THE NOVELIST Salman Rushdie was sitting in bustling Kings Road Cafe, sipping an iced coffee and discussing the strange fad for surf music in ‘60s England -- “a country where there’s not much surf” -- and his days renting a room above a hip Chelsea boutique during the Summer of Love. As he was making a point about the epic beauty of the Cornwall coast, an excited, mostly bald man with a thick Iranian accent bounded forward and extended his arm.
“I want to shake your hand,” the man shouted into the West Hollywood coffee shop. “My countrymen don’t like you -- but I like you!”
The two shook, and as the Iranian quickly disappeared outside, the author went on, talking about the old rivalry between the Beatles and the Beach Boys, about George Harrison’s dedication to Indian music and his “incredible aptitude for the sitar.”
It was all in a day’s work for Rushdie, a man who loves telling stories and leaping borders between East and West, and for whom a random urban encounter no longer provokes fear but a gentle laugh about the absurdity of fame.
Would he have been happier as a well-regarded, obscure literary writer rather than an international celebrity?
“I think you make the best of what you get,” he said in his plummy accent, wearing a dark blue suit and gesturing donnishly. “And it’s really easy for me to shut it out. Like most novelists, I developed early on quite strong habits of concentration, and even a requirement of solitude. Every day I just go to a room, shut the door and work. And the fame thing feels very trivial.”
The author was touring behind his dreamlike new novel, “The Enchantress of Florence,” set in 16th century Italy and India. The book has received mixed reviews: Some found it showy and self-conscious, although John Sutherland wrote in the Financial Times that if the book “doesn’t win this year’s Man Booker I’ll curry my proof copy and eat it.”
During a few hours he spent near the Kings Road apartment he once shared with model and actress Padma Lakshmi, Rushdie did not come across as either a distinguished literary figure -- Rushdie’s swirling 1981 Booker-winner, “Midnight’s Children,” is arguably the greatest British novel of the last few decades, and he was recently knighted -- or a man who’d once had a price on his head. He was more like a good-humored, slightly star-struck visitor to L.A., happy to be back among old haunts.
He also enjoyed being in a place where the paparazzi are distracted by more glamorous figures. “Here, there’s Hollywood,” he said, a balding man with wire glasses and a Cheshire cat grin. “You know, they want Lindsay Lohan -- they don’t want me.”
His time in L.A.
Rushdie came to Los Angeles in early 2000, after falling for Lakshmi, to whom he was introduced at a Talk magazine party in New York. It was only a year or so after the lifting of the 1989 death sentence assigned to Rushdie by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for the supposedly blasphemous novel “The Satanic Verses.”
Lakshmi was living in an apartment on Kings Road, and the two divided their time between her place and his on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. To give himself space to write, he rented an extra room in her building. (The couple married in 2004, settled full-time in New York, and divorced in 2007.)
Before he joined Lakshmi here, Rushdie had been to L.A. only a few times, starting with a visit in the mid-'70s as a copywriter and producer on commercials for Clairol. These involved shooting in Beverly Hills, with “Starsky and Hutch"-inspired cops begging him to let them stop traffic, and at Griffith Park Observatory, dreaming of James Dean.
“I remember thinking, I’m in L.A. and making movies, even if they’re 30 seconds long,” Rushdie said.
“I did get to stay in the legendary Hyatt House when it was known as the Riot House,” made famous by Led Zeppelin and the Who. “You were sort of expected to trash your hotel room.”
When he came to West Hollywood years later, he was struck by how similar the flora -- the palm trees, bougainvillea and general outsized lushness -- was to the Bombay of his youth. “The thing that really struck me about L.A., which I hadn’t expected, was the physical beauty. The ocean, the mountains, the vegetation.” He was willing to overlook the fact that he never found a local Indian restaurant he loved.
He also enjoyed a bit of newfound anonymity. “I found L.A. to be a really good place to write,” he said. “You could just quietly sit there, do your work and nobody was that interested.”
Despite socializing with film people -- including Carrie Fisher, Steve Martin, and Eric Idle, with whom he shares a fondness for ping-pong -- and enjoying dinners and cocktail parties, Rushdie thinks part of his happiness came from keeping a professional distance.
Hollywood, he said, was clearly a pretty small world. “If a new face shows up, you become flavor of the month, and suddenly people want to know you. And I thought, the moment I agree to do a script, I cease to be the interesting novelist from out of town -- and become an employee.”
