Chuck Palahniuk - Illustration by Tony Millionaire Tom Spanbauer - Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Chuck Palahniuk

[Author]

in conversation with

Tom Spanbauer

[Author/Teacher]

“A writer’s job is to cultivate what can go wrong.”
Benefits of contemplating suicide:
You clean your house
You reconnect with old friends
You do all your outstanding paperwork

Chuck Palahniuk drives an inconspicuous white Prius station wagon. When we meet, it is on a balmy Monday morning outside the Portland, Oregon, airport, where he has offered to collect me and bring me to the home of his longtime friend and mentor, Tom Spanbauer. In a pleasant email exchange before our meeting, Palahniuk wrote, “I’d prefer to share the spotlight… I’d much (MUCH) rather talk about the PDX writing scene, and recognize Tom as most of its source.”

Spanbauer—the author of five books himself—has been teaching his Dangerous Writing course out of his basement for more than twenty years. For a reasonable fee, established and aspiring writers are encouraged to reach into the painful, slimy cognitive chasm, pull out the most frightening morsels, and express them in the clear, minimalistic style that he advocates. More than forty of his students have published. Palahniuk is his biggest success story, not only in commercial terms (eleven novels, including the hits Fight Club and Choke, film adaptations of those books, and a rabid fan base that calls itself “the Cult”) but also in ideological terms, which Spanbauer attributes to Palahniuk’s “imagination of violence.”

When we pull up to Spanbauer’s house, in Portland’s southeast quarter—a friendly, ramshackle place that has a clubhouse feel and a janky gate—Palahniuk is a little concerned about our arrival time: we are forty-five minutes early. Spanbauer is sick—he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988—and has a strict schedule of when he must eat. We’ll be interrupting his lunch. But when we knock on the door, he pulls it open and greets us with warmth, ease, and energy. He has disco music playing in the background as he heats up soup on the stove and does a jokey dance move before turning it off.

We conducted the interview around Spanbauer’s square dining-room table. Both men traded off answers with generosity and thoughtfulness, interpreting the questions with clarity and treating each other with great tenderness. The conversation lasted nearly three hours. Palahniuk began the interview sitting with his chair facing the table, and in the middle stood up so that he could turn it backward, then near the end turned it around to the front again. Spanbauer lit a candle and ate cream of chicken soup.

—Kathryn Borel

I. “YOU’RE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR THAT DRAMATIC ARC OF WHERE THINGS CAN FAIL.”

THE BELIEVER: I don’t want to talk too much about Fight Club, but I do want to talk about something you’ve frequently said in interviews about it. You said that it bought you your freedom. Can you describe the specific nature of that freedom? I assume it’s more than just the money you received from the book’s sales and the movie deal.

CHUCK PALAHNIUK: I followed the ancient model of being an apprentice, and working with a master, and trying to create a masterpiece that would establish yourself as somebody who could practice that in the world and do it full-time. So Fight Club was really the “masterpiece” that bought me a higher status than that of an apprentice. I could live my own life at that point.

BLVR: You wrote Fight Club after Invisible Monsters was rejected for being too disturbing. You’ve said that you set out to write something that was even more horrifying. How much faith did you have in Fight Club as you were working on it?

CP: I had no faith whatsoever, but I was really following an impulse that Tom always promotes: that what you write should entertain you and serve you first. Don’t worry about maintaining anything beyond your own attention. Focus on exorcising your demons in the work. If you can do that, then you’ll succeed in the world.

BLVR: Do you think that’s analogous to the idea of writing something because it makes you joyous? I feel mistrustful of people who say that writing brings them to a state of ecstasy.

CP: I don’t know if joy brings you back to the page. What Tom has talked about is that there’s got to be something unresolved in your life that is somehow threatening and engaging and compelling so that it brings you back to working, even if you’re not getting paid for it, even if no one else is recognizing it or praising it.

BLVR: You’ve called yourself a “transgressional” author…

CP: Actually, I’d never seen the word until Fight Club came out. My editor had put it there so that it would be in the same category as Trainspotting, The Monkey Wrench Gang, and American Psycho.

