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Sarah Tomlinson

Is it fistfighting, or just multi-tasking?

Chuck Palahniuk wrote the novel “Fight Club” as an affront to the publishing houses that refused his first novel
because it was “too dark and too risky.” But rather than tone down his writing, he took it to the opposite extreme.

“I made it even darker and riskier and more offensive, all the things that they didn’t want,” he said during a recent phone interview from his home
in Portland, Ore. “And I sent back ‘Fight Club’ because I thought, Well, they
wouldn’t buy it, but at least they wouldn’t forget it. And it turns out, boom — they loved it.”

The novel went on to win an Oregon Book Award and a Pacific Northwest Booksellers
Award, and eventually attracted the attention of David Fincher, director of the
atmospheric thriller “Seven.” Fincher’s adaptation of “Fight Club,” starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton
and Helena Bonham Carter, opens Friday.

Palahniuk says “Fight Club” — about secret boxing matches
where members beat out the frustrations of their dead-end lives in brutal
one-on-one combat — was partly inspired from his own experience
of getting into a fistfight during a weekend camping trip.
“They just beat the crap out of me,” he says of the men he fought. “My face was so bashed and so
horrible-looking. It was blacked-out for three months. And
it just slowly changed colors before it got back to being a white person’s face. And the whole time,
no one at work acknowledged it.”

He later read an interview with Amy Sedaris, star of the Comedy
Central show “Strangers With Candy” and
sister of writer David
Sedaris, in which she described showing up for a photo shoot made up to
look as if she’d been beaten. The makeup artist simply attempted to cover up the bruises.
Without wiping off the makeup, she then went to her job as a waitress.
In an eight-hour shift, only one person asked her if she was OK.

Relating her story to his own experience, Palahniuk came up with the basic premise for
“Fight Club”: “You could really do anything you wanted in your
personal life, as long as you looked so bad that people would not want to know the details. I started
thinking of a fight club as a really structured, controlled way of just going nuts in a really safe situation.”

The story’s narrator (played by Norton) is a soulless yuppie consumer, a white-collar drone;
that he’s capable of evoking any sympathy from us at all is as much a testament to Palahniuk’s
writing as it is to Norton’s acting. He embodies the frustration of our every stunted ambition, and our every
shrugged-off compromise. When we first meet him, his greatest hope is that one of his innumerable business trips
will end in a fiery plane crash. But once he and his mysterious new friend Tyler (Pitt) start fight
club, he regains his sense of dignity; his whole body fills with pride with each new brutal attack.

Certainly, some will find it difficult to appreciate the restorative value of the fight club after
witnessing the bloodier scenes in Fincher’s adaptation. (The sound of flesh being pounded — in stereo –
won’t help.) But Palahniuk says that as a means of escaping mundane reality, the fight club is really
no more excessive than any other “extreme” sport.

“In fact, I think fight club is a lot safer and cheaper than
climbing Mount Everest,” he says. “Plus, if
you’re a blue- or a white-collar guy, you really need
to schedule your chaos in — you have such a small window to
do anything like that. That’s why I wanted to make
it a very convenient, short-term psychosis that only exists
from 2 to 5.”

Palahniuk is undisturbed by reports that his book and hype
from the upcoming film have inspired several copycat clubs across the country.
“I think the people who would take [“Fight Club”] so literally and do
these things are already expressing their violence and their rage in some other way — whether they’re
hitting their girlfriend, or whether they’re tailgating someone on the freeway, or whether they’re
doing God knows what with automatic weapons at school,” he says. “You know the rage is coming
out in some way. And if this stuff can be sort of vented in a consensual controlled situation like
a fight club, I just see that as an improvement.”

He has been moved, however, by readers’ accounts of
how the book encouraged them to take more control of their lives.

“It almost makes me cry,” Palahniuk confessed, “but people
come up to me at readings, a lot of people now, and say,
‘The book made me go back to school and get my degree.’ People are coming up and thanking

It wasn’t so long ago that Palahniuk himself had given up
all hopes of becoming a writer. “I had sort of told myself that
someday when I retire, I might try to write a book. At the same time, I was so miserable with
my job that I was working as a volunteer at a hospice primarily for young people with cancer
and AIDS. And it dawned on me at one point: What if I don’t ever retire? People die before retirement. So I started writing.”

Six years later, Palahniuk’s writing is an increasingly sought-after commodity in Hollywood.
“Survivor,” his second novel, about the sole survivor of a suicide cult who becomes rich on his story, was
recently optioned; “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle has been mentioned as a possible director.
And negotiations are already under way for a movie adaptation of the book “Invisible Monsters,”
published just last month. The story — about a supermodel who, after being horribly disfigured in an
accident, rebuilds her life through her relationship with a pre-op transsexual — has reportedly drawn
the attention of “Gods and Monsters” director Bill Condon.

After he completes the “Fight Club” press juggernaut, Palahniuk will return home to begin research for
his next book — a novel he says will reinvent the horror story. And while he’s enjoying the buzz
that continues to build around his work, he hopes it’s his successes — not just his stories — that stand as an example to

“People see that it’s not just movie stars and publishing gods off in New York who do these things,
that it can be anyone,” he says, explaining why he’s looking forward to his next book tour. “I think that’s
a really powerful thing to be there to prove.”