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Chuck Palahniuk | interview | writer | Lullaby | book | Lollipop

Chuck Palahniuk

An interview with Chuck Palahniuk
by Amanda Nash

Best known for being the author of Fight Club, but also revered for his other books (Invisible Monsters, Survivor, and Choke), Chuck Palahniuk is on tour for a new book, Lullaby. The lullaby is actually an African culling song which appears in a book of bedtime poems and puts the listener to sleep... for good. Only two people have discovered the potency of the poem, one a reporter who's been assigned to investigate Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and the other a real estate dealer who sells - and resells - haunted houses (think Annette Bening in American Beauty... but with a cloud of pink hair and a license to kill). Unfortunately, our protagonist, the reporter, is not too adept at controlling his impulse to invoke the poem, and as the story unfolds, a trail of not entirely intentional murders occurs.

The reporter, Carl, and the real estate agent, Helen, along with Helen's Wiccan secretary, Mona, and Mona's anarchoenvironmentalist boyfriend, Oyster, take it upon themselves to hit the road on a mission to rid the world of the deadly book of poems (or at least the offending page). That's the ostensible reason for their trip. In fact, they seem to be together more to hold each other hostage than to do anything altruistic (think that guy played by Robert Brown in the original Star Trek who has to wrestle with himself for all eternity). But they do pursue their mission, and, of course, hilarity ensues. Well, grim hilarity.

Meanwhile, Helen continues to transact real estate business from her cell phone, replete with talk of bleeding walls, heads rolling down stairs, and other things that go bump in the night. Mona discovers more spells which may or may not be changing the nature of the characters' relationships to each other. Oyster continues to administer an anarchistic anti-corporate ad campaign. And Carl, who is such damaged goods from the loss of his own child that he has almost no personality at all, just keeps knockin' people off.

What is Lullaby really about? Well, there's something in it for everyone. It's about our loss of family. It's about how we've ruined the environment. It's about how our brains are so polluted by random noise and advertising that we can no longer control our own actions. It's about how we're so addicted to this noise and advertising that we can't even let ourselves think.

But, as always, when Palahniuk writes or talks, there's a streak of dauntless optimism suffused through his gruesome tales. The characters do create their own warped kind of family, and they do manage to accomplish something for the greater good. And even if everything falls apart at the end - as it invariably does in Palahniuk's novels - the good intentions of a few flawed individuals stumbling along on their own path leaves the world a slightly better place.

I saw you speak supporting Choke at the Harvard Coop last summer, and the thing that really struck me was your interest in how people want to be individuals, how they want to differentiate themselves from the crowd, but then they feel alienated and want to become a part of something. I don't see as much of that in your new book, Lullaby.
I started to get trashed for having done four books about personal identity, so I really wanted to move as much away from that as I could. That's why I'm dealing with family issues, and power issues within families, and censorship issues, which is really what Lullaby's about. It's sort of my shot at recreated society too, because I used the protagonist to represent the entrenched aristocracy in a culture. People born with power have no idea how to get power, but they've always had it, so they always want it. The female character, Helen, is like the bourgeoisie; she's managed to attain a certain amount of power, but she really, really would love to have more. She would love to be in the aristocracy. And then Mona and Oyster are like the proletariat. They're disenfranchised, they have no power, and they're willing to do whatever they can to get any amount of power. I wanted to play with that too, as well as the family dynamic.

About Oyster: It starts out he's placing these ads and the reader doesn't understand what that's about for quite a while. Then at the end when he's got the spells and he starts to really sort of "work" what he wants to do... it's sort of like he wants to dismantle things but it's not clear what he wants to create in their place, or whether he wants to create anything in their place.
In a way, Oyster would really like to attain a world without people. The opposite end of the spectrum of a world that is simply of and for people would be a world in which people do not have a place whatsoever, in which people are extinct.

But he doesn't go killing them all like Carl does...
No, but he would really like to.

And Mona... is she sort of like an earth mother?
She shares a lot of Oyster's ideals, but she's what sort of tempers Oyster. She's the one who makes sure he doesn't get what he needs to destroy the world. She's not quite as convinced that it needs to be that radical a change. Earth mother is just a label; no, she's sort of a modified Oyster, a less extreme Oyster.

