When Chuck Palahniuk is asked whether he lives his life according to a code, like his most recognizable creation, Tyler Durden, he pauses before offering two. The first—“He who serves best profits most”—he read on a bathroom wall. The second—“Don’t take your foot off the gas until you hear glass breaking”—is a punk rock slogan. No one should be surprised that the author of Fight Club embraces a personal philosophy that is at war with itself.
War, at least in the publishing business, is a topic Palahniuk knows something about. While it might be cliché to call him a survivor, he’s weathered his share of storms in his 23-year career. Now—with two new books on the horizon, a new literary agent, and a new publishing house—he’s closing one of the most tumultuous chapters of his literary life and putting brushes with bankruptcy, professional malfeasance, and bad luck behind him.
Palahniuk is best known for the second book he wrote, which was the first he published: Fight Club. Released in 1996, the novel earned him an advance of $7,000. Far from an instant bestseller, it didn’t gain any real traction until David Fincher’s film adaptation found a following on home video and in turn directed a cult of fervent fans Palahniuk’s way.
Since Fight Club, Palahniuk, whose soft center is shelled by a hard anarchist crust, has released a book a year, with few exceptions. His fourth novel, Choke, was also adapted to film. His third, Invisible Monsters, is in series development now—one of six TV projects that he’s currently working on, including an anthology series for Apple TV titled Best Intentions (Palahniuk describes the show as “like Black Mirror but darker”).
Those aren’t the only balls Palahniuk has in the air, either: he’s currently reviewing art for the Fight Club 3 comic series; anticipating edits to his next novel; writing an introduction for a reissue of Rosemary’s Baby; teaching a weekly workshop in his hometown of Portland, Ore.; supervising an anthology of his students’ work; and preparing a talk for venture capitalists.
On a recent Friday morning, before heading to Philadelphia to talk to bankers about the benefits of boredom, Palahniuk speaks with me from his home outside Portland. After our conversation, he’ll exercise, then have lunch, then go to an AA meeting (he’s approaching 90 days of sobriety). Then he’ll spend the afternoon writing. When he’s not traveling (and he’s almost always traveling), this is the routine.
Palahniuk’s forthcoming book, Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, is a curiosity case full of overheard tales, practical advice for writers, casual references to mythology and linguistic anthropology, tattoo designs for the faithful, and anecdotes that are amusing and occasionally insane, such as the one about a reading outside San Diego that went awry. (His former publisher told him not to talk about that particular event, but punk writers live to rebel, so, in the book, Palahniuk recounts the story of two fans who took Fight Club’s call for mayhem to heart, made a cannon out of cardboard, and fired off dozens of live white mice.)
Consider This marks the beginning of Palahniuk’s relationship with Grand Central and was sold by his new agent, ICM’s Sloan Harris, along with a novel titled The Invention of Sound (Sept. 2020), which Palahniuk says is about “a foley artist looking for the ultimate scream, and the hideous lengths she’ll go to in order to find it.”
For 22 years prior to signing with Harris, Palahniuk was represented by Edward Hibbert at Donadio & Olson. Last May, news broke that D&O bookkeeper Darin Webb had embezzled more than $3.4 million from the agency and its clients. Forensic accounting to determine the full extent of the crime only went back five or six years, according to Palahniuk; “In that time they figured out I was owed well over a million dollars,” he says.
For months, Palahniuk says, he asked his former agent about the advance he was owed for Adjustment Day, which his previous publisher, Norton, released in May 2018. “And for eight months Edward just told me whatever the accountant told him. I was stonewalled. Once Edward told me that the money had been taken, he broke off all contact—and I was left hanging. In all fairness, Neil Olson did step in and do a lot of damage control; he was a complete gentleman about it. But Edward just vanished.”
To be robbed of seven figures would sink most writers, not just financially (as it nearly did Palahniuk) but psychologically. Stages of grief would be traversed. Career choices would be questioned. But Palahniuk saw it as an opportunity to plunge into new arenas of storytelling. “After the embezzlement last year, I ended up committing to a lot of jobs that I probably would not have done in the past,” he says. “I needed the work. I needed the money.”
In a twist out of a Chuck Palahniuk story, the embezzlement has awakened something positive in the author. “To tell you the truth, I’m really excited,” he says. “This has given me an entrée into television. I understand that Donadio had made it an unofficial policy—I was told this by other agents—that I should not be presented with any offers of screen work. So I didn’t even know that over the last 25 years, a number of people had tried to hire me for television and film work, and those proposals were just never presented to me.”
Palahniuk laughs as gently as he speaks. For a man best known for canonizing the bare-knuckle basement brawl, he holds a surprisingly Zen-like attitude about being driven to the brink of financial collapse. Isn’t he angry? “Oh no, I don’t care,” he says. “I don’t have any attachment to it. I wish it had turned out differently, but I’ll make the best of it.”
Moving forward, Palahniuk sees his book output slowing. In this next stage of life, he imagines being “a showrunner, a comic writer, a teacher,” and doing so “in ways that complement each other.”
As for his life as an author? Palahniuk repeats a lesson from Consider This: “If you’re going to work on something as long as a novel, it has to explore some unresolved aspect of you, so that even if it never sells, never makes any money, never gets any attention, you still have a therapeutic benefit of fully exploring and exhausting that unresolved part of you.”
Though Consider This is not a novel, it clearly exhausted some of Palahniuk’s unresolved parts. It begins with a confession that draws readers in. He says he put off writing the book because he “didn’t want to be faced with how little I could offer on the subject,” and how he remains “stupid” on the topic, “after all this time and practice.” Then comes a punch in the gut: “The publishing industry is on life support,” he writes. “Bret Easton Ellis tells me that the novel is no longer even a blip in the culture. You’re too late. Piracy has destroyed profits. Readers have all moved on to watching films and playing computer games.”
It’s a hell of a way to kick off a writing guide. It’s also grade-A prime Chuck Palahniuk.