Though it's been nearly 20 years and as many books since Chuck Palahniuk first muscled his way onto the literary scene with 1996's pugilistic cult novel Fight Club, the 53-year-old writer is still finding new ways to challenge himself, and his readers.
This week alone marks two firsts for the Portlander: On May 26, Doubleday is publishing Make Something Up, his first collection of short fiction, with nearly two dozen stories that date back more than a decade.
On Wednesday, he'll return to his literary roots in graphic form with Fight Club 2, a 10-issue comic book series that picks up a decade after Fight Club ended, with Tyler Durden now married (to Marla Singer) with child.
Days before each title's release, Esquire spoke to Palahniuk about resurrecting Fight Club, Tyler's uncanny resemblance to Fabio, and how he's really a romantic at heart.
Was revisiting Tyler Durden always in the back of your mind?
I kind of swore I would never do it, because I was afraid if I did it too soon then it would become my entire career. I would be Sophie Kinsella writing about shopaholics for the rest of my life, so I think it's wise that I totally let so much time go by. And it wouldn't have happened except that I was kind of set up by a friend to have dinner with these legendary comic book writers – Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and Brian Bendis – and the three of them really hammered on me that I should do a Fight Club sequel as a comic. I had a year's free time because the story collection, [Make Something Up] was done, so for the first time in two decades, I had the space to learn a new storytelling form.
Being that this was a new form of storytelling for you, did that make it frightening to approach?
It didn't frighten me; it kind of excited me to be the student again and to not kind of have to be my own teacher and the person in charge. And to be learning from really bright people in their field, who are also much younger than me. As the stupidest person in the room, I always had the most to gain.
Was there something they said that made the comic book idea really click for you? One point they made in your initial meeting that helped you visualize what Fight Club 2 could be?
One thing that really resonated was how they described the marketing and promotion process. It isn't the kind of horse race that you have with a novel, where you have to get around everywhere in two weeks and sell as many copies as possible upfront so you can try to hit The Times' Best Sellers list. With a comic, you have the more leisurely pace of going to Comic-Cons and doing store signings. And these are all things that take place during the day and don't keep you up until 1 a.m. every night in a different city.
What made now seem like the right time to do this?
Again, it was having free time to learn a new medium and having experts who were excited about teaching me. Also the idea, a kind of guilt, that the original book had really trashed fathers so much that it seemed only fair to make that protagonist into a father and to have him doing an even worse job than he thought his own father had. And to show him that it's not an easy job.
One of the main takeaways from Fight Club is the idea of reclaiming one's masculinity. In your opinion, how well has the masculine concept you put forth in the first book held up?
I don't even necessarily think of it as a masculine concept as much as a concept of discovering one's full potential while having a ruthless coach who keeps pushing and pushing and pushing you to extend your idea of your own capacity. I just happened to make it about men because I think it would've been kind of artificial to make it about women as a male writer.
Except that you wrote Marla Singer, one of the greatest female characters.
And she's much more expanded in the sequel because she had to be an equal character in order to cut back and forth between [her and Tyler].
Will we see more of this idea of discovering one's full potential in Fight Club 2, or do you really want to change the game a bit in terms of what you're covering with the sequel?
There was something present in the original book, but it was not really overtly stated, and that was Joseph Campbell's concept of the secondary father. Before I started writing Fight Club, I'd seen Joseph Campbell being interviewed by Bill Moyers on public television, and Campbell had explained why street gangs were so prevalent. It was because they acted as the secondary father, and they assigned tasks and challenges to young men and helped them build their self-confidence and establish status in the world, and that all male and female children need a kind of secondary father who doesn't just love them and nurture them, but actually sort of challenges them and trains them and disciplines them like a coach or a teacher, a mentor, a drill sergeant.
How have the ways in which the world has changed over the past 20 years altered your approach in continuing this story, if at all?
I think that young people are less attached to items and objects now. They're less attached to consuming things and accruing things because they see it as a system that doesn't necessarily work and give them a sense of adulthood and fulfillment. They're much more in tune with wanting to achieve a skill, a form of self-expression, or a body of knowledge that fulfills the same function, fulfills their adulthood. So the idea isn't so much to destroy their condo full of IKEA furniture. The idea in the sequel is to kind of destroy all of their preconceptions, all the things that they were taught before they were given a choice.
What was the biggest challenge for you in adapting your style of writing to a comic book?
Unpacking every physical action and gesture into really specific beats, because each panel can only show a gesture of starting or completing and you can't show a combination of gestures. So really deciding what physical action has to happen and unpacking it picture by picture, keeping dialogue to a bare minimum, and keeping captioning to a bare minimum. All of that was a challenge.
But the toughest thing is something they call a "page-turn reveal." As you're looking at two pages, the reader scans them and more or less gets an idea of what's going to happen. So the only place where you can really surprise or get a laugh or a shock is when the page is turned. So the goal is always to have an effective set-up in the lower right-hand corner, so as you turn the page you have an effective payoff in the upper left-hand corner, and pacing a story in that artificial way was really a challenge – a challenge to make it happen without seeming artificial.
Did you write it more in long-form and then pull out from that or did you try to write for the format?
I had to really learn how to dictate exactly everything I wanted in the panel, including the angle and the distance from the subject, what would be included in each frame, and whether it would be shot from a high angle or a low angle, whether it would be shot close or distant. I could do that to a certain extent, but I really had to work with Cameron Stewart to pick up the fine details about how to do it even more effectively.
