Snuff Author Chuck Palahniuk Predicts Columbine Porn
Beginning with the 1996 publication of his provocative book Fight Club, author Chuck Palahniuk has earned a reputation for writing things that many of us wouldn’t dare think, let alone put into print – and he hasn’t lost this quality during the intervening years. In the following Q&A, held in advance of his May 22 appearance at the Tattered Cover LoDo (click here for more details), he discusses Snuff, a new book set against the backdrop of the pornography industry. Along the way, he not only envisions the day when a porn entrepreneur will release a movie inspired by the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. He also suggests that such a movie will mark the moment when the nation will have healed once and for all from the trauma stirred by the incident.
The conversation begins with Palahniuk breaking down Snuff, which revolves around aging porn queen Cassie Wright’s plan to be filmed having sex with 600 men in a row. Included among this mob, assembled and shepherded by Sheila, the star’s assistant, are three characters initially known only by their place in the line: Mr. 72, who may or may not be Wright’s son (and who was rendered impotent when his mother told him about his parentage after walking in on him pleasuring himself to the star’s image); Mr. 137, a fading TV star hoping for a comeback, so to speak; and Mr. 600, the porn actor who initially lured Wright into the business. From there, Palahniuk talks about his own views about porn; the comparisons, or lack thereof, between the people who come to his book-signing appearances and those Snuff extras who wait to get a piece of the Wright stuff; his pride at the fight clubs that have popped up around the United States at high schools and plenty of other locales; the upcoming film adaptation of an earlier novel, Choke; and his next work, Pygmy, in which youthful terrorists come to America as foreign-exchange students in order to build weapons of mass destruction as science projects. Oh yeah: He also discusses the way porn has become “the great trivializer” of horrific events such as the sinking of the Titanic.
Can Columbine be next? Read on to find out:
Westword (Michael Roberts): Snuff has got to be the least erotic book about sex that I’ve ever read…
Chuck Palahniuk: Then you haven’t read Choke, then, have you?
WW: I haven’t read Choke. Does that one make this one seem sensual in comparison?
CP: Choke is so much more about compulsive behavior. Any kind of erotic or sensual aspect of sex is just completely missing. Sex is almost a sort of physical business to keep people acting onstage in Snuff.
WW: Be that as it may, I felt a bit like Mr. 72 after reading Snuff. I felt like I might never get an erection again.
CP: Sorry about that (laughs).
WW: Have you been hearing that kind of reaction from some of your early readers? How have people responded?
CP: Boy, you know, all I can really talk about is my workshop. When I was writing it and taking it into my workshop a chapter at a time last year, the workshop was entirely women. And they laughed. They were always laughing and they were occasionally shocked. They sort of forced me to take it to places where I would not have dared to go if it hadn’t been for nine women at the time saying, “You’ve got to depict vaginal waxing,” and “You’ve got to somehow have a scene with a sort of symbolic abortion.” That was an option she chose not to take. And so addressing the idea of abortion sort of led to the kegel scene, where she’s jogging. So God bless the women. Originally, the Sheila scenes weren’t even in there.
WW: Is that right?
CP: Yeah. It was just three men alternating. And the writers in my group said, “No, there’s got to be at least one female voice, and I didn’t want it to be Cassie because she’s sort of a screen that people project onto. So it was sort of peer pressure that led me to add all of the Sheila chapters.
WW: In retrospect, is that a decision you were glad you made?
CP: Really glad, because it opened up the narrative with these flashbacks, so you can see how the whole present situation came together.
WW: You mentioned that nothing is seen from the point of view of Cassie, and that was interesting to me in regard to construction. That she’s the screen people project upon: Is that something unique – or if not unique, at least central – to porn? Porn consumers don’t think about the person behind the acts they’re watching, and if they do, those acts lose a lot of their appeal?
CP: I wouldn’t even say porn. I’d say all movies. People don’t want the magic of that larger-than-life archetype destroyed. They want Brad Pitt to be the blond guy for a generation, and somebody else to be the brunette guy for a generation. They want these archetypes to be physical ideals that they can project their own desires and expectations on.
