The famed writer on life as Joseph Anton, the problems of free speech, and the importance of telling the ‘goddamn truth’
Image courtesy Jake Wright via Canada2020
“My going-in position was simply that: ‘Just tell the goddamn truth.’ Nobody’s forcing you to write a memoir,” Salman Rushdie tells radio host Richard Wolinsky, describing the process of translating his experience living under prosecution into text. After Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie in 1989 for his novel The Satanic Verses, the author spent a decade with his life and his family’s safety at constant risk. Rushdie revisits this troubled time and considers what it meant to create in the context of chronic displacement and frequent despair. “It’s a terrible thing that your life turns into a good story,” Rushdie contends, as he reflects on his decision to approach this period from a novelistic perspective, creating a character of his younger self to navigate the “dailiness” of controversy and hounding.
In the exchange that follows, Rushdie explores the art of creating a personal history, resisting censorship, and embodying cultural conflict. Although the fatwa was lifted in 1998, the author’s work still arouses fevered reactions—even continued calls for his murder—underscoring the contentious nature of history and the political aspects of writing fiction. (Last month, an Iranian religious foundation renewed the fatwa and raised the reward. Via email, Rushdie responded to the New York Times’ Charles McGrath by writing: “I’m not inclined to magnify this ugly bit of headline grabbing by paying it much attention.”)
Author of eleven novels, a short story collection, and three nonfiction works, the Booker Prize-winning Rushdie notes that the world is changing, morphing at a bewildering pace. And, even as new developments transform society, so too does fundamentalism increase, and with it the risk of provoking outrage and violence. However, Rushdie declares, “I believe in the art of literature, I believe in freedom of the imagination, I believe in the kind of liberties that we enjoy in these lucky countries of the world, and I’m just going to say that. And, if you don’t like it, to hell with you.”
–Interview published courtesy of Richard Wolinksy
Richard Wolinsky: Your latest book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, is a memoir, but it’s a memoir that takes us only up to around 2001, and it’s the story of his early life, but most of it deals with the period of the Iranian fatwa. At what point did you realize, or did you always realize, that you wanted to create this memoir?
Salman Rushdie: From very early on after the trouble began with The Satanic Verses, I always knew that I should keep a record. I started keeping a journal because I didn’t want to let myself forget the dailiness of it, the detail of it. And that was partly an act of optimism, thinking, “One day I’m going to be out the other end of this tunnel, and I’m going to be able to write this,” although there were quite long periods when I didn’t think that was probable. I thought, “Maybe I’m not going to be the guy who’s going to be in a position to tell this story.” But certainly I always thought that if things went well, and there were a moment sometime in the future when I was out of the nightmare, that I would want to tell that story. But actually, when I did get out of the nightmare, which is just about—what is it—ten and a half years ago, the last thing on earth I wanted to do was to reenter that frame of mind and go back down that tunnel in order to come back out with a book. So I just left it alone. I thought, “I want to write novels. I want to write stories. I want to do the stuff that I became a writer to do.” And I used to tell my friends as a joke that I thought of this as my old-age pension. I thought that one of these days I’m going to run out of novels to write, and then I could always write this, and it’ll pay the hospital bills.
Richard Wolinsky: So what happened to get you on track? Was it after Shalimar the Clown, then?
Salman Rushdie: No, it was really much later than that. One of the things that really helped was that I had sold my literary archive to Emory University in Atlanta. And they had done this amazing job of cataloguing bits of paper that were just in cardboard boxes. It took them over four years, and suddenly I had my whole life neatly organized. Everything had a bar code, and I thought, “Oh, now all the really awful work has been done for me.” All of a sudden it’s, “Everything is there available to me, and so maybe now that the book has become so much easier to write, maybe it’s time to write it.”
Richard Wolinsky: That happened at what point in terms of, say, Luka and the Fire of Life?
Salman Rushdie: It was while I was writing Luka and the Fire of Life that that material became available, and I started this journal that I’d kept all that time. The first many years were longhand in notebooks, and then computers arrived, and I had my first computer, [which] I got at about 1993. So that was about four years into this thing, and after that I was keeping notes in both longhand journals and computer files. So all that was printed out and sent to me, and I started slowly reading my way through it.
Richard Wolinsky: How did that feel going back? It becomes clear in reading your book… that this is a period in your life that’s very, very painful.
Salman Rushdie: Yes, well, one of the reasons why, in the end, I decided to write it in the third person is that when I read these journals, I understood that the me today that’s writing this book was in some ways not the same as the self twenty years earlier to whom these things were happening, because that person was under colossal stress. And, reading these journals, it was often evident that there were moments anyway, passages of time, when the person writing the book was clearly not in great mental shape. There was great depression bordering on despair. I read these messages, so to speak, from my younger self, and they were invaluable, because they showed me, novelisitically, how to enter into the character that I had been at that time and create it on the page.
But I did feel different from him. I felt I had come to a calmer place and a more peaceful place in which I could reflect on these matters in tranquility, as the saying goes. And so I thought that I just wanted to make it clear that there was this slight detachment between the author of the book and the subject of the book, even though they were the same person.
