Volume 76, Number 2 | May 31 - June 6 2006

First rule of Chuck Palahniuk readings: don’t faint

By Rachel Fershleiser

Chuck Palahniuk, author of the nightmarish novel “Haunted,” which he’ll read from on Monday at the Strand.
Book authors measure success in many ways: stints on the New York Times Bestseller list, National Book Award nominations, going rate for signed first editions on Ebay. But beloved cult novelist Chuck Palahniuk has devised his own criterion.

“At a reading a few weeks ago, we had thirteen people faint,” he says. “It was glorious.”

If Palahniuk is best known for “Fight Club,” the violent, 1996 novel that became a hugely popular Brad Pitt movie, he is second-best known for the physical reactions fans tend to have at his public appearances.

“It’s glorious that a story can do that, that words can do that,” he said in a recent phone interview about his upcoming trip to downtown Manhattan. The Washington state resident will be kicking off a national book tour for the paperback release of “Haunted” (Anchor) with a reading and Q&A at Strand Bookstore. His disturbing newest novel-in-stories is about a writers’ colony gone very, very wrong, and contains stories and poems penned by each of the characters. Although he won’t be reading one of the tales, “Guts,” about masturbation-induced bodily harm that often sends fans running for the nearest basin, he clearly values his ability to bring an audience together.

“The nicest thing is that when everyone crams into a venue, they’re all resenting one another,” he says. “After one person faints, the whole room full of people become very caring about that person. They move from sort of hating each other to actually being bonded as a community of people, and it’s a really sweet thing to see happen.”

Palahniuk has an optimistic and charming phone manner, waxing poetic about the power of language, and thanking me repeatedly for writing about him. So are fans surprised by his gentle personality?

“People are always disappointed,” he says. “They’re expecting Charles Manson.

Still, the mild-mannered novelist has strict standards that authors should be telling “the kind of story only books can tell at this point in history.” He leaves easy topics to movies, television, music, and videogames, and singles out books as the storytelling medium that demands the ongoing consent of the consumer. “The consumer must have a certain education, certain brain development,” he explains, “so really books are the only place you can tell these really extreme stories. I think it’s kind of a rip off, if you’re going to write a book, not to tell a fairly edgy story.”

He does concede that “Amy Hempel writes nice books and I love her books” and goes on to tell me about her Collected Stories, just out from Scribner last month. Palahniuk’s sincere enthusiasm also extends to the writers workshop he’s been attending weekly for sixteen years, as well as to support groups, recovery centers, and phone sex chat lines, all of which he characterizes as “real truth-telling places.”

On Monday, June 5th, Palahniuk will be telling his truth to what he expects will be a packed crowd at Strand. “I’m a little surprised that they didn’t hold it off site,” he says, “because I get a lot of people at my events these days.” He’s already shipped over three cases of prizes to give to lucky readers during the Q&A portion on the evening.

Whether or not he’ll add to his tally of fan collapses is anyone’s guess. Some Internet buzz claims it’s all a pre-planned publicity stunt anyway. Regardless, the event offers something even more titillating to Palahniuk devotees: he’ll be reading a brand new piece. And if that should provoke a medical problem for someone in the audience, he’s okay with that too.

“Even one person fainting is a huge compliment.”

Chuck Palahniuk will read at Strand Bookstore (828 Broadway @ 12th Street) at 7pm on Monday, June 5th. www.strandbooks.com

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