When Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fight Club back in the mid-nineties, he wasn’t a writer. He was a Junior Documentation Specialist at the Freightliner Corp. in Oregon, scribbling down the first draft of his breakout novel when he wasn’t busy trying to earn a paycheck.
But that was a lifetime ago.
A former resident of Portland, Palahniuk, now 53, lives in relative isolation about an hour’s drive north of the city. As a writer, he’s become more confident, not as constrained by the minimalist “less is more” mentality that dominated his early work. “I used to be lucky if I could write one sentence in a day,” he says. “I’d feel really satisfied if I could do that. Now, my writing is less choppy – I can spend all of my time focusing on a story or a scene.”
Of course, in the years since Fight Club jump started the id of every red-blooded American from Big Sur to Bangor, our world has changed a lot, too. Recall the 1990s: For Palahniuk, and the millions who saw a savior in his most famous creation, Tyler Durden, America during that decade was oppressively stagnate, a landscape of sterile office environments and IKEA furniture, where soft-bellied yes men like Bill Lumbergh ran the show. Something had to give.
Now, nearly two decades and fourteen novels after his prolific literary career began, the spiritual father of “transgressional fiction” has returned to his personal ground zero. Fight Club 2 – a serial graphic novel illustrated by Cameron Stewart and David Mack, and published by Dark Horse comics – will start hitting shelves in May, and will continue to do so in monthly installments for the next 10 months.
Maxim caught up with Palahniuk to talk about working in the graphic novel form, the future of the Fight Club franchise and the looming shadow of Tyler Durden.
Can you describe where you're living these days?
It’s rural. The place where I live is run by a national forest, so it’s sort of an island property. I don’t have any neighbors really in any direction for a long way.
Fight Club 2 takes place in a very suburban setting. That doesn’t seem to be your world, or at least not anymore…
No. That’s not my world. I don’t know many people who live in that world. But you want to pick a world that the largest percentage of the population is going to relate to. If you just always depict your own world there’s less of a chance people are going to be able to engage with it.
Were there any graphic novels in particular that inspired you to work in the medium?
Growing up, to tell you the truth, I read all of the classics as illustrated comics. So, the first time I read A Tale of Two Cities or Frankenstein or anything it was through illustrated classics. That was in the 1970’s. At the same time, I really loved the horror comics and the DC comics. When I think about comics that’s what I go back to, and more recently Portland has really become a community of comic book people, so I’ve been meeting people like Matt Fraction who has a new series out called Sex Criminals, which has been controversial. Apple refused to carry it, because he violated a lot of standard taboos.
Anyone else contemporary?
Joelle Jones, who’s also with Dark Horse. She does the Lady Killer comics, very 1960’s fashion illustration style - very stylized, beautiful female serial killer stuff. She’s doing one of the covers for Fight Club 2.
So there are going to be different covers for Fight Club 2?
I cannot count how many different covers. So many of the book stores and the chains have requested variant covers that are specific to their stores, and a lot of different Comic Cons are requesting covers specific to those Cons, as well. So I’ve just been reviewing up to a dozen different covers and artists all day long.
I imagine that there’s going to be people scrambling to collect all of them.
I guess that is the business model.
When we last spoke you told me that Fight Club, the original, was very much a product of your circumstances at the time. Doyou feel that way about the sequel?
Oh yeah. The sequel is so much about the protagonist getting away from medication and getting back to an aspect of himself that was the best part of him that he now has to suppress with all these prescription medications. Now that I’m taking Ambien and Ativan, Xanax - everything I can get my hands on just to kind of maintain my lifestyle and keep from going crazy - I kind of long for some way to leave all those things behind.
At the Comic Con announcement, you said that your biggest fear in diving back into Fight Club 2 was the “feverish ill-fed exhausting stint of writing.” Did that turn out to be the case?
No, not as much as I thought. Writing the script took a long time, about a year, but I’ve been able to go back as the illustrator does each issue. I can go back and revisit the issue and rewrite the script, as I want, so I can bring more ideas to it every time. So it hasn’t been a nightmare that way. In fact, collaborating with the illustrator and finding out the stuff he can depict that I don’t need to spell out in the script is a whole different way of working.
Are there any other advantages of working in the graphic novel medium?
The collaborative nature of it is a blast. It’s the same way I’ve always felt about writers' workshops. Just this excuse for being with people and working on a common project is much more fun than sitting at home and writing a novel. The idea of constantly being faced with a different creed of challenge every day, Cameron Stewart, the illustrator, will call me and say, “We forgot the back of the front page for issue blank. What do you dream of to fill that space?” And personally coming up with new valid sort of gimmicky narrative ways of telling the story, just filling up these holes in the book has been so much fun. Also, it’s kind of an industry that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Right now I’m designing these scratch and sniff bookmarks they’ll bring out with the book. I’m doing them myself just kind of on the side to reward people for getting the book.
Scratch and sniff? What kind of smells are we talking about?
It will be one smell per issue and it will be the dominant smell of that issue.
