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The Letter I Got From Chuck Palahniuk

What could be better than a generous act from someone who doesn’t have to take any action at all? Especially if that someone wrote one (or several) of your favorite books.

A few years ago, I wrote a letter to Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club and much more. It was the only piece of physical (non-digital) fan mail I’ve ever written. Through his website, Chuck had agreed to take letters during a one-month window and respond personally to every single one.

When the response came, it was in a brown box, about the size of a phone book. Inside was a switch-blade comb, a chocolate cigar (I had told him that Janette was pregnant), a pirate-themed coloring book, and many other weird little gifts, including a letter.

That letter changed my life. One of the first sentences was, “Wow, you can really write.” I thought my head would explode, I was so excited. He also said I should never get my Tourette’s under control, because books tours are boring and Tourette’s is not.

As to the writing part: whether he was sincere or just being a cool guy, I won’t worry about, but if you’re a writer, you know how far a little encouragement can go.

I already loved to write, but seeing another person–and an author I loved, no less–committed me to a path I’d never leave.

Literally from that minute forward, I began writing every day, more and more, eventually finishing The Knot and a bunch of short stories I’d been piddling around with forever.

And writing changed my life. And continues to do so, every single day. Writing has taught me so much about who I am and what I think and how I see the world.

And with that, I want to tell you about my three favorite books by Chuck Palahniuk. I’m not going to describe them in depth. Reading a Palahniuk novel is as much about what it feels like to read the novel as what the novel is about. The plot really isn’t the point.

1. Survivor

My absolute favorite. Survivor is told by a guy on an airplane. He has hijacked it and plans to crash it. The story of how he came to be on the plane is the core of the book. That story involves him leaving a religious community to become a media messiah.

It involves a woman named Fertility Hollis. It involves dancing in morgues and artificial flowers and pills and a riot at the Super Bowl and a landfill full of porn and more house-keeping tips than you can imagine.

Does it sound weird? If you haven’t read it you have no idea how weird it is.

2. Lullaby

There is a song that, when sung (or even imagined, by the end) kills anyone who hears it. And there is a man who gets the song stuck in his head. And the more annoyed he gets with life and all of its problems, the more people die, because he can’t get the song out of his head.

There’s a lot more to it, including a witch, lots of precious gemstones, a scam artist named Oyster, a book bound in skin, and a levitating sex scene.

It might be even stranger than Survivor.

3. Fight Club

I don’t need to say much about Fight Club. It’s great and I love the movie too. If you aren’t familiar with it even by name, then you live in a pop-culture black hole and I’m jealous of you–I’m not going to try and convince you to leave.

Fight Club put Chuck on the map, deservedly so.

The best part of all

Oh one more thing. On the top of the letter I received, it says “Your Power Panda is Enclosed!”

There was also a small plush panda bear in the box. He now sits next to my computer (along with the letter) every time I write. Chuck responded to everyone who wrote to him, but it feels like I was the only one.

A generous act from a man who didn’t have to take any action at all. What could be better than doing something good for someone, just because you could?

Thanks Chuck!

Josh

PS: If I had continued the list, it would have gone–Choke, Diary, and Haunted.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ross Hudgens May 28, 2010, 1:17 am

    Cool post. Chuck has been my favorite author, but I hit a wall with his recent books then completely stopped altogether, and the stop was support by a lot of criticism towards his recent efforts. What do you think of them?

    • Josh Hanagarne May 28, 2010, 10:34 am

      I haven’t read Tell All yet. I didn’t like Pygmy at all. Thought Snuff was mediocre but had a few good moments. I liked Rant quite a bit. His 2011 books sounds promising, so while I’ll never give up on his writing, I haven’t been as excited about the last few.

  • Courtney May 28, 2010, 4:48 am

    I remember when I was in high school, I wrote a gushy fan letter to Lloyd Alexander. I didn’t really expect him to write me back. But he sent a full-page reply. I could tell that it was written on a typewriter. I had read somewhere that he had written all of his books on an ancient typewriter, so I imagine it was the same one! That was a thrill.

    He was quite appreciative of the fan mail. He answered my geeky “but what about…” questions about the endings of his books with something like “whatever you can imagine is better than anything I would write” (a good argument against excessive Hollywood sequels if ever I heard one), and in rebuttal to my “finishing a good book is like losing a friend”, he wrote that truly good books stay with you for the rest of your life.

    I’ve read from other fans that he would even invite them to his house in Drexel Hill, PA for tea if they were ever in the area. I still have the letter folded up as a bookmark in one of my favorite books of his. He passed away in 2007. Nice guy and a great children’s author.

