Most interviews with Chuck Palahniuk begin the same way, and far be it from me to fuck with the formula. So here goes: Chuck Palahniuk is not scary.
Word on the street was that he's hard to pin down, and that his publicist will make fun of you if you mispronounce his name. ("Paula-nik, Paula-nik," I repeat to myself on the way to the interview). Couple this with his frequent forays into uncomfortable sexual, psychological, and scatological territory, and it's easy to understand why his oversized reputation precedes him.
When I show up 10 minutes early for our interview, he's already at the coffee shop eating a sandwich—I think it was turkey. He's pleasant and non-threatening and dressed like a substitute teacher, proving the adage (Chuck might've coined it) that in Portland, you can rarely tell who's important by the clothes they wear. He tells me that people are always disappointed when they meet him, that he "see[s] that disappointment on face after face. People expect someone much more dramatic... Tyler Durden or Charles Manson." He's undoubtedly had this conversation with 100 reporters before me, but he's courteous and friendly, and I have to admit I'm a little bit relieved.
Chuck's got a new book out, Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, about time travel, love, and rabies. It's structured as a series of interviews about Buster "Rant" Casey, a mysterious figure who is either a mass murderer or a time-traveling revolutionary, depending on which "source" you believe. Each character has a distinct voice, and a distinct perspective on the elusive Rant.
"It's apostolic fiction... like The Great Gatsby, where an apostle talks about a great person who is now absent," Palahniuk tells me. "Each character knows something. None of them can tell the compete story, but [the story] naturally evolves from character to character."
The book is a mixed bag, a satisfying, character-driven build that culminates in an ending that feels rushed and overcomplicated. The book's ending makes more sense, though, when Chuck tells me that Rant is actually the first book in a three-part series.
But fans of Rant will have to wait: Chuck is going to alternate writing the next books in the trilogy—which so far is weightier and less sensational than his previous efforts—with writing two more of the "really short, really funny, really dirty" books for which he is best known.
This brings us to one of Palahniuk's most infamous works—it doesn't get much funnier, or dirtier, than "Guts," a short story about masturbation gone horribly wrong. When you hear about people fainting at Chuck's readings, it's probably because of this story, which is virtually impossible to read without cringing (try it, I dare you; it's in the collection Haunted, and all over the internet). He's pleased by the response the story elicits—not only the fainting, but also that reading it often prompts his audience members to tell him dirty little stories of their own.
Don't be surprised, though, if your secrets turn up again in his work. Palahniuk has said in other interviews that his writing technique is based largely on reorganizing other people's anecdotes and ideas.
Palahniuk honed his writing skills in Tom Spanbauer's now-legendary Dangerous Writing workshops, which he joined in 1991—five years before the breakout success of Fight Club. He says he would've given up on writing altogether, had he not found Spanbauer's workshops and realized that he could "have a social life and still write."
In light of this, Chuck P.'s plans for the future make a lot of sense: He recently purchased a plot of land near the Columbia Gorge, a former Seventh-Day Adventist retreat that he plans to convert into a writers' retreat where authors can live, stay, and teach.
He also told me that while he currently commutes between Portland and New York, he's planning on selling his Portland house soon. Here's hoping that this writers' colony will materialize, so it'll keep Chuck around and we can continue to claim him as one of our most interesting, iconoclastic (and, as turns out, non-threatening!) authors.
Chuck Palahniuk will be reading from Rant on Wednesday, May 2 at the Bagdad Theater, 7 pm, $24.95 (includes a copy of the book).