Why I Threw A Beach Ball at Chuck Palahniuk

I don’t like umbrellas. Don’t ask me why. Although it might have something to do with how they catch the wind, which I don’t much care for either.

 

(Tugging at my jackets or ties, the wind always feels like some tiresome ass who flicks your collar or constantly nudges at you, all the while wearing a smug grin because you can’t even hit them back.)

Of course, it could also be because holding an umbrella means I can’t smoke and check my phone at the same time. Either way, I wear a hat when it rains. I’d prefer to not even wear that, but when you’re walking through the downpour on your way to see the author of your favourite book do a night of stories and conversation, you don’t want to show up looking like a drowned hipster rat with glasses.

Of course, for me An Evening With Chuck Palahniuk was more than just that. My walk to Walter Hall wasn’t just plodding through a downpour. It was possessed of a fair amount of anticipation, even nervousness. Normally, when I stroll along and watch the water fall, my brain is set to one of three modes – Suicide Watch, Bland Introspection, or Passably Manic. It’s just the way I’m wired.

When you learn things, new neuron connections develop in your brain. The image of a girl eating a banana has more connections these days than the first time I ever spied one. Although the concepts of ‘Chuck Palahniuk’ and ‘excitement’ definitely had something of a bridge before last year, it was only about twelve months ago that they became intertwined enough to have me practically shaking on that decidedly wet stroll. See, last October was an interesting month too.

I entered a horror story competition last year through the website LitReactor. The contest was called ‘Scare Us!’ and I didn’t really know what the prize was at the time – I was just bursting to the seams with an idea for a horror story. I decided to tell the tale of a prayer group that gets a hold of an ancient ritual and accidentally summons an alien, god-like beast. I had a great time writing “We Called It God,” and after I submitted it I found it really started to gain some traction. Eventually, I received some feedback from Suzy Vitello; very thoughtful and detailed notes on what I was doing right, and where I wasn’t. This was part of my prize as a winner. The other part came shortly afterwards.

It was October 9th, 2012. Two days after my birthday and who knows, I might’ve still been working on my hangover from that party because I didn’t see the email until after midnight, even though it had arrived early that afternoon. I was in my apartment writing, clacking away on my computer in the dark. The lights were off, all illumination coming just from the screen in front of me. I had been taking a quick break from the Word document, archiving some spam email, when I spotted it. Apparently, someone had commented on my story. Always the narcissist, craving a little validation, I clicked my way to my LitReactor inbox and then to the message itself. I don’t know why I bothered to click right into the message, I could just open the story-

“Your Scare Us! submission, ‘We Called It God,’ has received a new comment from Chuck Palahniuk.”

Oh.

I’d really like to say I don’t remember exactly what I did or said next, but I do. I rocked back and forth in my chair for at least a full minute, repeating obscenities. I hadn’t even opened it yet. I couldn’t. Only after another minute of pacing around my cramped room in a shared home whispering the same profanity over and over again (you’d think I’d have a better vocabulary) so as not to wake the neighbours. Even after I read it, I had to walk around the block chain-smoking and talking to a friend on the phone in order to process the information. Speed-walking back with a coffee, I realized that I couldn’t even remember what the comments were, exactly. I started to worry that I’d dreamed the whole thing. That I’d return to find that the message and the comments weren’t really there, and would have to make the phone calls all over again to apologize.

“Yeah, I hallucinated that. What’s the average age for the onset of schizophrenia, again?”

With the exception of my high school music teacher (who also taught English) giving me proper edits on a short story in the twelfth grade, and signing my first contract for a published story, I can’t think of another single event in my life that’s been as important to me as a writer.

So I set out on a quest. I wanted to offer the proper level of appreciation that such a moment warrants. I made it a mission to thank Chuck and Suzy.

Suzy was easy. I added her on Facebook, sent her a message, and she accepted my thanks with the sort of easy grace and support that makes her so lovely to deal with. As for Chuck, well… he was posing a problem. I know enough that I didn’t expect to shoot him a message in the same way, but I wrote a letter and sent it through a couple of channels, expecting that to be the end of it.

For a while, it was. I worked on other projects. A screenplay, short fiction, copy writing, and newsletters took up the time that everything else didn’t. The next fall I got the itch to revisit my story, and so I incorporated the feedback I’d received into another draft of “We Called It God.” The same day I finished, I got another email.

