Interviews

Salman Rushdie, The Art of Fiction No. 186

Interviewed by Jack Livings

Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay in 1947, on the eve of India’s independence. He was educated there and in England, where he spent the first decades of his writing life. These days Rushdie lives primarily in New York, where this interview was conducted in several sessions over the past year. By coincidence, the second conversation took place on Valentine’s Day 2005, the sixteenth anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie, which proclaimed him an apostate for writing The Satanic Verses and sentenced him to death under Islamic law. In 1998, Iran’s president, Mohammed Khatami, denounced the fatwa, and Rushdie now insists that the danger has passed. But Islamic hardliners regard fatwas as irrevocable and Rushdie’s home address remains unlisted. 

For a man who occasioned such furor, who has been lauded and blamed, threatened and feted, burnt in effigy and upheld as an icon of free expression, Rushdie is surprisingly easygoing and candid—neither a hunted victim nor a scourge. Clean shaven, dressed in jeans and a sweater, he actually looks like a younger version of the condemned man who stared out at his accusers in Richard Avedon’s famous 1995 portrait. “My family can’t stand that picture,” he said, laughing. Then, asked where the photograph is stored, he grinned and replied, “On the wall.”

When he is working, Rushdie said, “it is rather unusual of me to come out in the daytime.” But late last year he handed in the manuscript for Shalimar the Clown, his ninth novel, and he has not yet started a new project. Although he claimed he’d exhausted his resources finishing the book, he seemed to gain energy as he talked about his past, his writing, his politics. In conversation, Rushdie performs the same mental acrobatics that one finds in his fiction—snaking digressions that can touch down on several continents and historical eras before returning to the original point. 

The fatwa ensured that the name Salman Rushdie is better known around the world than that of any other living novelist. But his reputation as a writer has hardly been eclipsed by the political assaults. In 1993, he was awarded the “Booker of Bookers”—a medal honoring his novel Midnight’s Children as the best book to win the Man Booker Prize since it was established twenty-five years earlier—and he is currently the president of the PEN-American Center. In addition to his novels, he is the author of five volumes of nonfiction, and a short-story collection. On Valentine’s Day, as he arranged himself in a padded chair, a light snow fell, and the incinerator stack of a building a few blocks east blew a column of black smoke into the sky. Rushdie drank from a glass of water and talked about finding his wife the right gift before settling into questions.

 

INTERVIEWER 

When you’re writing, do you think at all about who will be reading you?

SALMAN RUSHDIE 

I don’t really know. When I was young, I used to say, No, I’m just the servant of the work.

INTERVIEWER 

That’s noble.

RUSHDIE 

Excessively noble. I’ve gotten more interested in clarity as a virtue, less interested in the virtues of difficulty. And I suppose that means I do have a clearer sense of how people read, which is, I suppose, partly created by my knowledge of how people have read what I have written so far. I don’t like books that play to the gallery, but I’ve become more concerned with telling a story as clearly and engagingly as I can. Then again, that’s what I thought at the beginning, when I wrote Midnight’s Children. I thought it odd that storytelling and literature seemed to have come to a parting of the ways. It seemed unnecessary for the separation to have taken place. A story doesn’t have to be simple, it doesn’t have to be one-dimensional but, especially if it’s multidimensional, you need to find the clearest, most engaging way of telling it.

One of the things that has become, to me, more evidently my subject is the way in which the stories of anywhere are also the stories of everywhere else. To an extent, I already knew that because Bombay, where I grew up, was a city in which the West was totally mixed up with the East. The accidents of my life have given me the ability to make stories in which different parts of the world are brought together, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes in conflict, and sometimes both—usually both. The difficulty in these stories is that if you write about everywhere you can end up writing about nowhere. It’s a problem that the writer writing about a single place does not have to face. Those writers face other problems, but the thing that a Faulkner or a Welty has—a patch of the earth that they know so profoundly and belong to so totally that they can excavate it all their lives and not exhaust it—I admire that, but it’s not what I do.

INTERVIEWER 

How would you describe what you do? 

RUSHDIE 

My life has given me this other subject: worlds in collision. How do you make people see that everyone’s story is now a part of everyone else’s story? It’s one thing to say it, but how can you make a reader feel that is their lived experience? The last three novels have been attempts to find answers to those questions: The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Fury and the new one, Shalimar the Clown, which begins and ends in L.A., but the middle of it is in Kashmir, and some is in Nazi-occupied Strasbourg, and some in 1960s England. In Shalimar, the character Max Ophuls is a resistance hero during World War II. The resistance, which we think of as heroic, was what we would now call an insurgency in a time of occupation. Now we live in a time when there are other insurgencies that we don’t call heroic—that we call terrorist. I didn’t want to make moral judgments. I wanted to say: That happened then, this is happening now, this story includes both those things, just look how they sit together. I don’t think it’s for the novelist to say, It means this.

INTERVIEWER 

Do you have to restrain yourself from saying, It means this?

RUSHDIE 

No. I’m against that in a novel. If I’m writing an op-ed piece, it’s different. But I believe that you damage the novel by instructing the reader. The character of Shalimar, for example, is a vicious murderer. You’re terrified of him, but at certain points—like the scene where he flies off the wall in San Quentin—you’re rooting for him. I wanted that to happen, I wanted people to see as he sees, to feel as he feels, rather than to assume they know what kind of man he is. Of all my books this was the book that was most completely written by its characters. Quite a lot of the original conception of the book had to be jettisoned because the characters wanted to go another way. 

INTERVIEWER 

What do you mean?

RUSHDIE 

Moment by moment in the writing, things would happen that I hadn’t foreseen. Something strange happened with this book. I felt completely possessed by these people, to the extent that I found myself crying over my own characters. There’s a moment in the book where Boonyi’s father, the pandit Pyarelal, dies in his fruit orchard. I couldn’t bear it. I found myself sitting at my desk weeping. I thought, What am I doing? This is somebody I’ve made up. Then there was a moment when I was writing about the destruction of the Kashmiri village. I absolutely couldn’t bear the idea of writing it. I would sit at my desk and think, I can’t write these sentences. Many writers who have had to deal with the subject of atrocity can’t face it head-on. I’ve never felt that I couldn’t bear the idea of telling a story—that it’s so awful, I don’t want to tell it, can something else happen? And then you think, Oh, nothing else can happen, that’s what happens. 

INTERVIEWER 

Kashmir is family territory for you.

RUSHDIE 

My family’s from Kashmir originally, and until now I’ve never really taken it on. The beginning of Midnight’s Children is in Kashmir, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a fairy tale of Kashmir, but in my fiction I’ve never really addressed Kashmir itself. The year of the real explosion in Kashmir, 1989, was also the year in which there was an explosion in my life. So I got distracted, and . . . By the way, today is the anniversary of the fatwa. Valentine’s Day is not my favorite day of the year, which really annoys my wife. Anyway, Shalimar was a kind of attempt to write a Kashmiri Paradise Lost. Only Paradise Lost is about the fall of man—paradise is still there, it’s just that we get kicked out of it. Shalimar is about the smashing of paradise. It’s as if Adam went back with bombs and blew the place up. 

