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Strange But True: A Short Biography of Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk.  Photo by Sarah Lee.
Photo by Sarah Lee

written for ChuckPalahniuk.net by Joshua Chaplinsky

Truth is stranger than fiction, at least for those blessed with interesting lives. The rest of us have no choice but to live vicariously through their stories. In the case of bestselling cult author Chuck Palahniuk, the embellishment of his exploits by fans has made it hard to tell exactly where reality ends and the storytelling begins. There are those who would have us believe he entered this world kicking and screaming, brandishing a pen, when in fact he comes from much more humble (albeit interesting) beginnings.

Born February 21, 1962, Charles Michael Palahniuk spent his early childhood living out of a mobile home in Burbank, Washington. His parents, Carol and Fred Palahniuk, separated and divorced when he was fourteen, leaving Chuck and his siblings to spend much of their time on their maternal grandparent’s cattle ranch.

'Stranger Than Fiction' by Chuck PalahniukThe surname, Palahniuk, which is Ukrainian in origin, can be spelled and pronounced numerous different ways. According to Chuck, his paternal grandparents decided to pronounce it as a combination of their first names, Paula and Nick. But Chuck never knew his father’s parents. As recounted in an interview with The Independent, his grandfather shot and killed his grandmother after an argument over the cost of a sewing machine. Chuck’s father, who was three at the time, watched from under a bed as Nick Palahniuk searched the house for additional victims, before turning the gun on himself. In the article, Chuck is quoted as saying, "My grandfather was hit over the head by a crane boom in Seattle. Some of the family claimed he was never a violent, crazy person before that. Some say he was. It depends who you believe." The tragic event is depicted on the U.S. cover of Stranger Than Fiction.

Aside from what's revealed in his writing, not much is known about Palahniuk’s formative years. In 1980 he graduated from Columbia High School in Burbank, winning the award for “Most Wittiest” in the process. Some regard this award as the catalyst for his nascent interest in writing, but according to Chuck, that honor belongs to Mr. Olsen, his fifth grade teacher, who told him:

Chuck, you do this really well. And this is much better than setting fires, so keep it up.

5th Grade Poem by Chuck Palahniuk
A 5th grade poem by Chuck Palahniuk

After high school, Chuck attended the University of Oregon, graduating with a BA in journalism in 1986. He entered the workforce as a journalist for a local Portland newspaper, but soon grew tired of the job. He then gained employment as a diesel mechanic, spending his days repairing trucks and writing technical manuals. It was during this time that Chuck experienced much of what would become fodder for his early work, including working as an escort for terminally ill hospice patients and becoming a member of the notorious Cacophony Society. Said to be the inspiration for Project Mayhem in Fight Club, The Cacophony Society was dedicated to experiencing things outside of the mainstream and performing large-scale pranks in public places.

Chuck Palahniuk in college.  Photo credit unknown.In his mid-thirties, Chuck decided to try his hand at writing fiction. A friend suggested he attend a workshop hosted by Tom Spanbauer, minimalist guru behind the art of “Dangerous Writing.” The resulting short story, Negative Reinforcement, appeared in the now defunct literary journal Modern Short Stories in August 1990, and is Chuck’s first known published work. The Love Theme of Sybil and William followed in October.

Chuck’s first attempt at a novel, If You Lived Here, You’d be Home Already, was also written while attending the workshop. The 700-page monster of a book was Chuck’s attempt at emulating Stephen King, and was rejected across the board (although parts were later recycled for use in Fight Club.) Unfazed, Chuck dabbled with even darker material, writing a manuscript called Manifesto, which would go on to become Invisible Monsters. As with If You Lived Here, agents just couldn't embrace the dark tone in Chuck's work, and while his voice as a writer got some recognition, nobody was willing to take a chance on him.

That all changed when Chuck "gave up" on the mainstream and decided to make his next manuscript even darker. Written in stolen moments under truck chassis and on park benches to a soundtrack of The Downward Spiral and Pablo Honey, Fight Club came into existence. Within months, Gerry Howard (then editor at WW Norton) convinced the higher-ups to take a chance on the fledgling writer, and Chuck soon had a book deal with a major publisher.  But it wasn't until 20th Century Fox took notice that Chuck nabbed an agent in Edward Hibbert (best known as Gil Chesterton, the food critic on Frasier,) who would go on to broker the deal for Fight Club the movie.

Directed by David Fincher, the adaptation of Fight Club was a flop at the box office, but achieved cult status on DVD. The year of its release, the film was Fox’s top selling disc, and critics everywhere finally began to embrace it. The film’s popularity drove sales of the novel, resulting in multiple re-printings over the next few years.

'Fight Club' by Chuck Palahniuk'Fight Club' by Chuck Palahniuk'Fight Club' by Chuck Palahniuk'Fight Club' by Chuck Palahniuk

Due to this success, Chuck was given free reign, creatively. He put out two novels in 1999—religious satire Survivor, and the rewritten Invisible Monsters—and has written almost a book a year since. Choke, published in 2001, became Chuck’s first New York Times bestseller. All of his novels thereafter have had similar success.