BLVR: How did you feel about that definition?

CP: I didn’t care. I was just glad to have the book.

BLVR: Did you find that the freedom you mentioned was funneled into the act of making specifically transgressive work thereafter? Because once you have more freedom, you’re allowed to say more, or explore more. The world has given you permission.

CP: I think the world has given you authority. I remember selling my first short story and thinking, Oh my god, I sold something for fifty dollars! That gives me the authority to say I’m a writer and to actually write more things! It legitimized the activity.

Beyond Fight Club, it wasn’t so much focusing on a transgression as it was exploring an indirect way in which a person could have their emotional needs met, ideally without having to reciprocate. Fight Club and Choke are both about men trying to fool people into loving them without having to express love for other people. Those stories collapse once the men are revealed as having used people. Non-reciprocated love was really what those books were about. They weren’t really about transgression.

BLVR: They were also about humiliation.

CP: Humiliation, yes. A loss of face, a complete loss of status occurs at the end. Because the only status those characters have established is based on a false premise. I’m also writing for a young audience whose only power is how they appear, their attractiveness, their youth, their energy. Their worst fear is being publicly humiliated, because that’s their only form of power. You humiliate a rich person and they’re still rich. You humiliate a brilliant person and they’re still smart. A person who is well connected is still the king of England. But if you humiliate a young person, you take away the only form of power they have. So writing those books, I wanted to explore humiliation as the greatest disaster that could befall a character, and then demonstrate the character living beyond that humiliation. The military has done these fascinating studies that seem to prove that what women fear most is physical pain. But what men fear most is loss of status. And that’s what made the Abu Ghraib prison a place of torture. They weren’t physically torturing them—

BLVR: Well, they were physically torturing them—

CP: Yes, but what came out in the news was the idea of the loss of dignity. So, in a way, that’s an area I want to explore with the books for a younger audience: show someone enduring what they dread the most—what the reader dreads the most—and then living beyond it.

BLVR: Do you feel free from humiliation? Because I agree with you: when I was in my twenties, I was humiliated every day. But now, in my thirties, I feel like I almost court that because I know that life is only going to throw more indignity at me, be it in the form of taking away the people I love, or a disease, or some trauma I can’t even imagine. So, to both of you, how do you experience humiliation?

TOM SPANBAUER: Well, it’s pretty easy for me. We are not really set in our bodies. I’ve been sick. The way I’ve been sick has taken away my confidence. I’m working really hard to get it back. Little things that I used to take for granted—like walking to the store—make me tired now. I remember when I lived in New York City years ago, I was on an elevator, and this mean old man got on and he was hitting everybody with his cane and I thought, What a fucker! But now that I’m old and losing sight and hearing, I’m the same way. I’m really threatened. All this stuff that used to work isn’t working. It can translate into humiliation because I am losing a sense of control.

BLVR: You don’t have a cane, but do you find yourself acting like that old man in the elevator?

TS: Oh yeah.

BLVR: I’ve known you for ten minutes, but you seem fairly gentle. How does that meanness manifest itself?

TS: Self-criticism. “You stupid fucker, you used to walk to the store just fine and now you can’t.” I go off on people. I go New York on people’s asses. Like the other day I was walking and there was a bunch of people sitting there and I was thinking, Oh, they’re good-looking young people, that’s nice. And so I walk by and this really stoned guy looked at me and said, “Disney owns you.” There are so many ways to insult me! You could say, “You’re an old fag, you’re ugly, you’re this and that…” But you don’t call me Disney! So I took three steps toward him and yelled, “Shut up, motherfucker! Shut up!” I surprised myself by my overreaction to this stoned kid who called me Disney.

BLVR: You are the man behind Dangerous Writing. How do you continue to be dangerous when your self-confidence is being rattled by your physical form?

TS: Life is even more dangerous! It just gets more and more out of control. There’s a difference between being dangerous on the page and being dangerous in your life. My house is clean and I can dive into chaos and be dangerous. That’s one way. Another way is “I can’t open the refrigerator door.” There are some older men and women whom I’ve met who say, “Oh, it just gets better and more joyous and more cool…” But, god, my anxiety just keeps going like this [makes a head-exploding motion with his hands].

