Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with writer Chuck Palahniuk (@chuckpalahniuk). Chuck has published twenty-three national and international best-selling books. These include fifteen prose novels, a collection of short stories, two graphic novels, two coloring books, a travel guide, a collection of essays, and a memoir about his life as a writer. He was raised in a desert town with a population of three hundred at the time of his birth in 1962. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon.
Palahniuk is best known for his novels Fight Club and Choke, both of which were made into films. Publication of his short story Guts in the Sunday Guardian prompted a sharp drop in circulation. He frequently contributed fiction to Playboy, where his stories Romance, Cannibal, and Zombie had to be personally approved by Hugh Hefner. His new book, The Invention of Sound, is coming out on September 8th.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors.
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO: You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED: No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and gents. This is Tim Ferriss, and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job to deconstruct world-class performers from all different walks of life. My guest today is none other than writer Chuck Palahniuk. Chuck has published 23 national and international bestselling books. Give me a second to pick my broken self-esteem off the floor. These include 15 prose novels, a collection of short stories, two graphic novels, two coloring books, a travel guide, a collection of essays, and a memoir about his life as a writer, which I highly, highly recommend.
He was raised in a desert town with a population of 300 at the time of his birth in 1962. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Oregon. Palahniuk is best known for his novels Fight Club and Choke, both of which were made into films. Publication of his short story Guts in The Sunday Guardian prompted a sharp drop in circulation. He frequently contributed fiction to Playboy, where stories Romance, Cannibal, and Zombie had to be personally approved by Hugh Hefner. His new book The Invention of Sound comes out on September 8th, you can find him on the Web, chuckpalahniuk.net on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram also all under the handle of Chuck Palahniuk. Chuck, welcome to the show.
Chuck Palahniuk: Hey, thank you very much, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: And I want to start with a few questions about the bio. Specifically, Guts in The Sunday Guardian. Why did that prompt a sharp drop in circulation?
Chuck Palahniuk: You know, I’d always been fascinated by the fact that when Shirley Jackson published The Lottery in The New Yorker, The New Yorker lost something like 500 subscribers, people who were so offended by that story. And I always thought, what would it take these days for a story to offend people that much that they would actually cancel subscriptions? And I ended up becoming acquaintances with Shirley Jackson’s daughter, who sent me a big chunk of Shirley’s cremains, her burned up remains.
And so, having Shirley’s ashes in my house, I just had to write a story that would be as offensive as The Lottery was, and Playboy published it. Originally had turned it down, but then the editor Chris Napolitano came to an event and saw people faint while I was reading Guts, so he had to buy it. And then in England, The Guardian had to buy it. They ran it in their Sunday literary supplement. And they later reported to me that a huge number of their subscribers had canceled after that was published.
Tim Ferriss: What was it about Guts? What was it in the narrative or the content that caused people to faint, and caused them to unsubscribe?
Chuck Palahniuk: A doctor in Cambridge witnessed a bunch of people faint. And he explained to me that watching the way that their heads fell to one side was a classic form of hyperventilation, that they laughed so much through the first part of the story that their blood became, what’s it? It’s alkaline, typically, and then it becomes acid once it’s over-oxygenated. But whatever it made the shift and in religious cults where they make you sing or chant a lot, the purpose of that is to hyperventilate, so that you’re really susceptible to passing out that’s why you have people passing out in very fundamentalist religious ceremonies.
And so by having people laugh so much during the first part of the story, once the true nature of the story is revealed, then people are physiologically set up to faint. And the doctor explains how their head falls to one side. And then in order to open their airway, their body has to fall to the floor. And so that’s what was happening. People were laughing, they were shocked, they fell to the floor.
Tim Ferriss: What was the motivation or the itch that needed to be scratched in this particular instance? Was it just the challenge of seeing if you could accomplish such a feat of sort of, almost stage magic with reading? Was it morbid curiosity? What was it?
Chuck Palahniuk: It really started with, I had two anecdotes, and they were so similar. And I knew I couldn’t do anything with two anecdotes. It was like writing a song with two verses. You really need a third verse and you need a bridge. And so I had an anecdote about a friend of mine in college, who had been in the Marines and stationed in the Middle East, and he got very stoned in college and called me from the hospital and said that he had tried this princess wand trick that he had learned in the Middle East or he’d witnessed these long brass rods that men would insert in their urethra while they masturbated. So he tried to do it with a long drip of wax from a candle. And he ended up in the hospital, and he ended up hugely in debt and dropping out of college.
And then I tied that to an anecdote that I had heard about a friend who wanted to try pegging as an adolescent and had bought a carrot but then was too embarrassed to buy a carrot and Vaseline so he bought all the ingredients for a carrot cake and Vaseline. And I had these two great anecdotes that were funny, and heartbreaking, and visceral. And it wasn’t until I was doing research for my book Choke that a sexaholic in a sexaholics support group was explaining to me that he has always been 135 pounds, because he had to have a radical bowel resection. And I asked him why? And he explained this horrible swimming pool story. And I realized I had the third anecdote, that I had the third verse for what would be kind of a song that would ultimately make people faint. But that some people have come to me and they’ve told me that it is the saddest story they have ever read in their lives. And that’s always the goal is to make people laugh and then to really break their heart.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve read from you a lesson and this is a lesson from Consider This, your book, which I’m going to read. This is something that was in Publishers Weekly. And you can feel free to of course correct this but I think it perhaps connects to what you’re saying, or at least I’ll make that attempt. Here it is: “If you’re going to work on something as long as a novel, it has to explore some unresolved aspect of you, so that even if it never sells, never makes any money, never gets any attention, you still have a therapeutic benefit of fully exploring and exhausting that unresolved part of you.” So you talked about making people laugh and then breaking their hearts. When you write a shorter piece, is there some desired impact or process that you want for yourself in writing that or is it dissimilar from novels?
Chuck Palahniuk: A shorter piece is about exploring an idea, but a shorter piece is really a fantastic opportunity to mess with a language. To really do an experiment in restructuring information. And the original short story that became Fight Club, it became chapter six in Fight Club was just because I wanted to do a story in which the transitions were rules. I wanted to use rules as a kind of chorus, a nonfiction transitional device that would allow me to cut together different aspects of the story like I was cutting film. I could jump around temporally, I could jump around whether I was in scene or in sort of observation, as long as I came back to the rules.
So a short story is really an experiment in how to completely reinvent structuring a story. And what the story is about is always kind of a secondary thing.