My going-in position was simply that: “Just tell the goddamn truth.”
Richard Wolinsky: Were there times where you’re reading this and you’re going: “That’s not how I remember it at all?”
Salman Rushdie: Certainly. It’s not that so much as there were just things I had forgotten… When I read I was really surprised sometimes to discover that there were incidents that I thought were close in time that were actually more than a year apart. My memory had played some tricks of that kind, which I had to unscramble.
Richard Wolinsky: You also made a decision to incorporate elements of your personal life that were pretty painful, particularly in terms of Marianne Wiggins.
Salman Rushdie: The decision I made was that things without which I couldn’t fully tell the story of what happened to me, I would need to tell. There are things about all the women in my life that I left out, because they weren’t relevant to the main story I was telling. When those incidents or episodes did lead to consequences in the life I was leading, then I felt I have to tell that story. I hope the one thing that anyone reading this book will feel, whether they like the person being described or not, is that the author of the book is really trying to tell the truth. My going-in position was simply that: “Just tell the goddamn truth.” Nobody’s forcing you to write a memoir. If you’re going to write it, try to be as honest and open as you can, and I think that’s true whether I’m writing about myself or Marianne.
Richard Wolinsky: I guess on some level you were also divorcing yourself from it, and seeing it as another person. I mean, if you’re too close it becomes difficult. You start self-censoring.
Salman Rushdie: That was the reason why I didn’t write it before: because I didn’t feel I had the right creative distance from the material. I knew that it was a good story—it’s a terrible thing that your life turns into a good story—and I knew also that I wanted to write it novelistically. I thought that there was actually a shape to the story, that there was a sort of beginning and end, and I wanted to use the skill of the novelist to make characters vivid on the page.
It doesn’t matter whether they’re real people or not; if they’re not vivid on the page, then the reader doesn’t care about them that much, and, if the reader doesn’t care about them that much, then they don’t care what happens to them. So, if you want to draw people into the story, you really have to write as if you’re writing a novel and make these actually-existing people, including the actually-existing person with my name, into a believable person on the page. And that requires distance. That requires not being right up against the events you’re talking about.
I would come to America sometimes for two or three months and lead a perfectly normal life—take the subway, do my own shopping, drive my own car, go to the movies, go to Yankee Stadium and see a game, all of that, and then I would go back to England and be put into a bullet-proof Jaguar, and there would be police all around me.
Richard Wolinsky: What about your son, Zafar, who sometimes doesn’t come across all that well?
Salman Rushdie: Well, he’s okay about it. You know, it’s just about him growing up. I mean actually, given what teenagers can be like, [laughs] he gave me a pretty easy ride on the whole. And, actually, I really hope that what comes through in the book is that I really admire the way in which he handled this. Because, when this whole episode began, he wasn’t even ten. And, by the time it finished, he was almost twenty-one. And so he had to grow up through this nightmare. And on top of that he had the additional nightmare of his mother passing away when he was twenty years old, and she was supposed to be the safe parent. She was supposed to be the one who was taking care of him, and she was supposed to be the sort of rock. I can’t imagine how he felt when the safe parent was the one who died. He had a colossal amount to deal with in those years, and I think he’s grown up to be this astonishing, serene, mature, good-natured, non-screwed-up guy (he’s thirty-three now), and I think that says a great deal for his strength of character that he was able to handle this.
Richard Wolinsky: You also had some great times in there: the periods when you were on Long Island and getting away. I mean the vacations from…
Salman Rushdie: The bubble…
Richard Wolinsky: …the jail if you want to call it that.
Salman Rushdie: That came toward the last several years of this twelve-year period, and really, I’ve always been enormously grateful that the United States allowed me to do that. That I was told that it would be okay if I came and just made my own decisions about what was sensible and not sensible to do, and it felt… more dignified, a way to regain control over your life. So I began to come initially for short periods of time, like a week or ten days, and then gradually those got longer, and then eventually I was spending two or three months in New York or upstate New York or Long Island. And then, yes, I was able to bring my family over and for me that was, it was—first of all, it was exhilarating. And secondly it showed me that there was a way out of the bubble. And it meant that, also, when in the end the British came to the conclusion that things were better… that the adjustment back was quite easy, because I had already got used to it in America.
But there’s no question, I think, that the reason that I then made my life in New York City had to do with the fact that that’s where I regained my freedom. The last few years it was sort of weird that I would come to America sometimes for two or three months and lead a perfectly normal life—take the subway, do my own shopping, drive my own car, go to the movies, go to Yankee Stadium and see a game, all of that, and then I would go back to England and be put into a bullet-proof Jaguar, and there would be police all around me. And the dissonance of those worlds at that time was very difficult, and eventually I was really able to persuade the British that, really, we need to stop this.
Richard Wolinsky: Let’s go back a little bit to the origins of this story and the fatwa. When you were working on Satanic Verses, quite obviously you weren’t thinking in terms of anybody seeing this in a negative light, and when they actually read the book they were fine with it, but you did choose to name it Satanic Verses. Do you think the title itself was what got them going?
