On a night in August of 1999 the power went out in my house. A violent rain storm had gripped the town of Hicksville, NY and I was suddenly thrust into a living nightmare. No computer, no TV, not even adequate candles for reading. But I did have working phones.
Fifteen minutes and a phone call later, I was sitting at a diner with my friend Amy Dalton over a plate of corn beefed hash with two eggs sunny side up and a side order of white toast. Being fellow employees at a bookstore, we did what any self-respecting book nerd would do: we discussed authors. Amy, as always, discussed Jeff Noon. I think I may have discussed Albert Camus. The problem was neither of us had read each other’s authors and so a common ground was needed.
That common ground came in the form of Chuck Palahniuk. Then, only the author of two books, Chuck was already a hit with my friends and I. I had purchased Fight Club a few years earlier after hearing that David Fincher had optioned a screenplay called The Fight Club. Standing at a Borders Books and Music a couple weeks later, holding a trade paperback in my hand, I quickly deduced that “The Fight Club” Fincher project, and the novel called Fight Club by some guy named Chuck Palaanee-ook. (pretend like you’re trying to read the front of the novel at this part) were in fact, the same project.
Ten pages into the reading of Fight Club, I remember feeling sort of cool. Leaning against a tree in the quad of my college campus, I had something before me that topped all the Brontes and Conrads and Millers that everyone else was reading. Here was a truly subversive novel.
Well, thirty pages into that subversion and Chuck Palahniuk had quickly proven what a stranger I was to this type of writing. Here was me, coming off a seven year bender with the likes of Stephen King and Michael Crichton, and I was expected to enjoy a healthy dollop of Bob’s bitch tits?
And so did I bite my pillow and push on, hoping to “get” what Chuck was doing with this novel? Of course not. Instead, I passed it off to some friends. Namely, my diner buddy, Amy Dalton. (pause) Then Kevin Kölsch. (pause) Then Joshua Chaplinsky. I think every person I knew read Fight Club before I did. And so finally the need to conform (and the fact that I now felt like an idiot, since they all seemed to love the book) drove me back. I returned to Bob’s bitch tits… and this time, I stayed with it. And of course, like so many others, it soon took me over. It haunted me. It excited me. It shook me up. But most of all, it inspired me – the book… not the bitch tits.
A year later, working at B. Dalton bookstore, Chuck's second novel, Survivor, finally came out. I remember tearing into the Ingram shipping boxes like a reckless kid on Christmas morning. And there, in my hand, I beheld this weird, ambient, orange hardcover.
I think you get the point. We were obsessed. Chuck’s work felt dangerous. Like he was letting you in on some dark secret he knew so well and wanted to teach you. I liked Survivor even more than Fight Club. It yanked all the same emotions out of me and more. I also laughed out loud during the reading of it - something I didn’t do often with the books I was forced to read in school.
So fast forward back to the diner on that stormy night. It was the one week eve of Chuck’s third release. A book entitled Invisible Monsters. And even better, we had discovered through the publisher’s website that Chuck would be visiting Manhattan to do a reading. What would it be like to attend a book reading? This would be a first for us. And so, we sat at the diner, talking about how we could capitalize on this situation and let the rest of the world in on our exciting little secret.
I don’t know who brought up the idea of a website first. I do know that, at the time, I was obsessed with these silly play-by-email roleplaying games. I had even taken them to the next level by creating a few primitive websites to house all the stories and stats that went with the territory. So the idea of testing my crude Microsoft Front Page talents on a brand new site was very exciting. But even more exciting was Chuck himself. Here was an author that could easily speak to a smart young audience… though because Fight Club had not yet been released in theaters, barely anyone knew who the hell he was. At the time, I think only two to three pieces of media existed on the web about him.
This, and the fact that I don’t recall seeing too many cool author websites, led us to Chuck’s reading for Invisible Monsters in New York on September 22, 1999. Due to heavy traffic on the Long Island Expressway, we showed up late. Chuck was on the felching chapter and I remember there was a hushed, smirking look on everyone’s faces in the audience. But who the hell was the dude behind the podium? Surely that wasn’t the Chuck I had envisioned in my head? This guy resembled a tall Gordon Gekko. Dressed to the nines in a sleek blazer and slacks, Chuck even had his short hair slicked back.
The reading ended and we sat in silence. A moment later, people began filing out of the small venue, but my friends and I all had this sort of dazed look on our faces. The type of look that said, “Damn, it’s even better in person.” Chuck meanwhile was collecting his jacket. He stood around twenty feet away as, the crowd who he had awed a few minutes earlier, politely exited the building. Politely ignored him.
It was one of those moments where you’re not sure if you should approach the person or not. And so we exited the building along with everyone else. We stood on the cold sidewalk, feeling content enough to have just seen him read. Well, everyone was content but me. I was the idiot that kept glancing back into the main window of the venue. And there was Chuck still, chatting with a woman who I think was his publicist at WW Norton at the time. If there ever was a moment to make a move, this was it.