I kept waiting for the point at which Carl would reveal himself to the reader. But he never really does; he never really gets a personality.
Like the protagonist in Fight Club, who never does get a name, I don't want to make a first-person narrator too much on the page. I want the reader to step into that identity. If you put too much ego, too much backstory in the narrator, you don't leave enough room for the reader to experience things. You destroy the immediacy of the story. Suddenly, instead of being an adventure for the reader, it becomes something filtered through another person, and I don't want that. Identity and character is an ongoing thing from moment to moment, and too much backstory really slows the story down. It pulls us out of the action and the forward movement. I want every moment to be representational of every past moment. We do tend to sort of loop, live the same moment over and over, make the same decisions over and over.

You get into these little obscure areas, and you really seem to know a lot about them, like how the paramedics talk, the way livor mortis was described, and the purge fluids and all that stuff.
It's all research. It's me researching something I want to know about, something I have a personal investment in, but something I need to justify by making a story about it. In the case of that, I wanted to understand the last twenty minutes of my father's life, what they must have been about, and physically what he must have gone through. I did a huge amount of forensic research so I could sit down with a medical examiner and ask the kind of questions that would elicit the responses that would tell me what my dad had gone through. Whether he'd suffered, how he'd suffered... then I made it into a story.

I know your dad was murdered, but I don't know anything more about it. Do you talk about that?
A little. I'll talk about it in a sort of detached way, but I won't talk about my reaction to it.

My father answered a personals ad, and ended up dating a lawyer who'd previously been married to a man she'd met while teaching legal skills in the prison system. This ex-husband had abused her, and she'd divorced him and was going to testify to send him back to prison. In return, he threatened to kill her and her children and anyone he ever found her with. So, on their third date, my father was bringing her home, and the ex-husband was waiting in the driveway. He killed them both, and then apparently burned their bodies in her house. This was in May of 1999, just before the Fight Club movie came out.

My father's parents both died when he was little. My grandfather just sort of... nobody really knows if he just went acutely nuts or slowly nuts, but one day he killed my grandmother, and then he spent the day trying to find my father to kill him. He eventually ended up just killing himself. But my father's first memories are of hiding under a bed, hearing his father calling his name, and knowing that if his father found him, he would kill him. So my father spent his whole life trying in a way to find his mother by having relationship after relationship. Then when he eventually found his dream relationship - because he really seemed to love this woman - suddenly the man with the gun comes back and kills them.

Oh my god, that's amazingly strange and horrible.
And you know what her personal ad was headlined? "Kismet." [Fate.] Isn't that creepy?

Really creepy.
I didn't know that until the medical examiner gave me a copy of her personals ad. It said "Kismet;" it just freaked me out. But he was incredibly happy, until that last twenty minutes. People had seen them together on that date, before he brought her home. And all the witnesses said that he was just gloriously in love and happy. So why ignore all of that and dwell on the last twenty minutes?

We always dwell on the peculiar or the awful.
Yeah, we always do, we always get stuck on the misery. We don't get scars from the really good things, so we don't really remember or acknowledge the good things for very long.

Well, you don't get scars, you get something else, you build strength... but I don't think that's as easy to pinpoint.

Back in the realm of things you've studied... Oyster gives a lot of arguments against eating animal products, all the torture that's done to animals. Did you already know that stuff? Did you go out and study it?
I studied it, and I found out way more than I wanted to know. Where I live is very agrarian, and I know a lot of people who are involved in factory farms. It's a very matter-of-fact way of life for them. "How long does a cow live?" "As long as you want it to." They're very frank and honest.

So most of your time is spent researching, not writing?
Oh, yeah. When I say the book took six weeks to write, it took six weeks to write, but it took about a year and a half to research.

Is that why you got into writing, because you wanted to learn about things?

When you were little, is that what you always wanted to do?
I used to read the Jack London books, like Call of the Wild. My brother and I would read them and we always thought that life would be one adventure after another. That's why I got a journalism degree, because I thought that I would be getting paid to have adventures. But instead, I was getting paid to go to city council meetings, which wasn't the same thing. I've sort of come back to that childhood dream, by having the excuse, having the permission, to go out and do these things that I would naturally be fascinated by.

Do you formulate your book ideas around what you want to know, or do you have an idea first and then go research it?
It's different with each book. Sometimes I'll get the structure or the context for the telling first. Like in Survivor... the idea of telling a story into an in-flight recorder knowing that you and the plane would be destroyed, but your story, just your story would exist and people would come and find it. I was in love with that idea. I didn't care about anything else in the story, I just wanted to somehow tell a story in that context. Sometimes the context is first, sometimes the characters are first; it's always different.