WW: Your mention of Brad Pitt makes me think there are probably some exceptions to that. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the movie he did with Angelina Jolie, where people brought their knowledge of their personal relationship, and that came into play in the way they interpreted their onscreen roles.
CP: Even that seemingly sort of insider knowledge isn’t really insider knowledge, because it’s garnered from people who are away from the two of them as people. People are in a way bringing to bear another public role onto this public role.
WW: In other words, we wouldn’t know about those aspects of their relationship unless they wanted us to know about them…
WW: The setting of Snuff leads naturally to questions about your opinions of porn in general, and your consumption of porn. Do you consider yourself a fan of pornography?
CP: Only as a sort of comfort thing. I love the fact that porn always ends the same way. It’s the same reason why my grandma went through a hundred Harlequin romances a year. They’re going to go through the same stations of the cross and everybody’s going to come: the end. There’s never going to be a big trick ending.
WW: Of course, we now refer to orgasms as happy endings, so that ties in as well.
CP: Biologically, it is. The imperative. Find a reproductive partner and somehow get your genes inside of it and replicate yourself. That’s a happy ending for a lot of folks.
WW: As a subject area, porn is seldom examined in what we think of as serious fiction. Why do you think so few writers like yourself take on porn as a subject?
CP: On one level, there’s a big divide between things that are sort of thought of as high culture and things that are thought of as low culture. Things that tend to be intellectual and emotional are thought of as high culture, but things that are thought of as very physical, like porn or horror and violence, sports, are thought of as low culture. So there’s a kind of mind-body separation between the perceptions of the two different kinds of storytelling. And we really forget to tell kind of visceral and bawdy stories, even though so much of Shakespeare was like that. There were those people in the audience that he had to appeal to as well, so there was a real physical, sexual nastiness, and blood and gore, to appeal to those folks. But for whatever reason, we’ve separated those two kinds of culture – called one good and the other one not so good. And on another level, I’ve always seen porn as the great trivializer. It so completely trivializes the events that are used as its context. In a culture, horrible things happen, and then we have talk about those things for decades and decades in order to kind of assimilate or come to terms with them. Things like the sinking of the Titanic or 9/11. We have to tell those stories until we’ve used them up or are even kind of bored of them. And porn is kind of the last station in that process. I love the fact that when I was doing research, I found at least a half dozen porn movies that used the sinking of the Titanic as their premise. “We’ve hit an iceberg. Everybody fuck!” And it really is a sign that as a culture, we are really sort of accepting a tragedy if we can eventually turn it into the premise of a porn movie. That’s really fascinating, too. Porn is the ultimate trivialization of real events.
WW: Some people might interpret your use of the term “trivialize” in a negative way, especially considering that you’ve talked about the moral basis of your books in the past. In Snuff, do you feel like you impose a moral judgment on porn? Or would you prefer the reader to make up his or her own mind?
CP: No, I really see porn as being part of the digestion process in some ways. This is how sociopathic I am. To me, that part of the digestion process is just as important as the breaking-news part. The first step is, “Breaking news: there’s been a shooting at Columbine High School.” And then there are a million journalistic reports on it. And then maybe sixty or seventy years down the road, there’s the first porn movie that uses that as its premise. It’s just one step in a long continuum to break down and resolve our reaction to huge events that we didn’t anticipate and can’t readily accept.
WW: The fact that so few mainstream authors have taken on porn: Was that one of the appeals of the topic for you? That if it isn’t entirely unexplored territory, it’s at least underexplored territory?
CP: Not really. In a way, I was kind of surprised that more people hadn’t gone into it. Years and years ago, a writer in my workshop told me about a documentary she’d just watched about Annabel Chong and the world record she set. [The 1999 film is called Sex: The Annabel Chong Story.] It took me a couple of years to see it, and then it was a couple of years after that when I started to hammer the book together. And all along, I just kind of expected that somebody else would be addressing this really interesting act of asceticism that had this odd feminist take on it – why shouldn’t women be able to suffer when setting a world record in the same way that men suffer when they climb mountains and things like that. It seemed to be so kind of multi-faceted that I was sort of surprised that a lot of people weren’t doing the exact same book.
