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How Chuck Palahniuk's "Fight Club" Came to Life

Today's author writes about people who prefer to live their lives rightly. They try to make everything seem normal, even when it's not. Especially when it's not. But the author himself isn't like one of his characters. He admits that in his life truth is sometimes weirder than fiction. His biography is not what we consider a perfect life, but that's what makes it inetersting. And most of all: it's really difficult to say where reality ends and the storytelling begins.

Chuck Michael Palahniuk was born on February, 21st 1962 in Pasco, Washington into an economically underprivileged family and spent his early years in a mobile home in Burbank, Washington. The surname, Palahniuk, which is Ukrainian in origin, can be spelled and pronounced numerous different ways. According to Chuck, his paternal grandparents decided to pronounce it as a combination of their first names, Paula and Nick. (The 'Old World' pronunciation would be something like PAH-la-NYOOK).

But Chuck never knew his father’s parents. As recounted in an interview with The Independent, his grandfather shot and killed his grandmother after an argument over the cost of a sewing machine. Chuck’s father, who was three at the time, watched from under a bed as Nick Palahniuk searched the house for additional victims, before turning the gun on himself. In the article, Chuck is quoted saying, "My grandfather was hit over the head by a crane boom in Seattle. Some of the family claimed he was never a violent, crazy person before that. Some say he was. It depends who you believe." The tragic event is described in Stranger Than Fiction.

His parents, Carol and Fred Palahniuk, separated and divorced when he was fourteen, leaving Chuck and his siblings (a brother and 4 sisters) to spend much of their time on their maternal grandparent’s cattle ranch.

We don't know much about his school years, only what he revealed in his writing. In 1980 he graduated from Columbia High School in Burbank, winning the award for “Most Wittiest”. Regarding his interest in writing, Chuck said its thanks to Mr. Olsen, his fifth grade teacher, who told him: Chuck, you do this really well. And this is much better than setting fires, so keep it up.

5th grade poem

After high school, Chuck attended the University of Oregon, graduating with a BA in journalism in 1986. He entered the workforce as a journalist for a local Portland newspaper, covering everything from school board meetings to murders, but soon grot bored of the job. He then got hired as a diesel mechanic, repairing trucks and writing technical manuals. It was during this time that Chuck experienced much of what would become an inspiration for his early work, including working as an escort for terminally ill hospice patients and becoming a member of the notorious Cacophony Society. The Cacophony Society was dedicated to experiencing things outside of the mainstream and performing large-scale pranks in public places. Project Mayhem in Fight Club is a reworked, more violent version of Cacophony Society in which Palahniuk participated.

In his mid-thirties he attended a writing course, but the instructor told him that he made other participants uncomfotable and suggested he should attend a workshop hosted by Tom Spanbauer, a minimalist guru behind the art of “Dangerous Writing.” The resulting short story, Negative Reinforcement, appeared in the literary journal Modern Short Stories in August 1990, and is Chuck’s first known published work. The Love Theme of Sybil and William followed in October.

Tom Spanbauer

During that course he wrote what was his first attempt of a novel: If You Lived Here, You’d be Home Already. It was a 700-page-long and he tried to immitate Stephen King's style. Whenever he tried to send it to an agent or publisher, they were saying the tone is too dark. That's when Chuck decided to recycle some parts of it and created Fight Club, his personal protest against this “discrimination” of darker, more sarcastic style. It was even darker than If You Lived Here, You’d be Home Already.

With that he a book deal with a major publisher. But it wasn't until 20th Century Fox took notice that Chuck found an agent in Edward Hibbert (best known as Gil Chesterton, the food critic on Frasier,) who would go on to broker the deal for Fight Club the movie. Chuck didn't actively participate in doing the film, but he toured the set and met all the staff.

Directed by David Fincher, the adaptation of Fight Club was a flop at the box office, but achieved cult status on DVD. The year of its release, the film was Fox’s top selling disc, and critics everywhere finally began to embrace it. The film’s popularity drove sales of the novel, resulting in multiple re-printings over the next few years. Curiously enough, this book is the one most often stolen from bookshops all around the world.

From that moment Palahniuk could focus solely on writing and his magnificent promotional tours. He's known of buying prompts himself (plastic limbs to autograph them? Check! Candies? Check!). But he also participates in more serious events (in 2012 he was a guest at Gutun Zuria and the talk he gave was really interesting). He “produces” a novel a year, more or less and wasn't slowed down (not a lot) even by the scandal when his agent stole all the income he had in the last years leaving him bancrupted.

Chuck Palahniuk at Gutun Zuria 2012 (Bilbao)

So, how exactly was Fight Club created? The story goes that Chuck was in a fight one night... He was camping with his friends and there was an argument about too loud music with neighbouring campers. He got into a brawl and on Monday went to work with his face smashed up. What surprised him was that no one commented on that, no one asked what happened. Everyone pretended they don't see it. That was what made him think of an underground fight club that no one would ever mention.

Another curiosity is that all the recipes in the book (soap, bombs, etc.) were original. One could sit and do the things themselves, following the instructions. Chuck found it all on the internet. Yes, it's out there! But the publisher decided it's too dangerous and in each recipe they changed some detail, an ingridients, an order and now it's impossible to use them. (Don't try it at home!)

So that's how, 22 years after publishing Fight Club, his first novel, Chuck Palahniuk is still refered to as “that guy who wrote Fight Club”.

To finish, the novel belongs to what we call transgressive fiction, a genre that Palahniuk himself defined as “fiction in which characters misbehave and act badly, so they commit crimes or pranks as a way of either feeling alive, gaining a sense of personal power or as a political acts of civil disobedience” (Postcards from the Future). Most books of the genre explore taboo subjects such as drugs, violence, sex, incest, crime, pedophilia, or highly dysfunctional family relationships. This genre is commonly represented by writers like Bret Easton Ellis, Irvine Welsh or Douglas Coupland. Often depicting the abovementioned controversial topics using accessible forms of narration, these authors represent a radical new generation of popular-democratic American literary tradition. Inspired by authors like Kurt Vonnegut and his openly satirical approach, they provide social criticism in a manner that is accessible and attractive to the audience, using the writing techniques similar to the ones used famously by the authors like Ernest Hemingway or Jack Kerouac. After September, 11th, 2001 most publishers refused to publish books of this genre considering them too dangerous. Palahniuk agreed with them: “ You can only stand on a soap box and beat a drum for so long before you just turn it into a wallpaper. Maybe it‘s time that societal commenting has to be charming, seductive and really entertaining the way it had to be in 1940s and 50s” and at the same time the style of his novels evolved, but he hasn't lost his critical eye and sarcastic tone!

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