For his latest book, Chuck Palahniuk, best known for the 1996 cult classic Fight Club, researched the detritus of human existence to tackle death and damnation. Damned, out this week, is a darkly comic depiction of hell from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl who ends up in the underworld after overdosing on pot. In a Judy Blume-meets-Anton LaVey touch, Palahniuk introduces each chapter with: "Are you there, Satan? It's me, Madison." In his scab-and-toenail-clipping-laden underworld, wax lips are currency and The English Patient plays on an endless loop.
Palahniuk belies the fetishes of his fans with a placid, tidy, and unfailingly polite temperament. For a guy who can rap off disfiguring methods of masturbation, he's remarkably grounded and introspective. On the eve of his book tour, I called the 49-year-old author at his home in Portland to talk about hell, inflatable dolls, and how zombie theology just might save us.
Mother Jones: You've referred to Damned as a "hideous novel." Elaborate.
Chuck Palahniuk: I wrote it when I was taking care of my mother, who was being treated and eventually died of lung cancer. And so it was just the process and the circumstance of writing it was horrible.
MJ: You've spoken of fiction as a way for writers to work out their problems vicariously. So that was the case here?
CP: Right. My father had been killed in 1999. I was about to lose my mother. I think it's a fantastic coping mechanism. It allows you to express all of your feelings through a different persona, to record and vent the feelings, like in a diary. And it allows you to allow time to pass.
MJ: Madison is a 13-year-old girl who ends up in hell, absurdly, after OD'ing on pot. What's the parallel?
CP: Here I was, a middle-aged man mourning both of his parents, and that just didn't seem to be a very funny book—a book that I wouldn't find any kind of joy in writing. So instead of making it a middle-aged man, I made it a very young girl. And instead of her mourning her dead parents, she herself would be dead, so that she could mourn—miss her parents. I basically inverted the whole situation, which would allow me to express the same feelings in a comic way that denied the drama.
MJ: This book seems like kind of a nod to the young-adult section and Judy Blume novels.
CP: Yes. [Laughs.] There's a classic form of story where an innocent character, an unknowing character, ends up in circumstances that he or she doesn't understand, and they're forced to just to make do. That's kind of best typified by Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, where the girl ends up moved to the suburbs from New York; or in The Shawshank Redemption, where the banker ends up convicted and in prison, and he doesn't really understand the circumstances that got him there. Pollyanna—same thing. I wanted to write one of those sort of classic adaptation novels.
MJ: You don't have children yourself. Did you do any research to inform your young protagonist?
CP: I did some very superficial reading about demonology and theology, things like that. And I did a lot of reading of the archetype, the innocent character thrust into a [new] situation. Beyond that, I really just kind of winged it—made it up.
MJ: So, what is hell? Other people?
"Hell is composed of all the discarded aspects of our physical being: toenail clippings and loose hairs and blood and feces and urine and semen."
CP: [Laughs.] It's not other people; it's physicality. Hell is composed of all the discarded aspects of our physical being: toenail clippings and loose hairs and blood and feces and urine and semen. For Madison, who is a presexual being really denying her physicality, hell is very confronting in that it's nothing but the physical body present in all these discarded, disgusting ways. And that is based on, whenever I do book tours and I'm put in luxury hotels that have author's suites, I'm always fascinated with seeing what books are on the shelves and how the autographs are dated. And knowing the chronology, I'm always fascinated with searching the room in a very thorough, forensic way, to look for the stray hairs and the mattress stains or toenail clippings or scabs—the physical evidence that people like Jane Fonda and Goldie Hawn and Maya Angelou, people who've slept in that room before me, were mortal beings.
MJ: Of all the movies that could be playing on an endless loop in hell, why did you choose The English Patient?
CP: I wanted a kind of lofty movie that a prepubescent girl would not really understand or appreciate. The Piano is also playing in hell. And also because, to tell the truth, sitting through both those movies was kind of a living hell for me. I just didn't get [their acclaim]. So that part of Madison is definitely me.
MJ: There's been talk of making a movie out of your novel Haunted, which has a Canterbury Tales structure—23 short stories, told by the characters.
CP: It's funny you mention that, because I was just at the Netherlands Music Festival and I met with the director, a Belgian man named Koen Mortier whose big movie is called Ex Drummer. So there is progress.