  • Giulietta the Muse May 28, 2010, 6:16 am

    Hi Josh,

    Encouragement is a great thing! We need to make it less rare by doing it more ourselves. Congrats on writing the letter and getting one back. Nothing like opening the mailbox to a real letter.

    I teach essay writing and love it. Our life theme emerges in our writing. It helps us find our way through the maze of life.

    Thanks! Giulietta

  • Heather May 28, 2010, 7:37 am

    I’m sending this to everyone in my LSC 5505 (Children’s and Young Adult Literature) course at Mansfield University. I also now need to add s’more titles to my ever-growing, hand-written list. LEVITATING SEX SCENE! I’M SO THERE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 😀

    • Josh Hanagarne May 28, 2010, 10:35 am

      Heather, what do you think they’ll get out of it?

  • Professor Beej May 28, 2010, 8:47 am

    That’s fantastic. I had a friend who went through a really hard time after his dad died. The girl he was dating at the time wrote to his favorite author, Dean Koontz, and said that she knew that my friend would get better if Koontz could say something to him; he had that much respect for the man. Well, a few months later, a package arrived with a handwritten letter and a personalized copy of “Odd Thomas” for my friend. I don’t know if that’s what got him over his deal or not, but it sure helped. And it solidified Koontz in my mind as a good guy.

    Now, the same can be said for Palahniuk. “Survivor” is my favorite of his books, too. I remember listening to the audiobook on a long trip with an ex-girlfriend who had never read any Palahniuk. I drove, so she agreed we listened to whatever I wanted to. Well, when the book was over, she looked at me and asked how in the world I could enjoy stuff like that. It was disturbing. And I smiled and told her that it was. That was the point. That it was making commentary on what she found disturbing, that I found enlightening. That it was fantastic. It went right over her head (she was definitely not a literary scholar).

    I’d say that after Survivor, I’d choose Rant. I just love how it’s done. I still need to read Tell All; I have the Kindle sample right now.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 28, 2010, 10:36 am

      There aren’t many people who are lukewarm on Chuck, are there?

  • David Spinks May 28, 2010, 10:39 am

    That’s really awesome Josh. I’ve never written to any of my “famous” inspirations, but maybe it’s worth a shot.

    Been meaning to pick up a couple of Chuck’s books too. I guess this is my kick in the butt to just order them… so done.

    It’s amazing to hear how much writing has done for you. Hearing your story inspires me to start writing more. I want to write about deeper things than business (my blog). Maybe I’ll start writing some short stories and take it from there (=

    David, Scribnia

  • Erica May 28, 2010, 10:40 am

    Frankly, that’s the coolest story I’ve heard all week.

  • ami May 28, 2010, 11:09 am

    Caroline See in Making a Literary Life suggests that aspiring writers send thank-you notes to authors they admire, whether they be novelists, poets, reporters or others. I have done this and I have been surprised and elated to get hand-written responses from some of the authors I’ve admired since I was a kid. It’s also fun to just write with pen on paper, find a stamp (!) and send the thanks out into the void. Getting a response (authors seem to find very cool stationery, btw) adds icing to the cake, esp. when they add advice or encouragement. Definitely worth trying.

  • Jillian May 28, 2010, 12:06 pm

    This is so awesome.

    I’m a huge fan of Chuck Palahniuk’s books as well. I found this post on Twitter and his name is what caught my eye, but I like your writing style so consider me officially drawn in.

    I can’t believe you left out Invisible Monsters, but that’s another story entirely.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 28, 2010, 3:19 pm

      Invisible Monsters just didn’t do it for me. I’ve tried and I’ve tried to love it, but I just like it. Just.

  • Brad Johnson May 28, 2010, 2:54 pm

    Josh, I am so jealous right now.

    You have no idea.

    Really: you have NO IDEA.

    Chuck, if you’re reading this, thanks for exactly what I needed to read; you stopped me from being one of those insufferable, over-achieving, I’m-important-because-I-have-nuanced-opinions-about-politcs guys.

    You know who I mean.

    I’d probably be able to quote Kirkegaard, which, we can all agree, would only contribute to an already-impressive pile of douchebaggery.

    So thank you for showing me the asshole of the world and making me laugh at the same time; I’d probably be worried about which color of boat shoes to buy right now if you hadn’t.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 29, 2010, 9:04 am

      I can quote Kierkegaard, and I can’t recommend it:)

  • Bryce May 28, 2010, 3:45 pm

    Awesome post and nothing sounds cooler than a Power Panda!

