The press release that arrives with Chuck Palahniuk's ninth and latest novel, Snuff, includes a filmography for the work's porn star protagonist, Cassie Wright. Among 37 titles in the "incomplete" listings: Chitty Chitty Gang Bang, The Da Vinci Load and Snow Falling on Peters.
On YouTube, Palahniuk's media machine posted fake porno promotions (youtube.com/cassiewrightlives) based on another Snuff film, The Wizard of Ass.
Needless to say, the book's subject matter is crude.
Its premise: "Six hundred dudes. One porn queen. A world record for the ages."
The hook: "Didn't one of us on purpose set out to make a snuff movie."
From there, Snuff's narrative develops through three characters, Mr. 72, Mr. 137 and Mr. 600, all of whom await their turn with Cassie in a crowded, foul green room.
Were Palahniuk not highly regarded for his book-turned-cult-film-classic, Fight Club, most readers would probably stop reading here. Undeniably, the author's works are dark and morose, often downright disgusting.
For this, he's been called a mere shock writer. Yet the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review also hails him as "the likeliest inheritor of [Kurt] Vonnegut's place in American writing." Palahniuk surely demonstrates the same mastery of absurdity, black comedy and scathing satire.
And swarms of faithful will attest that behind Palahniuk's visceral and unflinchingly graphic prose, there's a certain creative genius. The 46-year-old, Portland, Ore.-based writer professes a minimalist approach to his diction, aiming to capture how people really talk, and writing in short, sharp sentences. Adjectives are used modestly, verbs in abundance. The occasional extended metaphor edges into overkill territory, letting up just about when the average reader begins to taste stomach acid.
Snuff hit bookstores on May 20, and in January, at the Sundance Film Festival, the second film adaptation of a Palahniuk book, Choke, premiered and went on to earn a Grand Jury Prize nomination as well a Special Jury Prize.
Palahniuk recently spoke to the Indy from his home about the new book, upcoming film and life at the moment.
Indy: Snuff revolves around an act of serial fornication. What inspired you to write about this?
CP: The idea originally came from somebody in my workshop talking about the Annabel Chong documentary about the making of her record-setting film. [In 1995's World's Biggest Gang Bang, Chong engaged in 251 sex acts with more than 70 men in 10 hours.] Then it was a couple years before I even bothered to see the documentary, and then it was a couple years before I wrote a play based on this premise, then a couple years later, the book.
I found it really compelling to have a green-room situation that would hold people together long enough for them to gradually reveal their real motive for being there. Everything about it the claustrophobia, the physical vulnerability of it, the visceral grossness of it was all just really appealing as sort of a prison for people to tell stories in.
Indy: Is Annabel Chong the real holder of the record, then?
CP: No, her record's been broken at least four times.
Indy: What's the current record?
CP: I have no idea. That's kind of the joke. It gets broken about every three months now.
Indy: Is Cassie Wright based off any one star or is she a generic archetype?
CP: She's completely generic.
Indy: Is it fair to call this a love story of sorts?
CP: Yeah. In all of my books, at least one character sort of ends up committed to another character, usually after they've gotten to the point where they've revealed their worst selves. Ever since Fight Club, it's about two people being brought together often enough to finally not present just their best self.
Indy: Porn titles are always hilarious. Are any of the ones you wrote in Cassie's filmography real? Or did you just make them up with friends?
CP: As far as I know, most of those were made up by my friends, and we just made it a year-long project. I told people what I was researching ... [they would] call me over time and tell me porn titles, and they also told me things that famous Hollywood stars had done to make themselves more attractive, and ended up scarring themselves. It's kind of an ongoing game I play with all the books, is to kind of make them like a parlor game for all my friends to help me solve.
Indy: You discuss some numerology in the book via Mr. 172. Should fans be trying to figure out the symbolism for Nos. 72, 137 and 600?
CP: No. 72 I probably chose because it's the number of inches in six feet. 137 I chose because it's a prime number. And Mr. 600 because it just seems like an enormous, bland number. Huge, but of absolutely no intrinsic value. And that's being really left-brained about it.
Indy: You like to blur facts in with your fiction, to give the fiction a more believable edge. You employ this technique in Snuff with repeated "true fact" references. As your works' popularity increases, do you think we're going to end up with a bunch of people roaming around, spreading false Palahniuk facts?
CP: For the most part, the stuff that I do work with is real, because it's just so much fun to gather. And it's typically just always that much more amazing than anything I could imagine from my own limited experience. And it is that parlor game that allows me and my friends to be in that ongoing inquiry and quest for this arbitrary prize that keeps us connected over time as our lives otherwise drift apart.
But I would also say that we're already kind of in a world where people are [attuned to] the whole sort of James Frey, JT LeRoy lack of credibility. The Internet really is just chugging that along.
