Chuck Palahniuk: The literary nerd’s equivalent to obsessing over The Backstreet Boys

Originally published on The Original Magazine’s old website,

Danielle Levsky spends a day with her literary idol, the legendary Chuck Palahniuk. Photos originally included on the official, website-published article. Click below to read more.

I started writing when I was a pre-pre-teen, in the gap between getting crushes on boys and the introduction of hormones, makeup, and tight dresses. Needless to say, my writing has improved since my bad, sappy, rhyming poems about the darkness of life and love. I wasn’t depressed; I just thought I was deep. At age 10. Cute, right?

As I grew up, my writing matured. I found older writers, mentors. I started reading different genres and authors with unique styles. The one writer that really struck a chord in me was none other than the notorious Chuck Palahniuk. The first book I read by him was Invisible Monsters (a less popular “first choice” novel by Chuck), and by the end of the chapter, high school freshman Dani was angry, outraged, disgusted, shocked, and the most inspired she had ever been in her life.

The simplicity yet utmost care that Chuck gives to each sentence is probably what I admire most. So imagine me, an aspiring writer on the fiction track at Pitt, when I find out Chuck is coming to speak here. I immediately buy tickets. To my disappointment, VIPs are sold out, so I go with general admission and I pre-order a copy of his new book Damned. My friend later gave me her position as usher so I could attend the VIP book signing and get two copies of my books signed (I adore the heck out of you, Haley Chizever).

Just when I thought I couldn’t be any more of a stalker fangirl, the Honors College literary magazine board sends a mass email to members that “spots are open to have lunch and discuss” Chuck’s latest book with him. I must have fallen out of my standard-issue dorm chair. Not because every time you lean back in it, you think your skull is going to crack open, but because I had not only a mental and vocal reaction, but a visceral one that made my body flail backwards and my hands shoot up in the air. And just like an N’SYNC fangirl, I went running to my friends to gush and swoon over my good fortune.

I received Damned in the mail and started reading it. I won’t give too much away, but it’s one of his most well-written, well-characterized stories yet… and it’s only part one. It centers around the narrator, Madison, a dead 13-year-old in hell, and how her experience there and how her past, living state affect how she views herself in the end.

At both the luncheon and the reading, there were few questions asked about the new book itself and more about Chuck’s writing style and life stories. In a neat, conference room within The University Club, Pitt students teemed with excitement before the luncheon came to an official start. At first, it seemed that the lit kids were too star struck to ask questions. I was among the star struck, but instead of staying quiet, I babbled.

I sat two seats down from Chuck and could not breathe for an hour and half, but when I asked my oddly, no, stupidly phrased question on technology’s impact on literature and future publishing, he started talking about having lunch with Neil Gaiman in Italy. I instantly melted… what I wouldn’t give to drink wine and slurp linguini with Gaiman and Palahniuk in Tuscany.

He gave a great answer to what I thought was a typical, not very thought-provoking question, but what struck me most was how he connected with me through eye contact. And not just me, anyone who asked a question received his undivided attention. He answered the individual, but at the same time, reached out to the room.

Throughout the question/answer luncheon, Chuck made it apparent that his main concern, when it came to writing, was sensory awareness. He told us several anecdotes about his own life and stories of others, without ever leaving out a detail.

The celebrated author is a genuinely great guy; he’s incredibly self-aware and in tune with his senses and surroundings. He’s a guy you’d love to hang out with for the afternoon. Compared to the gut-spilling, blood-sucking, nympho-homicidal maniacs of his novels, Chuck is a calm, down-to-earth man who loves a good story. Throughout the day, he referenced books, movies, TV shows, magazines, and celebrity happenings. The man just wants to hear something exciting and memorable. He mentioned that whenever a story leaves out an “inappropriate” or seemingly “unimportant” facet of a character’s day, he feels cheated.

During the evening event, however, the man’s true comedic talent was revealed (although he was already answering each question and comment with his own brand of dark humor). The event featured several games that entailed Chuck, and bestselling, Pittsburgh-bred novelist and event-moderator, Stewart O’Nan, flinging candy, blow-up brains, and, later, blow-up skeletons at the audience.

Chuck also introduced a short story called “Romance” that he wrote specifically for the book tour by telling the audience that, “Reading this story is like sex. Why, you ask? Because it’s your job to be quiet and my job to finish.”

While he reveals so much about himself, Chuck is also a very private man. At both the luncheon and the nighttime conference, he received questions that asked about his personal life as it relates to his books and characters. A man in the evening reading’s audience mentioned how characters in his books tend to be psychotic, neurotic, or just crazy in some form. He asked, “Does it ever worry you that you, Mr. Palahniuk, may in fact be a little crazy?” Chuck leaned over to him, smiled, and quoted straight out of “Romance”: “Everybody looks a little crazy if you look close enough.” During the luncheon, he hinted that he did not want his private life revealed in respect to his work during his lifetime, which suggests a post-mortem biography of shocking details on Chuck Palahniuk’s life… not that this would surprise his readers.

After the show, when the ushers were finally able to hand their books over to Chuck, I stood in line, nervous about what I’d say to him this time around. I’d babbled at him three times before: first at the luncheon, then after when I needed to tell him how awesome he was, then when he asked the ushers to assist him during the show. This was my final shot.

I asked him – and I think it was a valid question – how to improve my own writing process, how sometimes I get so stuck that I don’t write for a week or two at a time, and as a fiction/poetry writer, that’s a big deal. He asked me when I write the most and I told him, mostly when I’m upset or angry. He handed me a signed book and told me: “Wait until you get sad, and you will get sad, then write again.”


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