Chuck Palahniuk: Nice Guy At Large

I’ve been a Chuck Palahniuk fan for a while now. Like many of his followers, I came to the author’s work via Fight Club (the movie first, and then the book), and I’ve also enjoyed his other works for their unique (some might say “twisted”) take on the trappings of contemporary culture. Consumerism, celebrity, pornography, and religion are just a few of the topics he’s examined throughout his oeuvre, and he’s done so in a way that I’d describe as unflinching.

Yet because Palahniuk is so unflinching in his approach to all of the issues he examines in his fiction and nonfiction, a lot of readers don’t like his work. This, of course, is fine. Everyone has a right to their own opinions, and I personally remember feeling kind of grossed out when I read Snuff, his “porn” novel, on a long flight from Philadelphia to Albuquerque.

Even though I can see how some readers might not like Palahniuk’s books, I have to take exception to people who say they don’t like him. I don’t mean to say this as a prissy English professor distinguishing between the author and his work, as I make this distinction frequently enough in the courses I teach. What I mean is that, as a rule, you can’t not like Chuck Palahniuk. He’s just too nice of a guy.

My first inkling that Palahniuk was a nice guy came in 2004 when someone mentioned that he had set aside some time for fans to write to him and that he’d respond personally to all of the mail he received. So I sent him a note explaining how much I enjoyed his work, that I used Fight Club in my American Literature class, and that I was thinking about self-publishing my first novel.

I was a graduate student at the time. I was working on my dissertation and clueless about what the world would hold for me once I completed my degree. In addition to that, a friend of mine had recently committed suicide. I mentioned all of this in my letter; I think I just wanted someone to tell me that everything would work out — or at least to suggest that hope wasn’t a ridiculous thing to hold on to. The response I got from Palahniuk was everything I needed.

He didn’t just respond with a letter. He responded with a package. Enclosed in the package were the following: a rubber duck, a Christmas stocking, a packet of forget-me-not seeds, an autographed copy of Fight Club, a Whitman sampler, a Beanie Baby koala (which the author referred to as my “power koala”), and a necklace made of semiprecious stones and lettered beads that spelled out TO MARC SCHUSTER FROM CHUCKY P.

As if that weren’t enough, Palahniuk also wrote a thoughtful letter in which he suggested that I rethink self-publishing my novel. “Consider NOT self publishing, but putting your energy and frustration into the next work,” he wrote. “The reality of a career is that you’ll always be writing a Next Book.”

He also wrote of the book in question, “Your idea for The Grievers sounds wonderful: dark and funny. That’s something our culture will be needing big-time for the next four years. Anything that combines grief and humor and shows survival. I have to think that will be the new ‘comfort’ literature.”

It was the shot in the arm I needed. And the advice he gave me next turned out to be perfect: “Please get started on your next book. That one will be stronger, and you might always re-work The Grievers a bit and sell it as your second book.” Which, it turns out, is exactly what happened. A revised (and revised, and revised again) version of The Grievers will be available from The Permanent Press next May, and it’s a follow-up to my first novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl.

So, yeah, I was predisposed to thinking of Palahniuk as a nice guy when I went to see him read in support of his latest novel, Damned, at the Free Library of Philadelphia this past weekend. I was not disappointed in the least.

One of the first things the author asked was for a show of hands to see how many people in the audience had never been to a reading before. At least half of the audience raised their hands — which in itself says something about Palahniuk’s drawing power. He’s the kind of writer who gets people who wouldn’t normally go to “literary” events to go to literary events.

He then went on to explain that there’d be a round of games, followed by a reading, followed by some Q&A, and capped off with another round of games.

He wasn’t kidding.

Before he sat down to read, Palahniuk and a couple of assistants tossed inflatable plastic brains to the audience. He then told us that the first two people to fully inflate their brains would win copies of books he’d recently read and enjoyed. (I wish I could remember their titles!) The auditorium then filled with the hissing sound of air rushing from lungs into pinkish plastic brains — a somewhat “gross” (when you think about it) detail that would feel right at home in any of his books.

After two winners were selected, Palahniuk went on to read a story titled “Romance,” which he’d written specifically for his current book tour. He then went on, as promised, to take questions from the audience. My impression as the Q&A session went on was that he was truly interested in what his audience had to say and the questions they had to ask. The reason I point this out is that I’ve been to plenty of readings at various venues in which the authors barely concealed their contempt for the audience. But not Palahniuk. He listened. He took some time to formulate a response. He gave an honest answer.

Finally, when the Q&A was over, he held another contest in which he tossed inflatable skeletons and hearts out to the audience and gave prizes for the first people to inflate each. Talk about engaging your audience! The guy turned a wet, cold, rainy Saturday into a literary extravaganza, all in the space of about an hour. He came across as charming and gracious, and did everything he could to make it clear to his audience that he appreciated both that they came to hear him read and that they’ve continued to buy and read his books.

So say what you want about Palahniuk’s subject matter. (It’s gross! It’s disgusting! It’s weird! It’s disturbing! Yeah. You’re right on all counts, and it’s all by design.) Whatever you do, though, don’t say you don’t like the author himself. I know of at least an auditorium full of people who will beg to differ.

An inflatable brain makes a great prop for your Zombie Prom King costume.