Art Fights Back: Chuck Palahniuk and Me

Life imitates art, but it’s not often art gets a chance to fight back.  Here’s the true story of this picture.

Chuck Palahniuk (pictured above in glasses) has written a number of books I (pictured above in terror) think are pretty great, including Fight Club (yes, THAT Fight Club), Choke and my personal favorite Survivor, with its framing device of a surviving member of the Creedish church (don’t ask) having hijacked a plane and explaining his actions into the Black Box as he heads to a crash in the Australian desert.  My first, and as yet unpublished, novel, What Trouble Looks Like is inspired by (or derivative of) (or a wholesale lifting of the voice of) Chuck’s writing style.  (It’s unclear whether Palahniuk’s fans all call him Chuck because of his distinctive and welcoming voice or because we were not raised properly.)  Although a few agents expressed interest in Trouble, in retrospect it’s a very strange book and would have had a hard time finding a general audience.  Briefly, it’s a combination instructional guide on creating an alternative school, an even more effective guide on how not to create an alternative school, a love story and a subtle look at how to form a cult.  Also, it’s a roman a clef in which all my enemies-at-the-time end up dead, along with my best friend.  All told in a voice that is tefloned of responsibility.  Here are the opening lines:

I never intended this, of course.  Nobody intends to be locked up, facing indictment and almost certain conviction.  Nobody intends to have MSNBC, FOX and CNN offering updates on his case, with headlines like: ”School Svengali Creates Killer Cult.”  Nobody wants to hear Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly and Don Imus calling for his life.  Nobody intends to have the families of the victims demanding the answer to one question:  What the hell happened?  

Chuck and his fans used to run a website called The Cult, where wannabe writers could post short fiction and have it voted up or down by members.  This was 2003, when such a system seemed perfectly reasonable.  And was.  Until me.

I’d found out about the writer’s site and uploaded the first chapter of Trouble, enjoying reading the comments and seeing the four- or five-star ratings.  In conversation at the alternative school I was running, I talked about having done this.

I mentioned the formation of a cult in the novel and I mentioned that part of the book is autobiographical.  While I never formed a cult, exactly, I will confess to encouraging certain behaviors on the part of my disaffected teenage students that could, to an outsider, look cultish.  No student ever changed the way he dressed or gave me money, so I’m sticking with my non-cult leader status.  You may disagree when I reveal that three of my students went on to The Cult’s site and systematically upvoted my writing and voted down every other piece of writing until it looked as if I had submitted the Great American Short Story to compete against a non-infinite number of monkeys grouped around a single typewriter.  This was all done without my knowledge.  Word of honor.  Cross my heart.

Here’s where we come to the life imitates art.  The premise of What Trouble Looks Like is that the director of an alternative school unwittingly creates a cult of students who murder the director’s detractors, with cult members believing they’re doing the director’s bidding.

Unlike the director in the novel, I didn’t sit in a jail cell wringing my hands and whining about intentions; instead, like a man I strode over to the computer and confessed the entire thing.  (Honestly, had there been jail I would have taken the middle ground and talked only through my lawyer.)  Once I’d admitted to my students’ behavior and, I think, convinced an always-suspicious internet mob that I shouldn’t be burned in GIF-igy, The Cult held a top-secret, password-protected meeting and determined I was not welcome to post any more stories there for a while.  A long while.

The picture?  That’s Chuck choking me out when I met him in New Orleans last summer.  It has nothing to do with this story, really.

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