A surprisingly sentimental evening with Chuck Palahniuk

Photo by Shauna Keddy

"I write so that I don't forget the fascinating and heartwarming things people tell me," explained Chuck Palahniuk. He was at the Castro Theatre Mon/16 to chat about his newest book, Invisible Monsters Remix. Some audience members were disappointed that the event didn't include a book signing — but no one could deny Palahniuk's earnest nature and his deep connection to his fans.

To those who only know Palahniuk as the author of the cult hit Fight Club, one might think the man behind this contemporary classic of anarchy and disgust at our capitalist society could be a shady character. But the mind that concocted that (and other) twisted fables anchors his outlandish tales with an incredibly human element to his characters. If you look beyond Fight Club's bloody mayhem (vividly depicted in its popular film version), you'll find a story of how a white-collar businessman combats loneliness and isolation, and finds fulfillment in embracing chaos. Palahniuk is certainly not afraid of being politically incorrect in his books, but he is a much more relatable guy than you might think.

He did not disappoint in entertaining the audience with his eccentric ways, but he also told many touching stories, and a few that incited guilty laughter. Palahniuk has been one of my favorite authors since I was 16, and listening to him read his short story "Romance" to the crowd was a complete dream come true. It was like Palahniuk was the coolest dad you've ever met, reading the kind of story you were never allowed to get your hands on. His pacing was impeccable, and he sat with his legs crossed and a giant stuffed tiger perched on his lap. (Anyone who asked a question received a tiger of his or her own, sometimes tossed into the audience by the author himself.)

Palahniuk has certainly had ample personal experiences that have shaped his explorations of the dark side of the human psyche — his grandfather murdered his grandmother before killing himself, and his father was killed by a vengeful ex of a woman he met through a personal ad in the newspaper. While completing an endless cycle of interviews and red carpet events with Fight Club stars Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, and Ed Norton, Palahniuk learned that his father had been killed and had to identify his body and deal with the proceedings.

He explained what a chaotic time it was — he loved the movie version of his novel, but his personal life was just too much to handle. He told us that while driving back home during the press onslaught of Fight Club, he decided he needed to pull over and get out of the car to lie down in the road. The audience at the Castro became incredibly silent as we all hoped this was not Palahniuk's description of considering suicide.

Instead, he explained that all he wanted was for someone to notice him and call the police. When the policeman would arrive, Palahniuk imagined this figure of authority would carefully hold him and tell him everything was going to be all right.

"That's all I wanted, for someone with authority to tell me everything was going to be OK, and then I could get up and move on. And so that's what I did, I laid on the ground in my fancy suit ... and I waited. And I waited ... and no one came for a very long time. So I started to think, what would be an acceptable way that someone could be given a bit of affection in public, from a stranger. And that's how I thought of choke: someone who would pretend to choke in public places to have that essential few moments of human connection. So I got up, dusted myself off and went home to begin writing Choke." (Choke was made into a feature film in 2008.)

Fans were excited to learn that Fight Club was partially inspired by a group Palahniuk himself participated in called the "Cacophony Club," made up of young professionals who needed a bit of organized chaos that could fit into a planned amount of time each week. (Their various pranks and shenanigans were, of course, to a much less violent degree than those enacted by Tyler Durden and his crew.) Another highlight of the night was the waves of laughter that greeted Palahniuk's recounting of his struggle to get the book published, especially since it remains his biggest hit and became a '90s classic.

During the question and answer period, Palahniuk gave this fantastic advice to a young man about becoming a writer: "Take the best part of a story idea you have and bring it to party. Tell all your friends and see what variations they have on it. That's how most of my best work has grown. Friends can offer really interesting additions to the story, and you can make sure your idea has potential."

At the end of the Q&A, tigers were distributed to those who could make baby shapes out of balloons. Popping balloons and pandemonium ensued as fans eagerly presented Palahniuk with their balloon children, or tried to snag a signature. Books were sold pre-signed, but Palahniuk graciously tried to sign a few books and agreed to a few photos with fans before being ushered off. He told us that the baby balloons will make sense next year — and with over 15 books so far in his highly successful career, I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next.