Chuck Palahniuk on Film, Dope, and His Latest Novel

Critically acclaimed author Chuck Palahniuk talks about his new book, smoking pot, and a disastrous pitch meeting.
Chuck Palahniuk on Film, Dope, and His Latest Novel
Chuck Palahniuk; Photo Credit: Adam Levy

Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel, “The Invention of Sound,” is a Hollywood nightmare. The well-known author behind “Fight Club” and “Survivor” has crafted a horror story with an atmosphere defined by paranoia, commodified screams, and lost and lonely characters. There’s still the lunacy, humor, and glimpses of humanity fans expect from Palahniuk, too, as well loads of Ambien and esoteric facts. 

“The Invention of Sound” is familiar and new from Palahniuk, who also had a delightful book on writing published earlier this year. It’s a productive time for the artist, whose past work feels particularly resonant these past few years. Via email, we asked Palahniuk what he makes of a year such as 2020, commodified screams, and his own Hollywood horror story. 

How did you become, as you’ve said, in love with commodified screams? 

Like all the best things, I stumbled upon it. I’d wanted to write a thriller wherein the only proof of each crime was the scream it left behind. Then friends and audio engineers began telling me about landmark screams such as the “Wilhelm Scream” (which is also a popular band).  The concept seemed to develop itself, the way the best concepts do. Who knew, but the buying and selling of screams is already a big business.

What was your research process for “The Invention of Sound”? What were your key resources for information involving sound? 

Over the years I’ve found myself in a butt load of recording studios. Recording audio books.  Doing interviews. Hanging with music people or taping podcasts. I just picked the brains of the sound engineers, asking about the history of the equipment and how special effects were discovered by accident. Sounds guys are a goldmine for that stuff.

Now having written “The Invention of Sound,” how has it changed how you perceive sound in movies and TV? 

In the same way I could watch a television series and recognize stock sets redressed slightly, or stock costumes (I once saw the same hat show up on four different characters over a span of six years on ‘The Waltons’), now I recognize stock sound effects. Like bad dubbing, they instantly bounce me out of the illusion     

The idea of weaponizing sound goes back to “Lullaby” in your work. What is it that fascinates you about this idea, the idea of sound or art killing? 

Sound, whether it’s a story in words, a song, or a scream, is designed to have a specific, consistent effect on an audience. I want to take everything to the point of chaos, so the sounds in my work—be they screams or poems—ultimately lead to death. A story that doesn’t drive its premise to complete chaos and breakdown isn’t punk. My overarching aesthetic is always punk.     

What do you typically like to see at movie theaters? 

The only films I look for based on who directed them are films by David Fincher or Brad Anderson. I haven’t stepped into a theater since 1999. Those of us who see films alone are always wondering “why aren’t films as scary as they used to be?” That question led me to limbic brain science and how the atomized audience doesn’t feel emotions as strongly as a mass audience does. That led me to the idea of the perfect scream as a way to enthrall even the loners who watch at home.

What’s your relationship to audience expectations? How much do you think about your audience when you’re writing a book like “The Invention of Sound”? 

My only concern regarding the audience is clarity.  Will they understand it?  Yes, it’s fun to mess with the language and to depict challenging events, but none of that matters if you confuse and lose the reader.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen such a demand in fans over stories not being what they want them to be. What do you think of this sense of entitlement maybe growing among fans of movies, books, and other forms of entertainment? 

Here I have to shrug. Once you start trying to please everyone, you’re fucked. And the books and films that please huge audiences leave me cold. For example, I want the dinosaurs to eat the kids in every ‘Jurassic Park’. Then I want the dinosaurs to have sex. Still, you don’t see me pissing and moaning about the films not meeting my emotional needs..

I know the gym helps you when you’re stuck on a story. How so? What else helps you problem-solve when writing? 

The gym has always been my go-to place for making notes. Again, it’s that repetitive task that seems to generate unexpected ideas. Dickens walked twenty miles during a typical day of writing. Imagine how buff he’d be if he were writing in a real Gold’s Gym.

My writing workshop is an excellent way to test a premise or untangle a messy plot. Beyond that, repetitive tasks like splitting and stacking firewood are shown to stimulate interaction between the two halves of the human brain. This puts the stimulated person into a creative state. There, breakout ideas occur. Plus, that damned firewood is not going to split and stack itself.   

One of your new book’s lead characters Mitz, the serial killer, takes a lot of ambien with wine. Does Ambien help with writing at all? 

Ambien helps only as a reward. In effect: “I will keyboard my notes and edit four chapters. I will keep working until 8:00, when my reward will be an Ambien and eight glasses of wine.”  The next morning I will loathe myself, but that’s how books get written.  

How about marijuana? Have you ever found cannabis creatively inspiring? 

Dope makes me eat at McDonald’s. My ability to use language shrinks down to shouting orders at the drive-thru microphone. If I ever achieve a consistent income I’ll probably move into a Popeyes chicken place. None of that behavior helps my writing.

Any memorable experiences smoking pot? 

Oh, dear. Senior year in high school when I sucked down a party bowl with Bernie Pound (Kennewich High Class of 1979!) and we drank the bong water. Urp! Oh, and during Santa Rampage 2001 with the Cacophony Society when we drank “Reindeer Fucker,” basically Everclear infused with Sinsemilla. At a strip bar. I phoned Trent Reznor and coaxed a dancer to talk to him. Trent changed his phone number. No surprise, there.

Since “The Invention of Sound” is a Hollywood horror story, do you have many of your own Hollywood horror stories? 

The closest to a horror story I have is this: I once pitched a scripted series about anal sex to NBC/Universal. Three very beautifully groomed people stared at me in shock.  This was at the top of the NBC skyscraper next to Universal City. I’m lucky they called Security instead of an exorcist.  

Your new book deals with the idea of self, how we create or maintain our images, so is it safe to assume your public image and your authentic self are similar? 

Consider that I really, really thought that a paranormal romance about unprotected anal sex (doughnut glazing) would sell to a major network for a primetime American audience… that demonstrates that my image and my authentic self are pretty much the same deal. I said things like, “It’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir except with lots of bareback butt sex. Can we get James Franco, do you think?”

As someone fascinated by how society works, what do you make of a year like 2020? 

I think that every generation hopes to be the last to live a long, full life and then to see humanity wiped out. I think my generation might get that wish fulfilled. It will be nice not to wake up the next morning groggy and filled with self-loathing.

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