Chuck Palahniuk is the author of Damned,
Chuck Palahniuk, Damned
© Doubleday

Survivor, Pygmy, Tell-All, Snuff, Rant, Choke, Haunted, Stranger Than True, Diary, Lullaby, Invisible Monsters, and Fight Club.

Fight Club was made into a film by director David Fincher. Portions of Choke have appeared in Playboy, and Palahniuk's nonfiction work has been published by Gear, Black Book, The Stranger, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Chuck Palahniuk

posted Dec 13, 2011

Since the release of Fight Club in 1996, Chuck Palahniuk's stature has grown steadily. His work appeals both to fans of literary fiction, who are drawn to his minimalistic tales of tortured flesh and pop nihilism, and to mainstream readers, who tend to like his... well... minimalistic tales of tortured flesh and pop nihilism. While reading Damned, his latest novel, in public, I had two different waitresses tell me that Palahniuk once made forty people faint at a reading. How so? It turns out he told a story about a kid getting his intestines pulled out through his anus by a pool filter.

In the course of interviewing Chuck via email, I didn't quite have it in me to ask for more details on that one. But I'll be sure to do so the next time I'm at one of his readings. In the meantime, I did get the chance to ask him about his work, his relationship with his fans, and his deep desire to write the next DaVinci Code.

Thomas Batten


Over the course of your career you've transitioned from cult author to mainstream, best-selling success. So much of your work deals with fringe characters and groups—has that transition affected the way you approach your work at all? Is it important to stay true to your roots as a cult author?

Do I make any special effort to maintain a "cult" status cred? God, I hope not. I pray every night that I can write a Lovely Bones or a DaVinci Code and relax for a year, but my work sells to an audience barely large enough to justify publication. I haven't a clue how to "sell out" or I would've done so years ago.

Every chapter of Damned, your new novel, begins with the 13 year-old protagonist asking, "Are you there, Satan? It's me, Madison." So... In addition to Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, should we add Judy Blume to the list of your literary influences?

Judy Blume writes clean, clear sentences, and that's a wonderful talent. However, what I chiefly mimicked from her work Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is the technique of placing a small summary at the beginning of each chapter. My book Damned is the first of three books that move a character named Madison Spencer through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. And my overall inspiration comes from Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and Swift's Gulliver's Travels, making my three-book series more like travel writing than Blume's cautionary tales. However, Blume, Darwin and Swift all use that same form of the short summary before each chapter. That's what I was borrowing—that form—from all of them.

Damned, like many of your other books, features a character with a distinctive voice, and a unique setting and premise. Which comes first for you—character or story? In essence, would you describe "Damned" as a book about the afterlife, or one that is merely set in it?

All of my stories are tragedies told as comedies.

The emotional motive of the story always comes first; so perhaps that would be "character." As I wrote the book I was caring for my mother who was dying of lung cancer. My father was dead. And I needed a story that would express my overwhelming grief. No one wants to read a "requiem novel" where a middle-aged adult mourns dead parents—and that didn't strike me as very fun to write—so I inverted the situation and wrote about a dead child who could still mourn and miss her parents. They, of course, would still be alive, and she would be refusing to accept the drama of her new situation, so the story would occur as comic—both for the reader and for me. All of my stories are tragedies told as comedies.

Upon her entrance into Hell, you make Madison take a polygraph exam. Have you ever taken one?

No. Neither have I been to Hell.

How long did it take you to come up with Madison's day job in hell—telemarketer? Were there any other occupations that merited consideration?

No other occupations fit the bill so perfectly. In the last months of my mother's life, in the isolation of her house, it was almost a pleasure to get calls from telemarketers. They were a connection to the outside world of working people and busy people, whereas my mother had nothing to do but worry and conserve her strength, and I was trying to keep her life quiet and comfortable. In that way, telemarketers entered the story very naturally.

Halloween serves a entertaining backdrop to the story's outcome. What are your own thoughts about Halloween?

Please read about the history of Halloween, especially among the Irish. It really is a night of vengeance, when grievances of the past year are avenged. The tradition of giving out candy was only recently imposed—in the 1920's?—to stem the enormous property damage that would normally occur that night.

By the book's end, you've "damned" the reader to a "to be continued" fate! How much of Madison's story remains to be told? Given your history of going from one project directly onto another, how much has already been written?

Madison is now in Purgatory, dealing with all the dark secrets of her Earthly past, and trying to resolve the mess she created when she talked to her parents from Hell. With any luck she'll get to Heaven by the end of this year. My fingers are crossed.

You’ve had a fair amount of success getting your books optioned for movies. Does the filmic potential of a story enter into your mind at all when you’re working on a new project? What can a book do that a movie fails to capture?

Do I imagine a potential film made from my work? No, never. If I can imagine it as a film, that's the first sign that the story is too thin.

Do I imagine a potential film made from my work? No, never. If I can imagine it as a film, that's the first sign that the story is too thin and needs more edgy, challenging elements. A book should do what only a book can do. Let films do the easy stuff.

Research seems very important to your process, and much of that research seems to be into some pretty dark corners of humanity. Does that ever get to be a drag? Don’t you ever just want to go listen to babies laugh, or play with a bunch of puppies, to get your spirits up?

My Boston Terriers are wonderful. As I write they sleep, and when I get stuck looking for a perfect word they want to play. Play is fine, but it doesn't provide me long-term comfort and security. Those I can only find by exploring the so-called dark aspects of life. Once you look under those rocks, what you find is no longer as frightening. Like, "Oh, look Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a box... let's go get a hamburger."

What percentage of your fan base would you call... horrifying?

Three-point-one percent.

You have an active online presence, between your website and Twitter, and overall seem very available to your fans. I know you’ve talked before about fans coming up and sharing their own shocking stories with you. Are there ever times that being so available has been a problem?

I've never Tweeted in my life. I answer a lot of snail-mail letters each year, but that's the bulk of it. Some years I teach—writing, if you'll believe that. At this rate I'm already a semi-recluse. If I could just write The Bridges of Madison County I'd buy the whole Salinger lifestyle. As Madison would say: "It's power, but a kind-of impotent power."