I'm curious about one of the underlying themes in Lullaby, the thing about noise pollution and advertising, and how people are incapable of being quiet; you keep referring to "the quiet-ophobics, the noise-aholics." Is that you? Are you intolerant of noise?
Yeah. I'm intolerant about noise that's just for the sake of noise. There's always some sort of a soundtrack in public places; it's like they think we can't tolerate silence, like every moment has to be filled up with something or we might get a chance to think. Have you noticed the music in here?

No, not really, why? It seems pretty innocuous...
It's innocuous, but it's unnecessary. It's like they think something terrible would happen if we just had silence. And what's weird is that it seems to get louder and quieter; sometimes when it gets quiet in here, the music suddenly gets louder.

Heh, it's funny that you feel that way because we call you the Rock Star Writer. You have kind of a rock star lifestyle, or at least a rock star reputation. Would you prefer to not be the Rock Star Writer? Would you prefer it if your books were just out there, and you didn't have to involve yourself personally so much?
Oh, enormously. I think all writers are writers because they'd like to do their thing and send it off by remote control and just stay home while that thing represents them in the world and interacts with people so that they don't have to. Writers aren't writers because they're outgoing, they're writers because they're sort of introverted.

But don't you love it when you do these appearances and 500 to 1000 people show up??
Oh, I love that part, I love the interaction, and the sort of back-and-forth and the play and all of that. But the physical drain is just grueling. You're signing and handshaking for five-and-a-half hours, and half your body just wants to be dead.

But what if you just did the readings and signed a few books and then said you were done, like other writers do? You don't want to turn people away...
I don't. I would swear that 80-90% of the people at my book events have never been to a book event before. I don't want their first one to be a shitty one. I want them to have such a good experience that they will come back to other book events with other people.

But will they only come back to you?
I don't write often enough.

Yeah, you know, you really should write faster.
Oh god, no... But you know, in college, we were taught that the people who read five or more books a year are the people who run the world. The people who have the resources and really run the culture. I've always thought of reading as synonymous with taking responsibility and being active in the culture.

A lot of people stop reading after college. A lot of people I know just read magazines and newspapers.
Part of me thinks, "Boy, and we complain about the literacy rate among young people..." I don't know if it's really young people, or it's just that books have sort of failed this generation. Why shouldn't people be drawn to other sorts of cultural distractions or entertainments that are so much more compelling than books have become?

And there's that attention span problem...
But you can draw people back, you can rebuild that attention span, you can give them rewards. People read my books in one sitting, and these are people with no attention span. It's just starting the habit. You don't want to start with the toughest books. Start with my books, start with Harry Potter books. But at least you get the habit started...

On the subject of separating yourself from your work: The assumptions people make about you from having read your books, do you enjoy them, do you find them annoying?
I can't control that. In a way, it's really sort of sweet and touching, because it tends to say far more about them than it does about me. There was a rumor going around that I lived in a castle, that I refused to sign books, and that I interacted with no one. Then there was one that I was Bret Ellis' secret lover. I hadn't even met him, but he did an incredible blurb for Fight Club, for the British edition.

What did it say?
Something about "Palahniuk may be our generation's Don DeLillo." And my guilty secret is that I haven't read many of the books by the people I'm compared to.

Did you read (DeLillo's) White Noise?

One of the themes in it is about free will, about "random synaptical firings," and how you make decisions. How you don't really know if you're making your own decision, whether it's just some neurological thing, or some outside event that just happened to occur at the time you were making the decision. I was reminded of that by what you were saying about advertising in Lullaby, about how your head gets filled up with all this noise and - I don't know how you put it - something about random spells that could be being created... the conjunction of different things. I ran into a man at the airport who told me about this government project to dig these enormous mile-long trenches in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in Tri-Cities, Washington, and there's one other place, so they form a triangle. And in these mile-long trenches, they run these fine red lasers to measure pulses of gravity that come from enormous catastrophes in deep space. There are theories that when these gravitational fields pass through momentarily, that's when we experience things like insight and deja vu and precognition. And scientists are the people saying this! They're trying to build the third one of these trenches so they can start to triangulate the information using all three locations. That sort of fits in with the whole question of how we come up with ideas and inspiration.

