you can surprise a reader is when they turn the page and they see the first image on the next page.  So, you’ve got to have a setup at the lower corner of every right-hand page and then you’ve got to have a payoff at the upper corner of every left-hand page.  So, that means each issue has between 12 and 15 very significant setups and payoffs. That is plotting that is so dense, I think it would kill most novelists.

RIF: I never thought about the act of the page-turn as the cliffhanger and then the reader gets an immediate payoff at the top of the next page.

CP: Right, well, that’s why that narrative has so many different plot threads—in the future, in the past, in dream time, in reality, between Marla, between the narrator—so that I had as many options of places to jump as I needed for those page-turns.

RIF: And do you think creating this graphic novel had anything to do with seeing your original novel manifested into a film? I know you wanted to escape from both original formats, but did this visual component feel like almost a marriage of the two but wholly original at the same time?

CP:  Exactly.  It seemed like a little bit of both, almost a storyboarded movie but without the complete allegiance to literalness that you need in a film.  Everything in a film has to be literal enough to be filmed.  And so, you couldn’t have an army made up of dying children because it would be too heartbreaking.  It would exhaust the viewer emotionally.  But with comics, you have the visuals, but you also have some wiggle room to make them a little cartoony.  And that’s why we chose Cameron Stewart as the artist because he’s been criticized for being too cartoony.  And I thought that was perfect.  His images could carry a lot of plot but, at the same time, they wouldn’t overwhelm you with the reality.

RIF: Tell me about the process. Which comes first—like the chicken and the egg—the images or the plot?

CP: I wrote the entire story arc first.  I wrote the whole ten issues before talking to artists because I wanted them to know what were really significant, repeated characters and locations, so, that those could be lavished with attention and that he or she wouldn’t be duplicating their efforts over and over.

I also wrote the whole thing out, so that the artist would know exactly what they were facing. I wanted the artist to be able to decline the project if he or she felt that it was too challenging or too possibly upsetting or offensive.  In other words, I didn’t want to sell anybody a pig in a poke and then have to deal with it later.

RIF: How was it working with artist Cameron Stewart?

CP: It was great.  He was a little squeamish when he realized some of the things that he would have to research and depict as comics.  But he was really game.  And Cameron fixed so many flaws in my pacing and pointed out diplomatically where my dialogue was just too verbose and would never fit in the panel.  He really was the fixer.

CHUCK PALAHNIUK

RIF:  The narrative is so layered. There are the comic book images that you would normally associate with a graphic novel, but then there are almost 3-D-looking objects—like handfuls of pills and rose petals—lying on top that feel like you could pick them up right off the page.  Whose idea was that?

CP: We wanted to play with the conventions of comic books in the same way Fight Club director David Fincher played with extensions of film within the movie.  David got the film stuck in the shutter, he burned the film, he had the film vibrate in a gate.  He did all these things that reminded the audience constantly that they were watching a movie.  And it was kind of brilliant because it made the audience aware of the medium, but at the same time, it somehow made the story even more real and engaging. It wasn’t hiding and just pretending to be reality.  It was acknowledging its own nature.

And so, in the comic, we decided that, similarly, print registry could be monkeyed with and ink smearing could be monkeyed with.  Whenever we wanted to undermine something that was untrue, we would cover someone’s face with an object as they said it.  So, as people falsely say, “I love you,” their face is occluded by a pill or by a rose petal.  Or when they said something really clever.  At the end of the first issue, the character says, “A Vicodin, a Vicodin, my kingdom for a Vicodin.”  It’s just too clever and silly and stupid.  So, we put a pill over it.  Or whenever somebody was too verbose, too obviously striving for profundity, we occluded it with something.  It was a way of, you know, undercutting what was being said and making fun of something that was trying too hard.

RIF: Do you think Fight Club 2 will ever be adapted for film?

CP: You know, I really don’t. It’s always my goal to write something that is appropriate for its medium and inappropriate for any other medium.

RIF: Does that ensure that your story stays true and original to the way that you wrote and envisioned it?

CP: I hope so.  If I’m going to write for a medium, I always want to write to the strengths of that medium.

RIF: One of the things I love in Fight Club 2 is that you wrote and drew yourself into the story.  I thought that was so cool.

CP: It needed one more layer—just one more kind of layer upon reality that would both undermine me as a real person and, at the same time, lend credibility to the characters.  So, I talked about it with my writers’ group, which includes Chelsea Cain and Lidia Yuknavitch and Monica Drake, and ended up writing them in as well. It was a way to put their faces in there and make them look smart and have them make me look like an idiot.

CHUCK PALAHNIUK

RIF: Yes! It’s like breaking the fourth wall.  Especially when you debate how the whole thing should end.

CP: And God bless, it was a way of getting a bunch of very smart female characters in there.

RIF: Your novel, Lullaby is being adapted for film and was fully funded on Kickstarter in under 30 days.  Congratulations!

CP: Thank you.

RIF: I understand you co-wrote the screenplay.  Why is it important to you to make movies and write books that make people uncomfortable?

CP:  Well, in this case, it’s actually friends of mine who are making the movie.  I wanted to do everything I could to support them, so, I agreed to co-write the screenplay and bring to it my much-improved screenwriting skills because of the comic.  Comics have really taught me how to better depict a scene visually and to use gesture and expression without dialogue.  So, I wanted to bring those superior skills back to Lullaby.  And in a way it’s a chance to rewrite, to get another draft of Lullaby and make it better.

RIF: That’s cool. And does anything make you uncomfortable, Chuck?

CP:  Boy, I am still very put-off by any narrative that gratuitously kills or even refers to the killing of animals.  That stops the story for me.


Artwork reprinted from Fight Club 2 © 2016 by Chuck Palahniuk. Published by Dark Horse Books, a division of Dark Horse Comics, Inc. 

Writer: Chuck Palahniuk; Artist: Cameron Stewart; Colorist: Dave Stewart; Cover Artist: David Mack

Author Photo ©: Allan Amato

CHUCK PALAHNIUK's novels include the bestselling Fight Club, which was made into a film by director David Fincher, Diary, Lullaby, Survivor, Haunted, and Invisible Monsters. Portions of Choke have appeared in Playboy, and Palahniuk's nonfiction work has been published by Gear, Black Book, The Stranger, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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