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A handful of topics have long been considered taboo in the world of the arts. One such subject is that of religion and God, with some books and shows straying too close to the boundary of blasphemy being quickly censored. Of course, this also means that some of the most fascinating and probing works have honed in on religion, with their 'taboo' nature only serving to make them all the more intriguing.

In America, 64% of Americans are Christian, while almost three-quarters of the population believe in Heaven and Hell - which makes it all the more peculiar that this has been such an off-limits topic for commercial media. Philosophers have long grappled with various theodicies and arguments regarding the existence of God, usually without any semblance of a concrete answer. At the other end of the spectrum, we have popular TV shows such as The Good Place that put a more light-hearted spin on the notion of the afterlife.

American author Chris Rodell is staring the prospect of the afterlife straight in the eyes, and his latest novel strikes a balance between serious philosophy and hilarious frivolity. At the end of the day, Rodell's off-beat, irreverent tale weaves the two together seamlessly, as he takes the reader on a Shakespearean journey through Heaven, Hell and the gray area in-between that so many of us fear.

Chris Rodell
Photo credit: Chris Rodell

At its heart, Evan 'n' Elle in Heaven & Hell is a love story, drawing on the most iconic tale of romance ever penned - Romeo and Juliet. Only, in Rodell's eccentric tale, Romeo and Juliet are separated by a little more than a family name - Rodell's Juliet finds herself in Heaven, while Romeo is stuck in the depths of Hell.

In order to overcome their predicament, they turn to Adam and Eve for marital advice, only to find out that the Biblical duo have - in an amusing twist of fate - spent the past 5,000 years quarreling. Similarly, Evan turns to a friend, but begins to question whether he can trust this figure. The man's name? Judas Iscariot.

"I always say that, when writing, I have the brain of a free-range chicken. I just let it run wherever it wants - and it often takes me to rather unusual locations! The wild ride of Evan 'n' Elle is the embodiment of this," outlines Rodell.

This is Rodell's sixth book and his second novel, following on from The Last Baby Boomer: The Story of the Ultimate Ghoul Pool. Two of his publications are offbeat biographies, while the other two are self-help books. The latter have spurred on Rodell's successful public speaking career, with his keynote speeches on happiness capturing both his down-to-earth sensibility and his left-field sense of humor.

"I wrote a self-help book called Undaunted Optimist, and the process of writing it turned me into a skeptical pessimist," Rodell quips. This publication, alongside his other self-help book, Use All The Crayons! The Colorful Guide to Simple Human Happiness, was crafted after Rodell noticed a perplexing commonality between his friends and family.

"I've seen people struggle with addictions, divorces, and the worst that life has to throw at them, and they're miserable. But I've also seen people with great jobs, great families and great friends that are just as miserable. I've always counted myself lucky that I'm generally a happy man, and I feel compelled to try and guide others towards happiness through my writing. Whether this is by making someone laugh, giving them an eye-opening life lesson or simply taking them out of their heads for a couple of hours while they read, this is the ultimate purpose of my work," muses Rodell.

One of Rodell's self-help strategies is to provide readers with 1001 techniques to become happier. These are typically irreverent, eccentric and - most crucially of all - downright hilarious. One such technique is to tell people you're going to open up an art gallery, only to then invite them to a room with nothing on the walls, full of a group of people that spend the evening saying nothing but, 'Hi, I'm Art'.

Rodell's career as a freelance writer has led him to create autobiographies for golfing legend Arnold Palmer, with whom he had the pleasure of becoming great friends, and the affable TV icon, Fred Rogers. Five years ago, Rodell was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In a life lived with joyful levity and unabashed optimism, would this diagnosis prove to be the one thing that could dampen Rodell's outlook on life?

Absolutely not. "My response to the diagnosis was - perhaps unsurprisingly - to write about it. I try to inject all of my life experiences into my writing, because that's what makes them relatable. I might be writing about lofty concepts such as Heaven and Hell and introducing characters such as Adam and Eve, but when you strip all that away, my books are always essentially a thesis on the human condition. I write for one reason and one reason alone - to make people happy," concludes Rodell.
Judging from his quickly expanding fanbase, it's safe to say that Rodell seems to be succeeding in his quest.