“Show us your balls!” a voice ricocheted from the crowd as I entered the J-Dutton theater on Friday night for Chuck Palahniuk, best known for his award-winning novel, Fight Club. Festival volunteers distributed copies of his latest book, Doomed, and we all received a beach ball to inflate and a glow stick. The glow sticks, once activated, slid into the inflated ball, and a veritable rainbow of translucent orbs glowed around the room. Volunteers then began to circulate Sharpie markers to every row. Clearly, this was not going to be an ordinary reading.
Like a boxer entering a ring, Palahniuk strode onto the stage in a red satin robe and bare feet. The collective roar of his fans was nothing short of breathtaking. A man in front of me stood up and punched his fist in the air, screaming as though we were watching the Flames during the 2004 Playoffs on the Red Mile.
Judging by the shouts and praises that erupted so early—before Palahniuk even opened his mouth–I wondered how on earth I would do this sold-out event justice. “Who’s never been to an author event?” he asked the audience. Eighty percent of the crowd lifted their glow-stick illuminated beach balls in the air. “Well!” he continued, “this is what happens at a literary event.” He marched over to one of several large sacks on stage that were—as it turned out—full of smaller bags of Halloween candy, and proceeded to throw the candy-bags into the audience. He stopped and peered at one of the packages, “Says 299 grams in here. Whatever the F*** that means…like it’s cocaine or something.” Bags sailed across the theater like frisbees, smacking into elated receivers.
The concept behind the beach balls was this: everyone gets a ball, inflates the ball, illuminates the ball with a glow stick, and writes a question on the ball with the marker. At various points throughout the event, Palahniuk explained there would be brief intermission periods whereby the lights would be turned off, music pumped up, when everyone in the audience would “Mix up the balls!” by throwing them around the theater. We did a practice run. The lights were turned off, music came on and the theater turned into a giant gumball machine.
After the ball-mixing, Palahniuk read a cringe-worthy story about masturbation gone wrong. Fans winced, groaned, grimaced and laughed at the disturbing and graphic turn of events, ultimately involving a 15-foot intestinal tract reduced to six inches. I will never look at a carrot, mollified piece of candle wax or pool drain pipe the same way.
He introduced the first round of ‘Question Period’ and hundreds of beach balls bounced crazily around the dark theatre to pounding music. He invited those with GOOD QUESTIONS to “raise their ball” and if the question “wasn’t lame,” he would answer it. Good questions were rewarded by a copy of his most-recent favourite book, Dora, about Freud’s analysis of a case of hysteria.
If a question was lame he kicked the ball back into the crowd. One beach ball asked a more formal question about his research and process, and he explained that he is often inspired by stories he hears from others. He’ll hear a story that holds a kernel of truth. The kernel will simmer, and an idea will gain traction and morph into something much bigger—and much different from the original tale.
He performed two readings, one was older material and one was newer. I was impressed by the way in which he incorporates disturbing material into stories that deliver poignant social commentary alongside the outlandish events that occur in his stories. He spoke about story and storytelling. “Stories are just flat lines on a piece of paper until somebody reads them.”
He continued to frisbee bags of candy and small stuffed cats into the audience. He made various remarks that are too awkward to include here—out of full context—that generated a great deal of laughter and hollering from his fans. He shared a story about how he achieved the record for most written complaints at a Barnes & Noble store. “If you’re offended by any of this,” he said, “don’t bitch to WordFest…They had no idea.” Everything he said all night was met with sports-fanatic enthusiasm.
As Palahniuk moved to wrap up his pyjama-glow-stick-beach-ball-Halloween-candy-stuffed-kitten-book-party—he thanked the crowd for breathing life (literally and figuratively) into the evening. I walked home in the dark. Many blocks away from the theater, as I made my way through the Beltline to Mission, a young woman wearing a leather jacket and jeans passed me carrying her beach ball in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The glow-stick inside her beach ball was losing its fluorescence. I imagined her going home to a small apartment. I pictured her turning on the lights, slipping off her coat, and gently placing her plastic beach ball on a mantel beside all her copies of Palahniuk books. A shrine. Clearly, this author has generated a cult following that can only be admired.
“Have your adventures, make your mistakes, and choose your friends poorly — all these make for great stories.” – Chuck Palahniuk
Stay turned for more Festival coverage including Joseph Boyden and horseback riding with Jowita Bydlowska. To see more photos by Official WordFest Photographer Monique de St. Croix, CLICK HERE.
Samantha Warwick is the author of the novel Sage Island (WordFest artist 2008 + 2009). Her nonfiction and poetry have been broadcast on CBC Radio and appeared in various literary and commercial publications including Geist, Event, Room, filling Station, The Globe & Mail and FASHION. Samantha is the Official WordFest Blogger for 2013.