    • Josh Hanagarne May 29, 2010, 9:04 am

      Bryce, I’ll bring it by the gym. It will give you power.

  • josh May 28, 2010, 6:04 pm

    I’m with bryce, I think I’m more jealous about the power panda than the letter from chuck. That’s so cool, he’s one of my favorite writers too. He’s not just being a nice guy, you really are a great writer. I’m about half way through the Knot and you have an voice and imagination. I wish I could write fiction like you, I’m better at researching and writing about real life situations. That’s why I’m going into journalism, I also want to eventually write biography’s about interesting people whose stories haven’t been told or at least haven’t been told correctly. Maybe I can write a biography on you some day when you’re a world renowned author and cagefighter. Maybe chuck will be writing you a fan letter some day.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 29, 2010, 9:04 am

      Well, I’ll have to post a picture of it someday. Chuck just needs to write a book about a guy with Tourette’s who accidentally keeps bidding on things at a silent auction. It can be called Glitch. See how easy that was? How about it Chuck?

      • josh May 29, 2010, 2:17 pm

        that’s funny, maybe when you answer fan letters you can send everyone a power unicorn.

  • Nathan Hangen - Digital Emperor May 28, 2010, 11:03 pm

    Really need to read the first 2. Fight Club was OK, but I preferred the movie for some reason.

    I love what Chuck is doing though. Very cool dude, and very cool story.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 29, 2010, 9:03 am

      I also prefer the movie. When I first read Fight Club, I was pretty much the target audience. I don’t identify with it much anymore, but wow it was a breath of fresh air.

  • Larry May 29, 2010, 9:07 am

    Hey Josh — I live in the same soggy town where Chuck lives and writes. Some may not know that he worked for Freightliner building trucks, and he’d sneak in some writing time while lying under a truck scribbling on a legal pad (which he still uses to plan and sketch his frist draft). Chuck is well liked around these parts, so I’m not surprised to hear how graciously he reponded to you (as you graciously respond to folks). He’s strong, too — maybe the third strongest writer out there after you and me, or me and you.

    Anyhow, a nice tribute to the man. Also… your book review is still coming on Storyfix. Sorry for the delay. Have cracked into the novel… wow.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 29, 2010, 9:11 am

      Larry, thanks. I didn’t know you were up there. I’m going to come visit you.

      I hope that’s a good “wow…” I know, it’s weird. If I could describe it better, I’d probably sell more:)

  • Larry May 29, 2010, 10:32 am

    It’s a good “wow.” More soon.

  • Tim May 29, 2010, 2:48 pm

    Hi Josh:

    Thanks for sharing this very interesting, cool story. I haven’t read anything by Chuck but I loved the Fight Club movie and have been meaning to read the book. He sounds like an author with a pretty twisted imagination, which I dig. A few years ago, I sent a letter to the members of Savatage (the early version of Trans-Siberian Orchestra) expressing my gratitude for their work and sympathy on the death of their talented guitar player. Not expecting anything, I was surprised to receive a letter of thanks and a bunch of guitar picks. Small gesture, but it had a big impact on me.

  • Samara May 29, 2010, 9:42 pm

    Josh, I felt like I was the only one who received a letter and box as well, even knowing he sent out more, but I’m glad it has changed your life. It certainly changed mine! Good luck with your writing.

  • Robby G May 30, 2010, 10:23 am

    That’s awesome. Chuck’s a great writer even for the extensive criticism he receives. I recently read and watched Choke and though the book was much better, the movie was still not bad. Fight Club however will always be an epic. Survivor was also one I really enjoyed. But that’s so great how he actually sent you a letter (and a bunch of other random stuff). You should definitely keep in touch with him, he seems like a cool guy. I imagine Bret Easton Ellis would be cool to contact as well. Both phenomenal writers.

  • Pauline May 30, 2010, 3:08 pm

    That letter changed my life. One of the first sentences was, “Wow, you can really write.”
    This is so important. Josh, those of us who read your writing already have said that to ourselves, even if we haven’t written it to you! Consider it repeated, many times . . .

  • Piers McCarney May 31, 2010, 10:01 pm

    I feel late to the comment party…

    I loved Lullaby. It was a happy coincidence that, after my brother-in-law convinced me to get around to reading Fight Club (and I loved it), the bookstore I previously worked at had given me a copy of Lullaby for free.

    After sitting neglected on the bookshelf, I cracked open the seal on this gem and loved every moment of its bizarre rollercoaster.

    Also, I actually prefer the book of Fight Club to the movie, but that may be because I read the book more recently.