I’ve never seen anywhere in the world as beautiful as Kashmir. It has something to do with the fact that the valley is very small and the mountains are very big, so you have this miniature countryside surrounded by the Himalayas, and it’s just spectacular. And it’s true, the people are very beautiful too. Kashmir is quite prosperous. The soil is very rich, so the crops are plentiful. It’s lush, not like much of India, in which there’s great scarcity. But of course all that’s gone now, and there is great hardship. 

The main industry of Kashmir was tourism. Not foreign tourism, Indian tourism. If you look at Indian movies, every time they wanted an exotic locale, they would have a dance number in Kashmir. Kashmir was India’s fairyland. Indians went there because in a hot country you go to a cold place. People would be entranced by the sight of snow. You’d see people at the airport where there’s dirty, slushy snow piled up by the sides of the roads, standing there as if they’d found a diamond mine. It had that feeling of an enchanted space. That’s all gone now, and even if there’s a peace treaty tomorrow it’s not coming back, because the thing that was smashed, which is what I tried to write about, is the tolerant, mingled culture of Kashmir. After the way the Hindus were driven out, and the way the Muslims have been radicalized and tormented, you can’t put it back together again. I wanted to say: It’s not just a story about mountain people five or six thousand miles away. It’s our story, too. 

INTERVIEWER

We’re all implicated in it? 

RUSHDIE 

I wanted to make sure in this book that the story was personal, not political. I wanted people to read it and form intimate, novelistic attachments to the characters and if I did it right it won’t feel didactic, and you’ll care about everybody. I wanted to write a book with no minor characters. 

INTERVIEWER 

Were you keenly aware of Kashmiri politics when you were growing up?

RUSHDIE 

When I was probably no older than twelve we went on a family trip to Kashmir. There were beautiful hikes you could take with little ponies up into the high mountains, onto the glaciers. We all went—my sisters, my parents, and I—and there were villages where you could spend the night at a government rest house, very simple places. When we got to our rest house my mother discovered that the pony that should have been carrying all the food didn’t have the food on board. She had three fractious children with her, so she sent the pony guy off to the village to see what could be had, and he came back and said, There’s no food, there’s nothing to be had. They don’t have anything. And she said, What do you mean? There can’t be nothing. There must be some eggs—what do you mean nothing? He said, No, there’s nothing. And so she said, Well, we can’t have dinner, nobody’s going to eat. 

About an hour later we saw this procession of a half-dozen people coming up from the village, bringing food. The village headman came up to us and said, I want to apologize to you, because when we told the guy there wasn’t any food we thought you were a Hindu family. But, he said, when we heard it was a Muslim family we had to bring food. We won’t accept any payment, and we apologize for having been so discourteous.

I thought, Wow. This is in Kashmir, which is supposed to have this tradition of tolerance. I would go all the time, and the moment they heard the name Salman, which is a Muslim name, they would talk to me in a way that if I were called, you know, Raghubir, they might not. So I would have long conversations about their lives and their resentments. But when I went back to Delhi or Bombay and relayed this information there was a desire even amongst the Indian intelligentsia not to acknowledge how deep those resentments had become. People would say, You shouldn’t talk this way because you’re sounding communalist. Me, the Muslim communalist!

INTERVIEWER 

Could you possibly write an apolitical book? 

RUSHDIE 

Yes, I have great interest in it, and I keep being annoyed that I haven’t. I think the space between private life and public life has disappeared in our time. There used to be much more distance there. It’s like Jane Austen forgetting to mention the Napoleonic wars. The function of the British army in the novels of Jane Austen is to look cute at parties. It’s not because she’s ducking something, it’s that she can fully and profoundly explain the lives of her characters without a reference to the public sphere. That’s no longer possible, and it’s not just because there’s a TV in the corner of every room. It’s because the events of the world have great bearing on our daily lives. Do we have a job or not? How much is our money worth? This is all determined by things outside of our control. It challenges Heraclitus’s idea that character is destiny. Sometimes your character is not your destiny. Sometimes a plane flying into a building is your destiny. The larger world gets into the story not because I want to write about politics, but because I want to write about people.

INTERVIEWER 

But in American writing there seems to be a rift of sorts—politics over there, fiction over here—because what an American novelist writes is not going to influence policy in Washington.

RUSHDIE 

Yes, but who cares about that?

INTERVIEWER 

Do you think that in India, for instance, fiction is politically relevant?

RUSHDIE 

No. If only it was. But what does happen is that well known writers are still considered—in a way that American writers are not—to be a part of the conversation. Their opinions are sought out. This happens in England, too. It happens in Europe. In America it was true not so long ago. It was true in the generation of Mailer, Sontag, Arthur Miller—

INTERVIEWER 

What happened?

RUSHDIE 

I don’t know. At the height of the British Empire very few English novels were written that dealt with British power. It’s extraordinary that at the moment in which England was the global superpower the subject of British power appeared not to interest most writers. Maybe there’s an echo of that now, when America is the global superpower. Outside this country, America means power. That’s not true in the United States itself. There are still writers here who take on politics—Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Joan Didion, and so on. But I think many American writers are relatively uninterested in the way America is perceived abroad. As a result there’s relatively little written about the power of America. 

INTERVIEWER 

Alongside your interest in politics and power, there’s a lot of fantastic invention in your work. In fact, you’ve said that The Wizard of Oz made a writer of you.

RUSHDIE 

After I saw the film, I went home and wrote a short story called “Over the Rainbow.” I was probably nine or ten. The story was about a boy walking down a sidewalk in Bombay and seeing the beginning of the rainbow, instead of the end—this shimmering thing arcing away from him. It had steps cut in it—usefully—rainbow-colored steps all the way up. He goes up over the rainbow and has fairy-tale adventures. He meets a talking Pianola at one point. The story has not survived. Probably just as well.

INTERVIEWER 

I thought your father had it.

RUSHDIE 

He said he had it, but when we looked through his papers after he died, we never found it. So either he was bullshitting or he lost it. He died in ’87, so it was a long time ago, and certainly nothing’s going to come to light now. There are no trunks in the attic. I think it’s gone, along with a much later thing, the first full-length piece of writing that I did. When I was eighteen, and I’d just left school—Rugby, in England—I had a gap of about five months before I was due to go to Cambridge. In that period I wrote a typescript called “Terminal Report” about my last term or two at school, thinly fictionalized. I went to Cambridge and forgot about it, and then about twenty years later my mother said that they’d found this manuscript. It was like a message from my eighteen-year-old self. But I didn’t much like that self, who was very politically conservative, and in other ways a fairly standard product of an English boarding-school education. The exception was the material about racism, which was incredibly sophisticated. That eighteen-year-old boy knew everything I know now, except he knew it more sharply because it had just happened to him. Still, I had such a negative reaction to that text that when my mother asked if I wanted it, I told her to keep it. And then she lost it. When she died, we didn’t find it.

INTERVIEWER 

An act of kindness?

RUSHDIE 

Maybe. It was absolutely terrible. But I regret its loss because it was like a diary. If I ever wanted to write about that period it would have given me raw material I couldn’t otherwise get. Now I feel really stupid to have left it at home. 

INTERVIEWER 

You had a bad time at Rugby?

RUSHDIE 

I wasn’t beaten up, but I was very lonely and there were few people that I thought of as friends. A lot of that had to do with prejudice. Not from the staff—I was extremely well taught. I remember two or three teachers who were inspirational teachers of the kind that you see in Robin Williams movies. There was a sweet, elderly gentleman called Mr. J. B. Hope-Simpson, who apart from being a good history teacher was also the person who introduced me to The Lord of the Rings when I was fifteen. I completely fell in love with it, somewhat to the harm of my studies. I still remember it in uncanny detail. I really responded to the language project, all the imaginary languages. I got quite good at Elvish at one point.

INTERVIEWER 

Did you have anyone to speak Elvish with? 

RUSHDIE 

There were one or two other Lord of the Rings nerds.

INTERVIEWER 

What else were you reading?

RUSHDIE 

Before I came to England, my favorite authors were P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. I used to devour both. My grandparents lived in Aligarh, not far from New Delhi, where my grandfather was involved with the Tibbiya College at Aligarh Muslim University. He was a Western-trained doctor, trained in Europe, but he became very interested in Indian traditional medicine. He would take me on the back of his bike to the university library and turn me loose. I remember it as a place with giant stacks disappearing into the dark, with those rolling ladders that you could climb, and I would come down out of the gloom with these big heaps of P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, which my grandfather would solemnly check out for me. I’d take them back and read them in a week and come back for more. Wodehouse was very popular in India, and I think still is.

INTERVIEWER 

Why is that?

RUSHDIE 

Funny is funny. Wodehouse has something in common with the Indian sense of humor. It may just be the silliness.

INTERVIEWER 

So between the age of ten and the time you left for Rugby, when you were thirteen and a half, were you writing stories?

RUSHDIE 

I don’t have any memory of much besides that “Over the Rainbow” thing, but I was good at English. I remember a particular class in which we were asked to write a limerick about anything. If we managed one, we should write two. And during the course of this class, when everyone else had been fighting to get down one or two that didn’t even scan properly, I wrote maybe thirty-seven. The teacher accused me of having cheated. The sense of injustice still lingers. How could I cheat? I didn’t just happen to have a copy of Edward Lear with me, nor had I spent the last five years memorizing limericks in anticipation of this possible task. I felt I should be praised, and instead I was accused. 

INTERVIEWER 

Bombay has many languages. What is your mother tongue? 

RUSHDIE 

Urdu. Urdu is literally my mother’s tongue. It’s my father’s tongue, too. But in northern India one also spoke Hindi. Actually, what we spoke was neither of them, or rather more like both. I mean, what people in northern India actually speak is not a real language. It’s a colloquial mixture of Hindi and Urdu called Hindustani. It isn’t written. It’s the language of Bollywood movies. And some mixture of Hindustani and English is what we spoke at home. When I went to England for school, when I was thirteen and a half, I would have been more or less exactly bilingual—equally good in both languages. And I’m still very colloquially comfortable in Hindi and Urdu, but I wouldn’t consider writing in them.

INTERVIEWER 

Were you a good student?

RUSHDIE 

I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. In general that was a good school, Cathedral School in Bombay. When I came to England I didn’t feel behind, but if you look at the school reports, I’m not doing that well. Before Rugby my father, like many Indian fathers, would assign me extra work. I remember having to do essays and things at home and resenting them colossally. He’d make me do précis of Shakespeare. It is not unusual in an Indian household that children, especially eldest and only sons, should be driven that way. At Rugby, partly because of the social unhappiness, I plunged into work. It wasn’t so much creative writing, though; I was more attracted in those days to history. I won prizes for long theses and essays. I don’t know why it was, given my love of reading, that it never occurred to me, either at school or at university, to study literature. It didn’t really seem like work to read novels. Actually, my father didn’t think history was work, either. He wanted me to do something sensible at Cambridge—economics.

INTERVIEWER 

You resisted him?

RUSHDIE 

My life was saved by the director of studies, Dr. John Broadbent. I went to see him and said, Look, my father says that history is not useful and that I should switch to economics, otherwise he won’t pay the fees. Broadbent said, Leave it to me. And he wrote my father a ferocious letter: Dear Mr. Rushdie, your son has told us this. Unfortunately we do not believe that he has the qualifications to study economics at Cambridge, therefore, if you insist on making him give up the study of history, I will have to ask you to remove him from the university to make room for somebody who is properly qualified. That was a very strange moment, because I’d left the subcontinent for Cambridge in the middle of a war—India and Pakistan, September ’65. I couldn’t get through on the phone because all of the lines had been taken over by the military. Letters were all being censored and took weeks to arrive, and I was hearing about bombings and air raids. But after Broadbent’s letter my father never said a word about economics again. When I graduated and told him I wanted to write novels he was shocked. A cry burst out of him: What will I tell my friends? What he really meant was that all his friends’ less intelligent sons were pulling down big bucks in serious jobs and what—I was going to be a penniless novelist? It would be a loss of face for him because he thought of writing as, at best, a hobby. Fortunately, he lived long enough to see that it might not have been such a dumb choice.

INTERVIEWER 

Did he say so? 

RUSHDIE 

He somehow couldn’t praise the books; he was curiously strangled emotionally. I was the only son, and as a result we had a difficult relationship. He died in ’87, so Midnight’s Children and Shame had come out, but The Satanic Verses had not, and he never said a kind word to me about my writing until a week or two before he died. But he’d read my books a hundred times. He probably knew them better than I did. Actually, he was annoyed about Midnight’s Children because he felt that the father character was a satire of him. In my young, pissed-off way I responded that I’d left all the nasty stuff out. My father had studied literature at Cambridge so I expected him to have a sophisticated response to the book, but the person who did was my mother. I’d thought that if anybody was going to be worried that the family in the book is an echo of my family, it would be her. But she understood it at once as fiction. My father took a while to, as he put it, forgive me. Of course, I got more annoyed about being forgiven than I had about him being pissed off.

INTERVIEWER 

But, as you say, he didn’t live to read The Satanic Verses. 

RUSHDIE 

I’m absolutely certain that my father would have been five hundred percent on my side. He was a scholar of Islam, very knowledgeable about the life of the Prophet and the origins of early Islam, and indeed the way in which the Koran was revealed, and so on, but completely lacking in religious belief. We would go to the mosque once a year. Even when he was dying there was not a single moment when he took refuge in religion or called out to God, nothing. He never was under any illusion that death was anything other than an ending. It was very impressive. So the fact that I decided to study the origins of Islam at university is not an accident. It’s partly to do with having that kind of example at home. And he’d have seen that what I was doing in that book was a nonreligious person’s investigation into the nature of revelation, using Islam’s example because it’s what I knew most about. 

INTERVIEWER 

Where did you go after Cambridge?

RUSHDIE 

First, I tried to be an actor. I had done all this undergraduate acting and I thought I might like to go on doing it, especially while I was trying to be a writer. I didn’t find it at all easy to begin. I was living in an attic room in a house I was sharing with four friends in London, just futzing around. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was pretending to write. There was a kind of panic inside me, which made me quite a nervous person at that time. I had some college friends who were in London, involved in fringe theater groups. There were a lot of interesting writers working there—David Hare, Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths—and some very good actors, too. I learned from working with good actors that I wasn’t as good as they were. A good actor will make you look better on stage, but you know that they’re doing it, not you.

Partly because of that, and partly because I just had no money at all, I decided after a while that I needed to do something else. One of my theatrical friends with whom I’d been at Cambridge, a writer called Dusty Hughes, got a job at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in London. Suddenly he had this office overlooking Berkeley Square and he was doing photo shoots for shampoo with supermodels. And he had money. He had a car. And he said, You should do this, Salman, it’s really easy. He arranged for me to have a copy test in the J. Walter Thompson agency, which I failed. 

The question I remember is: Imagine that you meet a Martian who speaks English but doesn’t know what bread is—you have a hundred words to explain to him how to make a piece of toast. In Satyajit Ray’s film Company Limited, one million people apply for the same job. The protagonist is one of the million, and the interviewers, not knowing how to choose between a million people, start asking increasingly lunatic questions. The question that finally destroys his chances of getting the job is: What is the weight of the moon? The Martian question was a question like that.

Eventually I got a position at a much smaller agency called Sharp McManus, on Albemarle Street. That was my first job, and I really had no idea how to approach it. I was given a project for a cheap cigar made by Player’s. It was a Christmas offer; they were going to have a little box of Christmas crackers—you know, those classic British party favors—and inside each cracker there’d be a little tube with a cigar in it. I was told to write something for this, and I blanked. Eventually I went to see the creative director, Oliver Knox—who later in his life wrote three or four novels himself—and said, I don’t know what to do. And he immediately said, Oh—six cracking ideas from Player’s to help Christmas go off with a bang. That was my education in advertising.

INTERVIEWER 

Were you writing fiction at the same time?

RUSHDIE 

I was beginning. I was very unsuccessful. I hadn’t really found a direction as a writer. I was writing stuff that I didn’t show anyone, bits that eventually came together into a first novel-length thing that everybody hated. This was before Grimus, my first published novel. I tried to write the book in a Joycean stream of consciousness when really it needed to be written in straight, thrillerish language. It was called “The Book of the Peer.” A peer in Urdu is a saint or holy man. It was a story about an unnamed Eastern country in which a popular holy man is backed by a rich man and a general who decide that they’re going to put him in power in order to pull his strings; and when they do, they discover that he’s actually much more powerful than they are. It was, in a way, prescient about what happened afterwards with Khomeini, about the ways in which Islamic radicalism rose as a result of people thinking they could use it as a facade. Unfortunately, the book is almost unbearable to read because of the way it’s written. Really, nobody—even people who were well disposed towards me—wanted anything to do with it. I put it away and went on working in advertising.

INTERVIEWER 

All novelists seem to have at least one in the drawer that’s just garbage.

RUSHDIE 

I have three. Until I started writing Midnight’s Children, which would probably have been about late ’75, early ’76, there was this period of flailing about. It was more than a technical problem. Until you know who you are you can’t write. Because my life had been jumbled up between India and England and Pakistan, I really didn’t have a good handle on myself. As a result the writing was garbage—sometimes clever garbage, but garbage nonetheless. I think that also goes for Grimus. To me, it doesn’t feel like my writing. Or only fitfully. It makes me want to hide behind the furniture. But there we are. It’s in print, I’ve never withdrawn it. If you make the mistake of publishing something you have to leave it out there. It’s steadily found a readership, and there are even people who’ve said good things about it, much to my mystification. 

But one of the novels that I abandoned—“The Antagonist,” a dreadful sub-Pynchon piece set in London—contained the germ of what became Midnight’s Children, a marginal character called Saleem Sinai who was born at the moment of Indian independence. That’s the only thing that survived. I threw away a year’s work and kept that germ.

After the critical beating Grimus took, I completely rethought everything. I thought, OK, I have to write about something that I care about much more. I was very scared all the time. See, I thought my career as a writer had gone nowhere at all. Meanwhile, many people in that very gifted generation I was a part of had found their ways as writers at a much younger age. It was as if they were zooming past me. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Timothy Mo, Angela Carter, Bruce Chatwin—to name only a few. It was an extraordinary moment in English literature, and I was the one left in the starting gate, not knowing which way to run. That didn’t make it any easier.

INTERVIEWER 

What was it about Saleem Sinai that released you?

RUSHDIE 

I’d always wanted to write something that would come out of my experience as a child in Bombay. I’d been away from India for a while and began to fear that the connection was eroding. Childhood—that was the impetus long before I knew what the story was and how big it would become. But if you’re going to have the child born at the same time as the country, so that they’re twins in a way, you have to tell the story of both twins. So it forced me to take on history. One of the reasons it took five years to write is that I didn’t know how to write it. One early version opened with the line, “Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.” I meant that children don’t come naked into the world, they come burdened with the accumulated history of their family and their world. But it was too Tolstoyan. I thought, If there’s one thing this book is not, it’s Anna Karenina. The sentence is still there in the book somewhere, but I buried it.

The third-person narration wasn’t working, so I decided to try a first-person narrative, and there was a day when I sat down and I wrote more or less exactly what is now the first page of Midnight’s Children. It just arrived, this voice of Saleem’s: quite savvy, full of all kinds of arcana, funny but sort of ridiculous. I was electrified by what was coming out of my typewriter. It was one of those moments when you believe that the writing comes through you rather than from you. I saw how to drag in everything from the ancient traditions of India to the oral narrative form to, above all, the noise and the music of the Indian city. That first paragraph showed me the book. I held onto Saleem’s coattails and let him run. As the book developed, as Saleem grew up, there were moments where I felt frustrated by him. As he got older, he became more and more passive. I kept trying to force him to be more active, to take charge of events—and it just didn’t work. Afterwards, people assumed the book was autobiographical, but to me Saleem always felt very unlike me, because I had a kind of wrestling match with him, which I lost.

INTERVIEWER 

Have you written another book where the voice just arrives like that?

RUSHDIE 

Each book has to teach you how to write it, but there’s often an important moment of discovery. The only thing that’s comparable was when I was writing Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in which the big problem was tone of voice, how to walk the line that would allow both children and grownups to get pleasure out of it. There was a particular day when, after some false starts, I wrote what is now the beginning of the book. And again I thought, Oh, I see, you do it like this: “There was once, in the country of Alifbay . . .” I had to find that once-upon-a-time formula. Because the thing about the fable is that the words used are very simple but the story is not. You see this in Indian fables like the Panchatantra stories, in Aesop, and even in modern fables, like Calvino’s books. You say something like, Once upon a time there was a cat who wore boots as high as his knees and used a sword. Words of one syllable, but the thing created is very strange. 

Joseph Heller said that once in a while he would find a sentence that contained a hundred more sentences. That happened to him when he started Catch-22, the moment he wrote the sentence about Yossarian falling in love with the chaplain. That sentence told him where the rest of the novel was going. That happened to me when I wrote the beginning of Midnight’s Children and Haroun. I had that lightbulb moment. But when I wrote The Satanic Verses I had hundreds of pages before I wrote the scene that is now the beginning of the novel, these people falling out of the sky. When I wrote that scene I thought, What’s this doing here? This doesn’t belong here.

INTERVIEWER 

And there was your beginning.

RUSHDIE 

It’s a funny thing, that scene. When the book came out, a lot of people really hated it. That’s when the joke started about there being a page fifteen club of Rushdie readers—you know, people who couldn’t get beyond page fifteen. I myself thought it was a good opening and I still do. You almost always discover that the book you’re writing is not quite the book you set out to write. When you discover that, you solve the problem of the book. When I was writing Fury the title changed every day, and I was uncertain for a long time what the book was about. Was it about dolls, or New York, or violence, or divorce? Every day I’d wake up and I’d see it a slightly different way. Not until I figured out the title did I understand the central idea behind the book. Same thing happened with Midnight’s Children. I didn’t know what it was called at first. When I started writing it, I just put “Sinai” on the cover. Then there was a moment when I thought, If I don’t know what the title is, I don’t know what the book’s about. I stopped writing prose and started writing titles. After several days of fooling around I ended up with two: “Children of Midnight” and “Midnight’s Children.” I typed them out manically, one after the other, over and over again. And then, after about a day of typing, I suddenly thought, “Children of Midnight,” that’s a really boring title, and “Midnight’s Children,” that’s a really good title. And it showed me the center of the novel. It’s about those children. With The Satanic Verses I didn’t know if it was one book or three. It took me quite a while to be brave enough to decide it was a single work. Even though it would have to be a novel of discontinuities, I decided that was the book I wanted to write. I must have been feeling very confident. I’d had these two very successful books, and that put a lot of fuel in my tank, and I thought I could do anything. 

INTERVIEWER 

With fame, and with the fatwa, there has come to be almost a cult of Rushdie. Does that ever follow you back to the desk?

RUSHDIE 

No. Writers are really good at creating that quiet space. When I’m in my room with the door shut, nothing signifies except what I’m trying to wrestle with. Writing’s too hard, it just requires so much of you, and most of the time you feel dumb. I always think you start at the stupid end of the book, and if you’re lucky you finish at the smart end. When you start out, you feel inadequate to the task. You don’t even understand the task. It’s so difficult, you don’t have time to worry about being famous. That just seems like shit that happens outside. 

What’s harder to deal with is hostility from the press. It was a strange feeling to be characterized by some in the British press as an unlikable person. I’m not quite sure what I did to deserve it. I understand that in a literary life there are cycles when it’s your turn to be praised and your turn to be hammered. It was clear that when Fury came out it was my turn to be hammered. I felt that a lot of the critical response was not about the book at all—it was about me. It was bizarre that so many of the reviews of Fury were headed with a picture of me with my then-girlfriend, now my wife. I thought, What’s that got to do with it? Do you put John Updike’s wife next to him at the top of a review? Or Saul Bellow’s wife? 

INTERVIEWER 

In Fury, Solanka is born in Bombay, educated at Cambridge, and lives in Manhattan. Maybe that’s why reviewers assumed it was about your own life in New York.

RUSHDIE 

Yes, I was saying I’m over here now. It felt scary to write so close to the present in time, and to my own experience, but both were deliberate choices. I wanted to write about arrival. I didn’t want to pretend that I was Don DeLillo or Philip Roth or anyone who’d grown up in these streets. I wanted to write about the New York of people who come here and make new lives, about the ease with which stories from all over the world can become New York stories. Just by virtue of showing up, your story becomes one of the many stories of the city. London’s not like that. Yes, there’s an immigrant culture in London that enriches it and adds to it, but London has a dominant narrative. There is no comparable dominant narrative in New York; just the collected narratives of everyone who shows up. That’s one of the reasons why I am attracted to it. 

As for Solanka, he’s a grumpy bastard. I put the world’s grumpiness about America into Solanka, and then surrounded him with a kind of carnival. Whereas I love being in New York, I’m as interested in the carnival as in the grumpiness. And even Solanka—you know he may be someone who bitches a lot about America, but it’s to America that he’s come to save himself. I thought it was silly the way the book was read as being about me. It’s not my diary. You can start close to your life, but that’s a starting place. The question is, what’s the journey? The journey is the work of art. Where do you finish up?

INTERVIEWER 

You’ve lived in—and between—very different parts of the world. Where would you say you’re from? 

RUSHDIE 

I’ve always had more affinity to places than nations. I suppose if you were asking me formally, I would still think of myself as a British citizen of Indian origin. But I think of myself as a New Yorker and as a Londoner. I probably think of those as being more exact definitions than the passport or the place of birth.

INTERVIEWER 

Will you ever write a memoir?

RUSHDIE 

Until the whole fatwa thing happened it never occurred to me that my life was interesting enough. I’d just write my novels and hopefully those would be interesting, but who cares about the writer’s life? Then this very unusual thing happened to me, and I found myself keeping an occasional journal just to remind myself what was happening. When things went back to normal, it occurred to me that a memoir would be a way of being done with it. Nobody would ever ask me about it again. But then I realized I’d have to spend a year researching it, at least a year writing it, and at least a year talking about it. So I’d be sentencing myself to three or four more years of the thing I’d just got out of. I didn’t think I could bear that.

INTERVIEWER 

Did the fatwa shake your confidence as a writer?

RUSHDIE 

It made me wobble a lot. Then, it made me take a very deep breath, and in a way rededicate myself to the art, to think, Well, to hell with that. But at first what I felt was: That book took me more than five years to write. That’s five years of my life giving my absolute best effort to make a thing as good as I can possibly make it. I do believe that writers, in the act of writing, are altruistic. They’re not thinking about money and fame. They’re just thinking about being the best writer they can be, making the page as good as it can be, making a sentence the best sentence you can write, the person interesting, and the theme developed. Getting it right is what you’re thinking about. The writing is so difficult and makes such demands of you that the response—sales and so on—doesn’t signify. So I spent five years like this, and what I got for it was worldwide vilification and my life being threatened. It wasn’t even so much to do with the physical danger as with the intellectual contempt, the denigration of the seriousness of the work, the idea that I was a worthless individual who had done a worthless thing, and that, unfortunately, there were a certain number of Western fellow travelers who agreed. Then you think, What the fuck am I doing it for? It’s not worth it. Just to spend five years of your life being as serious as you can be, and then to be accused of being frivolous and self-
seeking, opportunistic: He did it on purpose. Of course I did it on purpose! How do you spend five years of your life doing something accidentally? 

INTERVIEWER 

When people said you did it on purpose they meant you set out to provoke, that you asked for it. Were you conscious, while writing the book, that your secular take on Islam might be provocative?

RUSHDIE 

I knew my work did not appeal to the likes of radical mullahs. 

INTERVIEWER 

Still, it’s a big leap from that to a fatwa.

RUSHDIE 

Well, that was, of course, something that nobody could have foreseen. Nobody. It had never happened before. It never occurred to me. And you know, I found out some time afterwards that there had been an unauthorized translation into Farsi of my previous novel, Shame, done by the Iranians, who had then given it a major prize as the best translated novel that year. This meant that when The Satanic Verses was published, even Iranian booksellers thought that I was probably cool, because the mullahs had given my previous book a stamp of approval. So it surprised people in Iran as much as elsewhere.

INTERVIEWER 

But this idea that you should have seen it coming was heavily subscribed to at the time.

RUSHDIE 

After the book was finished there were one or two early readers, including Edward Said, who noticed that I’d taken these guys on and asked whether I was concerned about it. And in those innocent days, I said no. I mean, why would they bother? It’s a five hundred and fifty page literary novel in English. The idea that it would even float across their field of vision seemed improbable, and I truthfully didn’t care.

Why shouldn’t literature provoke? It always has. And this idea that somehow the person under attack is responsible for the attack is a shifting of the blame—which seemed easy to do in 1989. Recently, in England, in the aftermath of the Al-Qaeda bombings, there’s been a lot of journalistic comment saying it all began with The Satanic Verses, and there’s total sympathy now for what was happening to me then. Nobody these days is saying it was my fault and I did it on purpose, because people understand the nature of radical Islam better.

INTERVIEWER 

So, what—we’re all Salman Rushdie now? 

RUSHDIE 

Yeah. Phrases like that are used all the time now in the English press, whereas in 1989 there was a widespread tabloid belief that I was this troublemaker who had to be saved from his own kind by a government he’d opposed—the Thatcher government. And then when I decided to make a life for myself in New York, that proved my ingratitude. As if, in order to be grateful, I had to live in London for the rest of my life. 

INTERVIEWER 

But you were saying that in 1989, at the outset, the fatwa made you question whether literature was actually worth the effort. 

RUSHDIE 

It made me think, for a period of many months, that maybe I didn’t want to be a writer anymore. It wasn’t to do with the fact that it’s dangerous. 
It was that I felt disgusted with what had happened to me, and at a loss to know how to continue if that was how my work was going to be treated. I thought, you know, I could be a bus conductor. Anything is better than this. I’ve often said—and it’s true—that I think the thing that saved me as a writer was having promised my son a book. His life was substantially derailed, too. Not just mine. There are all kinds of things I couldn’t do with him, and things that were very difficult to do, so this was a promise I knew I had to keep. It made me go back to being a writer. When I discovered the voice for Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I felt happy again. It was the first time I’d felt happy since February of 1989. It gave me back my sense of why I liked to do my job. Then I thought, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. 

I actually remember reading the Beckett trilogy at that time. The Unnamable is almost as difficult as Finnegans Wake, but that stoicism, that great last line, is valuable. I found myself reading Enlightenment writers—Voltaire—and realizing that I was not the only writer who’d had a hard time. It may seem ridiculously romantic, but I was actually strengthened by the history of literature. Ovid in exile, Dostoyevsky in front of the firing squad, Genet in jail—and look what they did: the Metamorphoses, Crime and Punishment, everything that Genet wrote is prison literature. I thought, Well, if they can do it, I can have a go at doing it. It became easier for me to know where I stood in the world, and that was good. It just got rid of some confusions.

But I still never know how people are going to respond to a book. I just have no idea. I thought The Satanic Verses was my least political novel. Maybe that’s beginning to be true now. After all this fuss, at last that book is beginning to have a literary life—particularly in the academy. It’s being read not just in comparative religion courses or in Middle Eastern politics courses. I get letters that don’t even mention the Islamic stuff. I get letters from people responding to the comedy in the novel, which is one of the things nobody ever talked about—how could it be funny when the thing that happened to it was so unfunny?—and I think: Finally! In a way, it makes it worth having fought the battle, that this book has managed somehow to survive, and can now finally be a book instead of being a hot potato, a sloganized scandal. It is, at last, a novel. 

INTERVIEWER 

In both The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children, as well as some essays, there’s a notion that you’ve ascribed to yourself and your characters alike: the god-shaped hole. Does that phrase still speak to you?

RUSHDIE 

There is in human beings a need for something that is not material, a thing that gets called spiritual. We all have a need for the idea that there is something beyond our physical being in the world. We need exaltation. If you don’t believe in God you still have the need to feel exalted from time to time and consoled, and you still need an explanation. And you need the other thing that religion gives you, which is community, the sense of something shared, a common language, a common metaphor structure, a way of explaining yourself to people. A shorthand. Religion provides all of that to people who can have it. Now, if you can’t have religion, then those are big absences that you have to find somewhere else. That’s the hole. The two big questions of religion are where do we come from and how shall we live. I’m interested as a fiction writer in the fictions we have made up as a race to explain our origins, but I’m not interested in them as explanations. I don’t go to priests for the answers to these questions. When we do, look what happens. Khomeini happens. The Taliban happens. The Inquisition happens.

INTERVIEWER 

So where do you go?

RUSHDIE 

Almost anywhere else. The question of how shall we live is a never-answered question. It’s a constant argument. In a free society we argue about how we shall live, and that’s how we live. The argument is the answer, and I want to be in that argument. It’s democracy: the least bad system available. The explanatory power of religion is the easiest thing to do without. The rest of it—the consolation, the exaltation, the community—that’s harder. The place I’ve gone in my life to fulfill that is literature, and not just literature, but movies, music, painting, the arts in general. And then there is love. The love of your wife, the love of your children, the love of your parents, the love of your friends. I invest a lot in the idea of friendship. Always have. Particularly because my life has been torn away from its place of origin and flung around the world. My family relationships were not broken, but they were strained in many ways. Friends are the family you build. I live very passionately among the people I choose to live with. It gives me my sense of community and of being more than just a machine. 

I grew up in a country where almost everybody has deep religious beliefs—including the urban intelligentsia—and where people don’t just think of religion as something abstract, but believe that making offerings to the gods has a direct impact on their happiness and their progress in the world. It’s a country where hundreds of millions of people believe that the gods are directly intervening in their daily lives, so their relationship with the gods is a daily matter, pragmatic. That’s my world; I have to take it seriously. Also, it’s important to enter the heads of people who think in ways that are not your own, and to let that way of thinking determine the outcome of their stories. 

INTERVIEWER 

Can you talk about your procedure when you sit down at the desk?

RUSHDIE 

If you read the press you might get the impression that all I ever do is go to parties. Actually, what I do for hours, every day of my life, is sit in a room by myself. When I stop for the day I always try to have some notion of where I want to pick up. If I’ve done that, then it’s a little easier to start because I know the first sentence or phrase. At least I know where in my head to go and look for it. Early on, it’s very slow and there are a lot of false starts. I’ll write a paragraph, and then the next day I’ll think, Nah, I don’t like that at all, or, I don’t know where it belongs, but it doesn’t belong here. Quite often it will take me months to get underway. When I was younger, I would write with a lot more ease than I do now, but what I wrote would require a great deal more rewriting. Now I write much more slowly and I revise a lot as I go. I find that when I’ve got a bit done, it seems to require less revision than it used to. So it’s changed. I’m just looking for something that gives me a little rush, and if I can get that, get a few hundred words down, then that’s got me through the day.

INTERVIEWER 

Do you get up in the morning and start writing first thing?

RUSHDIE 

Yes, absolutely. I don’t have any strange, occult practices. I just get up, go downstairs, and write. I’ve learned that I need to give it the first energy of the day, so before I read the newspaper, before I open the mail, before I phone anyone, often before I have a shower, I sit in my pajamas at the desk. I do not let myself get up until I’ve done something that I think qualifies as working. If I go out to dinner with friends, when I come home I go back to the desk before going to bed and read through what I did that day. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is to read through what I did the day before. No matter how well you think you’ve done on a given day, there will always be something that is underimagined, some little thing that you need to add or subtract—and I must say, thank God for laptops, because it makes it a lot easier. This process of critically rereading what I did the day before is a way of getting back inside the skin of the book. But sometimes I know exactly what I want to do and I sit down and start on it. So there’s no rule.

