In Dazed's 20th-anniversary issue, the bestselling American novelist discusses personal tragedy, a fascination with hell and his latest book Damned
Since the publication of his hard-hitting, hard-kicking, hard-biting-and-scratching debut novel Fight Club in 1996, Chuck Palahniuk has steadily slogged his way into the big league of bestselling American literary novelists. He’s kept himself busy; writing 11 novels, a collection of short stories and two acclaimed books of non-fiction, amassing an army of die-hard fans in the process. For his next trick, Palahniuk has cooked up a raucous new novel that’s narrated by a 13-year-old girl who has died and gone to hell. Damned is vintage Chuck – as dark as it gets, but with loads of gross-out humour, all your favourite dead celebs, and plenty of grim details of the Inferno’s unmentionable horrors, such as being forced to watch The English Patient over and over again.
Dazed & Confused: So why did you decide to write a novel set in hell?
Chuck Palahniuk: In 2008, while the film version of my book Choke was coming to market, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. That meant that I had to appear in public to promote a comedy about a son trying to save his dying mother – the plot of Choke – while privately I was caring for my own dying mother. It was torture. The only way I could survive was by imagining a worse place of suffering: hell.
D&C: Is it always torture for you to do the publicity rounds?
Chuck Palahniuk: I dread the promotion part of my job. It’s agony, especially compared to the private, at-home joy of writing. But being a grown-up means doing every part of the larger task. It doesn’t help that the anxiety I suffer while in public is witnessed, while my breakdowns when writing are completely hidden.
D&C: You’re known for doing quite a lot of research before you get going on a book. What sort of background reading did you do to prepare for a novel set in hell?
Chuck Palahniuk: I read dozens of books on theology and demonology, most of them in the presence of my dying mother. While we didn’t discuss the topic, I’m sure the titles of these books were a huge comfort to her in her final days. I was such a sensitive son.
D&C: But you’re not religious, are you? Do you believe in hell?
Chuck Palahniuk: I was born in 1962, and it seems that throughout my entire life the world has demanded peace but maintained conflict. This hypocrisy has made the last half-century possibly the most absurd time in human history. Human reality has outstripped our fear of hell.
D&C: Damned opens with Madison’s assertion that ‘Actually, watching television and surfing the internet are really excellent practice for being dead.’ Where did this idea come from?
Chuck Palahniuk: I was referring to the passive qualities of both those activities. To merely observe your culture without contributing to it seems very close to existing as a ghost.
D&C: Madison’s hell also offers you a lot of scope to display your relish for articulating physically nauseating ideas. We see it again and again in your work – what is it that appeals to you so much about this kind of gross-out writing?
Chuck Palahniuk: My goal is always to engage the reader on a mental, emotional and physical level. Most books accomplish the first two, but I also want to enroll the reader’s body in a sympathetic response, and the most effective ways to do this are with illness, violence, sex or drugs. Not all my books include so-called ‘gross’ elements, but they do include at least one of those four.
D&C: You’ve published all those novels with impressive frequency. How long did Damned take you to write?
Chuck Palahniuk: Writing is an act of resignation. I only write when circumstances trap me, and I’m faced with something terrible that I can’t resolve. Thus I escape or tolerate it by writing about it. In this case, as I’ve said, the crisis was my mother’s slow death. My book Choke for example was about my father’s murder. It took about two years to write Damned. Some horrors are easier to resolve than others.
DD: Do you think you’d be categorically incapable of writing if you lived a perfectly happy life?
Chuck Palahniuk: Good question. What would be a happiness so perfect that nothing could fuck it up? That would be heaven, I guess. So that’s the question I’ll need to address in the third book about Madison Spencer. Damned is set in hell, and for a 13-year-old grump, that includes endless screenings of The English Patient. I’ll bet that imagining heaven will be more of a challenge. For me, heaven is anywhere my loved ones reside. It’s people who make up my happiness.
DD: Are you still happy talking about Fight Club? It’s been 15 years now since it came out. Are you bored of it yet?
Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club is a pleasant memory for me. I could talk about it forever, but I suspect that the rest of the world would be bored by that topic.
DD: Okay, so which of the other books you’ve written so far would you most like to see made into a movie?
Chuck Palahniuk: Honestly? I have no favourites. Having a book adapted to film also opens the possibility of a terrible film, so I’ll count my blessings with or without new film versions of my work.
DD: Do you have aspirations to write for cinema one day?
Chuck Palahniuk: I’d sooner write a play than a film, but my favourite form will always be short stories. Nothing is more satisfying. They are my favourite stories to read and write, but we haven’t seen them in vogue since the late 1980s
DD: Are you concerned for the short story in contemporary culture?
Chuck Palahniuk: Hope lies in the web and its effect on publishing. Friends of mine, editors and agents, speculate that short stories will soon make a comeback. They can be sold as content for the internet, similarly to how Dickens’s work was serialised. Eventually, those smaller bits will be compiled in a book and sold to the readers who loved the smaller, introductory segments. It’s a very 19th-century business model, but it’s likely to revive the short story.
DD: You’re a top five bestselling author in America now – what do you put your enormous success as a novelist down to? Have your achievements outstripped your original authorial ambitions?
Chuck Palahniuk: I would love that to be true, but my success is nowhere near what you might imagine. For years I dreamed of getting the glorious critical acclaim that David Foster Wallace received; I was sure that would bring anyone happiness and a sense of security. When Wallace killed himself, I was shaken because my assumption had been so wrong. Since then my only focus is on writing. It’s the only activity that consistently brings me joy. Whether or not I sold a single book, I’d still write. Even if I were homeless and ill, I’d continue to write. Everything else is incidental.
STUART HAMMOND is books editor of DAZED & CONFUSED
Photography KIRSTIN ROBY
Dazed & Confused's October issue, 'Come Together: 20th Anniversary Special', is out now. Click HERE to check out the other, already published, Q&As celebrating the issue