BLVR: I always wonder if that theory of “older equals better” is bullshit. Because I feel like you can go in one of two directions: you can become more conservative, hold on to what you have, materially and ideologically, or you can continually and rigorously engage in the world, which will inevitably cause anxiety because you’re just going to see more of the cracks, more of the chaos.

CP: Stephen King talks about how he started writing because he was afraid of things. The longer he writes, the more things he becomes afraid of. John Cheever also wrote about this. A writer’s job is to cultivate what can go wrong. You’re always looking for that dramatic arc of where things can fail.

BLVR: Your job is to consider the catastrophe.

CP: Yeah. So you become hypersensitized to all the things that can go wrong and destroy you. It left Cheever, in the middle of his life, paralyzed. He couldn’t cross bridges. He couldn’t ride elevators. It wasn’t really until he quit writing, at the end of his life, that he got past that.

BLVR: Do you think, in a way, that it made Cheever a weaker writer? Because he couldn’t take the power back from the chaotic ether and metabolize it into a productive exercise?

TS: It was either Schubert or Schumann who was actually going crazy, physically, when he wrote his last piece. So there is at least one case where a man was faced with insanity and used it! But it obviously depends on the person.

CP: Cheever did write stories like “The Angel of the Bridge.” It was about a man who was terrified of crossing bridges and of going up in elevators until he met a woman who had a harp and asked for a ride across a bridge. He was processing his fear in a way that other people could relate to. I went through a phase where I was terrified of bridges, and I read “The Angel of the Bridge.” It didn’t cure me, but it gave me a great comfort to see it so beautifully depicted in a story, and to see someone getting past it. To see my worst fear being cured in a narrative was wonderful.

II. THE BIG SHITTY THING VERSUS THE LITTLE SHITTY THING

BLVR: Chuck, I want to talk to you about planning your own suicide, which you do once every two years and wrote about in Men’s Health magazine. Your method would be to bring into your room a charcoal barbecue, leave it on, and suffocate in your sleep.

CP: Men’s Health made me take out the duct-tape portion, which was crucial. They were worried that they’d get all these dead fourteen-year-old boys. You have to seal everything with duct tape before you bring the barbecue inside! But the terms are: I have seven days to do it. During those seven days, I have to reconnect with everyone I’ve lost touch with. I have to discard everything I haven’t used in years. I have to resolve all the completely unresolved paperwork: contracts, legalities, everything in my life. I clean everything, things that haven’t been cleaned in years. And usually by day four my life is so terrific I would never dream of killing myself. It is that promised reward at the end of seven days that puts me into action.

BLVR: Tom, you obviously know of this impulse within Chuck. What do you think of it, as his friend?

TS: I think it’s great. I’m an old Catholic. I don’t believe in anything Catholic but I do believe that Catholicism keeps me from committing suicide. One day I was in my kitchen. I’d just left my partner of eleven years and moved into this house. I was alone and anxious and having a lot of trouble. I had this really big mug in my hand and yelled, “Fuck!” and threw it against the door. My neighbor was raking leaves. He had one of these new things called a cell phone, so he flipped it open and I watched him talk into it. I didn’t know this, but what he’d done was call the police and told them, “Someone has a gun and is shooting.”

In the meantime, I decided I should go talk to my neighbor because I’d probably scared him. So I walked out the back door and as soon as I did that, I heard, “Step away from the door and keep your hands behind your head.” There was a SWAT team and there were at least twenty guns pointed at me. I walked down those brick steps and I had [points to his heart] the red laser trained right on me. I thought, All I have to do is move my hand quickly—that’s all I have to do. Death by cop. Here it is, Tom. I didn’t do it, and it was one of the worst times in my life ever. They probably would have just shot me in the knee.

BLVR: Do you remember what thought was going through your mind that prevented you from moving your hand?

TS: No idea.

BLVR: But in hindsight?