How did your collaboration with Cameron work? Were you guys sitting side by side or did you work somewhat independently?
For the first three months, Cameron came over from Berlin. He was in Portland for the summer, so we got to work together a lot on discussing the script as it stood at that point and identifying what characters and what settings would be used over and over, so they'd take the most important focus. After that he went back to Germany, and since then we've been working long distance. He has carte blanche to combine panels if he thinks they'll work more effectively in a slightly different order. Now that we've been working together for a year, I see the things that he does very effectively—these kinds of depictions of the incomplete face or the occluded face that are so compelling. So I'm able to write to that and to figure out where it will work the best.
Writing is a pretty lonely endeavor for the most part. After 20 years of working on your own, was it nice to collaborate with someone?
It's fantastic. It's like being in junior high school. When we get together – me and my editor, and when Cameron's in town – and we're in a restaurant, we're talking about the conventions of comics we can exploit and break. One of our goals was to do those kind of meta things that David Fincher did so well in the movie—the way that David made the film break and burn and pointed out the obvious mechanics of film like the splices, the real change symbols, and breaking the fourth wall. So we were trying to identify all the kind of mechanics of comics, like getting the register wrong and creating chaos, not just through what we're depicting, but by screwing up the printing and having the register get progressively worse so that the chaos is presented in so many different ways.
Did Fincher's film play into your conversations regarding the art? When people think of Tyler Durden they think of either Edward Norton or Brad Pitt. Did having a definitive visual attached to the character concern you?
Another benefit to waiting 15 years is that we have an excuse for them looking different. For Free Comic Book Day, we brought out a comic that depicted the end of the novel as opposed to the end of the movie, which was a very effective way of introducing this new look to the audience and saying, "This is how they're going to look." As for how they do look, I just gave Cameron reference photos of the friends on whom I based the characters, so in a way, for me, it makes the characters look the way they were supposed to look.
Since Fight Club, you've been known to churn out two books in a year on occasion. Do you have a regular writing schedule or routine or are you just always writing?
More or less always writing or always researching, and that includes testing premises on people at parties, and listening to whether they resonate and whether people share back and echo similar experiences that help to develop the premise I count all of that as part of the writing process.
Considering that you don't shy away from dark or disturbing themes, when you're throwing an idea out at someone, what's the ideal reaction?
A good story isn't the one that shuts everyone down and sort of leaves them in silent awe. A good story is one that, even before you finish the anecdote, you can see their eyes shining because it has so resonated with something from their own lives that everyone in the group has a version of the same story and they cannot wait to tell it, and that they're going to compete to make their version even more extreme than your version. So your version is just a seed.
Nobody's going to out-extreme you, I hope.
They always do. It's amazing.
In addition to Fight Club 2, you've got Make Something Up, which is your first published collection of short fiction. Do most of your novels begin as short stories?
They do. Because the short stories are a way of doing little sketches of things, of key scenes, first to see if people in my workshop engage with them, if there's something about the premise that's attractive and compelling. And also to kind of fine-tune what are going to be the idiosyncrasies or the devices that particularize the voice or the world of this character and getting those really clear in my head.
How do you know when something will work beyond a short story and has novel potential?
I think it's how long it holds my attention, how long it holds me.
How did you choose which stories to include?
I had a lot more of the animal stories and I didn't want to overwhelm the collection with those, so I just chose the four strongest ones. Then some were just thrown by the wayside because when I read them on tour and they didn't get a really strong reaction – they didn't get weeping or fainting or a huge amount of laughter. A lot of these stories have been tested over a year of public readings.
It's interesting that you'd be so responsive to reader reactions and testing stuff out as opposed to thinking, " I'm going to write what I want." Is social media something that you utilize for feedback or is it more sitting in front of an audience?
It really has to be a face-to-face for me. It used to be that I would go to the context in which people told their stories – support groups or recovery groups, or even telephone sex hotlines, where it was just oral storytelling. And it was so good because people didn't just sort of spill the facts of their lives, they were also demonstrating a really practiced, well-rehearsed form of storytelling, and I could learn little tricks that they themselves had developed that were so unique. So it taught me good stories and good storytelling at the same time.
That's interesting. The phone sex in particular.
It has all kind of gone away now.
There goes your test audience!
Yeah. And I can't really go to support groups anymore because they see me as a parasite. They recognize that.
Of the stories included in the book, do you have a personal favorite?
Yes, the very last story that was written was "Facts of Life." It's about a father trying to tell his very young son where babies come from, because that's such archival story. Everyone I know has a hilarious story about how badly their parents screwed up that lecture and just left them with such hideous misconceptions.
You were branded as a nihilist at the outset of your career, and being unafraid to tackle dark and disturbing matter in your subsequent work seems to have only reinforced the idea. Do you agree with that assessment?
I think it's just a matter of time before everybody realizes that I'm kind of a romance novelist... that these are all stories about people kind of falling back in love or struggling with relationships. Even Fight Club was just a big romantic ending.
You need to put Fabio on your cover and the point will be made.
Who do you think Tyler Durden is based on with all that blonde hair and big shoe-shaped chin? Actually, the friend that he's based on looked kind of like Fabio. The irony is that where I live now, Fabio is kind of my neighbour… My neighbours have seen him at the supermarket.
This interview was originally published on Esquire.com