Indy: So all the "true facts" in Snuff are true?
CP: The only thing that I felt that I wasn't aware were true were the movie titles. Everything else I researched through several different sources.
Vaginal embolisms (a bubble of air forced into the circulatory system, which can prove fatal) are really controversial. I found a lot of medical articles that supported them. I presented these medical articles from different medical journals, and the articles cited in the book are actual articles. But the women in my writers' workshops were just frantic. They were so upset about that. No matter how real some things might be, they're always going to deny them.
One medical journal cited 619 women dying on an average every year. Just that number 619 seemed so exact, that I was really shocked by that.
Indy: Snuff breaks the temporal end mold like Choke and Diary did, and is told fairly chronologically. What in this particular work dictates that narrative form?
CP: Originally it was told completely linear, it was told from the perspective of the three men, alternating so that one man would be looking at the action of the other two, all the time. And that way the story could be told in the first person with the authority of first person, but told about other people, so that it wouldn't seem self centered ... Actually that perspective, the three people rotating perspective, was borrowed from Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. And the last thing I did was add the Sheila chapters (Sheila is the talent wrangler who organizes the 600 men). Because the writers in my workshop really wanted a fourth voice. They wanted Sheila. The Sheila voice really gave me the device for getting out of that claustrophobic scene and presenting the back story bits that would establish the context. It's always the last little bit that you add that really, really makes something.
Indy: You describe your work by the term "transgressional fiction," referring to societally marginalized characters who act with self destructive aggressiveness. Many of Snuff's characters seem to fit this. Mr. 137 says "porn is a job you only take after you abandon all hope." Is that how you view the porn industry, or just the character talking?
CP: It's the character, but it's also Cassie Wright's character. I wanted to in a way make Mr. 137 the male version of Cassie Wright. That Cassie Wright had started out wanting to be a real actress and that's why she had this whole body of knowledge about real conventional movie stars. And that porn was this thing she'd been tricked into by circumstance. And Mr. 137 started out in the same way ... I just wanted to create this gender parallel between the two of them, so they both express the same resignations.
Indy: Do you think porn is a natural fit for your writing style, in terms of the dark elements? Is this an inevitable area for your books to go?
CP: Pornography in this case, where people are being called to do their bit, and then being discarded, lets me do a kind of Fight Club thing, where there's always a real sense of physical experience or sensation proximate to where people are talking. It causes an ongoing sense of physicality and visceralness, and I tend to do that with either illness or violence or drugs or sex in all my books. So it's not just talking heads. I hate that.
Porn really lends itself because it's a structured, ritualized sex. People are sort of brought in on a real strict schedule, and it's really regimented in the same way that Fight Club was with violence, but really regimented violence. It forms a structuring of things that are normally spontaneous and uses them as a structure for presenting the story.
Indy: Your fan site (chuckpalahniuk.net) said your estimate that you get paid 10 cents an hour for your work considering the time you spend researching. Did Snuff require an average amount of research? What did you do in terms of research for Snuff?
CP: Boy, if I went back to how many years ago I first heard about the Annabel Chong movie ... I watched it, watched it again. Started mulling over the idea, made the play, went to Los Angeles and saw the play read, and then stewed about it for two more years. I probably made a nickel an hour.
Indy: You've responded to critics and publishers in past through your works; Fight Club was a response to Invisible Monsters being rejected, for instance. Is Snuff a response to anything?
CP: If anything, I'm responding to being tired of writing books that are 300 pages. From now on, I just want to write short books that are a blast to write and edit and proof, and then [move] on to the next one. I really don't want to write anything over 200 pages ever again.
Indy: So that's what we should expect with Pygmy (due out in 2009)?
CP: Pygmy is done. Pygmy was a blast.
Indy: I read that you draw inspiration from what pisses you off. Anything piss you off a lot lately?
CP: Sometimes I don't even know what it is I'm writing about until the book comes out and then I'm shocked at how I presented something so personal that's so unresolved in my life. Snuff - I'm not really even sure. I would have to think about that. And maybe it's best I don't. Because a lot of times its much easier to present this thing without a full understanding of how much of yourself you're presenting. Let it be two or three years down the road before I realize how far out on a limb I went.
Indy: Choke is due out soon, and your Web site said its success may fast-track your other books that have already been optioned. Survivor might be made next, and there's mention of a Fight Club musical with David Fincher, Trent Reznor, maybe even Brad Pitt. Can you update us on any of these?
CP: Lullaby looks like it'll be the most likely one to go into production next. We got a big mystery announcement earlier this year during Sundance that some unnamed Academy Award-winning actor wants to be the lead in Lullaby, but only if he can also be the executive producer. So that looks like that is going to get Lullaby into production soon.