TS: I want to live, I guess. I want to live. And maybe this feeling will end. Maybe there’s still hope.

BLVR: Are you currently in therapy?

TS: Yes, cognitive behavioral therapy. For trauma.

BLVR: To you, what does it mean to die with grace?

TS: It means to die with some kind of authenticity and self-love. Telling myself, “Hey, Tom, it’s OK, baby!” Not having the fear, and the panic that comes on top of the fear, and the shame, all crowded up.

BLVR: What is the thing about life that makes you most want to plan a suicide?

CP: Again, when I talk about suicide, it’s me talking about a big bad thing that will make the little bad things seem doable. One morning in May of 1999, I got a call from my publicist at Norton—this sweet twenty-two-year-old girl out of college, an entry-level publicist. She says, “I just got a call from Latah County Sheriff’s Department. They think they might have found your father’s dead body. They haven’t identified it yet. They’d like to call you back. May I give them your number?”

I was supposed to be waiting for a call from Newsweek magazine about a feature, because Fight Club the movie was coming out. And now I was supposed to sit by the phone and wait for this call about my father. Was he dead? Was he alive?

The one thing I hated to do was edge the lawn. We had a really irregular lawn with paving stones and you had to edge it with a paring knife. It was the most boring, horrible, on-your-knees-in-the-sun job. I never did it. But in the face of this phone call, I went out with a paring knife and I edged every stone like a surgeon. The big shitty thing made the little shitty thing so completely doable. It was a joy to do the shitty little thing. Often when I draw that kind of “suicide line,” it’s because it’ll make the little shitty things look great. That was the thing about the support groups in Fight Club—for the characters to be around the big shitty thing.

BLVR: I’m glad you mentioned the Fight Club groups, because you have an interest in cults, clubs, groups, and religions. Almost all of your books have a reference to an ideological superstructure. Also, you are part of Tom’s Dangerous Writing cult.

TS: [Slams his hands onto the table] I’m not a cult! [Laughs]

BLVR: But this is a theme in your writing. Can you track for me where your interest started?

CP: Tom used to say, “Writers write because they weren’t invited to the party.”

BLVR: Sure, because they’re outsiders.

CP: Yes. We’re all looking at each other for social cues because we don’t know how to behave. We don’t know who we should be, moment to moment. We don’t really have a script. So often my books start with social models. Social models start with rules. In Choke, the main character is modeling himself after different people his mother approves of, and he’s allowing her to think that he is each of these people, because she’s deranged. He’s allowing people to believe that he’s dying in restaurants so that people will bring him back to life and so they will love him. He’s fulfilling those things in the hopes that people will embrace him and adopt him. So my books are more about people experimenting with different identities and social models in a short-term way before they can break through to something authentic.

BLVR: But I wonder what your relationship is to being an outsider. You are extremely popular. Your fans call themselves “the Cult.” Does that mar your relationship with being an outsider?

CP: No. Being in Portland, Oregon, and being outside of Portland a lot of the time, there’s very little sense of being connected. People who go to [the graduate writing program at] Syracuse, or people who award the prizes and get the big grants… I don’t feel like I’m part of that at all.

BLVR: [To Tom] Does that surprise you?

TS: No, I’m the same way. I just get put on the queer bookshelf.

BLVR: Was that something that you, Chuck, were worried about? You were discreet about your sexuality for a very long time.

CP: I did not want to end up on that shelf that is getting smaller all the time. Back then it really was the ghetto. A friend of mine, Diana Abu-Jaber, made her name writing Middle Eastern­–themed books and she was really terrified of getting ghettoized as “the Middle Eastern female writer.”

BLVR: Tom, if you were to do it all over again, would you have tried more actively to elude the “queer bookshelf”?

TS: No, I had to write what I wrote. Sexuality and gender are so much a part of my life and the way I see the world.

BLVR: As Chuck was gaining popularity, did you two have a conversation about whether his sexuality should be broached publicly?

TS: No.

