Saturday, October 22, 2011

Operation Chuck: The Damned Book Night

After reading ten Chuck Palahniuk books in under three weeks, on Thursday the actual Damned event d-day arrived.  I picked up Chuck and his publicist Todd at 8:45 Thursday morning and we joined Lemuria's blog goddess Lisa and my boss Valerie at the Eudora Welty House for a 9 o'clock tour.

Lisa, Liz, Valerie, Chuck, Todd, and
Eudora's niece Mary Alice
Welty house expert Karen Redhead and Eudora's niece Mary Alice White met us there and we received the VIP treatment.  If you're going to Jackson, the Welty House should be on your agenda.  It's close to my version of paradise; books are everywhere, the house is a quaint style with great windows and architectural lines, and there was even a cat out front.  The gardens are lovely too, but I'm sure that I'd just manage to kill the plants.  It didn't even have a shower; just a bath.  You should know by now that I love my soaks.  Also, Eudora's literary awards are under glass so you can't lift her Pulitzer.  Sorry.

Chuck in Eudora's garden.
Chuck seemed to really enjoy the tour.  He likes to view other writer's homes and writing spaces because it helps him connect to their writing.  He spent extra time in the gardens.  The Welty house was an excellent way to begin the day, a bit of quiet that would progressively amp up until the climax that night.

Helloooooooo Nurse!
From Eudora's place we drove to Lemuria Bookstore.  Chuck was treated like a celebrity upon entering the store.  How did this event happen?  Zita, one of the Lemuria booksellers, is the biggest Chuck Palahniuk fan I've ever met.  The first time I met her several years ago, she was reserved until I mentioned that there was a new Chuck book on the list I was selling, and she animated like Wakko Warner spotting Hello Nurse (yes, that's an Animaniacs reference.  I love the Animaniacs.)  When I sold Damned in the spring, John Evans, the buyer and store owner, mentioned that they'd never hosted Chuck.  Joe, the store events guy, added Chuck to their events requests and I talked to Todd, Chuck's publicist.  John and Joe talked up a Chuck event at BEA (Book Expo America), too. Todd thought it was a good opportunity and we set a date.  And then the Lemuria staff went to work.

Chuck books everywhere you
look at Lemuria...including the
Penguin Classics spinner.  Sweet.
Back to Zita.  She is a Chuck Palahniuk super-fan.  Her love of Chuck spread among the staff and when I next visited Lemuria to sell the spring list, it seemed like everyone there was reading and talking about Chuck.  They were talking about Madison, the protagonist for Damned, and they were talking about his older books.  We started talking about event ideas, and about making Damned one of the Lemuria first editions club picks.  When Chuck walked into Lemuria on Thursday, the hug Zita and Chuck shared was one of the best moments I've witnessed in Book Land.  It was perfect.

Damned print made for the big event.
One would have to have been blind to set foot in Lemuria and not to know about the Damned event (and why would a blind person spend a lot of time in a bookstore?).  Chuck books, Damned posters and bookmarks, Damned t-shirts--there was Damned stuff EVERYWHERE.  They featured a display of Chuck's favorite books and authors, you know, for some variety.  I take some secret joy in knowing that other publishers' reps have been walking into Lemuria to sell books and they've been staring at Chuck (and therefore Random House) endorsements for hours.  Yes, I am that competitive.

High School fan.
While at Lemuria, Zita acted as store hostess and helped Chuck sign books and meet-and-greet a class of high school students.  One kid wore a buffalo hat.  Yeah, he's definitely read a Chuck book or two in the past.