It was as a puckish media figure rather than as that “employee” that he attended Vanity Fair’s post-Oscar party and met Robert Altman -- one of Rushdie’s proudest moments.
“Late that night,” Rushdie said, “I found him leaning against a bench at the side of the room, cradling his Academy Award. I sat down next to him and said hi. And I said, ‘Can I hold your Oscar?’ He said, ‘It’s bad luck, you know. . . . If you hold someone else’s Oscar you’ll never win your own.’ I said, ‘Give me the damn Oscar.’ So I held Bob’s Oscar. He died a few months later. It was the last time I’d seen him.”
Film’s influence on books
While THE childhoods of most American baby boomers were dominated by TV, Rushdie’s was different. “In India television didn’t arrive until the end of the ‘60s, so the dominant media were radio and cinema.”
Bombay, where Rushdie was born and spent his first 14 years, was and is one of the world’s movie capitals, and some of his family was involved in Bollywood. He saw his share, as well as Hollywood films.
His movie love continued when he moved to England as a teenager for boarding school and then college.
“At Cambridge in the ‘60s, it was considered uncool to watch TV. And that was an unusually brilliant moment in world cinema, so I would go to the movies three times, four times a week.”
Film, besides captivating him personally, has had a big effect on literature, he said.
“There are all kinds of things which you can do now, in writing,” he said, “which readers are used to because they’ve been taught the language.” Changes in chronology and point of view are second nature to cinema- goers, thanks to artsy directors like Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almo- dovar, as well as mainstream Holly- wood.
“It used to be much more complicated to mess around with the timeline like that -- now it’s effortless. Also to move very rapidly between two or three scenes, which would have confused readers.
“But now, because of film editing, people are familiar with that. They’re just part of how we see.”
He calls the movie of “The Wizard of Oz” as strong an influence on him as Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. Film was especially important to his new “The Enchantress of Florence,” an immensely visual book in the magic-realist tradition.
“It’s a novel that jumps back and forth in places, across the world, and it also jumps back and forth over half a century. And the technical problem of the book was how to do that in a way that felt like it flowed, rather than like a jumping to attention. And there are so many filmmakers who have learned how to do that. . . . The book is riddled with film ideas.”
Another movie idea was his portrayal of emperor Akbar the Great, a monarch roughly contemporaneous with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. Though one of world history’s great rulers, Akbar was not entirely at peace, Rushdie said.
“His anguish is that he’s not con- tent with just being,” the writer said. “He’s striving to become, he has a sense of trying to change himself, which is the kind of thing the classic Hollywood star never did. Cary Grant was always Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn was always Katharine Hepburn. And in a sense Akbar was a superstar of the 16th century who genuinely wanted to be better.”
Setting a novel here
Despite HIS time in Southern California, and his frequent use of cities as settings, Rushdie has set only part of one novel, 2005’s “Shalimar the Clown,” written on Kings Road, here. He made a point of reading the L.A. passages in town when touring for that book, and got a sense that he’d “gotten away with it.” (Not everyone agreed: “The story begins, alas, in Los Angeles,” critic Laura Miller wrote in her otherwise positive New York Times review, “admittedly a difficult city to grasp, but one that Rushdie renders with cheap facility as a ‘shadowless lotusland full of the obscenely young, this California whose body was its temple and whose ignorance was its bliss.’ ”)
But Rushdie expressed an interest in someday revisiting L.A. as a literary subject.
“I think I would stay away from Hollywood,” a place he doesn’t know nearly as well as, say, his friend Bruce Wagner. “I don’t particularly have anything to add.”
Instead, he’s interested in another aspect of L.A. “Which is that, other than New York, it’s the other great immigrant city of America. But it’s a completely different immigration, from other parts of the world. If I were to write a book about it, I’d like to explore that.
“You know, I’m a migrant -- immigrant culture is interesting to me because it’s what I did. So I understand something of what it is to try to remake your life.
“In this novel, for instance, there are very deliberately two kinds of characters: There is one kind of character, who is defined by the journey, people who sort of discover themselves in the journey. And then there’s another kind of character who has a kind of contempt for travel: ‘Why would you go somewhere where nobody knows your name and where you don’t speak the language, when you could stay home, where your life has meaning?’
“I wanted in the book for there to be a tension between those two world- views,” Rushdie said. “Because I actually envy those writers who have never left home.”