We keep hearing from the folks who did Constantine and I Am Legend that Survivor is going to be their next movie, but I can't say that for certain. I do know that even back in February, Fincher was publicly talking to reporters about the Fight Club musical, so that's still hanging out there somewhere. There are other things that are optioned, in development, but those are the big things right now.
Indy: Survivor was at one point getting the green light, but then 9/11 halted that because of the terrorism element. Pygmy [Palahniuk's next novel, due out in 2009] will revolve around terrorism also. Is terrorism back on now? Has it been long enough?
CP: I think it has definitely been long enough. And it's a combination of being long enough and far enough past the event, but also finding sort of a way into the story, a device or vehicle that can allow you to address a topic, while engaging people at the same time. Just finding that way into the story that will allow people to look at something that they don't want to look at. And that's always the trick to doing something that's timely, but also really confronting.
Indy: Were you OK with how the film adaptation of Fight Club turned out on the whole?
CP: Yeah, I thought they did a fantastic job. It was really intimidating at the time, because they obviously put so much more thought into it than I did.
Indy: Any hesitations looking forward to Choke?
CP: No, not really. I know that like Fight Club, the ending is considerably different, so I think that's going to generate some back-and-forths. But what the hell? The movie should be its own thing.
Indy: Did you have any say on that, or was that all Clark Gregg (the screen writer/director)?
CP: It was pretty much Clark, but we did talk about it a lot.
Indy: A considerable number of people have reportedly fainted at your readings. Is that true?
CP: I stopped counting at 71. That was a couple years ago. I stopped at 71 because it's prime, and I knew I could remember it. We had faintings in Boulder, almost everywhere.
Indy: They just hit the floor?
CP: If I'm looking up at that moment ... I'm just in time to see their head wilt and then their body pitch backward or forward. Or it's funny when they pitch to one side and land on the person next to them, who is a stranger. [I see] looks of complete disgust: "Why are you touching me?" And then the body slumps to the floor and everyone jumps up. From the stage, it's really amazing.
Indy: You've committed to a year's worth of essays on The Cult (chuckpalahniuk.net), which supplies info to up-and-coming writers, shares your craft and is aimed at helping them get published. Many writers keep to themselves and guard their secrets. Why are you so open and willing to teach?
CP: I'd say three different reasons. No. 1: I'm not very comfortable with all of the attention from The Cult. And I'd really like to redirect that attention and energy into people's own work. Sort of say, "Don't look at me, look over here, at your own work."
No. 2: There were some things that Tom Spanbauer taught me that instantly made my writing better. And they were so basic. So true, so practical, that I'm frustrated that after 16 years of schooling nobody had bothered to teach me those things. People will talk about every aspect about writing in this airy, fairy way, but nobody will really offer really practical nuts-and-bolts writing advice.
No. 3: It forces me to really be aware of how I do what I do and why I do it. And you really can't understand an aspect of what you do until you try to teach it. And then the process of having to unpack it and explain it to another person, it gives you a fuller understanding. It makes me a lot more aware of how I work. And it also spoils things so that I have to do things differently every time. You know, I show you how the rabbit comes out of the hat, and I can't do that trick anymore. I'm forced to develop some new tricks.
Indy: Does your work have a purpose in some kind of mirror-to-society way, or are you just having fun?
CP: I am just having fun. It's not my job to fix anybody. I swear I just want to go to a [writing] workshop every week. And I just want to have a topic of conversation when I go to parties; none of my friends and I know what to say to each other anymore, so this helps. This is why I did it [wrote] before I got a paycheck, and this is why I still do it.
Indy: Anything I didn't ask that you want our readers to know?
CP: [Long pause.] Oh. Cassie Wright. Sometimes you use a placeholder name, and you think through the first draft, I'm just going to use this arbitrary name for this character and when the perfect name comes up, I'll just search and replace. And I used Cassie Wright because it's the name that the principal keeps calling Carrie White in the first part of the book Carrie (by Stephen King). And so she has that sort of psychic seizure and flips the desk over...
And I was using Cassie as that placeholder name and eventually, I just got used to it. Otherwise I would have used a naming convention. Like all the male porn stars (in Snuff) are some form of wood, like "branch" or "post" or "beam" combined with some form of alcohol, like Bacardi or Cuervo. "Cord Cuervo" The women were going to be something combined with alcohol, like something Galliano. And Cassie Wright broke that convention, but I was so attached to doing this sort of reference to Stephen King that Cassie Wright stayed Cassie Wright.
Chuck Palahniuk reading
Tattered Cover LoDo, 1628 16th St., Denver
Thursday, May 22, 7:30 p.m.
Snuff now available in bookstores.
Choke tentatively due in theaters in September. Call 303/436-1070 or visit tatteredcover.com for more.