Salman Rushdie: No, I don’t think so… The thing is, I called it The Satanic Verses, and what happened with the removal of the definite article is that The Satanic Verses is a novel; “Satanic Verses” as I say in the book are verses that are satanic. [laughs] And it suddenly became a way of characterizing the book, by dropping the “the” off the beginning. But this is an episode that even in the Muslim world is well known—this episode with the alleged temptation of the Prophet, his flirtation with accepting three pagan bird-goddesses, popular in pre-Islamic Mecca—accepting them into the pantheon of Islam not at the same level as God but at the level of the angels, let’s say, sort of the semi-divinity level. The suggestion is that he was offered some kind of deal, that if he were to accept these three then the religion, the new religion, would not be persecuted, and he seems to have flirted with that and then rejected it. This episode survives in a lot of the more reputable traditions of the prophet. And, as Western historians have said, since it’s not particularly a glorious story, the reason that it survived is probably that it’s true, because otherwise it could easily have been dropped. Anyway, the incident is something that I learned about when I was at Cambridge studying. I did a history degree, and in my last year one of the special papers that I did was about the rise of Muhammad and the rise of Islam, and that’s where I found out about this.
Richard Wolinsky: You mean you didn’t find out about it when you were growing up or anything?
Salman Rushdie: No, no. I didn’t know this incident then. I knew, we all grow up knowing, about the religion, which is your family religion. But I didn’t know about it in that detail. It was when I started studying at university, so when I would have been twenty, twenty-one years old, when I came across this story for the first time. And I was already thinking about wanting to be a writer at that time, and… when I came across this story I remember thinking, that’s a good story. And twenty years later I found out how good a story it was. [laughs]
Richard Wolinsky: [laughs] Well, the shock at not knowing. When they first announced it, you didn’t know if it was a con or what?
Salman Rushdie: Nobody really knew how to evaluate it initially, because it was so outrageous. And there was a desire to believe that it was just rhetorical–not just my desire but I believe [that of] much of the police force and politicians. There was a sense that this can’t go on. That this has to be stopped. It will stop. Because how can the leader of one country demand the death of a citizen of another country who’s living in his own country and who hasn’t committed any crime in that country? How can the leader, the head of one state, point across the world to another country and say, “Kill that person in that country”? It’s outrageous, and therefore it was generally thought that this is going to be fixed: “Okay, the old man said what he said, but now diplomats will go to work, politicians will go to work, and they’re going to find some loophole, some exit strategy, and in the way that things are fixed it’s going to be fixed.” We all thought that. And, at the point where the police first came and said they were going to offer me protection, I think they believed, as I believed, [that it would be] for a short time. And it ended up being twelve years.
Richard Wolinsky: As this unfolded, you began having to live in safe houses. Did you always keep your bags packed?
Salman Rushdie: Well, here’s the thing. This term “safe house”—I have to deconstruct that a bit, because I think we’ve all read spy novels, and we therefore believe in these things called government safe houses, which somehow exist in a vacuum where nobody knows where they are, and they’re probably quite nice.
Richard Wolinsky: But you had to pay for you own.
Salman Rushdie: Yeah, well, if there were such things as government safe houses, I was never offered one. I was told I couldn’t go home, and I had a perfectly good house. And I sometimes think it was a mistake on my part to agree not to go home. I sometimes think if I had it to do over I would have said, “I’ll just go back to my house, and if you want to protect me that is where I’ll be.” But I didn’t, because they said that it would be too dangerous for the neighbors, or that the cost of protecting the street would be so prohibitive, and so on and so forth. So I was persuaded by that. And then they said that it was up to me to find the places that I had to go, and those places by the way couldn’t just be any old place. There were lots of rules about what they had to be like.
Richard Wolinsky: Well, you wound up almost like a homeless person. Not quite, but it almost was an analogue to going from living room couch to living room couch.
Salman Rushdie: Maybe even more stressful than the actual threats of violence was this kind of semi-homelessness. Of having to wonder, “Where am I going to be next week, and how will I find it?”
Richard Wolinsky: You’re a writer, and I know you went through writer’s block—we discussed this in earlier interviews. But, as an interviewer, as a writer myself a little bit, I need my books. I need these things surrounding me. What do you do?
Salman Rushdie: I had to learn to do without, because I also had been that kind of writer where I wanted to be in my space; I needed my stuff around me, and in that little cocoon I felt good, and I could work. And I had to learn to change the habit of a lifetime, because I basically told myself, “Either you change that habit, or you’ll never write again.”
Richard Wolinsky: Both Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Moor’s Last Sigh were written under those conditions. Now I can understand writing a children’s book, but writing a full-fledged, long novel? A historical novel…
Salman Rushdie: It was very hard. And it was made easier by the fact that towards the last part of writing that novel, they finally—the British authorities—finally agreed to let me have something much more like a permanent base. And I guess, for the last year that I was working on that book, I was in one place. So without that I agree it would have been very, very hard. And, once I was in one place, I could also arrange to get a lot of my books there, and life began to feel like a writer’s life again.
Richard Wolinsky: “Joseph Anton” was the pseudonym you had to use.
