Chuck Palahniuk goes to hell

CLAUDE PECK , [email protected] | Updated 8/9/2012

In his 12th novel, "Fight Club" writer Chuck Palahniuk sends a chubby adolescent girl on an underworld adventure.

Eleven novels and 15 years after his sensational debut, "Fight Club," Chuck Palahniuk has gone straight to hell.

In his new novel, "Damned," a 13-year-old, overweight, precocious girl named Madison Spencer dies and enters the underworld. There she discovers giant monsters worthy of Jonathan Swift, flame-orange skies, a Demonic Hall of Fame, really bad architecture, gross-outs (a Swamp of Partial Birth Abortions, mountains of nail clippings) and, of course, lawyers, politicians, journalists and telemarketers.

Madison and a band of teens right out of "The Breakfast Club" face hazards as they try to make sense of their shocking new surroundings, and their pasts among the living. Showing continuously is the movie version of "The English Patient."

Palahniuk's 13-city tour for "Damned," which includes many sold-out theater events, has a Twin Cities stop on Nov. 17, when he will appear at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.

We talked with him recently in Portland, Ore., not far from his home in Vancouver, Wash. Palahniuk has the wiry build of a college wrestler. He is immaculately groomed, unfailingly polite, thoughtful and soft-spoken. During the interview, a friend's Boston terrier, Imp, snored on his lap.

Q: What made you choose hell as a topic and setting of your newest book?

A: In 2008, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was also the year when the movie "Choke," based on my fourth book, was opening. So it became this year of me going to premieres of the movie, which is a comedy about a son being with his dying mother. I would go to openings of this comedy, and then return to the hospital where my mother was dying. And it was just excruciating. So, to give myself perspective, writing about hell just seemed like taking it to a fictional extreme.

Q: How'd you decide to cast as your protagonist a 13-year-old girl, Madison?

A: Madison started out to be 11 years old because I wanted her to be prepubescent. So she would be very cognitive, very confident in an intellectual way. Like Margaret in "Dennis the Menace," a very mouthy, super-confident little girl, before puberty kind of wipes her out. I wanted her to be pre-gender, and kind of at that peak of confidence you have as a child. At the same time, I wanted her to be very naive in regard to physicality. Margaret could tell you anything about blank, but when you ask her where babies come from, she gets it wrong. My publisher later suggested making her 13, so we compromised on that.

Q: Was it difficult for you to find her voice as you wrote?

A: No. Her gender and her age were both really easy for me. My training is in minimalist writing. That's filled with a million rules about things you can't do. I had to throw out a lot of rules in order to write in Madison's voice. She's allowed to use adverbs, Latinate words -- things I could never get away with in minimalism. She's allowed to overtly state emotional reactions.

Q: Ending says "to be continued." So there's going to be a sequel?

A: There'll be three books, at least. It's based on the Divine Comedy. So right now Madison is in purgatory, and that's about to resolve. After that, she'll end up in some form of heaven. The titles are "Damned," "Doomed" and "Delivered." "Doomed" is what I'm writing now.

Q: What did you research in preparing to write "Damned"?

A: Sartre's "No Exit," and that was kind of my entree into "The Breakfast Club." I always had perceived that group of people trapped in one room as a kind of smart, teen version of "No Exit." Then there were the "Left Behind" books, aimed at religious people who believed in the Rapture. I thought it would be kind of fun to do something similar, but for secular humanists who don't have a really clear narrative of what happens when you die.