WW: You focus on four major characters, and none of them qualify as the average porn fan. We mostly just observe the fans. Did you consider letting us inside one of those porn consumers? Or did the construction of the plot dictate that these four characters were the ones you’d focus upon?
CP: Going into it, each person had to have a story arch, had to have a motivation. And those motivations would be gradually realized or sort of revealed when they were in this confined situation together. And there would be this always present clock where you didn’t know when you’d be called to the stage to do your bit. With that in mind, I wanted to work three big archetypes. The veteran who really started all of this. And then the complete innocent, Mr. 72. And then the guy who’s kind of the outsider, the one who’s almost not even supposed to be there. And that would be number 137. Working from an archetype with a story arch tells you at least where you’re going to get to by their reveal, by the third act. Otherwise, you’d just be kind of flailing around. You wouldn’t know where that character needed to go by the third act. After the third act, I want to be surprised. In a way, I want to know what’s going to get them to the third act – what their big moment of confrontation is going to be.
WW: In reading some of your descriptions of this mass of people lined up to get to Cassie, it made me wonder if there might be a corollary to the masses of people lining up in front of you for a book-signing. Is there any connection?
CP: Well, the book-signing people tend to have all their clothes on. That’s a big difference. But there is that aspect of every job I’ve ever had where I’ve had a line of people snaking away from me. Every clerk job or assembly line job I’ve had where occasionally there was a big line of people, and there was that pressure. I just had to try to keep myself from freaking out, knowing that I’d be able to accomplish everything that needed to be done. And I think most of us have had that experience of watching a line get longer faster than we can help people. So there was that aspect of it.
WW: The cult that’s sprung up around you is certainly a widely varied one. Is there a similar mix to the one in Snuff– a blend of seemingly normal folks and obsessives and freaks and so on – in the crowds that come to your book events?
CP: I’d say the folks who come to the events are more likely to be younger people, because younger people will take action to come out to a book event, whereas a lot of more settled people will just read the book and be happy with that. So there’s younger people and people who come in groups. They tend to come in cliques or peer groups with their friends. That’s a big part, the biggest factor. If they’re my age, it’s typically because their son or daughter had to work that night. They’re there to get a book signed or to meet me on behalf of their child.
WW: The size of the fan base you have is quite unusual among most writers. When you talk to fellow authors, are they envious of that? Or in some way do they feel relieved that you instead of them has attracted all this attention?
CP: You know, we really don’t talk about readership – my friends who are also writers. We talk about writing, we talk about publishers, we talk about everything except for readership. And I think part of that is because a lot of people would love to see that line snaking away. They’d love to see all the folding chairs filled. But for most book events, that’s just not the case. And so, in a way, it’s an embarrassment of riches, so I don’t mention it to other writer friends. It’s like complaining that your diamond ring is too heavy.
WW: Is it surprising to you that not only has this sort of following has sprung up around you, but that it’s sustained for so long?
CP: It’s surprising that it happened. But my goal is always to write books for people who loved to read in second grade but had given up on books because they were being served so much better by other forms of storytelling. And I’m a little amazed that sort of the first generation of folks that I met on book tours ten years ago are now bringing their kids to the book events. That is shocking – to watch their kids grow up as babies. It’s really shocking now that I’m seeing a second generation of readers.
WW: Fight Club, which was the book that you were promoting on those first tours, has certainly become a major cultural touchstone, and it’s also spawned all kinds of imitators. There are plenty of high schools around the country that have underground fight clubs where kids get together to beat the hell out of each other. Are the people who participate in those kinds of clubs missing the point you were trying to make in that book? Did all of the nuance behind what you were writing somehow escape them?