CP: It was never an issue for me. Right from the get-go, with Fight Club, I’d asked not to even have a photo in the book because I wanted the books to be the books. I write because it’s a way of presenting something without having to be there. It’s been a continuous effort with the Cult website to try and make it more and more about writing, instead of about me. “Me” as a subject is a rather limited one. I guess that’s another reason that I wanted us to meet with Tom today. I’ve always adored the Georgia O’Keeffe quote “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”

BLVR: A lot of your work—which is very brutal and visceral—has an origin in high theory. You cite Foucault and Derrida as influences, for example.

CP: Whether or not I’m aware of whom I’m exploring, so often what I’m doing is dramatizing the writings of Victor Turner, who wrote a lot about liminal and liminoid events. A lot of sociology I’m demonstrating with a model.

Fight Club is my original proposal of a short-term liminoid event. Liminal events are institutionalized events that happen in different threshold periods throughout the year. Halloween, Christmas, Easter, a honeymoon. Those are liminal events because they happen at the threshold of, say, a marriage, and people leave society to go to this place that is not a regular place, so that when they come back they are reintroduced as “man and wife.” But liminoid events can happen at any time. Burning Man is a liminoid event. In a way the Occupy events were liminoid. They were small social experiments where people could try out a different way of being, and try out different social models to see which ones served them well enough to perpetuate. So Fight Club was a liminoid model that people picked up and ran with all over the world.

BLVR: What do you consider your least successful work?

CP: One thing that I was enormously invested in was a book called Tell-All, which is about an aging movie star who finds out that a man is writing a book about her. He’s already ended the book and he’s plotting how she’s going to die, so that he can bring it to press. This happened because an editor friend of mine was telling me about Scott Berg’s book on Katharine Hepburn and how it sat in galleys for years and years, waiting for Katharine Hepburn to die. And as soon as she died that book was in bookstores in six days. He said that all major publishing houses have these big fat biographies sitting there, waiting for people to die. All you have to do is slap on the end and put in on the market. It’s that kind of commoditization and completion of your life before you die—and this kind of imposition of a public idea of self that replaces the actual living self—that I find so frightening. This form of me exists in Wikipedia that bears very little resemblance to me. You’re replaced bodily by people’s idea of you.

III. AN IMAGINATION OF VIOLENCE

BLVR: What was Chuck like when you first met him?

TS: For me it was a very tender thing. We’d just redone this old beater of a house and had only one room that was clean. It was the upstairs bedroom and I’d vacuumed it. Chuck was going to come over and meet me, and I had one room that was clean that he could come sit in.

CP: I had been in a writers’ workshop with some really nice middle-aged ladies. They wrote nice-middle-aged-lady thrillers, gardening novels, Miss Marple stuff. I was writing really violent, sexualized, dark stuff. After a year, the leader of the group took me aside and said, “There are some people who aren’t comfortable in your presence anymore and they’d like you to leave. But there is this man named Tom Spanbauer who has just moved to town and he’s teaching all these new distinctions and you might be a good fit.” It was that woman, Andrea Carlyle, who put me in touch with Tom.

BLVR: OK. So back to the vacuumed room.

TS: The meeting was supposed to be at seven o’clock. I’m a good Catholic boy so I’ve got everything situated and I’ve got candles lit and I look out the window and there’s this pickup truck parked out there. And at exactly seven o’clock, the pickup truck’s door opened and this young man got out. I thought, I like this guy. I liked him because he was sitting in his pickup waiting for the actual time of our meeting. When he arrived his shirt was starched white and so crisp and he was just so ready! I said, “Why don’t you roll up your sleeves or something? Loosen up!” And that was the night I introduced him to [American short-story writer] Amy Hempel. The world changed!

CP: This bastard charged me twenty bucks.

TS: Yeah, I did.

CP: That was a king’s ransom in 1991! But Tom said, “You know, writers in New York identify the people they need to study with to further their craft. They do whatever it takes to study with them. If it’s twenty dollars they pay twenty dollars, and if it’s two thousand they pay two thousand. They know that’s an investment in their future, in their skill. But no, in Portland, Oregon, that’s beer money. Other cities just don’t have the intention that New York has.” When Tom pointed out that distinction I instantly got it... That’s so embarrassing that I memorized that.

