BEGINNING TO END

Not long ago, Crystal Lake Publishing printed a slightly older version of the following article / interview, “Ah-ha: Beginning to End” or “Chuck Palahniuk and Michael Bailey Discuss the Spark of Creativity” in It’s Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares to Life, a recent recipient of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Nonfiction.

chuck-palahniuk-allan-amato-5

Chuck Palahaniuk is a novelist and freelance journalist whose work can only be described as transgressional fiction. He has written such novels as Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, and that’s all before 2002! He has written eighteen or so other books since then, such as his most recent novel Adjustment Day, a few coloring books, Bait and Legacy, and the graphic adaptations of Fight Club 2 (with Cameron Stewart) and Fight Club 3 (in the works). Adapted films of his work include Fight Club, Choke, Romance (based on his short story), and the forthcoming Lullaby and Rant.

With permission from both Chuck Palahniuk and Crystal Lake Publishing, “Beginning to End” is now free to share with the rest of the world, so enjoy!


Its_alive.jpg

One lives in the Pacific Northwest and nearly lost his home in a wildfire the summer of 2017, while the other used to live in what is now a scorched part of Sonoma County from a wildfire the autumn of that same year. One’s surname is often mispronounced [ paula-nick, for those stumbling over it ], while the other’s surname is often mistaken as having Irish heritage [ Bailey, in this case, is English) ]. Both have been threatened by fire, both have problematic last names, and both have been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award on various occasions, and in a mix of categories.

Whether or not one believes in coincidence, these two magicians of creativity have been brought together, one thing leading to another thing leading to another, to discuss the spark of creativity from beginning to end. Something short and sweet.

Imagine these two strange fellows sitting behind laptops or notepads, conversing from places not-so-far-apart—perhaps one sips coffee, while the other sips tea (or maybe water or nothing at all)—to reveal some of their dark magic:


Michael Bailey: The first volume of Where Nightmares Come From focused on the art of storytelling in the horror genre, while this latest edition explores how storytellers transform ideas into finished product. Most writer interviews start with the obvious question: “Where do you get your ideas?” But let’s not go there. Story origin has been done to death. Instead, how about: What’s the first thing you do after your mind sparks original concepts? In other words, what’s the very first thing you do after that original ah-ha! moment?

nightmares.jpg

Chuck Palahniuk: Once an idea occurs I repeat it to other people to see how readily they engage with it. And to see if they can offer examples of it from their own lives. And to test whether others have seen the idea depicted elsewhere in the popular culture. If they engage, if they expand upon the idea, and if they offer no recent examples of it in fiction or movies, then I proceed.

MB: What’s your first-draft poison: dictation, pen and paper, pounding tired keys on an old typewriter, fancy computer / laptop, tapping tablets, cocktail napkin notes, or a combination of sorts? How do you release your words? And once released, do they live primarily on virtual paper, physical paper, or both?

CP: I make all my notes on paper. Only after I’ve collected several pages of notes do I keyboard the notes into a word processing file and begin organizing them by cut and paste. The next step is to look for plot holes and create the bridging scenes or moments to resolve those.

MB: I used to have an uncontrollable need to transcribe the noise from my head directly onto the page. Early drafts were perfect, of course (in my undeveloped head), ready to sell without revision. I think most writers go through something similar at the beginning, before learning the stuff not to do. Early in my endeavors I met Thomas F. Monteleone and F. Paul Wilson, and they fortunately set me right. They explained that writing / storytelling is a disease (if one must do it) … and like all diseases, one can’t go untreated for long, lest they shrivel up and die. They took me under their wings and showed me the ropes, for many years. And they introduced me to Douglas E. Winter, who (also over the course of many years) taught me the art of self-editing (much more difficult than editing the work of others). He slashed and sliced that evil red pen of his until my manuscripts bled, severed them in half, typically. “Start here,” he’d say, “on page 13.” My writing has evolved, sure, and my writing has gotten slower because I can’t help but edit along the way. With all that pre-loading, I guess my next question is this: How ugly (or pretty) is a Palahniuk first-draft?

fight_club.jpeg

CP: What you’d call my first draft is actually my third or fourth draft. In a story, each of the three or five acts gets its own draft, and each must work well before I tackle the climax of the story. That way my eventual finished first draft isn’t too shabby.