This particular missive wasn’t quite as earth-shattering as the last one, but I did feel the floor weave a little under my feet when I read that Toronto was going to be a part of the “Adult Bedtime Stories” tour for Chuck Palahniuk’s new book “Doomed.” I resolved then and there to resume the quest to get my thank you to Chuck – after all, what were the odds that I’d get the chance again?

I’d seen Chuck in person once before, when he did a similar tour for “Rant.” It had been hosted by Chapters-Indigo then, and was again; so I contacted them by email. I corresponded with a great rep named Melissa, who was looking into it for me.

At the same time, I decided to send something through LitReactor. The previous year, my neurosis had prompted me to email tech support when my story dropped off the ‘hot entries’ list towards the end of the contest. A friendly tech by the name of Kirk had explained the situation to me (I supplied the self-diagnosis), and had proved very helpful. I decided to send him a similar message about meeting Chuck, and he passed it along to somebody who might be able to help.

Finally, I searched my soul and found that I didn’t possess enough shame to restrain myself from asking Suzy, too. A brief message on Facebook tested her near-infinite patience with me and did not find it wanting. Chuck was already on the tour, so she wouldn’t see him until he got back. On the plus side, that wasn’t followed immediately by her blocking me.

I was pretty concerned with not becoming an annoying fanboy instead of an appreciative writer. So when Melissa told me that there wouldn’t be time for any meet-and-greets, I satisfied myself with the fact there would be a question-and-answer period instead. When I didn’t hear anything back from LitReactor, I was content because I knew it was a long shot anyhow. I figured that I’d just go to the event, enjoy it like everyone else, and go home. Not exactly a bad deal.

So when I finally pulled off my sodden hat and jacket, slid into my seat about halfway down the side section on the centre aisle, and took a look at the stage, I wasn’t entirely prepared for how surreal the night was going to quickly become.

The question-and-answer format was interesting. We’d each received a beach ball, a pair of glowsticks, and a Sharpie marker. We were told to scrawl our questions on the ball, drop our glowsticks inside, and wait for further instructions. This was even better than I’d expected. I wrote down my question, and added my thank you underneath. I set the radioactive green ball down next to me, pulling out my phone to discover I had no signal in the half-full underground hall. I was a bit early.

Movement on the stage caught my eye. My jaw dropped as I realized that Chuck was out on stage, waving to some of the other early arrivals. A smattering of applause greeted him as he asked some young girls sitting near the front if they had their balls inflated.

He turned. Pointed directly at me. Eye contact. He asked the same thing. I squeaked a reply, holding up my own glowing orb. He nodded approvingly and gave me the thumbs up. I began to wonder if the universe was really messing with me.

A fellow from Chapters-Indigo came out a few minutes before Chuck did, as more pajama-wearing fans came trickling in out of the rain. Just like them, he was clad in sleepwear; but inexplicably, also rocking a greyish mullet wig. He said that because of the weather, we’d be starting just a bit later than scheduled. He also mentioned that there were a pair of seats available front and center, for a lucky winner who tweets the best reason why they should get them.

I confirmed that I had no signal. Another point for the ‘universe trolling me’ theory.

When Chuck did come back out under the stage lights, the crowd and I went insane. Dressed like Gomez Addams and the Pope got into Seth Brundle’s telepods and had the best kind of horrible accident. He said hello, and in-between one sentence of his introduction and the next he reached into one of several cloth grocery bags behind him onstage and hurled bags of Halloween candy into the crowd. I was amazed to find my reflexes didn’t utterly fail me when my hand closed around a bag of Kit Kats rocketing directly at my head. I took a couple and passed them along to the young lady next to me and the rest of my section, immensely proud of myself. My bizarre luck was holding out.

I thought so, anyway. After reading us his story “Guts,” one of my personal favourites, he let us in on the next stage of the beach ball delivery system. We were to toss the balls around chaotically, ricocheting them into the centre and back again in the dark. Once we all had a random ball, we were to then await phase three.

My heart sank in my chest. I had been hoping that we’d simply throw them in if he called on us. I was sure that I could be obnoxious enough to get his attention (just ask Suzy), but relegating my personal message’s transmittal to someone else? Someone who had no idea of how important this was to me?

Oh, well. It could be worse. I tossed mine front and centre with all my might, leaving it to physics (I hate the term ‘fate’) and the brain of a stranger.