After making memories with some high schoolers (get your minds out of the gutter, pervs!), Chuck returned to the hotel, and Valerie, Todd, and I ate lunch and drove to Hal and Mal's, the venue for the evening event. Hal and Mal's is an old warehouse that's been converted into a restaurant and entertainment venue.  The space is huge, and almost all of it was dominated by the Chuck preparations.  Hal and Mal are Zita's uncle and father, and apparently she'd basically lived at the place for the last week decorating for the event.  The effort was obvious.  In addition to the book reading, Lemuria coordinated with other local businesses to make the night a huge JX RX (Jackson Rocks) event in support of local businesses.  From Hal and Mal's to Cathead Vodka, to local artists, to the Parlor Market restaurant, to bands, the community bonded over the event and helped spread the word.
Art show devil--very cool.

In one room at Hal and Mal's, an art show inspired by Damned covered the walls.  Devils and images of hell and violence covered the walls.  If I'd had $1,500 to spare, I would have purchased one of the pieces.  They were all very cool, and the art show was a great idea as a passive way to entertain people (and hopefully sell some local art) before the show started.

Stale popcorn ball.
And then there was the room where Chuck would be speaking.  It's HUGE.  And every part of it was decorated like the hell from Damned, no detail overlooked.  In Chuck's hell, stale popcorn balls and candy are the only foods, and Zita made popcorn balls and hung them from the ceiling.  In hell, The English Patient movie plays round-the-clock.  Done.  Light bulbs were switched for red lights.  Staffers and fans dressed in costumes.  While Chuck was still in the hotel giving phone interviews, Valerie and I took pictures of the empty space and ate a quick dinner in the restaurant at Hal and Mal's, and by the time we left to pick up Chuck and Todd from the hotel, the crowd was already building, two hours before the main event and over an hour before the doors opened.

Packed house in hell.
When we drove back to Hal and Mal's with the author and publicist in tow, we couldn't even find a parking space.  PACKED house.  Chuck and Todd went inside to set up while Valerie and I parked, and then we joined them backstage, where Todd was blowing up an inflatable skeleton and Chuck was inflating a brain.  Chuck likes to play games with his crowds.  I peeked around the curtain and indeed what I saw was my version of hell--hundreds of drinking, rowdy people anxiously crowding a stage to see their literary hero and have a good time.  (I don't like crowds).  John, the owner of Lemuria, introduced Zita, and then Zita introduced Chuck.

Chuck on stage with an inflated brain.
Chuck Palahniuk the performer is the consummate crowd manipulator.  It's fascinating to watch him push them into a raucous frenzy and then instantly calm them with an insight into humanity.  He told a graphic and disgustingly hilarious story about being a candystriper as a 13 year-old Catholic going through confirmation classes, and the lesson learned was both appropriate...and dirty (I'm not going to give it away since Chuck may be using the story at all of his events).  Then he threw out hundreds of inflatable brains to the crowd in a game and generated the hysteria...only to settle the crowd once more as he read an original story written for the tour.  Chuck spoke for over an hour, never letting up.  People pay $60+ for tickets to hear A-List comedians, yet Chuck's performance is so much more than that, and longer, and for the Jackson crowd on Thursday night, free.

Chuck with Madison from
Damned, aka Maggie.
So what's Chuck Palahniuk like in real life?  He's quiet and unassuming and highly intelligent.  He has a wicked sense of humor and a great appreciation for absurdity, but he's also sensitive to feelings and kind.  He's a generous donor for charities including animal no-kill shelters (he's recently donated the coffee table from the movie Fight Club to auction as a fundraiser for The Pixie Project) and he's a champion of other authors and their books.  I talked to him about the animal sex capitol of the world and a zombie convention while we were driving from Eudora Welty's house to Lemuria, but it was a totally normal conversation.  No, really, it was.  He reminded me of some of my most hilarious friends, the kind of guy you want to ask to dinner and the kind of guy who can tell a good fart story over dessert in the hotel after a huge event and long day.

Thank you to the Lemuria staff, the Jackson local businesses, Random House, and Chuck Palahniuk for making the Damned book night possible.  I'm glad that I was able to participate.  It was a great night to be a part of Book Land.
Thank you Chuck, and thank you Zita.

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