Salman Rushdie: Well, “Joseph” from Conrad and “Anton” from Chekhov. And the only person other than the police and I who really knew about that was my bank manager, because one of the reasons for having it was so that I could spend money. I had to be able to write checks.
Richard Wolinsky: You had credit cards?
Salman Rushdie: No, I didn’t. But I could write checks, and I could use that to pay for the rental building. And the other reason for doing it was that the police needed to train themselves to use another name. They’re very athletic people. They were always needing to go out for runs and so on… Actually, I sometimes thought it was harder for them being cooped up in a house than for me, because I’m a writer; I’m used to being cooped up in a house, but these were men of action. They worried that, if they were running around the block or whatever and talking to each other, and if they accidentally used my name, and somebody overheard it, it would blow the cover. So they needed to find a name. So they said, “Choose a name,” and I made up this name from these two writers that I liked. And then, rather to my irritation, they decided to use a diminutive and call me Joe. And I thought, “No, no. That’s not it.” I don’t know why this is. This is a curious psychological tic, because why is “Joe” worse than “Joseph”? They’re both not me, but for some reason the diminutive was very irritative.
Richard Wolinsky: One of the more striking and depressing elements of the book was—I know you had a lot of support—but a lot of people were just absolutely nasty about the fact that you’d written a novel. A lot of people write novels that are controversial, and yet everyone from John le Carré on down were just vicious.
Salman Rushdie: Yeah, there was some viciousness. It was something that I found very hard to understand in those days and actually have found it even to this day hard to forget—that there was an attempt by some people to blacken my character. To say, to suggest, so to speak, that I was such a low-grade individual that I was not worthy of public sympathy. For example, the fact that I refused to withdraw the novel under Islamic pressure—that was translated into my being arrogant. That was an act of arrogance, to insist on my obviously-fiendish work remaining in print. Sometimes that was translated into greed, that I was making a great deal of money out of the scandal, and that’s what I wanted, and that’s what I had tried to achieve. I’d wanted to create a storm so that I could become more famous and richer. There were all these allegations. Bits of the tabloid press collaborated in this, some conservative politicians, one or two writers, not many—most of the writers were pretty much in solidarity—but one or two of them. And I think that one of the characteristics of mudslinging is that mud sticks if it’s thrown with enough force for long enough. And I think they did help to create it in bits of the public mind, particularly in England. There was a perception that I was like that, that I was this dreadful individual of low integrity who had sort of annoyed half the world in order to make myself money and fame, and why should we care about him? And that was something almost harder to fight against than the Islamic threats.
Richard Wolinksy: You mentioned it in the book: Monty Python’s Life of Brian. People have been making fun of religion—not that you were making fun of it—but people have been making fun of it for thousands of years.
Salman Rushdie: Thousands. I’ve seen Book of Mormon now twice. And I know that a lot of the Mormon leadership has been to see it, and they thought it was funny too, and yet it’s full of fun at Mormons’ expense… Sometimes people have said that Islam, in its own calendar, is still only in the Middle Ages. It’s still in the fifteenth century or whatever. And Christianity in the fifteenth century, after all, was full of inquisitions and burnings at the stake, and so on and so on. So give Islam time, and it will reach the point of maturity that other religions have. But Mormonism is much younger than Islam, and it’s got there already. So I don’t think that’s an argument that works. But it was very, very odd to be maligned, to have my character maligned, when my life was being threatened.
The problem of the free speech argument is that you have to defend people you can’t stand. Because free speech is not just free speech for people you admire. It’s also for people who you think of as reprehensible. You have to defend the Ku Klux Klan as well as Martin Luther King. It’s like that. If you’re going to defend the principle, then you have to defend people who use the principle badly.
Richard Wolinsky: I recall a conversation at KPFA with a guy named Yusuf, who later died of AIDS, who was part of the gay collective there, who was in favor of the fatwa as a converted Muslim. And I was looking at him going, “If you were over there, they’d have stoned you to death.” It didn’t make sense.
Salman Rushdie: Yeah, well, people called Yusuf did make some mistakes. There was another guy called Yusuf who used to be called Cat before that—Cat Stevens who became Yusuf Islam—and he was in favor of it too. We live in this culture with no memory. So now Cat Stevens says, “Oh, I never said any of those things,” and people are willing to kind of believe that he didn’t, that he was somehow misrepresented. But actually he said those things on television, and the tapes exist. He said those things to journalists from the New York Times who remember them and have written about them. So this was not a matter of doubt. He did say very openly that he wished me dead. Until he needed to make some money from his music again, I guess.
Richard Wolinsky: Well, we’re now going through a period where suddenly there’s been conflict, and there was that video, [“Innocence of Muslims”]. You stop every so often and discuss some of these issues including the notion of cultural relativism… [Your book] kind of put me in a better space than I was in terms of the video. Because a part of me was going, “Well, yeah, but Salman was writing art and… the purpose of this video is to rile up sentiment and create what happens.” And yet at the same time it’s all free speech.