INTERVIEWER 

Is there anything in particular that you read to help you along when you’re working?

RUSHDIE 

I read poetry. When you’re writing a novel, it’s so easy to have odd bits of laziness slip in. Poetry is a way of reminding myself to pay attention to language. I’ve been reading a lot of Czeslaw Milosz recently. And then, from over the other side of the fence, I’ve been reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which is wonderful. It’s so well written, with moments of really sloppy writing mixed in, misused words—you know, evidentially instead of evidently. Incredulously instead of incredibly. Clearly the publisher—somebody—thought it’s all part of his Bobness.

INTERVIEWER 

Evidentially.

RUSHDIE 

I like the Randall Jarrell line: “A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” I think that’s true. If you’re going to write a hundred, a hundred and fifty thousand, two hundred thousand words, perfection is a fantasy. If you’re Shakespeare and you’re writing sixteen lines, you can create a perfect thing. I suspect though that if Shakespeare had written a novel, there would be imperfections. There are imperfections in his plays—there are boring bits, if one’s allowed to say this. If you’re reading for the love of reading, you look for what it gives you, not for what it doesn’t give you. If there’s enough there, a misstep is easy to forgive. That also happens in literary criticism. There are critics who approach work on the basis of what they can get from it, and others who approach in terms of what they can find wrong with it. Frankly, you can find something wrong with any book you pick up, I don’t care how great it is is. There’s a wonderful riff in Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, in the chapter called “Emma Bovary’s Eyes,” when he points out that her eyes change color four or five times in the book.

INTERVIEWER 

In Shalimar the Clown, why did you name your main character Max Ophuls? After the film director?

RUSHDIE 

I just liked the name. The interesting thing about the Franco-German border near Strasbourg is the way in which history has continually moved it, so that the city has been German sometimes, and French sometimes, and I wanted Max to have a name that is both French and German, because I wanted the history of Strasbourg to be in the name.

INTERVIEWER 

But why not make up a name?

RUSHDIE 

I don’t know. Names stick. I just kept thinking of him like that, and in the end I forgot about the film director.

INTERVIEWER 

Can you read fiction while you’re working on a novel?

RUSHDIE 

Not much. At least, not much contemporary fiction. I read less contemporary fiction than I used to and more of the classics. It seems they’ve hung around for a reason. When I wrote Fury, for instance, I read Balzac, in particular Eugénie Grandet. If you look at the opening of Eugénie Grandet, it uses a technique like a slow cinematic zoom. It starts with a very wide focus—here is this town, these are its buildings, this is its economic situation—and gradually it focuses in on this neighborhood, and inside the neighborhood on this rather grand house, and inside this house a room, and inside this room, a woman sitting on a chair. By the time you find out her name, she’s already imprisoned in her class and her social situation and her community and her city. By the time her own story begins to unfold, you realize it’s going to smash into all these things. She is like a bird in this cage. I thought, That’s good. That’s such a clear way of doing it. 

INTERVIEWER 

Do you go to the movies a lot?

RUSHDIE 

A lot, yes. Much of my thinking about writing was shaped by a youth spent watching the extraordinary outburst of world cinema in the sixties and seventies. I think I learned as much from Buñuel and Bergman and Godard and Fellini as I learned from books. It’s hard now to explain what it feels like when the week’s new movie is Fellini’s 8 1/2, when the week after that it’s the new Godard movie, and the week after that it’s the new Bergman, then it’s the new Satyajit Ray movie, then Kurosawa. Those filmmakers were consciously building oeuvres that had a coherence, and in which themes were explored until they were exhausted. There was a serious artistic project going on. Now, whether it’s films or books, we’ve become a much lazier culture. Filmmakers get bought out just like that. You make one interesting film and off you go into moneyland. The idea of building a body of work that has intellectual and artistic coherence is gone. Nobody’s interested.

INTERVIEWER 

What did you learn from watching these movies?

RUSHDIE 

Some technical things—for instance, from the New Wave’s freedom of technique, a freeing up the language. The classic form of film montage is long shot, medium shot, close-up, medium shot, long shot, medium shot, close-up, medium shot, long shot—like a kind of dance. In two steps, out two steps, in two steps, out two steps. It can be unbelievably tedious. If you look at the films of the fifties being cut like that, it’s sort of like editing by numbers. So Godard’s heavy use of the jump cut made you jump. To go from the wide scene—bang—into the face of Belmondo or Anna Karina. One of the reasons why, in the films of Godard, a character will sometimes address the camera directly—

INTERVIEWER 

—is because they didn’t have the money to film the full scene.

RUSHDIE 

That’s right. But I liked that idea, the breaking of the frame, the fact that many of these films were funny and serious at the same time. In Alphaville, which is a very dark film, there’s this wonderful scene where Lemmy Caution, the down-at-the-heels private eye, arrives at the flophouse where he discovers that all the superheroes are dead. “Et Batman?” “Il est mort.” “Superman?” “Mort.” “Flash Gordon?” “Mort.” It’s hilarious. And I love Buñuel’s use of surrealism, which doesn’t stop the films from feeling real. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, people sit around a table on toilet seats but go quietly to a little room in order to eat. And I like both Bergmans—the mystical Bergman of The Seventh Seal and the close-up, psychological Bergman. And Kurosawa taking us into a completely closed culture, the world of the samurai. I don’t think like the samurai thought, yet you’ve gotta love Toshiro Mifune scratching himself—you’re immediately on his side. It’s one of the things you want a work of art to do, to take you into a world you haven’t been in, and to make it part of your world. That great period of filmmaking has a lot to teach novelists. I always thought I got my education in the cinema. 

INTERVIEWER 

Were you consciously taking this in and applying it?

RUSHDIE 

No, I just loved going to the movies. I was having a better time in the movies than in the library. Nowadays I find that people who like my books tend to say that they’re very visual, while people who don’t like my books tend to say that they’re too visual. If you’re a writer, people like you for exactly the things that other people dislike you for. Your strengths are your weaknesses. Sometimes the same sentences are held up as examples of how badly I write and how well I write. People who like my writing say they like the female characters. The people who don’t like my books say, Well, of course, he can’t write about women.

INTERVIEWER 

You were talking about how your generation of British writers was loaded with talent. What is it like for you here in New York?

RUSHDIE 

In America there is a younger generation with real ambition. But there was a moment when American literature got a little unadventurous. Raymond Carver was a very ambitious writer, and his books are incredibly original because they push the boundaries of how to say things, how to suggest things, but I think that a lot of the school of Carver became an excuse for saying banal things in banal ways. As if that was all you had to do—have two people sitting down across the table with a bottle of whiskey talking to each other in clichés. Now I think there are, once again, attempts to do startling things. Some of them work and some of them don’t. But I like to see that spirit again. Oddly, in England in the seventies and eighties, we resisted being called a generation. Most of us didn’t know each other. We didn’t see that we had a project. It wasn’t like the surrealists, who had a manifesto. We didn’t discuss our writing with each other. I was having enough trouble finding my way; I didn’t want ten other opinions. I thought I had to find my own way.

INTERVIEWER 

Do you write letters?