MB: And a follow-up: How has your first-draft evolved during your writing career? Do you binge and purge? Do you edit-on-the-go?

CP: My process has stayed essentially the same since 1992. I takes long-hand notes. Then, transcribe the notes into a computer file. Then, print the draft and carry it with me on paper so I can read and revise it anywhere in the world. Then use those edits to revise the computer file, print it and repeat the process.

MB: Some writers set daily or weekly goals, whether it’s word count or page count. Some try for 5,000 words a day, some 1,000. Some try for 5 pages a day, some 10. Some try to at least write something each day. And there are some oddballs, like me, who go for months without writing a single word, sometimes as long as a year (although I’m always doing something creative), when suddenly the mind takes a laxative and dumps out 10,000- to 30,000-word chunks. What are your writing goals and / or habits?

CP: As a physically active person I hate to sit and keyboard. Notebook in hand, I’ll go for weeks just jotting down details that might apply to a story. This used to be called “brain mapping” in the science of the 1990’s. It takes a stretch of rainy weather before I’ll settle down and begin to type. Often the typing takes place aboard an airplane or in a hotel room or some other stifling place where I have no other options. As for goals, each January 1st I decide what I will accomplish for the year.

MB: What’s the most you’ve ever written at one time (not necessarily in a single sitting, but what you’d consider all-at-once)? And how long have you gone without writing?

CP: My greatest single sitting output was the eleven-page story “Guts.” To be frank, that many keystrokes makes my elbows and wrists ache like you wouldn’t believe. Years at the Freightliner Truck Plant have left me with carpal tunnel syndrome, and any kind of marathon typing now requires a Vicodin. Blame it on the drugs, but that short story just poured out.

haunted.jpg

[ read Chuck’s short story “Guts” in Haunted ]

MB: Writer’s block: real news or fake news?

CP: Writer’s block: Not my problem. As with any living thing, there are dormant and active phases. When I’m not actively writing I still watch and listen, always trying to identify new patterns and ideas.

MB: ‘Character’ is arguably the most important part of a story. Some say ‘plot’ or ‘conflict’ or ‘the message’ is most important, but they are wrong, no? Your fiction always breathes with the lives of diverse, colorful, incredibly memorable characters. Where do your characters come from? I realize that’s sort of like asking the “Where do you get your ideas?” question, but since ‘character’ plays such an important part of the story, it seems to be an important question.

adjustment_day.jpg

[ his most recent novel, Adjustment Day is now available ]

CP: My characters are always based on actual people. Their most memorable lines of dialog have already been said by real people. Even their dogs are real. Although I’m trained as a journalist I find that there’s more fun (and money) in passing off reality as fantasy.

MB: So you’ve spawned an idea, and created characters, and they converse through dialogue and navigate plots and traverse conflict, and the manuscript has maybe gone through a few drafts (or not) and all that other magic that happens during storytelling, and suddenly you find yourself with a completed manuscript—short story, novelette, novella, novel, comic / graphic adaptation … doesn’t matter. This interview started with an ah-ha! moment—the original spark of creativity—but there’s another ah-ha! moment to consider: the moment one realizes a story is complete. What next? Do you send it to beta-readers, let it marinate in a drawer somewhere, send it off to an editor?

CP: To date I’ve done my beta testing while I write. By testing each scene on my peers or fellow writers in a weekly group. This creates an informal collaboration and allows contributions from possibly hundreds of people. David Sedaris advised me to always test new material by reading it aloud on tours; that works well also. Nothing goes off to New York until it’s made people laugh or cringe everywhere else in the country—or the world.

MB: We recently discussed the fires in California and in the Pacific Northwest, as well as some of our losses and scares. I was lucky and for some reason already had my laptop in the car before fleeing from one of these fires (and I habitually upload files to off-site storage), but the threat of losing creativity begs the question: What if it all burned down? Where do you keep your creations, in case a fire someday threatens (or accomplishes) turning them to ash?

survivor.jpg

CP: If you’re talking about past notes, drafts, books, I don’t keep them. I burn everything once the final book has been typeset [ something both writers now have in common after the fires ]. Regarding on-going work, I back-up to flash drives and keep them separate from each other—in my car, with friends—and I always have a printed hard copy of the work in progress.

