Eleven novels and 15 years after his sensational debut, "Fight Club," Chuck Palahniuk has gone straight to hell.
In his new novel, "Damned," a 13-year-old, overweight, precocious girl named Madison Spencer dies and enters the underworld. There she discovers giant monsters worthy of Jonathan Swift, flame-orange skies, a Demonic Hall of Fame, really bad architecture, gross-outs (a Swamp of Partial Birth Abortions, mountains of nail clippings) and, of course, lawyers, politicians, journalists and telemarketers.
Madison and a band of teens right out of "The Breakfast Club" face hazards as they try to make sense of their shocking new surroundings, and their pasts among the living. Showing continuously is the movie version of "The English Patient."
Palahniuk's 13-city tour for "Damned," which includes many sold-out theater events, has a Twin Cities stop on Nov. 17, when he will appear at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.
We talked with him recently in Portland, Ore., not far from his home in Vancouver, Wash. Palahniuk has the wiry build of a college wrestler. He is immaculately groomed, unfailingly polite, thoughtful and soft-spoken. During the interview, a friend's Boston terrier, Imp, snored on his lap.
Q: What made you choose hell as a topic and setting of your newest book?
A: In 2008, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was also the year when the movie "Choke," based on my fourth book, was opening. So it became this year of me going to premieres of the movie, which is a comedy about a son being with his dying mother. I would go to openings of this comedy, and then return to the hospital where my mother was dying. And it was just excruciating. So, to give myself perspective, writing about hell just seemed like taking it to a fictional extreme.
Q: How'd you decide to cast as your protagonist a 13-year-old girl, Madison?
A: Madison started out to be 11 years old because I wanted her to be prepubescent. So she would be very cognitive, very confident in an intellectual way. Like Margaret in "Dennis the Menace," a very mouthy, super-confident little girl, before puberty kind of wipes her out. I wanted her to be pre-gender, and kind of at that peak of confidence you have as a child. At the same time, I wanted her to be very naive in regard to physicality. Margaret could tell you anything about blank, but when you ask her where babies come from, she gets it wrong. My publisher later suggested making her 13, so we compromised on that.
Q: Was it difficult for you to find her voice as you wrote?
A: No. Her gender and her age were both really easy for me. My training is in minimalist writing. That's filled with a million rules about things you can't do. I had to throw out a lot of rules in order to write in Madison's voice. She's allowed to use adverbs, Latinate words -- things I could never get away with in minimalism. She's allowed to overtly state emotional reactions.
Q: Ending says "to be continued." So there's going to be a sequel?
A: There'll be three books, at least. It's based on the Divine Comedy. So right now Madison is in purgatory, and that's about to resolve. After that, she'll end up in some form of heaven. The titles are "Damned," "Doomed" and "Delivered." "Doomed" is what I'm writing now.
Q: What did you research in preparing to write "Damned"?
A: Sartre's "No Exit," and that was kind of my entree into "The Breakfast Club." I always had perceived that group of people trapped in one room as a kind of smart, teen version of "No Exit." Then there were the "Left Behind" books, aimed at religious people who believed in the Rapture. I thought it would be kind of fun to do something similar, but for secular humanists who don't have a really clear narrative of what happens when you die.
Q: You are very tough on Madison's billionaire dad and movie-star mom, making them caricatures of the worst kind of PC Hollywood limousine liberals. Yet they also, in the end, seem to love their daughter, and vice versa.
A: I think a lot of Gen X kids really resent baby boomers, including their parents. They resent how the boomers have processed through so many different identities, and have promised to save the world over and over in so many ways, but have more or less made things worse. While Gen Xers really resent and despise baby boomers for all these failures, the boomers are their parents, and they have to love them on that level. I wanted Madison to sort of embody that dynamic.
Q: Madison's mother is prone to adopting needy children as a PR stunt. In a movie of "Damned," would you see Angelina Jolie in that role?
A: No, no -- it would be too close. When they were casting "Fight Club," Courtney Love was living with Edward Norton, because they had just made "People vs. Larry Flynt," and she really wanted the female lead, Marla, and [director] David Fincher said she was just too close to type, and to have any kind of energy, you had to cast against type a little bit.
Q: Do you believe in hell and heaven?
A: I have no idea what will happen to me when I die. I think we know, but I don't think we're supposed to be too aware of it. When you're writing, I think you kind of trick yourself into knowing something that you don't want to know on a conscious level. It's a way of presenting something that's not foremost in your mind.
Q: So as you were writing this book, did you draw any new conclusions about the hereafter?
A: Well, Madison has a kind of epiphany. As misguided and scatterbrained as she thinks her parents were, really what they were doing throughout their lives was trying to make the world a better place for her. That was a nice epiphany in my mind, that the people before me weren't actively trying to make the world more unhappy. That everyone is doing their best to try and make the world a better place. It sounds trite to say it out loud, but it's one of those things that you have to keep rediscovering.
Q: Do you rank your own books? Which is your favorite novel?
Q: Why so mean to "The English Patient"?
A: I wanted a movie that Madison would not appreciate. And for me, that was "The English Patient." I just could not understand what all the fuss was about. It made me feel culturally retarded -- that I could not get it, and I would have to drop out of conversation as people would praise this movie.
Q: In "Damned," you posit that "being dead seems like the ultimate character flaw," that the living all feel superior to the dead. What about all the reverence for the dead in the culture?
A: Any more, are they really revered? Maybe they were revered 50 years ago. Or in Japan. Here, they're not revered, they're zombies, they're the things that have to be cast out. The thing that has to be denied and discarded as soon as possible.
Q: And you talk about how the living view the dead as lazy.
A: I've watched Melissa Sue Gilbert die on the Hallmark Channel 100 times. There is that narrative that says, "If you work really hard, you can lick cancer." That was the kind of horrible thing that hung over my mother. If you die of cancer, it's your fault. I thought that was so cruel in the culture. You're a slacker if you die of cancer.
Q: What's your version of hell on Earth?
A: Confined spaces. Where you can't move. Crowded flights. And you're stuck on the tarmac for hours.
Q: Social media wasn't even around when "Fight Club" came out. Now you have two official fan websites and 374,000 followers on Twitter. Is this a passion of yours?
A: I have never tweeted in my life. The sites are Dennis Widmyer's babies. Years ago he came to an event in New York and asked me if [his site] could be an official site. I wasn't even sure what the Internet was, and I said yeah. I think he's done a fantastic job of creating community around my books. I do provide content for the site.
The interview over, Palahniuk and a photographer and I drive to the sprawling 150-year-old Lone Fir Cemetery nearby to shoot pictures among the towering cedars and rain-spotted grave markers. We are walking back, nearly done, when a young man in uniform approaches to say that we should have a permit to shoot there.
Then he does a double-take.
"Oh, I see it's Chuck," he says. "I'm a big fan. I've read all your books. Go ahead, shoot as much as you like." Delighted, Palahniuk signs an advance copy of "Damned" that he had brought along and gives it to the guard, who looks thrilled.
His aim is true
In "Damned," Palahniuk makes fun of conventional notions of the afterlife. Here are some satirical targets of his previous novels:
- “Survivor”: religious suicide cults
- “Invisible Monster”: beauty and fashion industries
- “Choke”: sex addiction, historic villages
- “Lullaby”: death penalty
- “Diary”: artist as celebrity
- “Haunted”: writers’ colonies
- “Rant”: demolition derbies
- “Snuff”: porn industry
- “Pygmy”: teenage terrorists
- “Tell-All”: celebrity worship, vintage Hollywood style