Salman Rushdie: Unfortunately, the problem of the free speech argument is that you have to defend people you can’t stand. Because free speech is not just free speech for people you admire. It’s also for people who you think of as reprehensible. People can do bad things with free speech as well as good. You have to defend the Ku Klux Klan as well as Martin Luther King. It’s like that. If you’re going to defend the principle, then you have to defend people who use the principle badly. Very often in free speech cases you find yourself defending material that you personally detest, because of course it’s no trick to defend the free speech of people you either agree with or who don’t particularly upset you. It’s when people really upset you that you discover if you believe in free speech or not.
Richard Wolinsky: Part of the arguments by some of the critics of Satanic Verses is it’s not a good book, and I’m thinking, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter the quality of the book.”
Salman Rushdie: I know. I mean, actually it doesn’t matter, because the principle is the principle. Although I was, I suppose, vain enough to think that there actually is a quality defense here. You actually can defend this in the way that Ulysses or Lady Chatterley were defended. And actually, of course, many of the people who defended Lady Chatterley afterwards admitted that they thought it was a really bad book. But they had sort of perjured themselves for the sake of its liberty, if you like. Anyway, but you see, violence changes the subject. It seems to me it’s perfectly possible to vehemently disagree with a piece of work and to say that it’s offensive and insulting and so on and so on. And you’re absolutely entitled to do that and to speak back, if you like, against that piece of speech with all the vehemence at your disposal. I mean, that’s legitimate. Even other things. When there were demonstrations against The Satanic Verses, for example. People have a right to demonstrate. You can’t assume if you do something contentious that people will be on your side. The moment violence enters the story, the story changes. Then the question is, “How do you face up to violence?” And then you have to have a no-compromise position. And this is quite simply a lesson we learn in the school playground. If you give in to the threat of violence, if you give in to bullying, what you know is that there will be more bullying. There will not be less bullying. If you appease the bully, you make sure that he will bully you some more. Not less. It doesn’t solve the problem. It makes the problem worse. So the only position when violence is threatened in response to a novel or a cartoon or a crappy YouTube video is a no-surrender position. This is how we live. We live in a country in which we have these rights, and we’re not going to give them up. Full stop. The end.
Richard Wolinsky: What is the Daily Insult?
Salman Rushdie: [laughs] Well, of course, we were talking about it earlier. This willingness among some parts of the British media—it was only the British media—to run these absurd, not that I say absurd, but sometimes very hurtful attacks on me. And it was all the newspapers; it wasn’t like it was just one particular tabloid. So I just invented, for comedic reasons, this newspaper called the Daily Insult. [laughs] I sometimes felt it. I’d be sitting there at home, I’d be opening newspapers like anybody else, and then suddenly a hand would reach up from the newspapers and sort of smack me around the face. I remember people said terrible things. I remember an article that appeared in which some journalist was writing about some spurious piece of research, which suggested that beautiful women liked the company of unattractive men because unattractive men were more attentive to them than kind of gorgeous guys. And the journalist said something like, “This must be very good news in Salman Rushdie’s hideout.” I thought, you know, “Excuse me!” [laughs]
Richard Wolinsky: How did it feel to be reading about yourself as this bizarre third party that had nothing to do with who you were?
Salman Rushdie: Well, it’s one of the reasons, of course, behind the book’s title, because that’s the name I had to take. But it’s also a way of suggesting that the question of identity, my identity, in those years became very problematic… It wasn’t just that I had to invent an identity. There were many people inventing identities, many Salman Rushdies walking around serving various different agendas. And it was one of the hardest things that there were all these sort of fake versions of me that I found it very hard to dismiss, to dispel, because for a long time I wasn’t able to be that visible. And, in that vacuum, where there was just this empty space with my name on it, people could make up the person to fill that empty space any way they liked, and it was really, truly bizarre.
I think there’s a kind of mind that is so ill at ease with that transformation that it reaches out for something permanent. And religious faith offers that, from simplicities, which you are told are eternal and unchanging, and you can hold on to those like a life raft in a metamorphosing world.
Richard Wolinsky: And of course it was even more bizarre, because you would meet people [for whom] that was who they thought you were.
Salman Rushdie: Yes. Less now, because I think now that I have been able to be around for the last decade, and people have a sense of what I’m really like, some of those fake Rushdies faded away. But it used to be that I would walk into rooms, and I could see in peoples’ eyes that they thought they were looking at a person they’d read about in the Daily Insult. [laughs] And I would have to do the work of erasing that person before they could actually see who I was. And that was very weird, very weird.
Richard Wolinsky: A number of other things stopped me reading the book and closing Joseph Anton down for a moment. One of them is the rise of fundamentalism, not just in Muslim countries, but in the United States, and of course there were the riots in the early ’90s in your own Bombay, the fundamentalist Hindus. What do you think is going on? It seems to be around the world.
Salman Rushdie: Well, I think it’s a number of different things that are going on. Part of it has to do with economics. It’s just to do with the fact that you’ve got a generation of young men—almost all are young men—in situations of great economic hardship, where they don’t really have work. The chances of them making a decent life for themselves, of making a family, living in a kind of decent, happy way, are very, very remote. It’s very hard for them to ever even have that as a dream, so when people are that deprived of the ordinary hope of human beings, it creates anger. And that anger can be channeled by unscrupulous persons, whether secular or religious leaders, and there’s been a lot of that. I sometimes think it’s also something else, which is that we live in an age where the rate of change has been colossal. Colossal. Almost every week there’s some transformation of some kind, whether technological or political or scientific, whatever. And I think it’s bewildering to human beings to live in a time when they can’t take anything as fixed—when everything is shifting and changing all the time.