Tim Ferriss: So speaking of rules, if I’m going to try to spin a bridge to someone I want to ask you about. Could you speak to how you learn to write and specifically, the name that pops to mind for me is or maybe it’s developed your style is a better way to put it, but you could put it in context: Tom Spanbauer. Could you explain to people who Tom was?
Chuck Palahniuk: Tom was, effectively, my second writing teacher. My first writing teacher was a very nice workshop led by a writer named Andrea Carlisle, who eventually came to me and said that my work was so upsetting to the other writers who are all very nice, middle-aged people. And I was this crazy 25-year-old and the other students no longer really felt safe around me. And so she was asking me to leave the workshop.
But she’s good. A man named Tom Spanbauer had just moved to Portland from New York where he studied at Columbia, with a famous editor named Gordon Lish. And Gordon Lish is famous for a lot of things, including being Raymond Carver’s editor, being a famous cut-off editor, fiction editor, Esquire, running a magazine called The Quarterly and really sort of developing a style called minimalism. And a school of writers who were very popular at the time, who were known as the minimalists. And so Tom had moved to Portland, and he was more or less teaching Gordon Lish’s minimalism in a workshop. And that’s where I got my real, real education.
Tim Ferriss: Could you describe that education? What were some of the highlights or formative inputs in that education?
Chuck Palahniuk: There are so many rules. And as a writer, you go into writing without rules, and you tend to just write in these default ways that you’ve always thought a story should be. But then Tom and Gordon come in and they say, “You may not use thought verbs. You have to externalize everything the way an actor would. So that the thought, the realization, the epiphany occurs within the reader. You can’t dictate emotion like that.”
Tim Ferriss: And by that, you mean for instance, you wouldn’t use verbs like he — wonder or think?
Chuck Palahniuk: Or realized, or believed, or, yeah, you can’t even use love. It’s about staying away from abstractions. You can’t use one inch or you can’t use “It was 100-degree day.” You can’t say “He was a six-foot-tall man.” You have to stay away from all abstractions because a six-foot-tall man is somebody different to everyone who meets him. And so, when your character says he was six feet tall, you’re losing an incredible chance of describing giving to the reader, how the character perceives a six-foot-tall man.
Tim Ferriss: Does practicing that type of writing with that specific constraint change your everyday perception of reality at all? In the sense that having taken a fair number of different compounds in my life, when you dissociate from labels or you lose labels, perception can change. And I don’t want to force this narrative on you, but did that affect how you walked about in the world experiencing things when you disallowed yourself from using those types of abstractions?
Chuck Palahniuk: It made me really listening for how other people describe things. Because typically when people are talking, they don’t use abstractions when they’re telling a story. They are using a much more intuitive way of describing things that is really linked to their experience. And that’s what you’re listening for. The way that the people describe things in what Gordon Lish would call burnt tongue, this kind of inexact, awkward, inelegant way of saying something that says it in a new fresh way, but also implies the emotion behind the story.
A story that’s told really beautifully and smoothly and elegantly does not carry a lot of honesty or emotion, doesn’t imply the kind of stress that’s behind the story. So you’re looking for ways of kind of reinventing storytelling and reinventing reading so that readers have that fantastic excitement that you first had in first or second grade, once you figured it out, and you could follow these symbols. You want to not just tell a story, you want to completely reinvent the act of reading every single time.
Tim Ferriss: I’m looking at some notes in front of me, and as I always do, and there’s a term here, dangerous writing, and it’s part of a line, or I should say a series of lines with methods for staying intact. Could you speak to, first and foremost, the definition of dangerous writing and go from there?
Chuck Palahniuk: Well, here’s an example. My parents fought like animals. My parents fought like crazy. And so, so much of my childhood and siblings’ childhood was about maintaining peace. We would play Henry Kissinger, where we would hide in the basement. And once Mom and Dad, once the fighting had reached this huge crescendo, one of us would be chosen to hurt themselves. So that a bleeding child, or a child with a broken bone, suddenly had to be dealt with and my parents couldn’t fight anymore.
So we played this game of being Henry Kissinger, to calm the waters, to kind of redirect all of their anxiety. And so I really could not be with conflict. So I wrote the book Fight Club, which is all about this consensual, structured, controlled way of experiencing and exploring conflict and violence like you would dance, that could allow everybody who had problems with conflict to kind of put their toe in the water and kind of experience conflict and develop an ability to be with it, but be less reactive to it. And so dangerous writing is effectively about taking an idea, something that is unresolved and threatening to you, and blowing it up and exploring it and making it worse than you ever imagined it could be. And in doing so, really exhausting your emotional reaction to it. And typically, that makes the problem itself go away entirely.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any other examples of that that you could give? I mean this seems like an incredibly powerful therapeutic tool, possibly, right? So speaking personally as someone who is hyper-reactive to certain things, whether from your own experience or that of others you’ve described this too. Could you illustrate any other examples of how this might apply? To exhausting that emotional reactivity.
Chuck Palahniuk: Well, let’s talk about somebody else. Let’s talk about Ira Levin, who is always a hero of mine. He wrote Rosemary’s Baby at a time when women were being given thalidomide and being told, “Take this, it will calm you down.” And women were just controlled and kind of forced to do whatever the obstetrician said to do. And regardless of what they were worried about, their concerns were dismissed.
Nobody could talk about abortion at the time. So Ira Levin writes Rosemary’s Baby, which is about a woman who was manipulated and then completely controlled by the medical services around her, and she is coerced into having this monster of a baby after everyone has assured her that everything is going to be just fine. And in doing so, Ira Levin really kind of broke open how women were able to be with the whole medical-industrial complex, and how they were able to just discuss abortion.
It was really one of the first, maybe the first mainstream movie in which abortion was openly discussed. And also in an indirect way, how thalidomide was dealt with culturally, all these kind of horrors that people just could not talk about openly, because they were too controversial and too frightening. Ira Levin gave people a metaphor that allowed them to exhaust all their feelings around these things. So that things themselves could be dealt with directly.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned a little bit earlier, or you described Fight Club and the consensual violence that it involves. And I’d love to explore a line that I’ve read of yours, which abbreviated would be resolution is death. And I’d love to read just a short bit from an interview. I think it’s an interview, yes, it is in The Guardian. And feel free to fact check, of course, but here goes. This is a portion of the quote, “If I write something that people can really argue about, that thing is going to be in the culture for ever. For example: is Fight Club good or bad? It’s consensual, but it’s violence. I’m trying to create this dazzling spectacle that’s not meant to perpetuate or generate anything, but to be a sorbet that allows you to taste the next thing. To be a little more present in the next thing.” And the interviewer asked if you wanted to see resolution and you said, “No. Especially in creative work, resolution is death.”