TS: [Quietly] No, I think it’s cool. It’s flattering.

CP: [Laughing] Sometimes I think I’m your Boswell.

TS: I think it’s fucking great.

BLVR: Tom, if you’re not a cult, then what do you consider yourself?

CP: [Interrupting] People use his distinctions without realizing that they are his distinctions—people whose writing is better because of them.

TS: That’s a big question. There are really two things about Dangerous Writing. There’s the emotional thing and there’s the skill thing. With the emotional thing, it’s generally people coming off the street or people out of MFA [programs]. I give them an assignment: to write about the moment after they were different. This immediately forces people into something real. The skill thing came from [writer and editor] Gordon Lish. Gordon did one really specific thing: he made me look at my sentences when I was at Columbia. In [poet and novelist] Stephen Spender’s class, he said with prose all the words have little signs on them that say, “Don’t look at me… Story this way!” Lish was the guy who helped me take those little signs off my prose. It was through Lish that I liberated my prose from Stephen Spender’s idea of formalism. I’m trying to write prose that every once in a while says, “Look at me!” I think character lies in the destruction of the sentence. With these two things: when you’re taking this kind of sentence-to-sentence skill and putting it someplace that scares you and makes it real, that causes something to happen.

CP: Steve Almond did a piece for the New York Times Magazine last year and he talked about leading writing workshops. He said what they were becoming was a cheaper form of talk therapy. Talk therapy is expensive, and that’s why pharmaceuticals became so prevalent. You didn’t have to pay a fortune for fifty minutes of talking. More and more he was finding that people were exploring their darkest psychic wounds in this metaphorical way, where they turn it into a story that is a masked, disguised “not them.” But they are externalizing it in a narrative. And I always thought that’s something Tom’s group did really beautifully. It allowed people to tell the truth about themselves in a public way, almost like making a confession in church or in a 12-step program. It allowed them to have that thing talked about in craft terms, which makes it safe.

TS: Something really wonderful starts to happen when you begin with “I.” As soon as I make an invention of it, that “I” is different from this “I.” Lish used to say, “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth truer.” Somehow, by disengaging, it’s not you anymore, and things can become much more interesting and dramatic and closer to the real truth.

BLVR: When did you realize that writing from “the wound” was a productive way to approach writing?

TS: I wrote a short story called “Sea Animals.” It’s the first time all of it came together for me. I had a brother who died when I was five years old. He was an infant. He was hydrocephalic—which meant his head was larger than his body. He screamed for seventy-seven days and died. My mother at one point thought she had smothered him, and she came in and told me, “I am glad.” I wept for three weeks every time I went back to this story—obviously there was something there. I try to keep up with that.

CP: It’s funny: unless it makes you weep it doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything worthwhile. I find that if I can read a story without taking [the anti-anxiety medication] Lorazepam, then it’s not worth presenting. I stressed this to my doctor when I asked him for Lorazepam before my tour. I said, “I cannot stand up there and read this without crying. I need the emotion to land out there. I want to make those thousand people cry, not me.”

BLVR: What do you think it is about Chuck as a writer that made him cotton on to your writing ideals so fervently?

TS: It was quite amazing from the very beginning how he took these skills and put them into Invisible Monsters. I think Chuck has an imagination of violence.

CP: Also Tom was teaching me really specific skills to make those things work. Like choruses that would give me a transition—that beat—when I needed something between two seemingly disparate thoughts. In Invisible Monsters it was that little phrase “Sorry, Mom, sorry, God.” When you reach that moment when no one knows what to say and someone has to bridge it. Jewish people say: “A Jewish baby has just been born.” Catholics say, “It must be seven minutes after the hour,” because that’s when Christ died on the cross. A lot of people say “eight minutes after the hour,” because that’s supposedly when Lincoln was shot. All of these cultures have a way of acknowledging that: a sorbet before the next topic.

