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L.a. On His Mind

Salman Rushdie returns to a place that still frolics in his imagination. And he doesn't rule out revisiting in a literary way.

June 29, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

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.

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