RUSHDIE 

I’m notorious for being a bad letter writer. It’s my wife’s biggest complaint about me. Would I please write her some letters. What’s the point of being married to a writer if you don’t have any love letters? So, I have to do it. But, no, I have no great literary correspondence. I have some things, though. In 1984, the first time I went to Australia, I began to read Patrick White. I traveled a little bit with Bruce Chatwin on some of the trips that led to The Songlines, and I was struck, moved, by the Australian desert. Then I read White’s book, Voss, and was really taken with it. It was one of the few times in my life that I wrote a fan letter. White wrote back, saying, Dear Mr. Rushdie, Voss is a novel I have come to hate. He said, I could send you some of my books that I still have some feeling for, but one does not wish to burden people with books they do not wish to read. And I thought, Fuck you, too. You know, I’ve written this really warm letter and I get back this crabby old thing. When I went to Australia again, I never made any attempt to contact him. Then he died, and his biographer, David Marr, wrote to me. White threw everything away, but in the top drawer of his desk there was this very small bunch of letters, most of which were from his bank manager, and three or four nonbusiness letters, of which mine was one. And I thought, How stupid can you be? I’d completely misunderstood his letter. I’d read his self-deprecation as grumpiness.

INTERVIEWER 

How do you decide when to ship a novel off?

RUSHDIE 

Embarrassment is a good test. When you feel you wouldn’t be embarrassed by people reading what’s on the page, then you can let people read it. But with Shalimar I did something I’ve never done before: I showed it to a few people—my agent, my wife, and my friend, the writer Pauline Melville. I also showed it to my editors, Dan Franklin at Cape and Dan Menaker here at Random House. I showed them the first hundred and fifty pages, then I showed it to them again at about three hundred and fifty, four hundred pages. I don’t know why I did that. I just thought, I never do this, so I’m going to do it. I’m getting to the point where I think, I don’t have to do things just because I’ve always done them. I liked that I was able to show people along the way and have their enthusiasm. Whether that means I needed more reassurance, or whether it means I was more confident, I really don’t know. I think it’s somehow both at once.

INTERVIEWER 

What hand have editors had in your work?

RUSHDIE 

What I remember best are two really valuable pieces of editing work that Liz Calder did with Midnight’s Children. One was at the end of what is now Part Two and the beginning of Part Three when there’s a time jump of about six years from the end of the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 to the moment of the Bangladesh war in 1971. What I had originally done was jump further forward—to the end of the Bangladesh war—then jump back to the beginning, and then go forward again. So there’d been seven years forward, one year back, and then forward again, and that scrambling of the timeline was the one moment in the book where Liz said her attention was broken. That was very valuable. There’s still the six-year jump, but I went back and restored chronological sequence, and it cleared up those forty or fifty pages enormously. 

The other thing was that there used to be a second audience figure in the novel. In the book as you know it, Saleem tells his story to Padma, the pickle woman. In the earlier version he was also writing the story down and sending it to a woman journalist who remained offstage. So the oral narration was to the woman in the pickle factory, and then the written version was being sent to this other figure. Liz and one or two other early readers all agreed that this was the one completely redundant element of the book. They said, You’ve got a good character sitting in the room with him, with whom he actually has a relationship, and you don’t need this abstract second figure of a journalist that he wants to send his writing to. I initially thought they were wrong, and then was persuaded to have a go at removing that character. The character fell out of the book so easily—I remember it took about two days—that it made me see very clearly that a character who could be removed so simply was not properly integrated into the story. They really saved me from a bad mistake. Now if I look at that removed material, it’s kind of awful.

The one other book in which I think there was really constructive editing was my Nicaragua book, The Jaguar Smile. It was reportage. I came back from Nicaragua in 1986, and wrote it in a few months. It’s still quite a short book, but the original version was a bit shorter. Because of the speed, Sonny Mehta—who was, at that time, the editor of Picador in England—said he had some concerns about the text, and he actually more or less line edited the book. In almost every case he asked for more information. It was never that he was taking things out, always that he wanted more. He said, You’re assuming too much knowledge—I need to know who these people are, what this moment was, background, etcetera. He just made me flesh out the book much more, and that was valuable.

INTERVIEWER 

Besides The Jaguar Smile, you’ve written Imaginary Homelands, Step Across This Line, and other nonfiction. Is there another nonfiction book in the works? 

RUSHDIE 

Not yet. At this moment I feel—how shall I put it?—I feel that my life has become rather dramatically nonfictional. In a way there’s too much factual material surrounding me, and I feel the need to get out from underneath that rubble of fact and get back to the business of imaginative writing. I feel full of stories, and until I feel I’ve shaken off the dust and really restored—well, not restored, but explored—the stories I have to tell, which are invented stories, I don’t really want to go back to fact. I want to do less and less of it. 

One of the things that writing Shalimar the Clown taught me was that it doesn’t matter how much research you do. I did a lot more research for that book than I’ve ever done for a novel, but I learned that research will only get you so far. In the end, to make the thing work, there has to be a serious imaginative leap. You have to be able to get inside the skin of people, and feel them and understand their thought processes and learn what they want to do with the story. So even writing this heavily researched book strengthened my belief that what I really am interested in is that imaginative leap. At the moment I’ve been doing this New York Times syndicated column once a month, and I have a contract for this year, but I have a strong feeling that I might leave it at that for a while—because I’d rather be writing short stories. So I’m having a very strong fiction impulse right now.

INTERVIEWER 

Is that a fact?

RUSHDIE 

Exactly—I could be lying. Never trust a writer when he talks about the future of his writing.

INTERVIEWER 

OK, so what will your next book be?

RUSHDIE 

The next book I think I’m going to write is a novel that imagines an early connection between Italy of the Renaissance and the early Moghul empire. Originally I had planned to call it “The Enchantress of Florence.” Meanwhile, my little boy—my second son—is agitating for a children’s book. He loves Haroun and the Sea of Stories, but he knows it was written for his brother. If I’ve got a really long period of serious research to do, it might be nice to write a children’s book while I’m doing that. Maybe I can do a little reading and for a few hours a day write a fairy tale. 

Then there’s “Parallelville,” a futuristic, science-fiction-slash-film-noir idea, sort of Blade Runner meets Touch of Evil. I’m also considering writing a book that I’ve tentatively titled “Careless Masters.” I imagine it as a big, English novel that starts off as a story about boarding school and then takes those characters into adulthood, making it a state-of-England novel. The most extended thing I’ve ever written about England is The Satanic Verses, which no one thinks of as a novel about England, but is actually, in large part, a novel about London. It’s about the life of immigrants in Thatcherite London. 

INTERVIEWER 

Do you get edgy if you don’t write every day?

RUSHDIE 

I feel much better when I know where I’m going. On the other hand, some of my most creative moments are the moments between books, when I don’t know where I’m going, and my head freewheels. Things come to me unexpectedly, and can become a character or a paragraph or just a perception, all of which can turn into stories, or a novel. I work just as hard when I’m not writing a book as when I am. I sit there and let things happen, mostly I throw away the next day what I wrote the day before. But pure creativity is just seeing what shows up. Once something has shown up, then it’s more focused, and it’s more enjoyable. But this in-between time is when unexpected things happen. Things happen that I previously thought were outside my ability to imagine. They become imaginable. And they come inside. That’s where I am right now.