And what I would love to ask is how do you think about crafting, if you do, a satisfying story arc while maintaining this surface tension, of lack of resolution, if that’s a way to put it. How do you think about combining those two things or either piece?
Chuck Palahniuk: Do it the way your dog would do it. Do you got a dog?
Tim Ferriss: I do.
Chuck Palahniuk: All right, so when your dog sees a squirrel the dog falls into a trance, because the squirrel is a moving thing. And the dog will follow the verb, that motion carries its own authority. And so as long as you keep a character in action, and the action is always towards a purpose, and it’s not overthought, it’s not overanalyzed, the story will occur as really good and engaging, because action is always taking place.
And so as long as you stay in action, and you come back and you complete an unresolved thing, then there’s that sense of satisfaction. You don’t have to resolve the entire world. You just have to resolve one aspect of the world and that’s enough to give people a sense of reward. I could segue here to short stories, because I adore short stories. There’re just not enough of them. And I would argue it’s because so many publications pay by the word, so they will pay less for a fantastic short story than they will for a really flabby, 40-hundred-page-long, long story.
Tim Ferriss: Do you think there’s a way to fix that? Is there a simple solution where someone could somehow create incentives for that to be different?
Chuck Palahniuk: You know what I’d like to see?
Tim Ferriss: What would you —
Chuck Palahniuk: Is I’d like to see more spoken word stories. If you had a program of stories, because what are — stories weren’t always written down, stories were originally something that was told by somebody, to an audience. And those are the stories that you really crave, those stories you heard around the campfire, when you were a kid that really scared the pants off of you. Where they were the stories you heard in the barbershop that made you really laugh.
And so if you adhere to that kind of oral storytelling model, you could never go long, long. And so, in a way, I would like to see more stories told out loud, because it automatically limits how long they can be.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, there’s an in-built central governor, which is the vocal cords and memory and so especially if it’s truthful, especially if it’s a true story, although it wouldn’t have to be. Can you think of any other parameters if you were setting up this experiment? Any other restrictions or prerequisites that would go into people who would be getting up to tell these stories?
Chuck Palahniuk: The other kind of failsafe device that’s built-in, is as a teller of stories, you know when you’re dying, you know when that story is just not landing, you can tell whether the room is engaged, you can tell from the silence in the room, you can tell from the emotional reactions from people. Right now I’m still trying to conduct my writers workshop, and we’re doing it on Zoom and it is death. Because as you read your work on Zoom, you’re not getting the ongoing, the laughter, the groans, the inhales, the fantastic silence of terror. You’re not getting any emotional feedback. So it feels like you are failing for 30 or 40 minutes. And if you were in front of an audience, you would know at what point you had gone way too long, and that your story was failed.
Tim Ferriss: Would there be an upper limit? Would you say 10-minute max, 15, 20, 30 or would it be up to each presenter, each storyteller better put?
Chuck Palahniuk: Andy Warhol would say “Art is whatever you can get away with.” [Ed. Note: Though Marshall McLuhan said it first.] I have heard 40-minute, hour-long stories that felt like 10 minutes. Same goes for movies, anything, the idea is to keep people engaged on such an intense level that they lose track of time, they are so completely involved in the story. And so time doesn’t really matter as long as people’s butts don’t hurt and as long as they stay really deeply immersed in the story.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk about engaging the room. And I do agree that Zoom is death, right? You can’t hear people shuffling papers out of boredom, or distraction? It’s the cues, aren’t there, the feedback isn’t there. What are some of your methods for engaging the audience? And when is it important to you to engage the audience?
Chuck Palahniuk: You know, I would argue that right from the get-go, from the first sentence, you’ve got to engage the audience. And that goes back to journalism, that your lead has to be really strong, your lead has to raise a question, has to tease something. So, and if not your lead, then at least your first paragraph has to really hook the audience. It has to make them want to read the next sentence or the next paragraph. And beyond that really is about staying very visceral or on the body as Tom would teach it, that you involve a constant awareness of physicality, so that you’re enrolling the reader on a physical level, not just an emotional or intellectual level, but you have the readers entire body is in the story. And that’s why so many of my stories really involve either sex, or violence, or illness, or drugs, about something that heightens the physical awareness of the characters.
Tim Ferriss: What other approaches, whether a craft, or trickery, or perhaps often the same thing have you used or seen as being effective for engaging the audience?
Chuck Palahniuk: You might want to edit out some silence here because I really got to think. There’s just so many little tricks. One is just to constantly be changing the texture to find some way that you can shift from first-person, to third-person, to second-person. The way that people tell a joke conversationally. And to deliver the story in broken down, articulated bits that will assemble themselves in the reader’s mind without a lot of connective tissue, without a lot of transitional phrasing.
This is why I love the work of Amy Hempel so much is in stories like in the cemetery where Al Jolson is buried. She basically presents a list of fantastic details without any kind of transitional narrative linking them together. And the list of details piles up in your mind, like an attorney presenting bits of evidence in court. And at the end, she doesn’t dictate an emotional state, but she forces the reader to have that emotional reaction that her narrator is not having. And by the end of that story, you find yourself weeping so hard, and you don’t know why you’re weeping so hard, because you haven’t been told this is the sad part, this is where you should cry.
But she has so burdened you with what seemed like innocuous moments that you have no other reaction except for to have the emotional reaction that her character’s not having. I could go on and on. There’s so many little tricks.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, please go on and on. That’s why this isn’t a five-minute morning TV show. We have the runway.
Chuck Palahniuk: Yeah. Another kind of core thing in minimalism is that you keep going, you keep saying the same thing over and over. I finally got minimalism one day, I left Spanbauer’s workshop, I went home, I turned on television, there was a commercial for Skipper’s Seafood. And the commercial was just a montage of images. It was the signage, it was the paper cups, it was the napkins. It was people at a table smiling and happy with Skipper’s badging all around them. It was people in uniforms with Skipper’s badging.
And every single one of these images, even though they were all different images, they all basically said the same thing. And at no point did they insert, say, a horse running in the surf. There were no unrelated aspects. It was all saying Skipper’s Seafood over and over. And so in minimalism, you look for as many different ways as possible to say the same thing over and over and over.