IV. NOBLE REASONS TO DO SOMETHING HORRIBLE

BLVR: Earlier we talked about transgression. I want to ask you about the idea of what it means to transgress now, or at least to challenge people in 2014.

TS: I don’t know if this will bother people, but what can be very shocking is to present a complicated picture of a sexual male. Issues with getting up, getting hard. That whole thing of “natural schwing” and “I don’t have any problem with this.” The scrutiny of true male sexuality—no one is talking about it. Go to watch a film. “And here’s the sexual interlude… Here it goes… A little bit of tit, a little bit of nipple… No cock, no cock…” Sure, there’s the movie Shame, and there’s some cock in that, but it’s a place that’s so taboo.

BLVR: You’re right. Everywhere tits.

TS: Everywhere tits. And hard cocks, come on. Not a chance.

BLVR: You rarely see an erect penis on television or in film. Occasionally you’ll see a “funny” flaccid cock, but that’s usually for comedy, or in a cursory shower scene.

TS: Yeah.

BLVR: How do you define transgression in contemporary terms?

CP: I always subscribe to Derrida’s idea that the “unresolved thing” is what carries enormous anxiety for people. One thing that I repeat a great deal in my work is references to abortion. Because it’s so unresolved whether it’s a person or not a person or a tragedy or not a tragedy, whether it’s a choice… It’s such an enormously unresolved and unresolvable thing. It always functions as “Do I laugh at this because it’s just tissue?” or “Do I not laugh at this, because it’s a human being?” It functions as both a birth and a death. So abortion is one of those horrible flashpoint things to explore. It’s one of those things that is simultaneously sad and absurd.

TS: Notice in both of those answers how particular and how physical these things are. There’s no “big thing” out there that’s shocking. It’s as close as your breath. If I were to ask you what’s the most terrifying thing that you could imagine, it would more than likely be something to do with the body, or something really close to it. There’s this wonderful saying: whenever you meet someone new, look them in the eye, because within those eyes there’s a great battle raging.

CP: Another conflicted way of creating a transgression is to give somebody a really noble reason for doing something really despicable. I think that’s why the show Breaking Bad was huge. Dexter, too. The protagonists had noble reasons for doing something horrible. That’s Derrida, too! Since we do operate in a binary world, if there’s something that cannot be this or that, it drives us crazy. Derrida’s favorite example was the zombie. In zombie narratives, it’s about making something alive or dead. His second favorite example was the vampire.

BLVR: What scared you today?

CP: I had bad shrimp last night. But that’s a small bad thing. What scares me is… I’ve gone through the death of my parents, and my partner hasn’t. I’m really worried that when his parents start to fail, will I be a strong enough person to be of any help? I don’t want to see someone I care for in that type of pain. I can manage my own pain. I can drink. I can go to the doctor and get a prescription. I can exercise. I can write a story about it. I’ve done it a million times! But I don’t want to see the people I love tortured and suffering.

BLVR: Chuck, there was this quote I read by you that I liked: “I really believe it’s the moments we can’t talk about that become the rest of our lives. It’s the moments we cannot process by telling a story that destroy us in the end.”

CP: I wrote a story called “Romance” that was made into a short film that’s about a man who’s dating this gorgeous woman and he kind of self-isolates with her and it’s this fantastic relationship, and when he ends up marrying her he introduces her to his friends and they say to him, “Dude, did you ever think that maybe Brittany is mentally retarded?” And it dawns on him that maybe she’s not just high all the time; maybe she’s not an alcoholic; that it’s not something fixable, but that she’s a functionally mentally retarded woman. And now he’s marrying her and having kids. That’s how I feel when I bring a story out and it gets reviewed horribly. I fall in love with this idea, I think this idea is the most gorgeous in the world, I want people to love it as much as I love it, and then the New York Times says, “Dude…” And you start to question everything about your own value and your own judgment. It’s finding a metaphorical way of stating something that’s so deeply personal and painful. And it’s always a metaphorical way that allows people to laugh at it. That’s something else that Tom teaches: first you make them laugh, and then, as quickly as you can, you break their hearts.

Illustrations by Tony Millionaire

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