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?