Chuck Answers Fan Questions For His Third '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 earlier month, Chuck decided to start a series of essays explaining the construction and backstory of this short story. (You can read Essay 1 here, Essay 2 here and Essay 3 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 Brian McHale:
Regarding the anecdotes, how do you remember them?
Do you use index cards like you mention in *Stranger Than Fiction*?
Is this room akin to the one used in the creation of the first Oxford
Brian, you send the strangest food pictures. The pineapple (?) still has me scratching my head. In regard to your question, here’s a great writing exercise. It’s something Tom Spanbauer used to assign his students on their first class session: Write the story of something you only half remember. Or barely remember. Start by recording the few details you can recall. Don’t focus on your feelings, just write down every physical aspect of the setting and what occurred. Doing this, Tom’s students are always amazed. Each might start with a couple sentences, but the longer they reflect the more those scant details evoke additional ones. This isn’t about inventing memories, the process actually demonstrates how memories cue deeper memories. It’s similar to song lyrics: If you can retrieve one line or phrase from your memory you can eventually recall most of the song.
With anecdotes, once I decide to quilt them into a story I’ll sit with scratch paper and do Tom’s exercise. The anecdote foremost in my mind will cue others, and I’ll make a list of them and decide which will work best as plot points.
Personally, I’ve given up making on-going notes and note cards. Too much clutter. In workshop, Chelsea Cain insists that’s the first test of a good detail. If it lingers in your mind over time, it’s worth using. But if you have to write it down and file it, it wasn’t worth using in the first place.
Just today I told a friend about walking into someone’s kitchen and seeing the homeowner standing at the counter with his penis dangling in a cereal bowl filled with salt water. Apparently he’d just gotten a Prince Albert piercing, and while it healed he had to periodically soak it in warm saline. The sight was funny and shocking, and I swore never to eat a meal in that household. In fact I used the visual in “Fight Club”: Tyler looks like an elephant wearing a bowtie drinking soup through its little trunk. My point is… when I told the story, today, my listener responded with an almost identical anecdote about his college roommate soaking a new piercing in a shared coffee cup. Tonight I’ll share both stories at dinner and probably come home with a third and fourth version. Already, the basic story has prompted people to tell me about botched piercings. And infected piercings. Someday the best of these clustered anecdotes will become the scenes within a book or story.
From Aaron I:
In this last essay, you laid out how ‘Phoenix’ was gathered over time and eventually compiled. You also mentioned how you've taken a number of true stories and experiences from your life and put them forth into your work.
My question: How do you determine when you have enough information or enough of an idea for a story & start writing it?
Excellent question. I wish I knew the perfect answer. At best, I try to start writing when I have three anecdotes: one that establishes the premise… one that escalates it with humor… and a third which arrives at disaster. In “Guts” those anecdotes are the carrot, the candle and the swimming pool. Once I find a way to string three scenes together I begin to look for holes. First, I take it to workshop. We all need an intelligent “ideal reader” whom we trust for useful feedback. Writers in workshop will prove to me where the laughs are, but my first question is always about clarity. Does the reader understand what takes place? My next priority is pacing. Does the story move too slow or too fast? My fellow writers will answer my concerns, and there’s a good chance that they’ll also provide an anecdote or some background information that will help me flesh out the story.
Once I know where the holes are – questions about motive, or perhaps I need more gradual steps in my discovery process or my reveal, or I need a better ‘hook’ to engage the reader at the opening – then I can go into the world knowing what kind of information or anecdotes I need to fill those holes. That means going to more parties, talking to more people, fishing for exactly the right piece to finish the puzzle.
My thanks this week to everyone whose helped Dennis with his campaign on Kickstarter. I don’t have another essay ready about Phoenix, but I’d rather wait and give you a good essay rather than waste your time with space filler. If there are aspects of the story you’re curious about, please ask. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
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...