Read more books by Chuck Palahniuk.
In Damned—his latest novel and the first in a proposed trilogy—Madison, a temperamental young girl, finds herself living and working for Satan and his minions after she's mercilessly snuffed out of the living realm. But Palahniuk's Hell turns out to be surprisingly, disturbingly close to a John Hughes movie. We recently spoke to Palahniuk about his infernal inspiration, writing as a means to cope, and this, his requiem novel.
Of all the people in Hell or headed there, why did you choose to write about Madison, a sarcastic, self-conscious 13-year-old girl?
Because she's a pre-gender character, and it's always fun to have a character who's androgynous. The narrator of my last book was an old, old woman, so in a way she was kind of post-gender, but androgynous in that same way. And also because before puberty I think kids have a kind of complete self-confidence, an intellectual confidence that they lose at puberty. In a way, it's an early peak that gets wiped away. There's an innocence there, too—she's book-smart, but she doesn't know really anything based on biology.
You surround her with your version of The Breakfast Club—the nerd, the jock, the punk, the superficial princess—all from the John Hughes movie, but in Hell. What about using that cast and those stereotypes appealed to you?
The same reason I set huge numbers of scenes in bathrooms, because people know what a bathroom looks like. You don't have to describe it and unpack it to get the action moving really quickly, without having to bog the story down with a bunch of scene setting. Since each of these people represent a strategy for dealing with the world, it seemed like five archetypes that were already established that Madison would be familiar with.
Eventually Madison realizes that she might be a figment of an author's imagination, as the lead character in Satan's screenplay about her, and she resents him for that. Is that a natural progression in your storytelling, where characters resent their author?
That's kind of a misdirection that's meant to panic Madison at the last moment and to put her into action in the second book of the series. Now she's really got something at stake—whether or not she even exists. She's got this huge thing to prove in opposition, and that gives us more energy going into the second and third books. It follows the Divine Comedy, so it's Hell, then Purgatory and ultimately Paradise. The second one, Purgatory, is maybe three quarters written, and it's going to be a real fat one. It's probably going to be my biggest book.
Are these books you could only write now in your career? Is there a path in your career you see that leads up to it?
It's basically what they call a Requiem Novel—that's a term I hear in Europe a lot—these books lately about people writing about the death of their loved ones. A year ago I was talking to Max Brooks about World War Z, and he was telling me that that whole zombie novel is really him writing about his mother, Anne Bancroft, being diagnosed with cancer, and how they fought the cancer and all these experts promised to solve it, but ultimately she died of it. So Max wrote World War Z as a way of processing that whole tragedy.
At the same time, I was dealing with my mom, with her having cancer. I was taking care of her while she had lung cancer. Now that she's dead and my father's dead, I thought about Madison mourning her parents—she's separated and estranged from them—and three books is about what it would take for me to acclimate to the fact that both of my folks were dead.
One thing, since you are Kirkus: the idea of making Hell this tangible place of bodily waste, this place of physical relics, was based on going on book tour and being booked into these author suites in all these big hotels. You've got this whole bookcase filled with the lofty, noble creative thoughts of all these writers. It's juxtaposed with a bed that has been slept in by Paula Dean, Jane Fonda, Maya Angelou, David Sedaris and Dave Barry. It's weird having the résumé of your bed right there, so I always pick through those rooms looking for hairs and fingernails and scabs because it is that weird physical proof that writers are human beings. That's why I made Hell like an office suite in a big hotel, where I'm just looking for those little proofs.