Richard Wolinsky: Do you think that’s even the case in places like Saudi Arabia?
Salman Rushdie: Yeah. I think everywhere, because the rate of change is global now. I think there’s a kind of mind that is so ill at ease with that transformation that it reaches out for something permanent. And religious faith offers that, from simplicities, which you are told are eternal and unchanging, and you can hold on to those like a life raft in a metamorphosing world. There’s a whole range of different things. A lot of it has to do just with politics. There are political movements, and it’s not just Islamic. It’s the Christian movements in this country. It’s, as you said, Hindu extremists in India, highly organized for political reasons, looking for power in their societies, who are able to use the language of religion to galvanize communities.
Richard Wolinsky: You said in an earlier interview with me something like you think Islamic craziness will burn out in about seventy-five years, because they all seem to. Do you still feel that way?
Salman Rushdie: Sometimes I do, yes. What I do think is evident is that those countries in the world where Islamic extremism has recovered the most power, those are also the countries which are most disliked. So, if you look at Afghanistan, Iran, Algeria, at the time of the Islamic extremist rising there, those groups were always very disliked. I think that’s still the case across the Islamic world. It’s just that those groups are very powerful; they’re very well organized and very ruthless. But I thought it was interesting, for example, that after the awful attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and the killing of the ambassador, that in the last days the people of the city rose up against the militia that did this and literally drove them out of their stronghold and drove them out of town, ran them out of town on a rail. That we had a pro-American demonstration in a Muslim country—you don’t see a whole lot of that. But I thought it showed that the people of Libya were disgusted by the way in which Islam had been used in that situation with fatal results. And they took their own reprisals against these people. So the hope is that gradually the citizenry of these countries will be in that way emboldened to act themselves, to act against these extremists, and to drive them out.
I had somebody say, “Oh, look, there’s that bastard Rushdie in a wig.”
Richard Wolinsky: You tell the story more than once of a Spanish mayor who hid out from Franco for more than twenty years. Where did you find out about that?
Salman Rushdie: Yeah, as it happened, from my first wife, Clarissa, who is the mother to my oldest son. Her mother settled eventually in southern Spain, in a town called Mijas, which is just inland from the coast, in the hills. And when I was there I was shown this book written by an English journalist about the history of the place, and what had happened was that there was this mayor of Mijas, a man called Manuel Cortés—pretty common name—who during the Spanish Civil War had been on the Republican side, the anti-Franco side, and after Franco’s victory his life was in danger, because Franco was rounding up previous opponents and getting rid of them. And so his family told him that he should leave the country, and he said he didn’t want to; he wanted to stay home. And so in the end they hid him; they hid him in their own homes, and it went on for two decades.
Richard Wolinsky: And he dressed in drag to go out in the street?
Salman Rushdie: There was an alcove in a house where he would be. They would push a wardrobe up in front of it, and he would be in it for the daylight hours. He would come out at night when he was sure everything was shut. There were moments when the family had to move house, and then he had to dress up like a woman in order to move from one place to another. His wife would have to walk to another village to shop for food so that people didn’t see that she was buying too much food for one person. He actually did live in hiding, the book was called In Hiding, and he lived like that for twenty years.
Richard Wolinsky: There are certain similarities, you know. Marianne sneaking outside to buy food so that no one would recognize her. You once wore a wig.
Salman Rushdie: That was, yeah, one of the most ridiculous episodes. [laughs] The police, they said to me, “We have a lot of experience with this thing, and we know that all you have to do is to alter your appearance a little bit, and suddenly people don’t realize it’s you.” So they said, “We’ll get this wig for you. We’ll get it made for you by our expert wig makers, and you’ll be invisible. You’ll be able to walk down the street, and no one will even look.” And I, of course, found it very hard to believe, but they were saying trust us, and I said okay… And so there was the day where the wretched thing arrived, and I said, “Okay, we better take this out for a walk.” I put it on, and we went to the middle of London just near Harrod’s department store, and I got out of the car with this thing on my head, and people on the sidewalk literally burst into laughter. People were literally laughing and pointing. [laughs] It was so embarrassing. I had somebody say, “Oh, look, there’s that bastard Rushdie in a wig.” [laughs] And I just dived back into the police car and took it off my head, and I said, “I’m never wearing that again.”
Richard Wolinsky: There are several other stories in the book, Joseph Anton, including stories about some of your friends. You were pretty close with Christopher Hitchens, yes?