MB: And since this interview / discussion is for It’s Alive [ a follow-up to Where Nightmares Come From ], what is your nightmare, the thing that scares you most?

CP: Plenty of things scare me. These include driving over extremely high bridges or being buried alive. But nothing scares me the most.

MB: Over the last few years I have collaborated with writers for fiction and have sought out collaborative works for anthologies I’ve edited. My next anthology is composed entirely of collaborations, even [ Chiral Mad 4: An Anthology of Collaborations ]. Collaborations are perhaps my new ah-ha! in this business, something of which I want to see more. I love the concept of multiple minds working together to create entirely new voices and visions. But I have yet to collaborate on 1) interview questions, and 2) with Chuck Palahniuk. So, how about we spin things around? My freelance work is roughly 33% writer, 33% editor, 33% book designer, and now 1% interviewer. What question, in the broad scope of ‘from concept to finished product,’ would you like me to answer?

CP: My question to you is: Do you think piracy has damaged the viability of writing professionally? And if so, how do you bring yourself back to the task despite that threat?

MB: There’s potential in book piracy eventually hurting the industry, but we’re not there, at least not yet [ maybe we are now, I don’t know ]; we may never get there. I would argue that eBooks, in terms of sales, have caught up to printed books, perhaps even surpassed sales in some cases, but I would also argue that most eBooks go unread. It’s easy to purchase digital books—a single-click sometimes. They are priced to move copies. It’s easy to fill virtual shelves with digital books because they are not really there and don’t take up physical space. They are simply strings of binary designed to mimic books, which is neat. But this also makes them easier to steal, sure, like music was easier to steal once it turned digital. How many digital books are read from start to finish? I’d guess 5-10%, if I’m being generous. A printed book, however, for now, is there, is something real, and harder not to read—if it’s pretty enough and smells like a book and you can hold it in your hands—and likewise harder to steal.

Here’s my confession, which might help explain what I’m trying to say. Before the fire (which took just about everything but our lives), I used to have a nice collection of Palahniuk on my shelves. I also used to have a Kindle with about a hundred titles, including your Kindle short story “Phoenix,” released in 2013, which I bought for $1.99 (a steal!). I have read every book of yours (that I used to own), from start to finish … except for one—the title of which I now find ironic because it’s the only book that still ‘exists’ somewhere in those 0’s and 1’s, and I could still read it on my laptop if I choose to. My physical books are gone, sure, but I’ll get new ones going forward, and I’ll probably read those before ever browsing my digital shelves.

My point: book piracy has potential to hurt the industry monetarily, sure (as piracy did the music industry at first), but we’ll always have books (like we’ll always have music). Piracy will never hurt the creative process. Books will survive as they always have. I would argue that those doing the stealing aren’t doing enough damage at this point, but someday (who knows?) they might, and the industry will adapt accordingly. Book pirates are most likely never going to read the books they steal, anyway, and neither are those taking them from wherever they take them, so who gives a shit? We’ll adapt. We’ll evolve. Musicians are still making music. Writers will continue to write, if they must, because writing’s a disease, right? All creators will continue to create as they always have.

No matter the threat, professional writers should continue to write professionally. Books will always have a place in our world, however they—and we—evolve. All we can do as writers is to keep writing. All we can do as editors is to keep editing. All we can do as book designers is to keep designing beautiful books. And readers: must keep reading (purchased books only, please). It doesn’t matter what tools we use to create, and it doesn’t matter what tools we use to immerse ourselves in those creations. We simply need to keep doing what we’re supposed to be doing.


Imagine the coffee and tea cups empty, or perhaps untouched this entire time and now lukewarm and undrinkable. Perhaps Chuck leans back in his chair, and Michael does the same. One stretches, while the other cracks his knuckles and winces. One looks to the blank wall and sets up the next scene, while the other looks off into the distance and listens for the voices. Both move on to the next project, for there are always next projects. There are stories that need to be written. There are deadlines that need to be met. There are books of various kinds in development.

 

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: