Salman Rushdie: Beyond the tabloids

Salman Rushdie has published a new book, the memoir “Joseph Anton,” which describes his ordeal after the publication of “The Satanic Verses” and the fatwa issued against him. I interviewed Rushdie at the London Hotel in West Hollywood for a profile in Sunday’s Arts & Books section. Here are additional excerpts from our conversation.

Hector Tobar: How is it that you came to write “Joseph Anton” in the third person? Salman Rushdie: I tried to write it in the first person and I hated it. It felt self-regarding and narcissistic. And also I had this view going in that I wanted to write it like a nonfiction novel. Like “The Right Stuff” or “In Cold Blood,” these books that are based on completely true stories but that are shaped with a novelist’s eye... To do that, you need to be subjective and objective at the same time. The first person was getting in my way… I didn’t want it to feel like a journal or a confession or a rant.

HT: When did you begin writing it?

SR: About 2½ years ago. One of the things that allowed me to do it was that I had sold my papers to Emory University. My papers were, believe me, in a colossal mess. There were 100 cardboard boxes with stuff tossed in there. It took them four years to catalog it. At the end, everything had a bar code. My access to all the materials of the past became much easier.


HT: I imagine there’s also the question of allowing time to pass so you have more distance from experience of being in hiding.

SR: No question. There was a long time when I had zero interest in writing it. When I came out the end of this tunnel, around 10 years ago, the last thing I wanted to do was go back into it in my mind, to dig back into the emotion and darkness of that time. I wanted to go forward, write novels and get back to what I considered my real life. But there was always in my mind the knowledge that I would write it one day. You know how it is, the dizzies of being a writer. Even when things are at their worst, there’s a little voice in your head saying, “Good story!” I knew there was a story to tell here which needed to be told. Not just a political story, but a human story.

HT: The book has two parallel tracks: On the one hand, there’s this important event you lived through, a battle to defend literary freedom. And then there’s this very personal story, which is sort of like a novelist who’s been transported into the plot a novel.

SR: In the book, I describe it as a bad Rushdie novel. It was this kind of crummy book I would write if I wasn’t any good. There was a vulgarity to what happened -- except that it really happened. There was that quality of fictionality to it, you couldn’t believe that was true, even though it was. My feeling has always been that a writers’ life isn’t that interesting -- except that the writer can mine that life for his work. Then I had the misfortune of acquiring an interesting life.

HT: You talk in the book about the origins of “The Satanic Verses” in your father’s lifelong interest in matters of religion, even though he wasn’t an especially religious man, and his fascination with the origins of Islam and the Koran.

SR: One of the things I’m happy about is to have been able to make that portrait of my father in the book. Anyone who reads my work will see that there are often difficult relationships between fathers and sons. My relationship with him was often quite difficult. It became clearer and clearer writing this book how much my understanding of the world was shaped by him and his ideas. He was not religious, but he had enormous scholarly interest in it. Unlike me, he was able to read both Arabic and Farsi and was able to study these texts in the original. He transmitted that enthusiasm to me.

HT: So in “The Satanic Verses” you make use of the idea of questioning aspects of religious faith.

SR: Most of that novel isn’t really about Islam. Most of it is about immigration. It’s because the act of migration puts the self in question in all sorts of ways. You lose a lot of what are normally the roots of the self. You lose language, you lose community, you lose culture… That idea that the self is put into question was very much my idea in writing that book. I thought if that’s what I think is happening, then the book itself should question all of these things that might previously have been thought of as certainties -- one of which would be religious belief. That’s how the subject of religious belief came into that novel, as a way of looking at the consequences of the act of migration on people’s worldviews. So you have characters who lose their faith and doubt it, and others who do not, and others who are not interested in the subject of religion at all. But I never thought about it as a novel about religion.


HT: Every novelist dreams of writing a book that will have a social and cultural impact. And there’s clearly that ambition in “The Satanic Verses.” But it could be said you were a bit naïve about the subject matter you were tackling and what the consequences would be.

SR: It wasn’t just me that was naïve. Everyone was. No one thought that this was going to happen. The intervention of [the Ayatollah] Khomeini, which happened six months after the book was published in England, changed everything. Up to that point, yes, there was a kind of argument about it, but it didn’t feel dangerous, there was no question of violence. It was an argument. And I think that such arguments can be, in fact, culturally valuable. It’s one of the things that art can do: ask difficult questions and oblige people to have conversations they really don’t want to have. And at the end of that you’ve had the argument and you move on. Hopefully, there’s a small shift in people’s consciousness. That’s what books usually do in the world if they’re lucky. Khomeini’s arrival in the story kind of changed the narrative. Instead of an argument about ideas, it became one of terrorism.

HT: One of the things that’s interesting about “Joseph Anton” is how honest you are about your own failings.

SR: There’s no way of writing a book in which everything you do is right. If the purpose is to write it like a nonfiction novel, you have to look at all the people in it in the round, including the character with your name. You have to be able to see what’s good about them and what’s weak. What they do right, what they do wrong. In a novel, if you’re any good you don’t just have good people or bad people. You have complicated people. You have real people. And for it to be real, I always thought I have to be rougher on myself than anyone else.


HT: Were there things you discovered about yourself in the process of writing the book?

SR: What I learned came in the process of living though it. It’s a strange thing for a writer because writers are interested in nuance and complexity. One of the things I learned was about the dangers of compromise. It’s like Obama and the Republicans. If the other side doesn’t want to compromise, you can’t. [He’s referring here to his attempts to reach an agreement with British Muslim hardliners who wanted him to apologize for “The Satanic Verses.”] If you try to be placatory with people who have no interest in making peace with you it just sucks you further and further down that road. And you forget what you should be standing up for. I learned the hard way by making mistakes.

HT: Even though the Iranian government said it wouldn’t try to carry out the fatwa against you, the fatwa was never officially lifted.

SR: But it doesn’t matter. The fatwa is just a statement. What matters is the desire [of the Iranian government] to carry out the order. State-sponsored terrorism was the problem, because that’s something an individual can’t protect himself against. It’s been a really long time now, more than 10 years. There are still parts of the world where I can’t go… For a long time, people had the image of me as sealed away from life. Some people still find it strange that I’m able to have a life. I live in New York City. Everyone goes out. Every novelist I know goes out as much as I do -- it’s just that nobody writes newspaper articles about it.


HT: You’ve become this one-dimensional persona in the entertainment media, a kind of caricature of a ladies’ man.

SR: What can you do? It’s impossible to fight it. All you can do is lead your life. It’s the world we live in. People construct these selves for well-known people. And those selves acquire a kind of credibility by repetition. One of the things about being a writer is you spend a lot of time writing and the books come out only every so often. In between there’s two or three years when you’re not out there being yourself. In that silence, people can make up whatever they want. But anybody who’s a serious writer knows most of what you do is sit at home and write… Truthfully, it didn’t begin until I was with Padma [Lakshmi]. Until then, nobody had ever written about my private life. Ever. Just because she is who she is, because she’s a very beautiful woman and people wanted to put that picture on the front of the newspaper.

HT: So what’s wrong with that tabloid portrait of you?

SR: It leaves out everything that’s serious. It tries to make me out to be some kind of ridiculous party animal. Actually, I don’t even like parties. I would much prefer a room with four friends who sit around and have dinner. I detest nightclubs. And I don’t like places where the noise is so loud you can’t talk to people. What’s true, and what my friends would say, is that I’m quite a gregarious person, I like people and I enjoy the company of people. And then there’s absurd stuff about women. It’s also been the case that I’ve always lived in a feminine world. I had three sisters and no brothers, I had many more aunts than uncles, more female cousins than male cousins. I grew up in a world surrounded by many more women than men: talkative, smart, feisty women. The women are quite tough in my family -- you have to have something to say to get heard. As a result of that, I’ve always felt at ease in female company. I’ve always had more women friends than men friends. These are not people I’m chasing. I’m not seeing them -- they’re my friends. And I often have to apologize to people because I’ve asked someone to come with me to a movie and suddenly we’re “having an affair.” I have to say, sorry, this is the downside of hanging out with me. You’re going to be accused of being one of my many conquests... The newspapers have always got it wrong. Ninety percent of the people I’ve been linked with I’ve never gone out with other than just as a friend socially. It’s all, I’m sorry to tell you, untrue. It would be something to be this Don Juan, Casanova person. But I’m not.