Salman Rushdie: Yes. And, you know, one of the things I wanted to say about that is that people would sometimes ask me, in those days, whether my friends or the people I knew were sort of inching away from me, were shifting their feet and making for the exits, because they didn’t want to be endangered by association. And the actual truth, which is a rather remarkable truth, is that it’s the exact opposite of what happened. My friends drew closer to me with really very little regard for their own safety… Christopher is a case in point, because I had known him, I was friendly with him, we had many friends in common, but I wasn’t one of his [and] he wasn’t one of my close buddies. He was living in DC. I was living in London. We didn’t see each other that often. We enjoyed seeing each other when we did, but that was it. When this happened, once the fatwa happened, it outraged him. It became a very profound event in his life, I think, in his intellectual life. And he made the very conscious decision of stepping much closer to me, of becoming a much closer friend. Ally. He became a colossal ally. If you’re in this kind of a fight, you want Christopher on your side. He’s an amazing person to have on your side. You see, I can’t use the past tense. You certainly wouldn’t have wanted to have him on the other side.
Richard Wolinsky: Well, after talking to Martin Amis about being with him in a pub, the last thing you want to do is watch him get angry at someone else, because you can’t get him out of the pub.
Salman Rushdie: No, no. Christopher had a very naturally combative personality, and he was really good at it. Yes, you don’t want to get into an argument with Christopher.
Richard Wolinsky: Do you think that the fatwa, on some level, influenced him to such a degree that he broke with the left and supported the Iraqi invasion?
Salman Rushdie: I think that the double whammy was first the fatwa and then the 9/11 attacks, which he saw, as I do, that they were connected to each other, that they were a part of the same phenomenon. And his conclusion from that was that the left, or let’s say non-right wing—I don’t think there really is in that sense much of a left in America, certainly by European standards even the left is quite right wing here—but he felt that the people he had always been politically associated with in the past were sort of getting it wrong, and making excuses and being critical of America rather than of this phenomenon of Islamic extremism, and that the people who were paying attention were on the right. And so Christopher, never being one to do things by halves, leapt across that fence. Actually, much to my confusion, really, because although I, like him, believed that this was a big phenomenon and that people were misunderstanding it, I certainly didn’t feel any kind of kinship with the Dick Cheneys of the world, and I found it bizarre that he was able to be on that side for a bit. And I think oddly the thing that rescued him from the American right was when he wrote about God, because his attack on God unquestionably detached him from the right, and sort of gave him back to us. So God saved Christopher Hitchens in a way.
I believe in the art of literature, I believe in freedom of the imagination, I believe in the kind of liberties that we enjoy in these lucky countries of the world, and I’m just going to say that. And, if you don’t like it, to hell with you.
Richard Wolinsky: You also have a very touching portrait of Edward Saïd.
Salman Rushdie: Well, Edward was an old buddy of mine and such a great mind. I remember for instance that, after the attacks on The Satanic Verses began, Edward went and lectured in Muslim countries in my defense, and that was not a small thing to do. He went across North Africa and Egypt and addressed large rooms full of largely hostile crowds in my defense and was so respected himself that they would listen to him… Actually, before The Satanic Verses was published I showed him a manuscript of it, and said, “What do you think?” and he said, “Well, the mullahs are not going to like it,” to which I said, “Well, I know that, but they didn’t like anything else I wrote either.” And we agreed that they probably wouldn’t like it, but that wasn’t a reason for not doing it.
Richard Wolinsky: The great mistake.
Salman Rushdie: I was saying to you earlier about reading my journals and discovering the state of mind of the person writing them, and something happened somewhere around the year-and-three-quarter mark, at about somewhere in late 1990, when I was in a very low state of mind, partly because it just seemed unending, and I didn’t know how I was ever going to get out of this, and I was feeling very low. Also, because there was all this external pressure on me, not just from the media, not just from politicians, but also from British public opinion when opinion polls were taken as they were, which basically suggested that this had sort of been my fault, and it was up to me to fix it—“You broke it, you fix it,” that was the attitude—I was in a kind of despair at the time. And I allowed myself to be suckered into something, which I much regretted and still do, which was into an encounter with a group of Islamic leaders who were sort of promising me the world, saying, “We can come to an understanding. We’ll get rid of all this. We’ll get it fixed for you.” I really wanted to believe that. I thought, “Here’s something I can do, and maybe I actually can get this fixed.”
So I went to this meeting with six or seven of these Islamic figures, and they produced this piece of paper that they said they wanted me to sign, and when I read it I realized that it contained a declaration of religious faith, which was obviously ludicrous, because that’s not how I think. I never had been a person of religious faith. Basically, they said, “That’s the price of the ticket. If you do that, then we can get rid of everything else, but you have to do that.” I think now that it was quite clear that they were luring me into a trap, that they were never intending to do any of the things they said. What they wanted to do was to get me to discredit myself, and I was in such a poor state of mind that I agreed to sign this thing, and did, and left this room and immediately understood that I’d betrayed myself in some way, that I’d done something that I have always thought of as the stupidest thing of my life—one of those moments that your body knows it before your mind knows it, because I started throwing up. I just actually felt physically sick, and not in a metaphorical way, but literally physically sick. Then of course all the people who were close to me started yelling at me. My sister, who knows me better than anyone else, started calling me up and saying, “What the hell are you doing? Have you gone mad?” And I thought, you know, maybe.
Richard Wolinsky: You didn’t talk about this with anybody. You just decided to do it.
