The Zen of the Choke
Turns out the author of Fight Club, Snuff and Choke is a pretty laid back dude.
From the October 1, 2008 Philadelphia Weekly.
"So what do you teach?" Chuck Palahniuk asks me in a voice that is calm and soothing, like a psychiatrist speaking to a patient.
I fumble an awkward response, mentioning my magazine writing class at Temple and rambling about my basic journalism course with nearly 300 students.
"That's a really large class," Palahniuk acknowledges flatly - without judgment or surprise or any other reaction.
Dressed in a crisp, blue Oxford shirt and pressed, olive-colored slacks, Palahniuk actually looks like a professor. The wire-rimmed glasses accentuate the academic appearance. He carries a herringbone sportscoat folded over his right arm and a soft, red and black briefcase in his left hand. His hair is freshly trimmed and very short in the back, giving his square-jawed face a boyish look.
Palahniuk, 46, is in Philly for just 24 hours, promoting Choke, a new movie based on his novel of the same name.
He strides through the lobby of CBS3 with excellent posture and a hint of a smile. He seems at peace, absorbing every little thing he sees and hears.
His serenity is not what I expected from the man who penned tales about a porn star, death cult survivor, disfigured model, disemboweled masturbator, serial killers, an anti-consumerist schizophrenic and sex addicts.
But what I find most intriguing is that he's interested in my life.
"What kind of magazine writing do you teach?" he inquires.
Educated in college as a journalist, Palahniuk earned $5 per hour at a twice-weekly community newspaper briefly before taking a job servicing diesel truck engines. He wrote minimalist fiction in his spare time.
His reached an epiphany when he was 31, he tells me as we sit in the green room at the television station.
"Oh my God, I may die like everyone else," he recalls thinking. "I'm not going to be able to do everything I wanted to do in life. In fact, by trying to do everything, I've got nothing done."
It's the same point that many of his characters have reached - when they realize they've lived lives others prescribed for them rather than acting on their own will.
"Everybody, very early in life, discovers a way of being that they learn endears them to other people," he says, swallowing his r's in his Northwestern accent. "People like me because of ______. I can win if I'm really, really smart. People will like me if I work really, really hard, or if I'm really, really pretty, or if I'm really, really funny."
Recognizing that you are going to have to play that role for the rest of your life can be crushing.
"You realize that's kind of a trap," Palahniuk says.
He slides out of his brown leather loafers with tassels and folds his legs under himself in the chair, almost in a lotus position.
"You tire of being pretty," he continues. "You tire of being funny. And you start to break down. It's at that point that your life kind of falls to pieces and you either destroy yourself or you continue to be this pretty angry person who resents that you are trapped."
Which explains Fight Club psychopath Tyler Durden and Choke protagonist Victor Mancini, a former med school student who picks up women at sexual addiction support groups.
When Palahniuk hit that stage, he challenged himself: "How about I spend the rest of my life trying to write one really great sentence?"
Ten years ago this month, Palahniuk quit servicing engines after 13 years on the job. Now he does what he wants to do: he experiences life.
The door to the green room opens and a burly man sporting a headset announces, "We're ready for you."
For the next ten minutes, Palahniuk converses with CBS3 anchor Ukee Washington about sexaholics anonymous, Breakfast at Tiffany's and the cult of Chuck.
Sitting in a white leather chair and surrounded by robotic cameras, Palahniuk tells Washington that fans frequently ask him to choke them. He often obliges.
"You can really feel their life in your hands, the blood pulsing in their necks," Palahniuk explains while grasping his own neck.
With his left hand on his cheek, Washington nods and smiles.
After the interview, Palahniuk asks the anchor, "Do you keep a wardrobe here or do you arrive dressed for the news?"
Washington explains how he begins working before dawn, so he dresses here.
"You must really enjoy what you do," Palahniuk replies.
"Very much so," Washington bellows as though he were broadcasting sports scores. "Especially this part. It keeps my mind off the murders, politics and stuff. It gives me a nice balance. I enjoy getting to meet people like yourself."
Then Washington reaches out his right hand and offers, "Continued success to you."
"Thank you," Palahniuk says evenly, with apparent sincerity.
"I used to hate it but it's my responsibility to find a way to like everything that I find myself doing," Palahniuk says of his promotional tours. "I don't want to throw away or waste any part of my life."
That's why he began tossing prizes and distributing dozens of blow up dolls to fans at readings.
"The action of throwing things," he says, "trumps the little voice in my head that says, 'I'm tired. I'm hungry. I don't want to do this. Writers aren't supposed to be this public. I just want to go home. I hate this.' All of that is silenced - trumped - by a physical gesture."
As we exit the studio, he continues preaching action, action, action.
"I try to replace everything with active verbs," he says. "I try to get rid of abstract verbs like thought, remember, hope, love. If you can boil it down to physical verbs, you can communicate much stronger."
He makes direct eye contact with me and says, "Good luck with that 300 student class."
Then he disappears into a black chauffered sedan with tinted windows and speeds off.