Exclusive Interview with Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk, writer of Choke, Fight Club, and the new book Tell-All sat down for a phone interview with The Daily Iowan from a hotel room in Boston.

Daily Iowan: Where did you get the inspiration for this book, or the characters in the book?
Chuck Palahniuk: The very first incident — and it all came really tightly together — was when I was in New York doing promotions for the movie Choke, which is my fourth book. I was touring together with Sam Rockwell for a long period of time, and he was talking about making a movie about Jesse James with Brad Pitt. And he stopped speaking, and he became very self conscious. He said, “Listen to me, just listen to me go on. I just say ‘Blah, blah, blah, Brad Pitt. Blah, blah, blah, Brad Pitt.’ It sounds like I have some weird form of name-dropping Tourette’s Syndrome.” And that’s just such a really genuine, insightful moment, when I can say that even celebrities are afraid of being accused of name dropping.

But then it’s a bit more insidious, because it led them to self-censoring anything they said about their own lives, because most of their peers are also celebrities. They didn’t want to take about their lives for fear of being accused of name dropping. And so, I thought that was kind of heartbreaking.

That same weekend I was in a car with some publishing executives, and they were talking about Lillian Hellman. A lot of them had been asked as much younger people to do research into very specific aspects of travel in Europe. And, it was only when Hellman’s autobiography was published that they realized that they had been basically assigned to do the research that she used to write about her own life. And they had been roped into what now looked like a big fictionalized lie. They couldn’t really conflict it, because they didn’t want to be fired. They told me they were sort of unwilling accomplices in this big lie. And so they still are very resentful of that fact. And they also talked about a large number of celebrity biographies that are sitting in publishing houses, just waiting for certain living celebrities to die. In the same way that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood sat for years, waiting for the execution of the two murderers. They just sit there and sit there, but as soon as their subject dies, someone just slaps another two page chapter on the book, and it’s in bookstores within a week of the death. It’s like little hyenas waiting for their subject to die. It’s so dismal, but appealing about that — books are just waiting for their subjects to die. The story is waiting to take over from the truth.

The fourth element — I’ll leave it at four — was when I was in Sundance with the people that made Choke, and they were getting a distributor for the movie. I couldn’t help but notice these incredible, beautifully-groomed movie stars, and they would appear in public for a promotion. They were completely unencumbered — they didn’t have a coat or a purse of anything. They would seemingly just wander freely through Park City, Utah, being photographed like animals wandering through the landscape. But walking about 10 or 12 steps behind them, there would be a kind of plain, overweight woman, who would be just completely burdened with all of the makeup cases, and the purses, and coats, and tote bags — everything that went into maintaining the beauty of this beautiful actor or actress. They were sort of pack-mules … They weren’t in the photographs, but whenever they were needed they would rush over and they would tuck in a stray hair or help apply a little more makeup. They’d check every detail. So I was sort of fascinated with these people, whose job it was to make this kind of perfection and beauty. That’s where I got the idea for Hazie, the protagonist in the book.

DI: Can you talk a bit about the references in the book? What went into the research for this book?
CP: A lot of the research didn’t go into the actual content of the book, it went into the structure of the book. And I’m always looking for nonfiction structure that I can use to tell made-up, really outlandish stories. So old gossip columns in the 1930s and 40s, like Walter Winchell’s column, Ed Hooper, things that just sort of evolved into tape-sets. I really needed to know how those worked, and I needed to know the conventions of them, so that I could replicate them in the basic structure of the book itself. So I was researching a lot of spoken language for all of the cinematic structure, as well as the convention of all of those syndicated gossip columns, so then I could replicate that structure, and use it to tell this fictional story.

It’s funny how all the research into the structure never really gets acknowledged, but the content was researching the story of female stars of that period — how they rose from obscurity, how they were typically taken and groomed by someone, how they went through a series of marriages — with each marriage serving a different specific purpose in a different phase of their life or career. But at the end of their lives, they would have this companion, this grooming person, who would basically care for them until they died. They would die in usually kind of dismal circumstances. Researching the lives of all these people like Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Ava Gardner — so I could create a kind of composite of all of them, that would resonate with the idea of all of them. Right now you can only imagine how many Liz Taylor biographies are sitting in publishers’ shelves, waiting for Liz Taylor to die. The numbers are probably staggering. Imagine all those different versions of you waiting to take over the moment that you die.