Tim Ferriss: So I’m going off notes here, but I’m going to throw out a few prompts. What about making intentional mistakes?
Chuck Palahniuk: I love making intentional mistakes. Oh, my gosh. What is the first thing that Scarlett O’Hara says in Gone with the Wind?
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to fail my lit class here; I will have to defer to you.
Chuck Palahniuk: She says, “War, war, war. All this talk of war is spoiling all the barbecues. There is not going to be a war.” And as soon as she says there is not going to be a war, we are on board. We are thinking, “You poor, privileged little thing. There is going to be a war and it is going to completely kick your ass, and it is going to destroy your little world.” But because she said the wrong thing, she makes the audience smarter and she makes the audience sympathetic with her. And Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby, we know that she’s been knocked up by the devil, but she doesn’t know. And the fact that she doesn’t know makes us really root for her.
So, when you have a character who’s making an ongoing mistake, you keep the audience really engaged because the audience feels superior, doesn’t resent the character, and wants to see the character come to enlightenment. But there is a kind of condescending sympathy and nurturing that the audience feels for a character who is making a constant mistake. Also, I love doing this, I love going to a literary party and saying, “Robert Benchley, what a fantastic career that man had. He founded The New Yorker, and then so much later in life, he wrote the book Jaws, and wow, what a fantastic span of a career.”
And there’ll be a long silence and all these smart people will look at me. And then finally someone will say, “No, Peter Benchley wrote Jaws. And that was Robert Benchley’s son.” And they’ll all feel so superior and so smart. And they get such a rush. When you allow people to be smart like that, it’s like they’ve won a game show. And it’s not — they might feel a little less respectful of you. But what’s important is that you’ve made them feel really good. They’ve got those chemicals going at that point, and you can really start to jerk them around.
Tim Ferriss: So I naturally have to ask: what particular flavors of jerking such people around do you enjoy?
Chuck Palahniuk: I really love to tell people that Sylvia Plath was a racist. She really was, she was totally a racist because she wrote The Bell Curve. No, she wrote The Bell Jar. And everybody at the party will look at you puzzled for a moment, and then go, “No, you’re such an idiot. She wrote The Bell Jar.” And I’m like, “What?” And so it’s just terrific to troll people like that, it validates their education.
The way that game shows, when you’re sitting and you’re yelling at Jeopardy, and you get it right and they get it wrong, you feel so pompous. And it’s always about making the audience, giving the audience a win, giving the audience an ongoing series of wins and that’s a big thing in minimalism. Is it you never want to tell them what is what until they figure it out first. And going back to this short story Guts, where the character is so sure that there is some kind of a snake has come out of the bottom of their pool and the snake has a hold of him. The audience realizes what the snake is before the narrator does. And that forces the audience to have this enormous cognitive reframing, and to face the horror all alone without being told what the horror is.
In a way, we kind of figure out what’s in the box at the end of Seven before Brad Pitt, and that makes us smarter and more horrified and we’re forced to carry the horror before Brad Pitt is allowed the horror.
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to make a hard left-turn, since it is my nature to enjoy nonsequiturs. I’d like to discuss Lewis Hyde. I believe you have something to say or things to say about Lewis Hyde. And I’m also curious to know is this the same Lewis Hyde, who has written quite a few books, including one of my favorites, which is Trickster Makes This World, which is a book really about the disruptive side of human imagination as embodied in trickster mythology? Is this one and the same Lewis Hyde?
Chuck Palahniuk: Yeah, I love that book. I think that was his first book.
Tim Ferriss: It’s spectacular. And it’s fucking long, just so people know what they’re signing up for if they get it on Kindle or something, it’s 630-some-odd pages, but it’s fantastic. What would you like to say about Lewis Hyde?
Chuck Palahniuk: Oh, geez. There’s so much of Lewis Hyde that has been so useful for me because he approaches things cross-culturally. And so you don’t just hear about North American trickster culture with Coyote or Raven, you hear about Loki, North American trickster culture, you hear about Mediterranean trickster culture. You hear how all these cultures have this kind of chaos character, which is what I was writing when I was writing Tyler Durden. And so seeing how your character falls into this ancient tradition of these archetypes is so important because it allows you to really write accurately and effectively, exactly the character that you’re writing and get the effect that you’re going for. You realize you’re not kind of inventing something entirely new. You’re reinventing something really ancient. And there’s a wonderful joy in that.
I wrote a short story called Phoenix, which was about a woman on a business trip. And she kept on calling home and her small daughter would not speak to her. And she kept on trying to get her husband to coerce her daughter into saying hi, because she had started to fantasize that perhaps her daughter might be ill or in the hospital, or might have even been killed, and that the husband, the father, does not want to admit that to her over the phone. So she, it all escalates, until she tells her husband, “Okay, you get a pin from my sewing basket, and you stick it in our daughter, you stick it in Rachel, and you make Rachel scream. And if I don’t hear Rachel scream, I’m calling the police. And they’re going to be at the house. And I’m going to tell them that you sexually abused Rachel, and you’re going to prison. So either you stick a pin in Rachel or I’ll tell people that you stuck something else in Rachel.” And the story works so well. It escalates this completely horrific no-win situation.
And when I was done with it, I realized I was rewriting Isaac and Abraham. It’s God saying, “Prove how much you love me by stabbing a knife in your kid.” And with Lewis Hyde, he helps you identify the archetype that you’re writing to. So that you can really fulfill that expectation. Because if you get that expectation a tiny bit wrong, then on some level, the reader is not going to be really satisfied with it. Stephen King has written about when you’re writing, in a way you’re excavating some ancient, enormous buried thing, and you’re trying to excavate it as intactly as possible, without breaking off any piece of it, without leaving any of it sort of obscured with dirt.
And the more you understand about this ancient thing, the better you’re reproducing it in its fullness. And so Lewis Hyde helps with that. Boy, I could go on and on about — oh, boy. The other aspect of Lewis Hyde that I’m really fascinated with is in his book The Gift, he writes a great deal about how, according to the Greek and Roman tradition, each of us is born with effectively a guardian angel. But it’s more along the lines of a guide that represents our fullest potential. And this guide wants to see us reach our fullest potential, our greatest form of power. And the ancient Greeks and the Romans, they would make a sacrifice on their birthday to this, whether they called it their genius, or their daemon, or their genie.