It would be disturbing to think it was all external, wouldn't it?
But that idea dates back to the ancient Greeks, who thought the muse just sort of came down... The weird, synchronistic, meaningful coincidences that Karl Jung wrote about are just so bizarre and so magical and unexplainable. When David Fincher made the rough cut of Fight Club, he asked me to come down and see it, so I flew down to Los Angeles. When I was in the Portland airport gate area, there was a guy wearing this really funky little hat, a 1950s businessman's sort of hat. I pointed him out to my friend Mike who I was taking with me, and I said "You've got to get one of those hats, it's a great little hat," and we laughed about the guy. We ended up sitting next to him on the plane. We never spoke to him. At one point, I took the emergency card out of the pocket in front of me and showed it to Mike saying "Fincher is making some fake pocket cards; they're going to be a sight gag in the movie." We get to Los Angeles, see the movie, and three days later, Fincher takes me to an ad agency called Paper, Rock, Scissors that's handling the release of the movie. He says "you've got to meet the guy who designed the fake pocket cards for the movie." And you know who this is?

No kidding!! And he didn't say anything when you were on the plane?
The same guy walks in the room, looks at me, and our mouths just drop open. He says "I heard you talking about the pocket card on the plane, and I thought, ‘There is no way that that could be Chuck Palahniuk sitting next to me.'" He said he overheard me talking about it thinking, "No, this is so impossible, it can't be what I think it is." Maybe we live so much in denial of magic things like that that we no longer really see them...

Do you find that people respond to you in strange ways when they find out you're a writer?
I've only been a writer since I was 31. And until three years ago, I worked as a mechanic on freightliners. I got so little respect when I said I was a diesel truck mechanic that I really enjoy the respect I get as a writer. It seems almost like a mythic thing in our culture to be able to make your living selling lies.

They're stories, there's a difference between a story and lie! (laughs)
There's a really incredible quote from an artist, a contemporary of Picasso, who said that "art is the lie that tells the truth better than the truth." Art comments on things better than when they're literally commented on. I've always loved that quote.

Let me ask you about Lullaby's protagonist, Streator, whose real name we don't know... are you smiling at the jazz?
Yeah. More and more on book tour, when I'm in big, elegant, clean, empty rooms like this where you can hear people without seeing them, I realize that when Stephen King wrote The Shining, he was writing about book tour. You're in hotels, you're exhausted, you drink a lot, it's hard to sleep at night, and you really can't do much writing. I know he was writing about book tour.

You should get in touch with him.
I would love to get in touch with him.

You seem like you have a lot of friends. Do you have friends everywhere?
Yeah. It's really a juggling act. I have a lot of correspondents.

At your last signing, you talked about how you go to parties and run ideas by your friends. I want to go to those parties!
They're the same parties you go to. Everybody does that.

Yeah, but not everybody comes up with something really great when they're done.
I don't know, in a way that's a compulsion. Maybe these things should be said, laughed at, and let die. But I want to write them down and preserve them; I can't let go of those things. I'm like a magpie when it comes to really clever things or really insightful things people say.

Do you involve your friends in your writing?
I involve them in that I'll bounce ideas off them for their reactions, or ask them to read drafts. I use my friends as my beta testing group. If they squirm or laugh, that's a good sign.

I liked your dedication in Lullaby: "For the people who read my stuff when nobody read my stuff."
They were the first five people who ever read my books and wrote to me.

Oh! I thought they were friends of yours.
No, they're friends of mine now. But they all wrote to me when Fight Club came out as a hardcover, and very few people bought it.

On [Public Radio's] Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, you talked about how some editors and publishers told you you needed to be more commercial...
I was told that my work was too upsetting and dark to ever be published. At that point, I sort of gave up, and decided to make it more dark and more outrageous. And that's what did the trick; when I gave up trying to make it commercially and just went the opposite way.

Were you a dark, scary child?
I don't think so... No, but my family has a really dark sense of humor, and a coping tendency to make jokes out of dark things. The biggest family thing I ever used was, in Fight Club, the narrator tells an anecdote about his grandmother getting a partial mastectomy. She's walking out of the hospital with her husband, who's carrying her suitcase, and he said "Jeez, I feel lopsided." And she said "You feel lopsided!" It was such a funny, dark moment, I just thought it was hilarious. But my mother was furious! She really saw that as a betrayal of a family secret.

My dad, when he was in the hospital right before he died, asked us to bring him his wallet, his suitcase, and his sunglasses. We thought it was hysterical. Other people didn't think it was that funny...
In a way, that's so sweet. Because they also joke about these things to comfort the people around them. When we were cleaning up my dad's stuff, sorting out his possessions and all, my siblings and I kept coming across these prescriptions for Viagra. We would be weeping and weeping, and then we'd find this big thing of Viagra and we just started laughing. "It must have been love," was all we could say.