To be fair, the idea was awesome, and it worked perfectly. While the lights were down, the hall filled with laughter and shouting as the incandescent spheres flew every which way like giant fireflies of red, green, orange, and yellow. I picked up a few from the aisle and sent them sailing into the night, as those around me did the same. I could see them bouncing off people’s heads and into laps, and in my enjoyment mostly forgot that mine was off somewhere else. It wasn’t even on my mind when the green blur smacked me square between the eyes. The girl beside me laughed with me as I sheepishly looked down at the toy that had fallen to my thighs.

It was my ball.

I couldn’t believe it. I leaned towards her, eyes wide, and told my pigtailed seatmate that it was mine. Watched her eyes go even wider than my own. I was shaking. I’m nowhere near educated enough to run the math on the odds of this happening, but Ian Malcolm would probably approve. There was no way I was tossing it back out there. To hell with the principle of the thing, I was going to milk this chain of events for all it was worth.

The lights came back up. In the brief lull before Chuck got back to the podium, I couldn’t restrain myself and had to say something. While it was quiet enough, I loudly asked what to do if your own ball comes back to hit you in the face. Chuck looked over to me again, asking if I’m serious.

Yup.

He laughed, told me to hang onto it for a minute. Back at the mic, he revealed his master plan. Read the ball you have, he said. If you think the question on it is worth asking, raise it over your head. He’d barely finished the sentence when I had my prodigal query in my palms above me.

Of course my question was worth asking – I wrote the damn thing.

He saw me right away, laughed again, and pointed. You with the beard. Yeah, you. Throw it in. I sent it careening onstage and bit my lip, waiting. The girl next to me shook my upper arm, seeming to be almost as excited as I was.

He made a thoughtful face as he read the question (and, I’m assuming, the message). He said it was a good one, reading it into the mic for everyone. Chuck and Suzy have a term called ‘unpacking,’ exploring the specific instead of the abstract. My question was how to know when I’ve left unpacking behind and entered the realm of literary masturbation, endless over-description of minutiae.

(To sum up his answer, it’s a tightrope; as a rule though, if it doesn’t further the scene – and by extension, the plot – then you’ve probably gone too far.)

A Chapters-Indigo person brought me the first copy of “Dora: A Headcase,” which the other questioners received after throwing in their balls. Other questions were asked, but only one more was really about writing. A couple asked what Chuck would give as advice to an infant, and he told us how important silence can be, nowadays more than ever. Silence is where ideas form, where deep thought comes from.

We redistributed our balls and did more questions after Chuck read us a new story to be featured in Playboy, called ‘Zombie.’ I tossed mine back into the ether, unconcerned that I’d never see it again. At the end of the show, I deflated and kept the second ball I had because I really liked the question written on it (and correctly figured it would make an awesome pillow).

When Chuck had left the stage for good and the lights came back up, I noticed the mullet-wearing Chapters-Indigo rep standing stage right. He didn’t appear to be busy, so I descended the stairs against the push of people (and almost against my better judgement) and got his attention. I gave him the abridged version – that I was a writer who’d won a LitReactor contest last year, that Chuck had answered my question tonight, but that I wanted to make sure he’d gotten my thank you. He smiled and said he’d check it out, then vanished backstage.

I didn’t really expect to meet Chuck. I know that these sort of events, especially tours, are hectic schedules that frequently require leaving a venue straight to an airport on some occasions. So I wasn’t surprised when the rep came back and didn’t wave me backstage or anything. I was surprised when he asked me two questions.

“Did you send an email about this?”

Yes.

“Are you Brett?”

Yes.

Then he told me… that Chuck had already left. But he had received my message. I wasn’t quite crestfallen, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed my full-on assault for a handshake hadn’t quite worked. Feeling almost totally satisfied and very much like I had pushed my luck to its limit, I thanked him and followed the remaining people out. I juggled my limp beach ball and my books back up into the lobby.

When I got back outside, it wasn’t raining anymore. I was oddly disappointed – I’d been sort of looking forward to the walk home under the falling sky. I’d been Passably Manic on the way over, hoping at best for Blandly Introspective when I’d return. I’d say it turned out a little better than that. If nothing else, my little campaign drove a point home to me.

Nothing captures the imagination like stories. I’d spent a year proving that to myself, from “We Called It God” to a beach ball to the face. In the process, I found that I was making a story. Living one. I can safely say this past year has been the best of my life.

That said, I don’t think I’ll be pitching more large objects at authors anytime soon. There is such a thing as tempting fate, you know.

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