Lewis Hyde’s example as the elves and the shoemaker, that when the shoemaker is really at a low ebb, the elves arrive and begin to make these fantastic shoes for him. And when the shoemaker finally gives a gift to them, then they’re freed from their bondage, and they leave his life, but they leave this life transformed. And according to this ancient Greek and Roman idea is that if you fulfill your potential, if you sacrifice and you develop your skills, that are kind of your destiny, according to this, this potential you’re born with then you free that guardian spirit, so that that guardian spirit can move on to another level.
In effect, you are freeing the genie from the bottle. And if you do it wrong, the genie has to go back into the bottle. According to the Greeks and the Romans, if you did it wrong, then the genie, the daemon, the genius becomes a malevolent household spirit that will destroy you and destroy your home. And how many of us kind of know a creative person who just didn’t follow through with it, and ended up drinking, and doing drugs, and kind of destroying their lives, because they didn’t have the whatever to really pursue the passion that should have been their destiny? But Lewis Hyde writes about that very effectively.
Tim Ferriss: Have you in your own life ever experienced the consequences of not fulfilling your destiny to your daemon, so to speak? I mean, have you suffered the consequences of neglecting that directional impulse?
Chuck Palahniuk: Only every time I’m between a book. I am emotional and reactionary, and getting drunk, and taking Ambien, and calling my few friends in the middle of the night and saying, “What do you mean by that?” And I’m picking fights. And I am just totally trashing my life. Somebody will say, “You’re not writing right now, are you?” And that’s exactly it. Because when I’m writing, all of that negative, all that anxiety goes into the work and my life is so peaceful and so productive.
But when I’m not writing, and also when I’m writing, there’s this sense I’ve talked to other writers who write and musicians. And they say that when you’re really deep in a project, there is a sense that you’re so protected and so embraced by something that nothing bad can happen to you. You really feel like you’re just completely protected when you’re in the creative act. And when you’re not, you’re just completely anxious.
Tim Ferriss: You seem to be a real student of mythology. And I’d like to ask you at least two things about that. The first is, do you find some solace in mythology? Is it reassuring in some way? And second, could you speak to Joseph Campbell’s theory of the second father?
Chuck Palahniuk: Boy the, a million years ago, I did not have television all through college and then all through the ’90s and someone taped the Joseph Campbell PBS lecture series. Bill —
Tim Ferriss: The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers.
Chuck Palahniuk: Yes, exactly.
Tim Ferriss: Spectacular, yeah.
Chuck Palahniuk: And up to that point, I had looked at black street gangs, and thought these guys are idiots. It’s so destructive, so negative, and so without purpose. And then Joseph Campbell mentioned the secondary father. And he said, what’s going on in black street gangs is that they’re getting the secondary father in terms of being given tasks, being given challenges, being given roles, and being given this opportunity to kind of distinguish themselves and to grow their skills in what are more or less illegal ways, but there’s still ways of developing the individual so that the individual will eventually rise out of that gang and live a productive life in some other way.
But the problem is that more and more people who used to be the secondary fathers in our culture, and these are, say military drill sergeants, or religious leaders, or teachers, or coaches are becoming stigmatized, and they are no longer kind of — they are no longer revered figures in the culture, blame it on a lot of things on sexual abuse, on whatever. But all these secondary fathers are disappearing. And they’re important for both men and women. So without them, what happens? Street gangs happen. And so I don’t think we can complain about street gangs unless the secondary father is available in some other form.
Tim Ferriss: Does anything outside of being immersed in a writing project make you feel protected or at ease if you share the same sentiment as your other writing friends that brought this to the surface in conversation?
Chuck Palahniuk: No, you know, I could lie, I would lie. I would lie. And I would say Vicodin. Yeah, find me some Vicodin and I’ll be a happy camper. Then no, that’s an artificial sense of safety and security.
No, the only time is when I feel like I’m fulfilling some kind of destiny, and I feel like I’ve kind of lost myself and I’ve become a conduit for something deeper and more important than myself. And so often, it puts me into conversation with other people because I tell them what I’m working on, and I am so constantly looking for different ways of reinventing Skipper’s Seafood over and over in a book. And so I need to take the topic to every single person. And I need to see if it resonates with them. That’s what we do at parties. Is that you go to a party and the story you tell, if it shuts the room down and everyone’s quiet, that’s not necessarily a great story. But if the room erupts with everyone having a different version of that same story, that all starts with, “Oh my gosh, the same thing happened to me, only bigger,” then that’s a good story.
And so if you take your topic to other people, and it resonates with each of them enough that they can sort of tell their experience of it. And they can also tell you whether or not it’s already been exploited in commercial culture. They can say, “Oh, I saw that in a movie.” So you’re testing whether people engage with it, you are expanding it using other people’s experience and you’re also making sure that it wasn’t already explored to some other sort of commercial narrative.
Tim Ferriss: How old were you, if you recall, when you began writing and finished Fight Club?
Chuck Palahniuk: Just a little aside. Doug Coupland, the guy who wrote Generation X, is a friend of mine. And reading Generation X was kind of an epiphany for me. It was such a unique, fantastic book. And it was a book I read before I really started to write. But Doug Coupland told me that he had just read a bunch of brain studies that showed that the last sort of physiological, physical changes in the human brain occur around the age of 31. So that it’s at the age of 31 that people, for the very first time, can combine their experience with their education and create something that is greater than just the sum of the two.
So it tends to be between the age of 31 and typically 33 that people who have studied in a field, create their breakthrough, or create their masterpiece. The proof of their competence. And so it really was at the age of 33 that I wrote Fight Club, but I very much, I started writing it more or less when I was 31 and finished it at 33. Another interesting aspect of that brain study is that the study shows that for the rest of people’s lives, no matter how old they get, if you ask them “How old do you feel?” Almost everyone will say, “You know, I feel like I’m, I always feel like I’m 31.” That really is a formative period between 31 and 33.
Tim Ferriss: When they were reborn in their full feature set at 31. That’s wild. How can or how does narrative generate social change?
Chuck Palahniuk: I’ve always hated narrative that tries to dictate social change. And I’ve always felt that the most effective way that it could generate social change is creating and presenting an alternative that is so attractive that it makes people just readily abandon what they were doing before.
And my favorite examples are here in the Pacific Northwest. We had this huge problem with beavers; beavers are choking all the waterways with two downed trees, that beavers have become a fantastically dense pest. But 100 years ago, beavers were almost extinct, because the Hudson Bay Company had come in and set up all these trapping forts and these ways of buying beaver pelts. Because beaver was the fur for hats. Everyone wanted a beaver hat. And so beaver was being driven to extinction for beaver skin hats.