DI: What effect do you hope that the structure of the book, and the references within the book have on people?
CP: I never really try for a specific effect. If anything I just hope that people see aspects of our time that we kind of think of as just our time. The way that identities are imposed on people through the media, and that the nature of gossip, what we now think of as blogs — we think of as Brangelina and Bennifer — we tend to think of these phenomena as being really modern and of our time, but actually these things are ancient. My goal is to get people to recognize that all of these things are repetitions of historical patterns. They’re different patterns, and it’s upsetting if we see ourselves as part of that. It’s sort of a continuing, unending pattern of human behavior.

DI: Why did you decide to write the story in first person, from the perspective of Hazie Coogan?
CP: Well, number one, these sort of grooming-support people that I saw at Park City, Utah at Sundance — I found them so incredibly compelling. They’re like puppet masters. They seem to be servants, but they’re actually really kind of the masters of everything. It’s from the aspect of the philosopher Heidegger, who I’ve always found appealing. It’s the nature of power relationships — whether the king is really in power, or whether the people who provide food for the king are in power. There really is no clear hierarchy. But in a way each one holds power in their own way. It’s also *Sunset Boulevard*, the character we don’t see a lot of is Max, the butler. We see a lot of Nancy Olson, we see a lot of Norma Desmond, but we don’t delve into Max’s character. I’ve always wanted to see that story told from the perspective of the servant, of Max, who orchestrated so much of that. In a way Max is a survivor, the only one who could tell that story, because everyone else was destroyed by it.

DI: Going back to the nature of these power relationships and the balance of power, is that why you incorporated stage directions and told the story as if the speaker were directing it?
CP: Exactly. You know, you’ve got to have some form of that visually establishing of things, and physical direction of the perspective. For that purpose, it would be kind of organic of the story itself. It seems perfect, because in a way Hazie is the director, she is the one calling the shots.

DI8: In the book, there are a few references to art imitating life, or life imitating art. Do you consider Tell-All to be one of those?
CP: That’s a tough one, because in a way Tell-All is a hybrid, because it does draw from so many real things. But just the fact that they are real things — and combine so many real things — and I collect them, sort of makes them of the world. But I would say that it’s a hybrid, it is kind of a distillation of two things.

DI: You actually mention Iowa City in the book, as one of the places that Kathie Kenton is given a key to. Is there any specific reason behind that?
CP: Name-dropping! See how you read? We all do that. We read looking for a connection to our own lives. Do you remember the Huey Lewis and the News song, “The Heart of Rock and Roll” is still beating? It was this song from the ‘80s, and in the end there’s a fade out with this long series of shout-outs. Huey Lewis doing a shout-out “To Portland, Oregon,” “To Spokane, Washington,” “Cincinnati, Ohio!” It must be two or three minutes of continuous shout-outs, and people love that song. Chances were really good that your city or your town was mentioned in the song. And the people of Portland — where I lived at the time, they really love the fact the Huey Lewis was saying their city. So, that’s why Iowa City is in there. The more stuff I can cram in there, the more likely there would be something that resonates with everybody. It’s kind of a sweet thought.

DI: What commentary are you trying to make about either old-Hollywood, or the celebrity-worship culture that continues today?
CP: In a way, it kind of goes back to Heidegger. I’m always fascinated by ways in which people manipulate power — how they try to acquire power. One way is by name-dropping, like creating new associations that will sort of ignite them in someone else’s mind with some other thing that has a great deal of power. And so, in a way, the whole book is a kind of exploration of how power is gained from other people: how people manipulate each other, people manipulate each other in order to gain power. There’s one particular instance where the politicians are complimenting and providing awards to Katherine Kenton — but they’re only doing it to stand in the spotlight for a long period of time themselves. They’re only doing it because it makes them look really gracious, and part of the Katherine Kenton mystique is sort of hooking their wagon to her star. The book is about how everyone uses each other to try to increase their own power.

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