I imagine it’s not going to be strawberries.
No, but the first one is rose. And, of course, there are smells that are less pleasant than that.
As far as the limitations of the graphic novel medium, what would you say the big ones are?
Boy. One structural limitation that is really frustrating is what they call the “page turn reveal.” Once you turn the page the reader pretty much scans the two facing pages, so you can’t surprise the reader until they turn that next page. As they turn that next page your big gun has to occur in the upper left hand corner so the person sees it as they turn that page. When structuring a narrative pacing is everything. So the page turn reveal is the big strong plot point, and that’s a real challenge for me, but I love that stuff.
When you wrote the original Fight Club did you feel like America was on the brink of some kind of cultural revolution?
I didn’t feel like that. I didn’t feel like America was, I felt like I was. I felt like I had reached the full extent of my college education and where taking everyone else’s advice was going to get me. I needed to kind of go against what people were telling me if I was ever going to leap beyond the predicable place in my life. I thought if I could write about that accurately in regard to myself other people might be able to relate to it.
If you were giving advice to a young writer, like a young Chuck Palahniuk, what would you say?
I think it’s more of a matter of developing a social structure that expects you to produce work every week. You know you have that deadline every week where you have to bring in something. And if it’s embarrassing, stupid, and poorly written, you’re going to have to be punished for that. So you’re incentivized to bring in the very best work you can each week to impress this group of people, who are also your friends.
Is Fight Club 2 something that you feel you needed to do? For yourself? For your fans?
Well I have several different things. One was kind of a social responsibility. I didn’t want to just write Fight Club and then trash the failure of fathers from a son’s perspective. I thought it was only fair that this son grow up and become a father and be faced with the same failure in himself. As the story unfolds you see it moving forward - you’ll also see a lot of flashbacks and see that Tyler isn’t just an aberration that’s just occurred to one man in a single generation. Tyler actually goes back through history, and he’s been working through history to generate this enormous result. What we see of it is only one tiny slither of what he’s been doing for hundreds of thousands of years.
In the first six pages we see the narrator kind of living in the shadow of Tyler Durden. Do you feel that you are living in the shadow or Tyler Durden?
That’s another reason for wanting to do it. It’s so much fun to be Tyler Durden, to think like that character. I can see why Sigourney Weaver would want to go back and be Ellen Ripley, regardless of what the screenplay is like - it’s just a great character to be.
I was going through the message board on your website and came across some people who were angry about your decision to write Fight Club 2. They felt Fight Club, the original, just shouldn’t be tampered with. Were you worried some fans would react that way when you started on the sequel?
My editor was pretty much against it. My editor at Doubleday, who was originally my editor on Fight Club at W.W. Norton, he was very much against this. He really felt that I’m jeopardizing my literary legacy and that I’m screwing it all up, but I wouldn’t do this if I couldn’t expand the story in a valid interesting way. They could have hired someone else to do it. I don’t have the right to stop them and so if I didn’t want to do it I would’ve just let them hire somebody else.
Did you decide to go with a graphic novel, instead of a regular novel, to kind of protect yourself a little bit?
That’s exactly what it is. People are so attached to the movie, and they’re so attached to the book. If something was going to have a chance of establishing its own authority it needed to have a completely different medium, so that’s why a graphic novel seemed like a great way of breaking from both the previous versions of the story.
If you could go back and change anything about the first Fight Club what would it be?
When he’s getting the lye burn kiss and he’s trying to distract himself and he does a kind of intentional story about Ireland and peeing on the Blarney stone, that completely should not be there. But all my friends have contributed stories to the book, and on the last night before it was published, I went back to New York, to a party, and my friend Laurie told me that story and I just had to find some place in the book to just stick that story in, so Laurie wouldn’t be hurt. But, yeah, it shouldn’t be there.
Is there any chance of there being a Fight Club 2 movie?
Everybody has already inquired about it. Television networks have already come to Dark Horse asking for the rights for a TV series. But I think everyone is kind of holding their breath to see how the comic does before they take any action.
Fight Club obviously very much resonated with a 90’s audience. How do you expect its sequel to go down now, with a 2015 audience?
It’s hard to say because I don’t think it’s entirely a 2015 audience. I think it’s kept its audience. The same people who read it in 1996 will read this, and it’s going to be read by a couple different generations at the same time. To broaden the story is to kind of expose all of the thought behind the book. The writing of Joseph Campbell and the writing of Lewis Hind - all these different social critics who I was reading at the time I wrote Fight Club – I want to kind of give them credit and also to expand characters like Marla so she’s not just a catalyst, she’s not just a grail object, so that she has her own character and her own plot and maybe if there’s a Fight Club 3 it will center around just her.
You said maybe if there’s a Fight Club 3?
No, no, don’t take that as a hint.
I imagine there are a lot people out there pushing for it…
You know I think that’s always going to be the case with Americans. The question at the end of every interview is always, “What are you working on now? What’s next?” I’d rather stay in the moment.