Moments passed and I somehow convinced myself, and the people with me, to get the hell back inside and introduce ourselves to this author who had just blown our minds. I don’t know what was going through Chuck’s mind when he saw me and my crowd of friends staring at him with that stupid, “Wow, he’s a real person” face. But he ended up spending over ten minutes sitting with us and recounting stories about his adventures on the set of Fight Club. The conversation culminated with my horrible, nervous proposal for a website in his honor. At first, I think Chuck said something along the lines of, “Are you serious?” I couldn’t tell if he was flattered or confused. Either way, he gave Amy and I the go-ahead and away we went.
The next week I redefined guerilla tactics. I was under the gun since Fight Club was due out the following month. I felt like I had to get this site out before the tidal wave hit. I quickly realized that somebody had already beaten me to the punch. The name ChuckPalahniuk.com had already been registered. Ohh well, we were to be a fan site, right? And doesn’t .net sound more “fan-oriented?”
When the week ended, Version 1.0 of ChuckPalahniuk.net stood… on shaky legs. Besides a crude biography I had typed up about Chuck (gathered from the few interviews I was able to find online) the only other things we had were a few pictures, some collected reviews of his three novels, and a news page. And with the movie’s release date quickly approaching, the “news” basically meant all things Fight Club.
Today, you go onto Google and type in the words “Fight Club” and you get over a half million results. Well, in early October of 1999, only two sites existed. The "Unofficial Fight Club site"… and the Official 20th Century Fox site. I quickly realized that the Unofficial site needed to become our ally or else we would never be able to generate any exposure. And so I sent out an email to the webmaster, asking him to kindly consider our site for his Links page. This same tactic served me well when I began tackling other methods of online promotion. Besides contacting every webmaster of every movie site I knew of, I also did extensive searches on Yahoo! and AOL member profiles for anyone with the words “Fight Club,” “Brad Pitt,” “Ed Norton,” or “Helena Bonham Carter” in their descriptions. This proved harder than it sounds. Rather then send individual emails to each person, I simply cheated and sent a few large group emails to multiple people at once. This prompted a lot of venomous hate mail in my direction.
Speaking of emails, there was one in particular that I must tell you about now. You see, not all my tactics were so guerilla. I could spend days and nights promoting our site to fans and webmasters, but until Chuck himself was aware of it, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.
The chain reaction began when I typed up a formal “Thank You” letter to Chuck. Here, in full, is that letter:
First off, I apologize if this seems rude. I know you must get these all the time. Especially lately, with all the Fight Club buzz reaching a crescendo. But this is not your usual fan mail so please, read on.
We met a few weeks back in New York City at a place downtown called "The Drawing Center." You had just finished the reading and I was that fast-talking-idiot (tall, brown hair, skinny) who cornered you and shook your hand twice. I then came back in with some friends and you were so cool that you signed all of our books. You then even took the time to chat with us for like ten mins. You basically made our month. I told everyone that story. And I also made it my purpose to get people to know your name. Even if they couldn’t pronounce it right.
And so, for the next couple of weeks (I am a manager over at B. Dalton bookstore) I promoted your books up front at the register and began passing on the words of Palahniuk to all those unsuspecting readers out there. I even sold three copies of Survivor in a day once. No small feat since everyone wants Fight Club because it has that actor named Brad Pitt on the cover. Well, I even got past that. Because I ordered around seven copies of the hardcover and began to push that.
I am not telling you this so you say, "Ohh, cute. Another fan….only this one’s a business man." Far from it, I have an ulterior motive… (laughs maniacally). You might not remember, but the night we met, I mentioned that my friends and I were working on a WEB SITE for you. The first Chuck Palahniuk Website out there. You see, we had been so disappointed and let down at the fact that the internet virtually has nothing on you. Sure, they would have small articles and Fight Club snippets and such, but nothing grand…
Here’s where we come in. For the past three weeks now, I have been laboring my ass off (literally… it’s sitting on the floor besides me) to create the ultimate Chuck Palahniuk Web Site. Well, a few weeks ago, I was pretty much done. Now I’ve just been updating it with reviews, pictures, stories, facts… you name it, it’s there. The site is called CHUCK PALAHNIUK - A Writer’s Cult and it can be found at www.chuckpalahniuk.net OR the longer http://members.xoom.com/intrloper9/PalahniukMain.htm.
In the past weeks we’ve formed a fan base around you and people from all over the world have come out discussing your work and thanking us for our efforts. Just read the Guestbook and you’ll see what I mean. We even have spies and moles working for us who bring us info. We have someone in Portland who gets pictures and articles from the Oregonian for us. I had a 14 year old kid email me telling me he had read Fight Club twice and he was unsure if, because of timing, he should still do Chapter 20 for his drama performance. I told him to go for it. Especially after hearing you read it out loud that night.
So anyway, I once again apologize if this is an intrusion. Don’t think that I hacked into your life to get your address. It was simply mailed to me by someone anonymous who had gotten it off some White Pages style list with other "P" names under it as well. Hell, it could be wrong in which case, some other Chuck Palahniuk is reading this right now laughing his ass off. If that is the case, he could make a career out of this.
