Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk’s story begins in Pasco
KENNEWICK, Wash. — Before he moved to Portland and wrote Fight Club, slingshotting him into literary stardom, Chuck Palahniuk grew up in southeastern Washington.
I met him at the Columbia Center Mall in Kennewick on Friday, where he once worked at the old Cinema Triplex. He sat at his book signing table wearing Nikes with a cup of Starbucks coffee by his side, answering fans’ questions and giving each ample time to talk and take a photos with him.
When my turn came up, this is what I learned:
He was born in Pasco and lived in different rental homes with his family – one on Pearl Street, another off Lewis by the Old Bridge, which was later replaced by the Cable Bridge. He eventually moved to Burbank where he spent the bulk of his childhood.
“Most of my friends were either cowboys or they were jocks. There wasn’t a lot of drugs. Burbank was just a very innocent place to grow up,” he said.
Unlike his friends, Palahniuk wasn’t into sports and his family didn’t have any farm animals. Instead, he kept his focus on studying and became the kind of student kids would come to for help with their homework, he said.
He remembers his 5th grade teacher Mr. Olson praising what he wrote for class, but it wasn’t until much later in life that he decided to commit himself to the trade.
He graduated from Columbia High School in 1980, then left town to start college and the rest of his adventure
“I got a degree in journalism because it seemed like a practical application for writing. But journalism did not pay very well and the competition was fantastic,” Palahniuk said. “I wasn’t a journalist for very long.”
After college, he moved from Eugene to Portland and in his late 20s and early 30s, he bought a house outside of Portland without realizing his neighborhood had no TV or radio reception or cable. No entertainment except for movies and books.
“I started to read for the first time since college and I was so disappointed with the books that I was finding that I eventually tried to write the kind of book that I would like to read myself,” Palahniuk said.
He wrote Fight Club in the mid-90s as a student attending a weekly workshop in Portland. Many key elements in the book come from his own life experiences.
In the book, the main character starts going to support groups and pretending to be ill. It helps put the character’s mind at ease – for a while, anyway.
This part of the book was inspired by the days when Palahniuk worked as a volunteer at a hospice in Portland. He would escort dying people to their support groups, and he would have to stay so he could take them back.
“It was so awkward to sit there in the presence of all these dying people who assumed I was also dying when I wasn’t dying,” he said. “I invented so much of Fight Club sitting in those groups as a way of coping with the disconnect.”
In the 80s and early 90s, Palahniuk joined a west coast group of pranksters called the Cacophony Society, the same people who founded the festival Burning Man. It was people organizing huge, spectacular public displays of chaos to find adventure and escape from their often boring day jobs.
“I realized I wasn’t having any more fun in my life. That beyond college, you don’t really have adventures unless you create them yourself,” Palahniuk said.
So the group would do things like dress up in salmon suits to run and jump against a sea of runners at the Bay to Breakers Marathon in San Francisco. He said he remembers the Portland Santa Riots, dressing up with hundreds of people as Santa Claus and partying in the streets, only to be met by police in riot gear. He remembers people being enthralled with the concept of Burning Man from the start.
“All of these little experiments were kind of hoping that one of them would become successful enough that people will adopt it,” Palahniuk said.
These displays mirror the style of over-the-top pranks of Project Mayhem organized by members of fight club in the novel, which grows from a small group of guys into a national underground institution. In the book, however, they involve more explosives.
After Fight Club, Palahniuk went on to publish Invisible Monsters, a story narrated by a farmer’s daughter and based around issues of sexuality and gender identity. He incorporated many flashbacks based on his own childhood.
“For instance, my father worked for the Burlington Northern Railroad and he always knew where there were train accidents. So late at night, he would come home and we would all go out as a family to scavenge things from these wrecked trains,” he said. “I wrote that into Invisible Monsters.”
His early works are based more in his adventures rather than the places he has lived. He tries not to put novels in a specific place to avoid alienating the reader, he said.
“Now adventures have kind of become my career, and my adventures are now writing the books with very creative people,” he said.
He put out Fight Club 2 in 2016 as a graphic novel made in collaboration with Portland-based Dark Horse Comics. Fight Club 3 is in the works. His book Invisible Monsters has been bought by the people who created American Horror Story, and it’s expected to become a film soon. He’s also working on “a couple really big television series that I really can’t talk about yet,” Palahniuk said.
As a storyteller myself, I had to ask him what advice he might give to an aspiring novelist. His response?
“Go to places that are contexts for people telling stories. And those include 12 step recovery groups and support groups for people who are ill. Any places where people are permitted to tell their story out loud and to study the way that people tell a story in person. These people have fantastic storytelling skills and they tend to be very practiced and well-rehearsed at their stories.”
“If you don’t have a very good writing program in your area, t hen just going to places where people tell their stories and studying their methods, their pacing, everything about it, that is the next best form of education you can have as a writer.”
He said that was the genesis of Fight Club, his first masterpiece, his meal ticket to freedom.