Salman Rushdie: Yes, I know.
Richard Wolinsky: Your dentist, of all people.
Salman Rushdie: This terrible Egyptian dentist who lured me into this trap. But I don’t blame anyone else. It was my fault. What I say in the book, and [what] I came to really believe, is that that moment was a pivotal moment in my life, not just in this story, but in my life as a whole, because it cleared something up in my head. The chapter which deals with this in the book is called “The Trap of Wanting to be Loved”. That’s why I thought, “If I could just do this right, I can make everybody understand that I am not a bad guy. I’m a good guy. And they will say, ‘Oh my goodness, we made a terrible mistake. Sorry, we love you. Let’s get on with life.’” Idiotic, right? And the thing I learned from this is that that was a trap. I thought to myself, “You have to understand that there are people like this who are not going to like you. They don’t like you. And guess what. You don’t like them either, so stop trying to mollify and appease them.” I just understood at that point, “Okay, here’s what I think. I think these things: I believe in the art of literature, I believe in freedom of the imagination, I believe in the kind of liberties that we enjoy in these lucky countries of the world, and I’m just going to say that. And, if you don’t like it, to hell with you.”
There’s going to be no more compromise on issues where there should not be compromise. Enough with appeasement or apology and mollifying, all that. To hell with all that. I’m just going to fight my corner. I think ever since then, from that day to this, I’ve felt a kind of clarity. I thought, “I know who I am, I know what I’m for, and I know what I’m willing to fight for.”
Richard Wolinsky: Is that the reason why you were willing to fight for the paperback edition so hard?
Salman Rushdie: I just knew that, look, we were fighting for the survival of a book. And this was an age before e-books. We all knew that the only way you can allow a book to survive in print in the long term is in paperback. The hardback has a certain life, and then it stops having that. It stops selling, and if you want the book to just stay around there has to be a paperback edition. So if there were not a paperback edition the book would eventually disappear from the shelves, and we would have lost the battle. So it was very important that we manage to safeguard the publication of the book, and that could only be done by producing a paperback edition. That’s why the fight was. It wasn’t because the paperback in itself was something totemic. It was because it was the only way to preserve the book.
Richard Wolinsky: And it’s still in print.
Salman Rushdie: Yes, it’s still in print in, whatever, fifty languages. So I think in the narrow-spectrum issue of the attack on the novel and it’s author we didn’t do so badly. We managed to defend that turf. In the larger issue of the fact that it scared people, and it’s made people a lot more wary of anything to do with Islam, I think that there’s some big problems there to be overcome.
Richard Wolinsky: As I finished the book, I kept thinking, “Okay, if he had gone on that path of just being a writer…” I’d have interviewed you. I’ve interviewed a lot of these people, but your life would have been very different. You wouldn’t have become a major celebrity. You wouldn’t have been hanging out with Bono. Well, you might have been, but probably not. In retrospect, having gone through nine years of hell, if you had it to do over again, what would you think?
Salman Rushdie: You know, I prefer it not to happen. The truth is, if The Satanic Verses had just come out and been treated like a novel and had its life as a novel, and I’d gone on and written the next novel, that would have been better. I would have preferred that life, because I was forty-one at that time. The forties are supposed to be the prime of life, and my forties were all spent in this trap. In another life, I would like to have them back, please. I’d like to be able to spend more time with my little boy who was growing up then, and I was perfectly content with the literary life that I had, and I would have been perfectly happy to go on having it.
Richard Wolinsky: What is the story of the film of Midnight’s Children?
Salman Rushdie: It’s done, we’ve shown it at a couple of film festivals so far. It was at Telluride and Toronto. It’s going to be at the London Film Festival next month, and then it’s coming out. I think the first release date is in Canada in early November.
Richard Wolinsky: Are you happy with it?
Salman Rushdie: Yeah, you know, I’m very implicated in it. I wrote the screenplay, I’m an exec. producer on it. Although I don’t appear in it, my voice is in it because the voiceover narration is spoken by me.
Richard Molinsky: What is the story on IMDB of something called Next People?
Salman Rushdie: Next People is an idea for a crazy, political science fiction series I’ve been developing for the Showtime Network and it’s in early stages. I’ve just finished the second draft of a pilot script, which I actually have to have a discussion with Showtime about in a week’s time, and then we hope that we can progress to making the pilot, and then we’ll see. A pilot is a long way from a series, so it’s still early days.
Richard Wolinsky: And the next time I interview you, what will that be for?
Salman Rushdie: It could be for that if that works out, maybe I’ll have a TV series to talk about. But actually I’m really itching to go back into my cocoon and write a novel. I really think, especially after this very public moment of launching this book and the film, I’d really like to just spend two years sitting in a room and writing a book.
Richard Wolinsky: But you haven’t started yet?
Salman Rushdie: I haven’t started yet, don’t know what it is.
Listen to the audio version of this interview here.
“Bookwaves with Richard Wolinsky” originates in the studios of KPFA-FM Pacifica Radio (www.kpfa.org) in Berkeley, California and can also be heard at other radio stations via Pacifica Audioport syndication.