Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Chuck Palahniuk, Author of CHOKE

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Chuck Palahniuk, Author of CHOKE

Chuck Palahniuk, the author behind David Fincher’s “Fight Club” and Clark Gregg’s “Choke,” opening in theaters this Friday 9/26, pens intelligent, well-written junk food. I enjoy reading all his books, and even have a friend I nicknamed Brandy Alexander after the transgender lead character in “Invisible Monsters,” yet whenever someone asks me the plot of a particular novel that isn’t “Invisible Monsters,” I draw a blank. I mean, I’m certain I’ve read his books, just like I’m certain I ate dinner last Thursday, I just can’t tell you exactly what it was.

So when I learned I had an email interview with the author himself scheduled I had to dig out my old copy of “Choke” and check the jacket. Ah, sex addicts who work at a fake Colonial village – how could I have forgotten? No matter. The writing is terrific. Palahniuk might be able to shed some light on the grander themes he seems to be addressing, from numb consumer culture to transgender issues to the difference between nonfiction “truth” versus “truth” in fiction, I reasoned.

You see, I just couldn’t accept “Choke” on the same terms as a piece of well-made but empty entertainment like “The Scorpion King,” which worked because it didn’t overreach beyond what was necessary, tailored the script specifically to The Rock’s charming, self-deprecating personality and nothing more. I wanted to know why I always felt an important statement about society was being made in Palahniuk’s books.

But after finally interviewing the author I got a strong sense that his working method is more akin to that of the car mechanic he was for years. As a writer he seems to take the same sort of Meyerhold biomechanics approach (“I saw a bear, I ran, I was afraid”) that I learned in acting school. In other words, through the physical, mechanical act of writing – and not reflection – he gets at a deeper truth. Which is deep in itself. Now if only I could remember what “Rant” was about.

LW: “Choke: deals with sex addicts similarly to how Terry Southern treats bombshell virgins and porn stars - as social satire. In other words, there is very little that is “sexy” about your (or Southern’s) work. Sex is just another part of our numb consumer culture. Can you discuss this more?

CP: Actually the sex in “Choke” — like the violence in “Fight Club” — is merely physical business for the characters, to keep their hands and feet busy while they say their dialogue. Otherwise, you just have talking heads, and I loathe that type of fiction. We adore films because the moving object is so hypnotic. Books can hold our attention with that same device.

LW: During the “Antidote Films vs. JT Leroy” lawsuit I started writing about the fine line between fiction and nonfiction – and does it even matter? As the author of a nonfiction memoir that was marketed as fiction I find this whole quest for “truth” absurd since there is no definitive “truth“ truth is always subjective. You write nonfiction as well, and your novels contain more elements of reality than certain historical documents (and there’s even the fake Colonial village in “Choke”). What is your take on this debate?

CP: There’s a world of difference between fiction which presents itself as such… and a person telephoning you at all hours, sobbing and claiming to be a child sex worker dying of AIDS. For hours, claiming to be crippled because he/she had been fisted so brutally by a sadistic john. Such a callous deception undermines all sympathy for and desire to help real people suffering in those circumstances.

LW: I jotted down this terrific quote from you right after “Invisible Monsters” came out: “Brandy Alexander doesn’t really want a sex change. And in a way, having it was the most important thing she could think to do, because it would destroy an identity that was being imposed upon her by society.” As a genderqueer person who defiantly refuses to conform to society’s “insides must match outsides” rule, I’ve always considered the notion of having a sex change kissing up to the mainstream, i.e., why is it my duty to make others feel comfortable? To say that transgender people are in the “wrong” bodies implies that there is such a thing as a “right” body. You also seem interested in this notion of “transcending” society’s dictates – Jesus has a big role in “Choke” – rather than conforming. Can you talk a bit about this and how it plays out in your work?

CP: Say, what?

LW: What is it like to have a character that’s been living in your head appear onscreen in flesh and blood form? Have there been actors who didn’t live up to your idea of the character or who exceeded your expectations?

CP: The trick is to not have expectations. Instead to allow the world to present itself and trust that everyone is doing their best. Sorry to sound so passive, but I’ve learned to control only what I can control: the original stories.

LW: What is it like to lose control of your story through the filmmaking process?

CP: It’s intoxicating, to be around people who love their work — are so passionate about their work — people who are so smart and diligent. It gets me high. God, this is what high school should’ve felt like.

LW: Are there certain actors or a particular director you dream of attaching to any filmed versions of your books?

CP: Sam Rockwell, always. Kate Beckinsale. Bette Davis. Louise Brooks. Ruth Gordon. Jack Webb, when he was younger. You did say ‘Dream.’

LW: Are you interested in delving into screenwriting and/or directing?

CP: I also dream of flying and being invisible, but I’ve no talent at those skills, either.

LW: How has the process of turning “Choke” into a movie differed from that of “Fight Club”?

CP: David Mamet advised Clark Gregg to conduct a film set like a party. That a director should facilitate everyone to enjoy themselves. Clark had to film so much each day that the shooting never seemed to linger on any one scene. Filming “Choke” was more like a party, with a constantly changing focus for our attention. And excellent catering.

LW: Which writers do you look to for inspiration?

CP: Amy Hempel. Katherine Dunn. Denis Johnson. Irvine Welsh.

LW: Your writing has a strong sense of location. Much like Armistead Maupin could only be a San Franciscan, I would never mistake you for an east or west coast author. How important is residing in the Northwest to your work?

CP: Huh? I must be stumbling. My goal is always to avoid too specific a setting. Only my third book, “Invisible Monsters,” cites a city. By avoiding descriptions of place, and physical descriptions of characters, I allow readers to insert details from their own lives. Instead of description I concentrate on keeping everyone in action — fighting and fucking — so the plot escalates more quickly. Like everybody, I love Maupin, but setting a story in a specific city also excludes readers who live elsewhere. Verbs exclude no one.

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