Damned if You Do: Chuck Palahniuk on His New Novel
CHUCK PALAHNIUK. PHOTO COURTESY OF NEILSON BARNARD
You’re better off dead. Or at least that’s the case for Madison Spencer, the fat, deceased, 13-year-old daughter of celebrities who is the protagonist of Chuck Palahniuk’s new novel Damned (Doubleday). After expiring from a mysterious pot overdose on Oscar night, Madison is driven by limo to hell, where she makes a motley group of new friends, gets terrorized by demons, and reminisces about her ridiculous life—back when she kind of had one. Madison was a loser in the land of the living, shuttled to Swiss boarding schools, suffocated by a string of adopted children from the most en vogue third-world countries, and desperate for her pill-popping, screen-stealing parents’ love. Yet, in the fiery pits of hell, it seems Maddy Spencer has finally found her place and a wicked, hilarious voice. We talked with Palahniuk about devilish celebrity, his own very personal experiences with death, what his hell would look like, and what even the evilest among us look for in heaven.
YOUNG: Are all children of celebrities damned?
YOUNG: Is heaven full of boring people?
YOUNG: What are demons, and what do they prey on?
PALAHNIUK: Demons are former celebrities who prey on their own insecurities.
YOUNG: How did Satan get so famous?
PALAHNIUK: He had a very good publicist.
YOUNG: Madison considers Xanax and hope her two biggest addictions. Which is worse?
PALAHNIUK: Her addiction to the idea of meeting River Phoenix.
YOUNG: Which is harder to kick?
PALAHNIUK: River Phoenix.
YOUNG: Is death easier than life?
PALAHNIUK: Yes, because you don’t have to worry about dying when you’re dead.
YOUNG: Why do you think people are so wrapped up in death and dying?
PALAHNIUK: I don’t think that they are. They ignore it. They leave it till the last minute. We kind of deny the stages of life.
YOUNG: Where did the idea of Madison come to you from?
PALAHNIUK: In 2008 and 2009, I was taking care of my mother. And she got cancer. My father had been killed, and that was mixed with idea that I was going to be without both my parents. But that’s a very boring, sad thing to write a book about. So I inverted the situation and wrote about a child who lost herself to death. And she wouldn’t be alive to mourn her parents, because they themselves were alive.
YOUNG: Were you with your parents when they died?
PALAHNIUK: No, my father was murdered in 1999. I was with my mother.
YOUNG: Going back to Madison, she starts off, as most 13-year-olds might, adamantly insisting she doesn’t miss her parents at all in hell. And then slowly gets sucked back into needing them.
PALAHNIUK: Yes, I think you sort of demonize your parents. That at first made it easier for her. But then you start to acknowledge, they go from being very low to very lofty.
YOUNG: What does your own personal hell look like?
PALAHNIUK: It looks like a 16-hour flight in the back of coach, next to a crying baby, all the way to Australia.
YOUNG: [laughs] Has that happened to you?
PALAHNIUK: [laughs] Yeah, well, 14-hour.
YOUNG: Generally, I think people who believe in heaven would tend to see it as this amazing place, but if you were Hitler or Charles Manson, wouldn’t your idea of heaven be different?
PALAHNIUK: That’s so much speculation, but if we had to describe what heaven would look like, even for those people, I think it would just be a feeling of complete acceptance, understanding, and longing that we would have wished for as a child.
YOUNG: Why did you pick hell over heaven to imagine, to paint?
PALAHNIUK: Damned is the first of three books based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Madison goes to hell first—she’s stuck in purgatory in the second book, which I’m writing now—and eventually she ends up in heaven.
YOUNG: Madison travels so much with her celebrity parents; do you think that gives her a sense of displacement, having so many homes in so many places?
PALAHNIUK: I think it’s her greater investment in her family. She’s not tied to one place as home, she’s tied to her parents as home. Wherever the three of them are together, that is her home. And that’s how I feel about my family.
DAMNED IS OUT NOW.