And it wasn’t people protesting, it wasn’t people chaining themselves to trees. It wasn’t anything like that that saved the beavers. It was the British creating the silk top hat. And silk hats suddenly became the fashion. And something that seems as silly as fashion, saved beavers because suddenly nobody wanted old fashioned beaver hats. They wanted silk top hats. And suddenly beaver had no value whatsoever as a commodity. And so suddenly, beavers were left unmolested for 100 years, and now, beavers are everywhere.
Now, I love that story because people think that the arts don’t really create social change. But when they change the narrative, when they just change what people perceive as valuable, or high status, then they naturally get people to change without having to browbeat people, or legislate change. Another sort of odd example, my Italian editor Eduardo told me years ago how the Italian fur industry back in the ’90s was doing really well. Fur was very popular with wealthy and celebrity Italians. But they decided they really wanted to grow the fur market. So the fur industry decided that they would finance furs, so that middle-class and even lower-class people could buy fur, minks, chinchillas, coats, whatever. They could buy them on installments like you would buy a house or a car.
And tons of lower-class people bought tons of fur. And for a brief moment, the fur market exploded in Italy. But then the rich people saw all the poor people wearing fur, and the rich people thought, “No, fur is no longer a status indicator.” So they dropped fur, and the celebrities dropped fur. And suddenly the poor people saw that the rich people didn’t wear fur anymore. And the poor people dropped fur. And the Italian fur industry has never really recovered from that. And it’s not because somebody said “Fur’s evil!” and threw a bloody raccoon at The Devil Wears Prada, at Anna Wintour. It wasn’t because of any kind of political thing, it was because the narrative changed. And it changed in that kind of inadvertent, accidental way. And I think that’s what really good writing or really good storytelling does.
Tim Ferriss: It makes me think, I’ve never heard that example before, that story. It makes me think about what some people, maybe in New York, would describe as flying rats: pigeons. Pigeons started off in a sense as display birds of the aristocracy, and they got out. Turns out they multiply very well. And now they’re thought of as trash birds. They’re actually very beautiful, they’re beautiful, beautiful birds. But all it takes is releasing, whether it’s birds or ideas, sometimes into the wild, to change the narrative. Are there any other examples that come to mind?
Chuck Palahniuk: Oh, my gosh, you know, there’s some speculative examples. And they’re not actual examples. But when you change the listening, how it really kind of skews how people perceive things. Let me think. Nowadays, whenever I see, like, a middle-aged guy walking down the street with a really pretty little girl, I think, “I wonder how they met.” I go to that Jeffrey Epstein place instead of seeing a father and a daughter.
Tim Ferriss: Hmm.
Chuck Palahniuk: And that Jeffrey Epstein thing has just totally tainted how I see an older man and a younger woman together. And so that’s one example of how when the listening changes, it sort of taints everything like pigeons. Another example is The Wizard of Oz. Somebody pointed out that Dorothy gets back home by clicking her heels together. And that’s a movie that was released in 1939 when clicking your heels together was a really Nazi thing. So is Wizard of Oz actually kind of a white supremacist movie? All this heel-clicking, all this, I don’t know, suddenly the optics are really bad on The Wizard of Oz. So it just takes these really small things to shift the perspective.
Tim Ferriss: Have you ever thought — now, I don’t mean to imply doing it very on the nose in a direct way. If I’m remembering correctly, you said you dislike when art or narrative in the form of art tries to directly catalyze social change; feel free to correct me. But have you ever used narrative to obliquely, indirectly, surreptitiously generate social change or in hopes of doing so?
Chuck Palahniuk: If I’ve done it, it was just to kind of raise an awareness. In my book Beautiful You, which is about these sex toys that are so effective that they basically take over the world. The book was started because I was a little appalled seeing that the Trojan Twister, advertised so openly during primetime television. And I thought it was just fascinating that what used to be very personal, interpersonal interactions, were being so commodified. We don’t know how to say we love each other. So there’s aisles and aisles of cards that will say it for us. And there’s always recording artists that will express our love for us.
And people are kind of losing all of these really intimate ways of connecting and expressing because they can buy something that they feel is better than they could do themselves. And Beautiful You was very much about talking about this commodification of the personal and how ultimately that takes away our ability to express anything, and we lose all control. So sometimes I am a little dogmatic.
Tim Ferriss: This is going to be an ill-formed question, but I’ll make an attempt anyway. And this is, of course, a leading question that is full of assumptions, but what is it that draws you to cults? And are we in the moment of cult?
Chuck Palahniuk: You know, there’s a lot of talk right now that —
Tim Ferriss: We could use different labels, but I’ll let you take it where you may.
Chuck Palahniuk: I wouldn’t even say cults as much as I would say social models. I’m always fascinated by different social models. The kind of games that people invent for how to conduct their lives, that somebody has created all these rules, and everyone has agreed to play by these rules. And I find that fascinating, because it is an acceptance that it is a consensual sort of behavior, mutually agreed upon set of behaviors that are going to define our culture and make it work.
One aspect is, I love the work of Victor Turner, who is a British sort of cultural anthropologist, because he identified, like Lewis Hyde, all these liminal and liminoid rituals that people do. And one, liminoid rituals are when people get together in a mutually sort of agreed-upon situation, like whether it’s Burning Man in the desert, or it’s Occupy Wall Street. But they get together with a sense of communitas where the social hierarchy is flattened, everyone is equal. And they kind of experiment to see if they can come up with a different way of being together. Experiment with fashion, they experiment with food, with just how to conduct themselves with each other, and how to manage themselves. And they also experiment with their identities. And so people go to Burning Man, and they’re not who they are in the rest of the world. They’re a unique Burning Man person for that one week.
And so, ideally, if those experiments are successful, they get adopted into the culture and they become the new institutions. And years ago, before I started writing, I got wrapped up in the Cacophony Society, which was about nothing but creating these kind of experiential social experiments like Burning Man-like Santa’s Rampage, and most of which did not work. They just fell down, they were horrible failures, but some of which have become huge, celebrated things like The Naked Bike Ride, and Santa Rampage, and Burning Man.
Tim Ferriss: You used a word just a moment ago that I did not recognize, which is liminoid. Could you define that, please?
Chuck Palahniuk: Now, let’s start with the word liminal, which sort of comes from threshold or lentil. It’s a line that you pass over from one state of being to the next.