Lastly, I sent this letter for two reasons:
1) To thank you for being such a cool person and taking the time to chat with us.
2) To ask you kindly to visit our web site (www.chuckpalahniuk.net) and email me with your thoughts. Maybe even give us a review. Hell, maybe even let me give you a 5 questions and answers kind of thing. I have the questions all lined up. Don’t worry, they don’t go into Fight Club the movie. They are strictly about a man and his novels.
So check out the site or better yet, email me at XXXXX.
Thanks so much for the great words,
keep em’ coming!
Dennis K. Widmyer
With the letter sent, I leaned back in my office chair and continued work on the website. Our fan base was growing daily and before I knew it, we had a crowd of regulars who began sending us what would become our earliest news updates. And then, one Sunday afternoon, an email came my way that changed everything:
Good Morning Dennis and Amy,
This is just a quick note to tell you I am no longer a writer. These days, I'm just a small toy that publicists push around all day. With luck, I can ditch my toy status and go back to work soon.
This morning, we're all waiting for the last weekend's 'numbers' on the F/C movie. Rumored fight clubs seem to be starting around the country. Susan Faludi (author of 'Backlash' & 'Stiffed') is a fan, telling her audiences, "It was like reading my own book (Stiffed) on speed." Trent Reznor (NIN) is a fan, no surprise since I wrote most of it with Downward Spiral blaring in my Walkman.
All this is happening, and now here's your amazing site. Thank you. Swamped as I am, this is a much-appreciated personal connection with someone real -- the opposite of those bah-zillion flip-glib 3-minute radio 'interviews' or the 20-second sound-bites on CNN. Even if we're just keyboarding back and forth, this lets me feel like a person dealing with a person. I appreciate that more than I can describe.
The night the movie opened here in Portland, I took 50 friends and they sat, keeping track of all the lines in the movie that each of them had said themselves in real life. Almost all of the book was collected from my peers, and the day I get stuck on a pedestal, disconnected from my friends, is the day I run out of ideas.
So, blah, blah, blah, send your questions. If you need proof that I'm the real C. Palahniuk, I can explain the ending to 'Survivor' (how he does not die).
All My Best,
Suffice to say, I was on cloud nine after that email and with a renewed determination I set out to give Chuck something he could be proud of. As the weeks and months went by, I watched as a perfect adaptation of a perfect book bombed at the box office. Yet something weird was happening. And our numbers grew and grew. It seems like those that had seen Fight Club were addicted. Not only were they going back for multiple viewings, but they were quickly hopping online to devour any information they could find on this film. That always led them to our front door, and I would do my best to keep them in the house.
The chain reaction continued. The Fight Club DVD hit stores and became the all-time bestselling title of the year for 20th Century Fox. Chuck’s emails continued, and our best news updates would always end up coming straight from the horse’s mouth. In this time, many Fight Club fan sites sprung up, and a few Chuck Palahniuk ones too. But our site has never been a competitive one. Rather, we flourished simply by welcoming this growing community. I even made it a point to do a feature on every new site that would arise.
But this community has taken on a whole new meaning for many fans. This is the reason why fans began to label our site “The Cult.” Just as with Chuck’s novels, fans took to our site in an almost possessive manner. It was their dark little secret - and we all know how many people have broken the first rule of Fight Club.
But the fans weren’t the only ones obsessed. ChuckPalahniuk.net had taken me over and become my baby. I’d lay in bed at night thinking about how to improve it. I’d spend entire weeks sometimes working on the site for 18 hours a day. On a weekend when a news update was due, you could tell me you were going to Las Vegas and I’d probably skip out just so I could get some work done. While this work ethic never went away, it would go through the occasional up and down cycles. Ohh yes, there were the times where I almost lost my mind. Times where I’d lose a full day’s work of editing. Or times when the server moved so slow I’d have to wait two minutes just for a file to open. Or the times I’d get so sick of transcribing an article or an interview that I would forget what the air outside felt like.
Yes, I’m being dramatic, but until you step into the world of the obsessed, maniacal, perfectionist webmaster… you cannot know. I felt like Charles Foster Kane, running a newspaper with a staff of one: Me.
On a good day, we’d get a dozen or so emails from fans telling us how inspired they are by Chuck.
On a bad day, the server would crash and I’d spend hours emailing and instant messaging the team of international players on our staff.
Today, almost a fourteeen years later, my life has changed drastically. I’m living on the other side of the country. I’m 36. And the internet has changed drastically. But Chuck Palahniuk continues to become a literary icon. His fanbase grows at a staggering rate. And for these reasons, I keep the site going. In fact, I’d dare say the site is bigger, better, and more fulfilling for me than it ever has been.
For this reason, most days end the same. With the feeling that the website is out there… and that is good. As long as people have a place to come and discuss their favorite author, my job is far from over. It’s been over a decare in the making. We’ve gone from unofficial, to official. We’ve now had over ten design overhauls. We’ve been on over twelve servers. But that one thing remains constant. And that is Chuck Palahniuk and his ever growing library of work. And as long as he stays busy, so will I.