Chuck Palahniuk is a writer who almost defies description. His books are impossible to categorize, and that's just the way he likes it. Palahniuk burst onto the literary scene in 1996 with Fight Club, which went on to be made into the cult hit film directed by David Fincher. In the years since, he's been regularly pumping out novels at the rate of about one per year.
He’s just about the most prolific NSFW writer working today.
And the last couple years saw him break out of the mold even more. With Cameron Stewart, he created Fight Club 2, which is a graphic novel sequel to his original novel, and he released the surprisingly out-of-left-field Bait: Off-Color Stories for You to Color. Yep, it's pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a short story compilation packaged as an adult coloring book.
What led to that decision? Why would Palahniuk, of all people, want to publish a coloring book? He's not shy about owning it. "First, I like an oxymoron. For example, Fight Club — two words that seem to contradict each other. Or Invisible Monsters, another oxymoron. In a way, it's like when Joan Rivers used to joke about 'disposable douche' ... Is there any other kind?"
When you sit down to talk to Chuck Palahniuk, you have to be prepared for conversations to take sudden left turns. You might begin by talking about an idea for a story, and suddenly you're talking about douche or feces. It's happened to me before. But the conversation always comes back to the original point.
"Here's a beautifully bound, album-sized coloring book not destined for the garbage. That's a real game changer. A friend also told me that coloring clubs are the new book clubs, so I figured, why not combine them? People can color, read, talk, AND drink wine.
"Finally, I enjoyed working with so many creative people—artists, letterers, editors—while producing Fight Club 2 that I wanted to prolong those relationships. Writing is a lonely business otherwise."
See? From wordplay to douche to wine to the heart of the creative pursuit. All in the space of a few sentences.
It's this love of contradictions that makes Palahniuk so compelling as a storyteller. It's pervasive throughout his work, and it's back on display in this month's Legacy: An Off-Color Novella for You to Color. The book, published by Dark Horse Comics and illustrated by Mike Norton and Steve Morris (with cover by Duncan Fegredo), is a dark fable featuring aspiring immortals, an amoral banker and his despicable family, a stalker, and the kind of extreme storytelling and biting social satire you should expect from a Palahniuk book.
In what's become another Palahniuk staple, Legacy has a protagonist who's not exactly likable. And this is absolutely by design, since there's a little bit of the "antihero" in all of us. "Most of us are our own worst enemies," Palahniuk says. "So I tend to reject stories where there's a clear villain and victim. And I run from people who appear readily 'likable,' because they're usually the biggest douchebags. Politicians, for instance."
Adult coloring books are having a moment, to be sure. But not many authors are choosing this format in which to write. Let's be honest: It's not exactly a logical or intuitive leap for a writer to make. So what is it about this approach that attracts Palahniuk? "I play to the strengths of my medium. If I want a thousand dancing elephants, I'm not forced to call the head of production and beg. Words — and now pictures — allow me to depict every wild idea I can come up with. I don't write with an illustration in mind, but I do favor moment-by-moment narrative scenes with as much physical action as possible."
In the end, though, he quips, "Hey, writing is like sex. If you're not having fun, you're doing something wrong."
And Legacy — like Bait — is a lot of fun. It's a book that engages the reader and invites you to read, color, defile, or do pretty much whatever you want to it. And that's part of his master plan.
Read up on Chuck Palahniuk and his notorious live readings, and you'll repeatedly hear about the physical reactions some of his stories evoke in people (not all of them "positive"). A reader's ability to connect to his work (beyond just reading the words) is an extremely important part of the process for him.
"Last week, in Rome, a reporter asked about the 67 people who fainted at a single reading. The most I've ever seen faint at a single event was 18 people in Brighton, but who am I to pop her Wiki-informed bubble?" And this is why I love Palahniuk so much: his nonchalance about the remarkable. Eighteen people fainting at a book reading is by any measure impressive. I've never seen a single person even get lightheaded. But it's the exaggeration of the number that amuses him.
"My goal is to use as many 'textures' of information as possible. For example, facts, quotes, haiku, nonfiction devices, redacted passages — the variety keeps the reader engaged, and I see illustrations as yet another texture of information. Plus, art created for a coloring book needs to offer as many coloring opportunities as possible, so it's dense with patterns, details, and cryptic references to my other work. The only way to fully appreciate the art is to color it and discover its secrets."
And this is the heart of his current obsession with the medium. It's not a gimmick or schlocky way to drum up press (and sales). In the book's introduction, Palahniuk makes the case that Legacy should be like an heirloom or an artifact that demonstrates the reader's creativity and presents some aspect of him or her to the future.
"In a world where books are becoming downloadable, bundled electrons, I still like them as objects. Objects for display. Objects to be wrapped as gifts. As objects, they can testify to the past. For example, when my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, she asked for my three favorite colors. As it turned out, she was crocheting gifts for people to remember her by. My colors were blue, green, and white. I still have the afghan she made me, and I appreciate the impulse to create something that demonstrates time and effort. It reminds the future that the past existed. Once fully colored, Legacy bears witness to someone's affection and dedication."
Legacy is a short story that functions as physical proof of our own history and how we're all linked to other people in our lives. It's also worth noting that Palahniuk believes every one of his novels should be able to be condensed into a short story and still work. Brevity is key, but a story shouldn't be short just for the sake of being short.
Ultimately, there's just not that much to say. So is it not much of a leap to say that a human life should be able to "work" as a short story rather than a novel? "Have you not seen Groundhog Day? Most of our lives are the same short story, repeated daily. But once we recognize that tendency, we can make changes. Or consider The Up Series of documentaries that demonstrate how little people change over a lifetime.
"Perhaps we are all doomed to living short-story lives, but that doesn't mean your story has to be a boring one."