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When a Writer Becomes the Story

Novelist Salman Rushdie left his wife and toddler son for a model two decades younger. Coincidentally--or not--so does the main character of his new book.


Salman Rushdie is a 54-year old Bombay, India-born novelist who left his wife and toddler son in London and moved to New York, where he fell in love with a ravishing Indian model 24 years his junior. He has written a book about Malik Solanka, a 55-year old Bombay-born professor who left his wife and toddler son in London and moved to New York, where he fell in love with an exotic young beauty. Is Rushdie's latest novel somewhat autobiographical? Well, duh, as they say in literary circles.

The question is not just whether "Fury," to be released today by Random House, is a work of fiction or a mislabeled memoir. More important, why does it matter? Because in an age of celebrity chefs, celebrity hairdressers and celebrity trainers, Salman Rushdie is a serious writer who lives on the edge of celebrity's sword and could have, literally, died by it. Many people who have never read a word of his manic, Joycean prose know his name and at least some of his story.

He dines with Al Pacino, pens lyrics for and drinks with the rockers of U2, is photographed by Annie Leibovitz, appears on "Politically Incorrect" and "The Late Show With David Letterman." He shows up at splashy media events such as the Talk Magazine launch on the Statue of Liberty's island and even played himself in the film "Bridget Jones's Diary."

So if his novel is the thinly disguised confession of a much married midlife modelizer, then Rushdie is giving gossips what they live for. And if it isn't, then he's more the victim than the beneficiary of a puzzling public persona. Salman Rushdie has created a rather compelling character, and his name is Salman Rushdie. "Writers aren't very interesting, and books are," he says. But his life has featured enough high drama and romance to fill a tome. And perhaps it has.

Although he doesn't believe that publicity affects book sales, Rushdie nurses a cup of coffee at the Argyle Hotel in West Hollywood one late-summer morning, prepared to talk about "Fury." "It doesn't matter how much a book is hyped, or how well-known the writer is," he says. "If people say it's a dud, that stops the book in its tracks. The only thing that matters is word-of-mouth."

On the sunny patio, high and low culture converge, just as they do in Rushdie's work. The lunch crowd hasn't yet arrived, so he and a minimally clothed singer, Mandy Moore, poised by the pool facing an MTV camera crew, are the only signs of life. It's convenient for Rushdie to rendezvous at the hotel; the apartment where he's stayed on his frequent visits to Los Angeles since meeting Padma Lakshmi two years ago, is nearby.

The Argyle employees are as impressed by Rushdie as they are by the teenage singer. "When he first started coming in, I was surprised to see him," says waiter J.C. Gardiner. "I knew he was exiled from his home country because of 'The Satanic Verses,' but I didn't know if that situation was resolved."

The "situation" sounds like a deal an ambitious artist would make with the devil: Live in fear for a while in exchange for worldwide renown and commercial success. In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the faithful to track down and kill Rushdie for alleged blasphemies in his novel 'The Satanic Verses.' Nine years later, Iran gave in to pressure from the British government and rescinded the fatwa.

"Midnight's Children," which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1981, established Rushdie's reputation and sold about 8,000 hardcover copies. Sales of "Shame," his second novel, were comparable. Then his fans as well as the curious and politically supportive boosted sales of "The Satanic Verses" to nearly a million. "The Moor's Last Sigh," "The Jaguar Smile," and "Haroun and the Sea of Stories," were written during a fecund captivity. Each sold fewer than 100,000 copies in hardcover. "If a blip of extra interest in my work was the one upside to the fatwa , that's fine, because it wasn't an easy time," Rushdie says. "A lot of people did buy the book to show their solidarity. What am I supposed to do about that? Thanks very much, is my answer."

Celebrity scribes didn't suddenly become hot copy because People magazine's supply of TV actresses ran low. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth are members of a fraternity of 20th century American authors whose enthusiasms, love affairs and feuds attracted attention peripheral to their bibliographies.

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