Chuck Palahniuk isn't a rock star, but he could be. The author of Fight Club, Choke and Invisible Monsters gives readings in concert halls, has been known to throw inflatable sex dolls into the audience and inspires fans to tattoo his name onto their arms. The novelist's official fan site boasts over 47,000 crazed Palahniuk-heads who openly refer to themselves as the Cult and sell book-tour T shirts the way music acts sell concert tees. His latest book, Pygmy, follows the terror plot of an adolescent foreign-exchange student/secret assassin as he infiltrates and tries to destroy middle America. Palahniuk talked to TIME about the new novel, how he accidentally offended the entire nation of Germany and what he really thinks of the Cult. (Read TIME's 2002 article about Chuck Palahniuk.)
How did you get the idea for this book?
When the Fight Club movie was going into production, I quit my job so I could write full-time. I needed something that would get me out of bed really early in the morning so I started volunteering at a homeless soup kitchen. People didn't know who I was or why I was there, so they started inventing stories about me. I was a registered sex offender and I'd just been released from prison and was being forced to do community-service work. I was a murderer, an arsonist all these horrific things had been projected on me because no one knew what to make of this white guy who showed up and made toast at 5 o'clock every morning.
And you ran with it? You didn't say, "Actually, I'm not a murderer"?
Nah. I loved their stories better than the truth so I just stayed with it.
How did that turn into Pygmy?
I liked the idea of writing a character who is kind of a cipher and isn't readily explained the moment you meet him. This allows everyone who meets Pygmy and interacts with him to project their worst prejudices, self-righteousness and bigotry onto him. They're not even sure what race he is. His name isn't even really Pygmy.
The book's characters seem to either think America is the greatest country ever or the worst place in the world. In fact, the book borders on the political.
To me this is less of a political novel than a coming-of-age novel. Do you remember when you were 10 or 11 years old and you really thought your folks were the best? They were completely omniscient and you took their word for everything. And then you got older and you went through this hideous age when suddenly they were the devil, they were bullies, and they didn't know anything. Pygmy's host family treats America as this place where everything is perfect. But Pygmy is trained to treat America as that bully, the oppressor, the evil idiot. Eventually beyond both of those stages you break into accepting your parents as human beings who are not perfect but who love you and are really doing the very best they can. Pygmy breaks through to recognizing these evil bullies as being loving people who don't know everything. (See the top 10 fiction books of 2008.)
Pygmy is written in a very unique, fractured dialect. After reading it, I couldn't stop thinking in that dialect. What was it like to write in it?
It really was a blast, it was like writing poetry instead of prose. There were so many rules for what I was doing intentionally wrong. For example, I couldn't use the prefix un- unhappy, unconscious. With Pygmy it was no happy or no conscious. I found myself saying no conscious a lot. You end up internalizing all that language and it lingers in your head and alters the way you think about things. It allows me to make very ordinary, everyday things like Wal-Mart and megachurches and high schools that much more fresh.
You had a number of lines in the book about how God needs man to sin so he can punish him. That's an interesting concept, could you speak a little bit about that?
I had just done this hideous radio interview in Berlin for German public radio. At one point, I meant to say "Sieht so aus als haettest du all dein Deutsch vergessen," which means "I guess I've forgotten so much German." Only I misconjugated the verb vergessen to vergast, and when I came out of the interview, the publicist was a furious with me. Vergast is the past tense of the verb "to gas people to death." I even said Deutsch wrong I put an r in it, which turns it into meaning "German people" instead of the language. What I actually said was, "I'm so sorry that I have gassed to death so many German people." I was mortified.
What happened? Did you hear any backlash?
No, I fled. I got on a train and I was out of there and I just felt awful. I had insulted thousands of people. How could I say that? And I started thinking, maybe it's our crimes, the things we do hideously wrong, that gives God some pleasure in ending our lives. Maybe it's our sins that give God consolation when he finally has to give us cancer.
You have a very intense fan base. What is your relationship like with the Cult?
Around 10 years ago, three people came to a reading in New York and asked if they could be the official fan site. They said, "We don't need anything from you you'll just know we're out there." I sort of shrugged and said, "Yeah, go for it." And since then it has become so enormous. I contribute critiques and lectures about aspects of writing. They send me six or eight stories each month and I go through them and I offer my feedback.
Your book readings aren't normal book readings. They're more like concerts or events. Why do you do all of this wacky stuff?
About seven years ago I realized that my book readings were boring me. I was going to go up there and read a passage and sleepwalk through the whole event and I needed to make it more interesting. I wanted to be running and jumping and do something so that the event would be so exciting. I had to trick myself into having fun every time. I don't remember the hotel rooms or the airports but I always remember the events.
I heard you throw plastic body parts at people.
People would ask me to autograph their bodies and then the next time I'd see them on tour they'd have my autograph tattooed. I decided I wouldn't write on people anymore, but I'd give them arms and legs and if they wanted those autographed I'd do that. For one or two years I was throwing arms and legs and hands and feet at the audience if they wanted them. And then last year I moved on to thousands of these really cheap sex dolls. We had races and whoever inflated their sex doll the fastest received copies of a book or something.
What are you doing for this tour?
Two thousand inflatable penguins that I spent all winter blowing up and signing and dating. I shipped 250 to each of the events on tour this year and people get the penguins in rounds and we have various contests. I like to get people moving and jumping. I think it's good to add more emotion and chaos.