Chuck Answers Fan Questions For His Second 'Phoenix' Essay
On February 12th, Chuck Palahniuk released a new short story exclusively through Amazon's Kindle Single program called 'Phoenix.' At the time of my writing this, 'Phoenix' is #1 across the board on Amazon's Kindle Single rank. The story is burning it up! (pun intended)
So two weeks ago, Chuck decided to start a series of essays explaining the construction and backstory of this short story. (You can read Essay 1 here and Essay 2 here.) And he decided to let a small number of fans submit questions to him. So without further ado, here is the second batch of Questions & Answers. And it goes without saying, but if you haven't yet read 'Phoenix,' there are spoilers below.
(Chuck's answers are italicizied within)
From Andrew Stanton:
What is the significance of the phone ringing so many times? What is Ted doing that it takes him 26 rings to answer? And why does Rachel wait?
Also, a bit more random, but did Chuck get the idea for naming the cat Belinda Carlisle after the book, Frank Sinatra in a Blender, where Frank Sinatra is the name of a chiwawa?
Chuck's Response: Thank you, Andrew, for bringing this up. The telephone ringing is Rachel’s particular way to measure time passing. She’s so meticulous that it makes sense for her to count the rings as her impatience builds. She’s thwarted with every unanswered ring, and it’s easy for her to imagine that Ted’s intentionally avoiding her calls. By stating that she’s waited 27 rings I’m already creating tension in the scene and depicting Rachel’s anxious state of mind – as well as giving some idea of how much time is passing.
Sorry, I haven’t read Frank Sinatra in a Blender. It was Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water that introduced me to the idea of using celebrity names for characters. She uses rock star names to represent each of her former lovers, and the technique works to establish the era as well as the person. Yes, it’s a shortcut, but it’s unique and works especially well in a short story where I don’t want to burden the reader with pages of description.
From Wil Dalton:
You've spoken of collecting anecdotes to craft into stories before (like the three tales in 'Guts'). How do you get your friends/strangers to share these personal tales with you? Do you ask permission before using their stories, or do you find people share with you in the hopes of seeing their experience become part of a grander theme?
Chuck's Response: Forgive me, but I’d like to defer this question for the essay I’ll be sending later this week. Phoenix arrived from many different directions, very much like Guts did. For now, consider the idea that a good anecdote doesn’t leave people in silent awe. Instead, it excites them to relate similar events from their own experience. Listeners relate to an effective story, and it gives them permission to share parts of their own lives. A dark, sad, humiliating story gives people a special opportunity to unburden themselves. Such a story makes it safe for them to share personal history they’ve normally kept secret.
From Zach Bennett:
How long did it take, from idea to kindle press for "Phoenix" to come to fruition?
Chuck's Response: All told, it took about a week to write the first draft of Phoenix, and it took about three months to tweak it into the story you see. I worked with Amy Grace Lloyd, my editor at Byliner, when she was an editor at Playboy. She published my stories Romance and Knock-Knock, and when she moved to Byliner she kept in touch with me. In October 2012 she proposed I write a Halloween story. I put Phoenix together, and Byliner liked it so much they didn’t want to rush it to market. Not much happened until December, at that point I rewrote it with Amy’s input. I added the robot vacuum cleaner. We debated the mood of the story and whether Rachel seemed too crazy too early. Most of the revisions were very small. For example, I added the line about a “blind date.” In retrospect, none of the changes looked big, but they each carried heavy emotional weight. By January the story was being copyedited. It got cover art and proofreading in February. Now we’re talking about a new, longer story for Byliner – this one, again, for Halloween. If I had to make a rough estimate, I spent twenty hours on rewriting for every hour I spent on the first draft.
A story isn’t really finished until you want to murder everyone involved in the publishing process. Especially yourself.
From Andrew Gahol:
Hey there Mr. Palahniuk!
I am a huge fan of your body of work and I couldn't help but notice that you have an immense penchant for magnifying and underscoring character idiosyncrasies in your fiction (Rachel's obsessive viewing of Home Shopping Channel on mute in 'Phoenix; Irene Casey's habit of mixing metal slivers in food in 'Rant'; tracing Katherine's wrinkles inside the Kenton crypt in 'Tell-All').
As a writer, how vital are these eccentricities in forming good plots and good character designs?
Chuck's Response: Be careful, here. To paraphrase the “Romance” story: we all look a little crazy if you look close enough. One person’s coping behaviors look like eccentricities to another person. Beyond that, my goal is always to demonstrate state-of-mind through physical actions. Because I try to avoid stating a character’s emotions – “Sally felt angry” – I look for actions that will allow the reader to determine what I avoid saying outright. This is something we see good actors do. They can’t say aloud, “Hey, I feel sad.” They must find physical ways to communicate that information. The concept “angry” is an abstract. A physical action makes it compelling because our attention is always drawn to the thing that moves.
And do you decide what quirks a character may have before you write something or does that decision come organically as you're writing it?
Chuck's Response: To date, in most of my stories the scam or coping behavior creates the story. In Fight Club going to the disease support groups, for example, or pretending to choke in Choke. We enter the story with the behavior already more-or-less in place. It constitutes a lie to society. A secret, ritually performed for a noble reason. The scam meets the character’s emotional needs but fails to unite him or her with society. Only when the liar is unmasked – usually at the end of the second act – can the character truly join society. So: Scam first, fulfillment second.
Having said that, I will probably never use that form again.
Do you have a idiosyncrasies yourself as a writer and as a human being that also directly or indirectly affect your own life's plot lines?
Chuck's Response: No comment (but, really, don’t we all?)
We'll be posting Part 3 of Chuck's 'Phoenix' essays later this week at which time Chuck will accept more fan questions. For now, if you haven't yet read this great story...