Tim Ferriss: As in subliminal, just etymologically it would be —
Chuck Palahniuk: Below awareness, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Below awareness, or the threshold of awareness.
Chuck Palahniuk: And liminal events happen throughout our lives. The honeymoon is held up as an archetypal liminal event that it is what divides you from being a single person to being a married person. So you are wedded in front of your community. So your whole community is seeing you wedded. But then you have to leave the community for typically three days, that the classic honeymoon is a liminal event where you leave the culture for three days. And when you come back, you are fully recognized as being husband and wife.
And you go to someplace that is outside of the culture, a resort, someplace that is not part of your everyday life. There are liminoid events; funerals are liminoid events, weddings, Halloween is a great liminoid event. Another distinction of liminoid events is that they tend to have a power hierarchy reversal in them. That at Halloween, all the people who have no power dress up as outlaws, they dress up as cowboys, or they dress up as the dead, or they cross-dress, or they cross-dress as animals. They dress as something outside of the normal. And then they go to people who do have power and property and they demand tribute from them. So the hierarchy is reversed for one night.
Halloween used to be just a major shit show. People used to tear down fences, they used to slash tires. They used to really destroy a lot of property until the 1920s when the newspapers got together with the insurance companies and the candy companies and decided to promote Halloween to change the listening like pigeons, to change it so that if you went door to door and asked for candy, people would give you candy. And that was basically just a way of saving a huge amount of insurance claims. It started in Canada, in Toronto, but it really, you know, that’s what we see as Halloween now.
Christmas was kind of the same way that Christmas carolers would go around. And caroling was a really menacing thing. Caroling meant either you come out and you give us booze or food or gold, or we will break your windows.
Tim Ferriss: They’re paid to go away.
Chuck Palahniuk: And so was Fasching, or Mardi Gras. That it was traditionally the one time when poor people could go into the church and eat their greasy food and do all these kind of outrageous things. And the clergy did kind of profane things, and it was during Fasching, it was during the period before Lent that Martin Luther nailed up his protests. So that’s why Protestant religions have never had power hierarchy reversal rituals, because that’s how they kind of came into power and they don’t want to provide that opportunity for something to go wrong again.
And extending that to liminoid, liminal events are things that happen at regular junctures in the culture. Christmas, funerals, weddings, Halloween, before Lent, Easter. But liminoid events are events that have the characteristics of liminal events. They tend to have communitas, they’re outside of the regular world. They have a social leveling of the power hierarchy, but they can occur at any time. They tend to be things that you purchase your way into like a concert, like Burning Man.
Tim Ferriss: I’d love to do a flashback and a flash-forward or a flash to present perhaps. In the process of doing homework for this conversation I came across a phrase I had never come across before, and that is kiss-off money as it relates to Fight Club. Could you please explain what this means and how it relates to Fight Club?
Chuck Palahniuk: I have such misgivings about ever having mentioned this because it really hurt my editor’s feelings. Years ago, when Fight Club was being shopped around as a manuscript, there was this really brave guy Jerry Howard at WW Norton, and Jerry wanted to acquire the book for Norton so bad. And finally he got Norton to offer $6,000 on it, which he brought to me and I was thrilled. I had no idea that $6,000 was a really small advance. And then years later, I mentioned it to another Norton author, and she said, “Oh, you accepted the ‘fuck you’ money.” And I said, “What’s that?” And she said, “If the house does not want to acquire a book, but they don’t want to alienate the editor who wants to acquire the book, they offer an advance so low that the author is supposed to say ‘Fuck you,’ and walk away.”
And I had no idea. I was young, I’d never done this before. I was working at Freightliner. So I just took the money. But then I made the mistake of repeating what this other author had told me and became part of the public record and ultimately hurt the feelings of the editor who had acquired the money for me but that’s kind of what is known — politely it’s known as kiss-off money.
Tim Ferriss: I got the Disney version. Now people, at least people of my generation, certainly think of Fight Club as this sort of cultural mainstay, I mean, this real landmark piece of narrative in marquee lights. How many copies did it sell in the first year in hardcover, would you estimate?
Chuck Palahniuk: Boy, it was dismal. They sent me on a city tour, and I never had more than one or two people at any cities. I ended up in Livermore, California, with no one. And I doubt if it sold 2,000 copies in its first year, hardcover. And even in 1999, when the movie was coming out, most of the hardcovers were still in the warehouse and they were about to be pulped, turned back into recycled paper, when someone mentioned that a movie was coming out, so they kept the hardcovers and subsequently sold them all. But it’s all tiny numbers, just really nothing numbers. It sold a little better as a paperback. But no, it was a big bomb at the beginning.
Tim Ferriss: This is going to be a lazy question, but I’ll ask it anyway, because I’m so curious having never had anything made into a movie. How would you summarize what your experience was like, going from pre-movie to say, a few years after the movie came out? How would you summarize or describe that experience? I just, I really can’t even imagine emotionally what it looked like or felt like.
Chuck Palahniuk: I could only talk about it. I always try to be as specific as possible and address maybe just one aspect of something rather than try to sort of generalize about the entire thing. And one interesting aspect that I’ve grown to appreciate is that when you do a thousand press junkets for a movie, and you’re asked the same questions over and over, it’s kind of like, the whole Buddhist concept of “Look again.” Look again, look again. And you are — it’s as if you’re being psychoanalyzed by a million strangers who have no emotional attachment to your action, to your answer. But you are still looking a little deeper and trying to reinvent the thing every time you look at it.
And so often it takes that kind of really thorough coaching before you realize what you actually wrote about, and suddenly, you can realize in the middle of some roomful of reporters, the thing, the dark, secret, horrible thing that you were actually writing about, and you can be mortified. You put this thing on the page, and then you spend the whole rest of that meeting with a smile just pinned on your face, praying that no one will ever realize what you were actually writing about. And it’s painful, but I would rather it happens eventually than never happened. Because it’s extraordinary to see how your subconscious was working that whole time.
And in a way, as you’re writing, you are trying to trick yourself to go to a place that you would never consciously go to. And at the same time, you’re trying to trick the reader to go to a place that they would never consciously go to. And to have a reaction to something that they do not want to fully recognize. And that’s kind of the glory of minimalism.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t expect an answer here. So feel free not to answer if you prefer, but what did you discover? What were you actually writing about?