Chuck’s work has always been infused with personal experience, and his next novel, Lullaby, was no exception. Chuck credits writing Lullaby with helping him cope with the tragic death of his father, who was murdered in 1999 by the jealous ex of a woman met through a personal ad. A major theme of the book is power, and Chuck has gone on record as saying it was inspired by sitting in the court room, in judgment of the man who killed his father. That man was found guilty and sentenced to death in 2001.

 The Chuck Palahniuk Documentary"

With the trial behind him, Chuck threw himself into his work. 2003 would go down as a banner year, but not many people realize it began with a small literary conference in Edinboro, Pennsylvania. The three-day event gave fans unprecedented access to the author and his work, and was presided over by Chuck himself. The schedule consisted of exclusive readings, Q&As, book signings, dissertations- all devoted to Chuck. Not one to revel in the spotlight, Chuck selflessly used this forum to promote the art of storytelling, and to encourage a generation of young readers to evolve into writers.  The entire affair was thoroughly documented by a crew from ChuckPalahniuk.net in the film, Postcards From the FutureThe Chuck Palahniuk Documentary.

Both Diary and the non-fiction guide to Portland, Fugitives and Refugees, were released later that year. While on the road in support of Diary, Chuck began reading a short story entitled 'Guts,' which would eventually become part of the novel Haunted. 'Guts' instantly became one of Chuck’s most infamous stories, due in large part to the graphic nature of its content- extreme masturbation gone awry- and the fact that it caused people to faint at his readings.

Over a hundred faintings have been reported, one of the most severe occurring during a reading at Columbia University, where a man fell to the ground and awoke screaming. The incident was caught on tape and is featured in the Postcards From the Future documentary.

'Guts' by Chuck PalahniukIt was also around this time that Chuck publicly came out as homosexual. For a long time it was assumed that Chuck was married, and some members of the press even perpetuated the myth that he had a wife, but he set the record straight via an audio message posted on ChuckPalahniuk.net.

In the years that followed, things seemed to settle down for Chuck. He continued to write, publishing the bestselling Rant, Snuff, Pygmy, Tell-All, a 'remix' of Invisible Monsters, Damned and most recently, Doomed. To this day, he still attends a weekly workshop with close friends and writers such as Lidia Yuknavitch, Monica Drake, Chelsea Cain and Suzy Vitello, and they are the first people to read anything he writes. Chuck is a vocal proponent of the minimalist writing style, and credits Tom Spanbauer and his mentor, Gordon Lish, as major influences, along with Amy Hempel, Denis Johnson and Bret Easton Ellis.

In regards to his own writing, Chuck has stated that he writes each chapter of his novels as if they were a short story. He feels every one of his novels should be able to be condensed into a short story and still work.

Chuck is also known for doing extensive research. He says that research is his favorite part of the writing process and is the fuel that drives his novels. He has been known to consume entire books and distil that information into a single descriptive line. He writes in public, spending hours people-watching as he does. If you have a passing conversation with Chuck on the street, there’s a good chance it ends up in one of his books. According to Chuck,

I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.

But it is better to give than to receive. Chuck has used his experience and success to help his fellow writers. So far three of Chuck’s workshop peers- Chelsea Cain (Heartsick), Lidia Yuknavitch (The Chronology of Water), and Monica Drake (Clown Girl) - have gone on to successful writing careers of their own, due in part to Chuck’s assistance. In 2003, he wrote a blurb for the paperback edition of Craig Clevenger’s The Contortionist’s Handbook, and promoted it on tour as one of the best books he’d read in a decade, after which, awareness of Clevenger’s work skyrocketed.

Chuck Palahniuk.  Photo by John Gress

Photo by John Gress

Chuck also enjoys giving back to his fans, and teaching the art of storytelling has been an important part of that. In 2004, Chuck began submitting essays to ChuckPalahniuk.net on the craft of writing.  These were 'How To' pieces, straight out of Chuck's personal bag of tricks, based on the tenants of minimalism he learned from Tom Spanbauer. Every month, a “Homework Assignment” would accompany the lesson, so Workshop members could apply what they had learned. (all 36 of these essays can currently be found on The Cult's sister-site, LitReactor.com).

Then, in 2009, Chuck increased his involvement by committing to read and review a selection of fan-written stories each month. He would then provide detailed feedback and criticism to aid in the revision process. The best stories are currently set to be published in Burnt Tongues, a forthcoming anthology, with an introduction written by Chuck himself.

It has been almost fifteen years since the landmark publication of Fight Club, and Chuck shows no signs of slowing down. He currently divides his time between two homes- one in Oregon and one in Washington State- both of which he shares with his partner of twenty years and their dogs. When he is not on tour, Chuck is constantly writing. His next novel, Beautiful You, is due out in October 2014.


Joshua Chaplinsky is the managing editor at LitReactor.  Has also writes for popular film site Twitch and is a guitarist in the band SpeedSpeedSpeed