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Chuck Palahniuk Goes to Hell

The bad-boy author of Fight Club and 11 other novels on his latest book, Damned.

MJ: One of the stories, "Guts," is a meditation on hazardous masturbation methods. Will that make the cut?

CP: Oh, definitely. In fact, the "Guts" character is probably going to be the main protagonist and the narrator.

MJ: In Damned, there's a rather bizarre sex scene involving a giant demon goddess and a severed head with a Mohawk. Where did that come from?

CP: Boy, that goes back forever. I remember being a child and reading the second book of Gulliver's Travels, and being dumbfounded by the scenes in which the little tiny Gulliver is placed on the bodies of the women in this royal court. He is compelled to rove up and down the landscape of these enormous female bodies, and how disgusting he finds them. For a prepubescent child, that's a really remarkable thing to read, because it is before you have an appreciation for carnal pleasure. These very fleshy, mortal scenes—they stayed with me for decades.

MJ: Any other classical influences hovering around you lately?

CP: Dante's Divine Comedy. Damned is the first of three books that will follow Madison. The second book I'm working on now places Madison in purgatory, which is basically being stranded on Earth for a year. The third book will eventually get Madison to some form of salvation.

"Fight Club is what bought me my freedom."

MJ: I guess every writer needs a trilogy.

CP: I've never done even two books that were linked like this. So three is a real challenge.

MJ: Your reading tours and fan-club following are sort of legendary. Do you have anything special planned this time around?

CP: I'm going to be reading a story called "Romance" that I wrote that came out in the August Playboy. Probably the most, kind of, romantic love story I've ever done. But it's still upsetting. It's funny and horrible. It's being made into a short film right now. So that's the reading part. Beyond that, I have the standard million inflatable things for people to fight over.

MJ: Like what?

CP: In the past, we've had blow-up sex dolls, inflatable four-foot penguins, inflatable Academy Awards last year, five-foot inflatable giant red hearts—severed arms and legs were big for a couple of years. It allows for physical participation, where people are clamoring so that I'll fling something in their direction. And then competing among themselves to inflate these things in order to win prizes, which are typically books by other people that I really like, that I've shipped to the events. And then later, I can see the event infuse power into the larger world as people carry these large, unhidable souvenirs with them. And that part's really fun. It's kind of a low-budget piece of Christo art.

MJ: Beyond the cult following, there's still a general perception that you are "the Fight Club guy." Has your association with that story, and with the subsequent movie and actual fight clubs, been stifling, or liberating, or both?

CP: It's liberating. Fight Club is what bought me my freedom. When you think about so many people—Burroughs, you think of Naked Lunch—so many people are just identified by one work. So it's not so unusual. Ken Kesey, you think of Cuckoo's Nest.

MJ: What else do you think is worth sharing these days?

CP: A couple of books I've just been in love with: One is a memoir that came out this spring called Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. There's a new novel by Donald Ray Pollock, called The Devil All The Time. Pollock had a book out, a collection of short stories, a couple years ago, called Knockemstiff, so this is his first novel.

MJ: That reminds me. You also put out an anthology of true stories, Stranger Than Fiction, a few years back. Is nonfiction something you want to revisit?

CP: I have a feature story in the November Playboy about going to the world's largest—or the world's first—zombie culture convention. I wanted to do a kind of Joan Didion version of what she had done with "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," the landmark essay about being among the hippies in the Haight-Ashbury—but about being among these 20,000 fake zombies. It's called "Slouching, Lurching, and Salivating Towards Bethlehem."

MJ: Did the zombies break character to talk to you?

CP: What I found so fascinating about the convention is that it's almost like a proto-theology. Like a Baptist national convention, where people were getting together and very passionately debating whether zombies could move fast or slow, whether they could feel affection. We're seeing the beginnings of a religion. And it's fun to watch people fight over the doctrines, or the catechisms, of what is gonna be taught as the right way of thinking of this kind of afterlife phenomenon. There were people who behaved as zombies, but they behaved according to a very strict dogma of what they though a zombie should be. So there really wasn't any kind of single form of character. 

MJ: For someone who studies social and cultural norms, and pushes that envelope in his writing, you seem pretty quiet when it comes to politics.

CP: Maybe it's because my politics are kind of undecided. I grew up in such an atmosphere of conflict. Right now, it's just a difficult time to be engaged in politics without being engaged in direct confrontation. In a way I'm still looking for that third option that's going to unite people, not pit them against each other. Part of me has to wonder if some new form of religion isn't going to do that. In a way, I'm looking to things like zombies that might present us with a new something, a new factor, that will allow us to transcend the right and left that we're stuck with right now.

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