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Salman Rushdie: Beyond the tabloids

Q&A

September 25, 2012|by Hector Tobar
  • Author Salman Rushdie.
Author Salman Rushdie. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

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.

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