Periscope Depth

if you’re the nice guy, act like the nice guy

Chuck Palahniuk gave the keynote speech at Muse and the Marketplace 2010. My sole familiarity with him came from reading Fight Club (long before it was a movie; my one bit of literary cred) so I envisioned a seedy man, cynical about the peak of human achievement. But Chuck Palahniuk looks like an optometrist. And it’s clear, listening to him, that he has deeply spiritual beliefs about what humans do.

He told an anecdote about a trip to Paris that I could not do justice by recounting. He talked about how much the work of Amy Hempel inspired him, and how much it meant that she was sitting with him at the lunch table. He talked about:


  • Why so many sexaholics are general contractors, a trivium he discovered while researching Snuff: they can set their own hours and they can work out of a van. So they can knock off in the middle of the day to go to a massage parlor. “That’s why your kitchen isn’t done.”
  • How to slice brie off of a wedge: make each slice of equivalent length, rather than taking tiny slices off the tip and fat slices off the end. This is because all the rich sweetness collects in the tip of the wedge and everyone should have a bit.
  • The reason he goes to parties: in order to write. Palahniuk decided long ago that instead of using writing as an excuse to lock himself away, he would use writing as an excuse to get out and see the world. Whenever he hears something incredible at a party, he vanishes – often to the bathroom – to jot it down.
  • About the first novel he tried to write: a nine-hundred page “reeking waste of trees.” His first agent passed it off politely. His second agent said she couldn’t sell it because there were “certain parts [she] found objectionable.” When Palahniuk asked what they were, swearing to change them, she confessed that she found “pretty much the entire thing” objectionable. But he was able to lift pieces out of there for future writing: specifically, the line “the condom is the glass slipper of our generation,” which he says it always thrills him to hear Helena Bonham Carter say.
  • His advance for his first novel, Fight Club: $6,000. He later learned that, in the industry, this is called a “kiss off advance.” When someone at the publishing house champions a novel but nobody else wants to touch it, the author is given an insultingly low offer in the hopes that he’ll vanish. “What they didn’t count on,” Palahniuk explained, “was that I’m stupid.”
  • How the paucity of that advance illustrates his attitude on writing: don’t do it for the money. “Take your reward on the front end, rather than on the back end.” Make sure you’re writing something you feel excited about. That’ll keep you going.

Finally, prompted by someone who’d interviewed him years ago, he talked about the “emotional scam” in his writing. Palahniuk (according to Palahniuk) writes about characters who seek meaning from an inauthentic source. In Fight Club and Choke it’s on the surface: the protagonists pretend that they’re dying in order to get moments of intense closeness with strangers. But it doesn’t have to be that bizarre. In fact, it’s almost universal. “Everybody figures out, at a young age, the way to make people like them,” Palahniuk explained. “If I’m the smart one, the teachers like me; therefore I’m going to be the smart one my whole life. I’m the funny one. I’m the one who’s sick all the time. And then, Act Two of my book is about stripping that emotional scam away.” And I sat there in the Imperial Ballroom, a glass of boiled water in my hand, and thought about turning twenty-nine.

Edit: Welcome, fellow Grub Streeters! Leave a comment and tell me about the other seminars or talks you liked at this year’s Muse and the Marketplace.

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