Earlier this morning I interviewed Chuck Palahniuk (unfortunately by phone--though I've met him before as this very low resolution photo shows), who has achieved cult status in the literary (and cinematic) world. He's become a lightning rod writer--people have strong opinions about him and harsh reactions to his work. He is the guy, after all, who wrote that story, which features in exquisite detail, the process of a teen boy's intestines being sucked out his butt by a pool vacuum, and most recently, Rant, a novel about a rabies-spreading hillbilly possible serial killer.
I've always been intrigued by cult status--by people who develop ardent and strange fans, the kind that hold conferences dressed in character, act out scenes from the author's work, ask for samples of the person's blood and hair, and generally elevate the author to a mythic status. I always wonder how much the author cultivates the following themselves, and how much of it just happens. The more you read about Chuck P. the more you understand why his following developed. Yes, he's a fantastic writer, but there's also a freaky trail of tragedy and comedy that seems to follow him.
So naturally I was nervous to talk to him. Mostly because when someone has been hefted up so high on the shoulders of geeks and obsessives, well, they can become strange. Or mean. Or full of ego. Or any number of things.
So imagine my surprise when this soft-spoken (so soft that at times I could barely hear him), kind, even sweet man comes on the line and proceeds to talk intelligently and thoughtfully. Maybe he read me better than I read him--knew to give me shy and sweet over rebellious and rash. If so, he's one hell of an actor.
Back when I first read Invisible Monsters, even after Fight Club-the movie's success, I thought he was under-appreciated. Then of course, the whole crazy superstardom ballooned, and I admit that even I fell under the spell of believing that fame had "changed" him...that maybe he really was trying to out-shock himself with each successive book. He even spoke about how he has to turn off and deny the idea of his fans, and the stuff that gets projected onto him.
What I took away, the lasting impression of the interview, was that Chuck P. is out to shock himself, to prove that no matter how many times you sit down at the page, you still have something to learn.
I like the idea of using writing to surprise ourselves. I'm glad I did the interview.