In the Wordsworth listings, your book was categorized as horror fiction. I don't think of it that way, do you?
Yeah, it's got horrific things in it.

Yeah, but the genre of horror fiction...
The genre of horror fiction feels like it's been stuck for a while.

You want to stretch it out a little?
Right. Ira Levin used to do that so well. The first third of his books were incredibly funny - Rosemary's Baby was just a blast - the middle third becomes sort of a drama, and the last third is the only part that's horrific. Stepford Wives: Same thing.

He wrote Stepford Wives?
Yeah. Ira Levin was a master at taking these everyday things and nailing them with a metaphor. Like The Boys From Brazil, Stepford Wives; they start out funny, get you totally engaged, and then sort of slowly turn up the heat until you're out of control by the end of the book.

Yeah, but if you watch those movies, they're pretty funny throughout.
They're funny throughout, but at the time, those were really frightening movies; people were very upset by them.

Is Ira Levin still alive?
Yes, he's alive, living in New York.

Are you in touch with any other writers?
Very few, I know almost no writers.

Do you want to?
Not really. You can't steal their stories, so what's the point?

To talk shop?
I toured Europe in the spring with David Sedaris, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Lethem. It was a great group. And it was nice to be able to commisserate with them. But at the end of the day, you can't build up a lot of material because you can't steal from other writers.

So you're always collecting material? It's never just R&R?
Never. Never. I'm always accumulating little details, things I can use.

What have you got coming up?
I've got two books ready for next year. A really dark travel book about Portland, for the Crown Journeys series. They ask writers to write really personal travel guides about the cities they live in. They want to exploit that domestic travel bubble. They asked me to do Portland, and that comes out next spring. And then I've got a sort of Ira Levin conspiracy horror book in the fall. That's when I rewrite all of Ira Levin.

Conspiracy horror?
The books I know of Levin's that were so good were conspiracy horror, where one person lives their life, not realizing that the world is manipulating and closing in around them. That's what I think of as conspiracy horror.

So you're calling it...
Period Revival. Architectural phrase; that's the central metaphor of the book.

And who's the main character?
The main character is a woman whose husband has attempted suicide and he's in a coma. She starts getting calls from all of these people that he did contracting work for. They're all wealthy people coming back to their summer homes and finding that there's a room missing. It's always a small room and it may take them weeks to realize that the closet is not where it used to be or a bedroom is gone. And when they finally break through the sheetrock where the door used to be, they find these little cryptic messages written inside the sealed-up room. So she's trying to put together the reasons why her husband attempted suicide. That's how the book starts.

That's interesting, I want to read that!
When I was little, whenever we worked on houses - my siblings and my dad and I - it was really important to my dad to leave something inside the walls as kind of a gift to the future, to people we would never know. And when you bring that up at parties, people have either done it or they've found that stuff. It's a real archetype in people's minds; they all have stories about finding these gifts or leaving these gifts, in a ritualistic, sacrificial way. Because they're for people you'll never meet, you'll never know, and you're saying, "Hey, I was here, I lived in the house you live in now, we share this part of our lives." It's really a sweet, sweet thing.

You mentioned in an interview about how after September 11th, things were taken too seriously, so you felt you had to work in different genres in order to address what you wanted to address.
It wasn't the death of irony, but it was, in a way, the death of transgressional fiction. For years, we've had books like The Monkey Wrench Gang, or Trainspotting, or American Psycho, where people transgress against society in order to make a statement. And for a number of reasons, only one of which is September 11th, I don't think that kind of fiction is going to be very effective for a while. People won't hear it sympathetically, they won't be able to laugh at it as easily, and perhaps most importantly, maybe we've been doing it long enough. Maybe it's time to be a little more clever and funny with our message, rather than just beating people over the head with it. You know, to do our social commentary with metaphor, like Orwell did, in fantasy or horror or science fiction. Maybe it's time to get hurt again by doing it in a sort of seductive, charming way.

Do you feel that you're doing that in Lullaby or no?
I kind of do it Lullaby; I'm trying to do it in a less soap-boxy way, by doing it within the veil of an external horror plot line: A man trapped in circumstances. So you could say it was a book about witchcraft or a book about censorship.

At the end, there were times when I felt that you were making things clearer than you needed to.
I've been accused of that. Being a little didactic at the end...