CP: Not really – because, really, the book is about delivering yourself from isolation to community, and the way we need to see forms of community modeled for us in the same way that when we were kids, we would say, “Let’s play a game. We’re going to jump from board to board, and the boards are safe, but the ground around the boards are lava.” As long as we have a framework, a premise for being together, then we can engage in this form of community. And so as long as people are coming together and sharing a consensual thing they enjoy, that’s the entire point.
WW: So those bluenoses out there who want you to feel guilty about fight clubs popping up at high schools are out of luck? You’re fine with it?
CP: Oh my God, I’m tickled. I’m tickled pink with it.
WW: You mentioned Choke earlier, and I know a film version is due later this year. Have you seen a finished version yet?
CP: I saw it at Sundance, and it wasn’t the finished, finished film – but it was pretty darned close, and it got sold to Twentieth Century Fox.
WW: What were your impressions of the version you saw? Are you happy with it?
CP: I think they did just an extraordinary job – just a beautiful, beautiful job. There is a change in the ending that’s similar to the change in the ending that’s in the Fight Club movie from the book that I think will be controversial, and that people will either love or be pissed off about. I’ll leave that to other people.
WW: What was your opinion of it was? Were you positive about the change?
CP: I wouldn’t have noticed the change if I didn’t know the book. I thought the film worked just great on its own. But people who know the book, and who are attached to the book, might have stronger feelings.
WW: Given Fight Club’s long-term cult success, are you surprised that Hollywood’s taken so long to get around to adapting another one of your books.
CP: You know, Fight Club wasn’t a success for a long, long time. It didn’t do well in theaters, it was out of theaters within a month of its release, and it really was two or three years later, with the DVD, that it reached an audience. Then September 11 happened and so many transgressive stories got put away. I think we’re now far enough away from the horror of 9/11 that we can look at transgressive or sort of fatalistic romances again. So I’m not at all surprised.
WW: Do you ever think when you’re writing a book about whether it could be a movie? Or would that distract you from what you need to do to make the book work?
CP: I never think about that. In fact, I always think about what a book can do that a movie can’t do. And I need to do the things that a book can do: playing to the strengths of how a book can tell a story that a movie can’t. A movie has to be presented to a nonconsensual audience – someone who might be on an airplane or someone who just turns on a television. But a book has that constant, ongoing intimacy and consent from the consumer, who has to turn those pages, has to be smart enough to read those pages. So a book can really address things and go to places that a movie never, ever could. So those are the strengths that I want to play to.
WW: Can you imagine Snuff being made into a film? Or is this one pretty adaptation-proof?
CP: It started as a play, and as a play, I wasn’t very happy with it. But there are physical bits of the book that I could never really see translated to film. They would be too shocking and, I guess I would say, pornographic. There are scenes that I don’t think any actor is going to sign up to do on camera.
WW: What’s your next project?
CP: I just turned in a book this spring for next year. It’s called Pygmy. That will probably come out in the spring of 2009.
WW: Can you provide a little teaser about it?
CP: Pygmy is about a thirteen-year-old foreign-exchange student who comes over to the United States among maybe a dozen fellow exchange students who are twelve or thirteen-years old. And they’re from an unnamed totalitarian, dictatorial, maybe third-world country. And they’ve all been placed through this good Christian organization to live for six months with these nice, middle-class suburban families in the Midwest. And the truth, the gradual reveal, is that Pygmy and his fellow exchange students are all super-Ninja secret agents who’ve been trained from infancy in killing methods, and they’re all trained to exploit the families they’re with and gain government secrets, and then create science-fair projects that will be taken to Washington, D.C. for the finals – and the science-fair projects are weapons of mass destruction that will explode, killing millions of Americans. So that’s Pygmy.
WW: Another feel-good book…
CP: And it’s a love story. There’s a love story running all the way through it.
WW: I know you’ve talked about how your books are all love stories to one degree or another, and that a lot of times people have difficulty seeing that aspect of them.
CP: Go figure (laughs).