Chuck Palahniuk: Oh, hell no, I’m not going to go there. No, number one, because it’s always so fantastically dark, and personal, and suppressed. Number two, I’m afraid if I ever get that specific with my intention, it will preclude the readers’ sort of interpretation. And it won’t have any power for the reader because suddenly there’ll be this correct interpretation. And if the reader doesn’t conform to that, then the reader is wrong. And again, it’s never about making the reader wrong. It’s about making the reader right and giving them a rush of being right over and over.
Tim Ferriss: Couldn’t have asked for a better answer. Thank you for that. Do you ever worry after writing something or at any point that you will write something and at some point be sitting in a meeting and you have this flash of insight about what you are actually writing about that is so dark because it plunges you headlong into some type of abyss that is difficult to climb out of?
Chuck Palahniuk: No, it’s never really as if it’s plunged into an abyss, because any kind of revelation like that is such a relief. It’s gaining access, being able to retrieve something that had been so completely lost to me that I feel a fantastic joy when even those darkest things come to the surface.
Yeah, because at least I know what I’m dealing with, and I’m no longer used by it. I’m using it. And that’s my advice to writers. The dangerous writing is that so many of these are used by aspects of our history, our past, our experience, without fully understanding them. And once we can unpack them in the seemingly innocuous world of fiction, then we can more fully look at them, and be aware of them and not be used by them.
Tim Ferriss: You have no idea how helpful that is to where I am right now. But this conversation isn’t about me. So I’ll put a pin in that. I would love to ask you about the selection of subjects. How you decide, for instance, in the case of your new book, The Invention of Sound, you could write about anything and everything. To the extent that you’re comfortable describing it, what is this new book about and how did you choose to write this book?
Chuck Palahniuk: I am always fascinated by the commodification of human things. We are so constantly finding ways of buying and selling things that have never been a commodity before. And I’d started with the idea of someone who collected human screams and in doing so, basically killed people in order to record their ultimate scream.
And when I was doing a rough draft of the story, I mentioned it to a friend and he said “Have you heard of the Wilhelm scream?” And the Wilhelm scream is a famous scream from the 1940s that’s been used in dozens of movies, hundreds of video games, cartoons, television, everything. The Wilhelm scream is everywhere. And at the same time I was writing it, a cover artist for Fight Club 3 drew a tattoo artist who was wearing a concert t-shirt for a band called [A] Wilhelm Scream. And suddenly, all these strange coincidences, the Wilhelm scream was coming to me from so many different directions, unrelated directions, that I thought, “Ah, this is all confirmation. This is what I should be working on.”
And so I would mention it to other people and they told me about the Goofy holler, they told me about the Howie scream, they told me about tape bleed. I meet with so many recording engineers doing radio shows, or doing podcasts, or doing audiobooks, and they all have some fantastic story. And so it gave me a way to kind of fish for the information from people who really know it. And then it gave me a structure for assembling it all together. And on an emotional level, it’s about a guy who is searching for his daughter, who might have been killed for one of these screams.
And this is the character I kind of go back to, the father who has killed or lost his child. I find that people engage with it really intensely. And I think I engage with it, I just realized this is a fairly safe revelation. But I don’t have kids, and I won’t have kids. And I think I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m beginning to really panic and mourn the loss of not having kids. And I can express that through writing a character whose big purpose is to find what became of his dead child or if his child was killed. So without realizing, I was expressing that aspect of myself. But I find that that character resonates with a lot of my peers who have chosen not to have kids, that character really, really hits home for them.
Tim Ferriss: Well, Chuck I got to say, man, you are incredibly fun to interview.
Chuck Palahniuk: It sounds kind of downer-ish, doesn’t it?
Tim Ferriss: No, it’s not said — I’m not saying that as a tale on what you just said. I legitimately mean that this has been a lot of fun for me. And I don’t always say that for what it’s worth. And I’ve taken copious notes as we’ve been talking for myself. And I hope this is not our last conversation, although I have no expectations of future conversations. Is there anything else that you would like to share or discuss? I feel like this has been such a densely packed, rich master class from you on a multiple number of levels that I’m feeling very complete, and hopefully, there’ll be time for a second conversation sometime. But is there anything else that you would like to say or add, comment upon, complain about?
Chuck Palahniuk: It’s funny because the more you have access to the entire sweep of your life, and in a way, every one of my books is a diary of what I was going through at that point in my life, and also kind of a diary of things that my friends were going through.
So it’s almost like a cross-peer-group diary of a group of people during that time. Each book is sourced from so many different people. And recently, I was watching the news like everybody else now is watching the looting. And just kind of appalled, people stealing stuff from Saks Fifth Avenue, people stealing stuff from downtown Portland. I mean, downtown Portland is a giant looting festival. And I remarked the same to some friends.
And one of my friends who had read my book Invisible Monsters said, “You’re one to talk. You grew up looting things.” And I realized I did. My dad worked for the railroad. And in the middle of the night, when he would get word that a train had derailed anywhere in the west, he would come home, 1, 2, 3 o’clock in the morning, and he would have us kids all get in the pickup. And we would drive for hours across deserts and mountains to wherever this train was smashed up. And our job was to steal as much as we could from the train as possible.
And so we would steal typing paper by the rims, or we would steal cases and cases of butterscotch pudding. And my mother did not approve of this. But she had read Daphne Du Maurier’s book Jamaica Inn, which was a huge book in the mid-century, and it depicted what were called the wreckers on the west coast of Ireland, people who would walk up and down beaches with lanterns and give ships the impression that there was a harbor there so that ships would crash on the rocks, and then the wreckers would loot the ships and kill any survivors. And so, Daphne Du Maurier very romanticized looting.
Okay, white people do it too, looting. And so it was delightful that my friends who had read Invisible Monsters remembered that I had looted trains as a small child. And really, my whole peer group, my whole small town would be there, everyone would be looting that train before somebody would show up to stop us. And so by writing the books, you’re able to kind of make your deepest darkest history into part of public record. So that when you do say something stupid, the whole world can call you on it. And that’s a nice kind of coaching.
Tim Ferriss: I love it. Fantastic.
Chuck Palahniuk, you can find chuckpalahniuk.net, @chuckpalahniuk on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. I’ll put all of this as well as notes and the links to everything that we discussed in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast. Chuck, what a pleasure.
Chuck Palahniuk: Hey, Tim, thank you very much.
Tim Ferriss: I really, really appreciate the time and to everybody listening, till next time, thanks for tuning in. And don’t forget Sylvia Plath, author of The Bell Curve.
Chuck Palahniuk: Bell Jar!
Tim Ferriss: I know. I’m kidding!
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 600 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.