Not didactic so much as just not trusting your readers to get it.
At the end, I do tend to beat the drum a little too much. But as a friend of mine, the writer Diana Abu-Jabar, says, "subtlety only leads to heartbreak." Part of me is really afraid they won't get it.

There are worse things... But I like to feel like I got something not everybody got (even if everyone else feels that way too, and if it's well done, they usually do).
It took most people years to figure out the real ending to my second book, Survivor. That was so frustrating. The way it's written literally, it looks like the protagonist dies at the end. I wrote it with some subtly-hidden plot elements that imply how this man manages to look like he dies, but he actually lives. It was a year before one person finally came up to me and said, "Does he really do this instead of dying?"

A year??
A year! Before one person got it. Now more and more people are finally realizing that the book ends happily. But people seemed so attached to the idea that it was tragic. I don't want to make that mistake and have to wait a whole year again. A website posted an explanation of the plot and the twist at the end, but people still fight with that; even though it's an "official" site.

Everyone attaches strongly to their own interpretations. One of my favorite stories: I was flying to Los Angeles for some meeting, and the flight attendant comes over and he says, "Are you the Fight Club guy?" And I say "Yes," and he says, "Tell me the truth. The truth. That movie is really about gay guys doing each other in front of each other, right? It's a bath house movie." And all I could think to say was, "Just don't tell anyone, okay?" He was so happy, he was just gloriously happy.

Why pop people's bubbles and say they're wrong? If you tell them they're right, they're attached to that thing for the rest of their lives, they're so happy.

Did you have anything to do with Lullaby's very unusual cover?

Do you like it?
I love it. I just wanted to stay away and let people surprise me. At that point, I wanted to see somebody else's interpretation. Like with the movie, I don't want anything to do with a movie adaptation. I just want to sort of step back and see what somebody else will do with it.

Really? That's very unusual.
Well, it's like the bath house story... Nobody wants to do a shitty job (on a movie). I want to see somebody else to do their best with my story.

Were you happy with the movie Fight Club?
Yeah, they did a beautiful job.

I think so too, but you're the writer; I would expect you'd be more proprietary.
Well, what the hell, you can't control everything. I'm a control freak about what's inside those covers; I'll fight to the death... but once it's printed...

You're still going to get associated with the movie, whether it's what you wrote or not.
But I can't control that. I could beat my head into the ground trying to. (Making a movie is) an enormous process. And also, in a way, it's boring to me. I'm much more interested in the next thing I'm doing.

What kind of music do you listen to, since you are the rock'n'roll writer.
I thought Irvine Welsh was... Fight Club was pretty much just Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral. And maybe Pretty Hate Machine. I tend to listen to music without a lot of lyrics. I love Alanis Morissette's music, but she's got too many lyrics, I can't write to that. I can't subvocalize stuff above lyrics. Lullaby was written pretty much to Nine Inch Nails' Fixed CD.

So you listen to Nine Inch Nails...
I feel like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead express some aspects of myself that I'm too much of a coward to express. I think there are certain writers also, like Joy Williams and Denis Johnson, who express things I'm too much of a coward to express. And when people do that, I have to admire them. They say some things that I'm not sure if I could ever say. I might say them funny, but I couldn't say them nearly as poignantly.

Can you give an example?
Joy Williams writes stuff about the natural world, and she has a collection of essays called Ill Nature that say things that'll just make you weep with anger. I couldn't write those things. First of all, they're so upsetting, I couldn't be with them long enough to write about them. And I couldn't write about things that are that helpless and resigned and awful. It would kill me.

What about a Denis Johnson example?
His collection of short stories called Jesus' Son has always been one of my favorites. He's got characters doing things that are so despicable, but also so honest. There's a short story called Dirty Wedding in which the narrator takes his girlfriend Michelle in for an abortion. The nurse comes to the waiting room and says "Michelle is fine now." He says, "Is she dead?" The nurse says "No, why do you ask? Why do you say that?" And he says "I kinda wish she was."

See?! It's like a slap across the face. Oh my god! It really acknowledges our tendency to be drawn to death as a resolution. "I just want to be done with it; just please god, kill her." But it makes your character unsympathetic for a moment, and that's more than most writers are willing to do.

You had some of that in Lullaby, the thing about death as redemption.
Right. I think that's what Karl Marx wrote about. The idea of paying a price that will redeem you and bring you back to the community of mankind, not just a here-and-now mankind, but a sort of universal, for-all-time mankind.


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