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Salman Rushdie in Manhattan on Nov. 12, 2010. (Jimmy Jeong)
Salman Rushdie in Manhattan on Nov. 12, 2010. (Jimmy Jeong)

Interview

With Salman Rushdie, real life meets fantasy Add to ...

Among his many literary influences, the novelist Salman Rushdie counts Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. No surprise that the Booker-winning fabulist and magic realist, author of nine novels for adults, might find much to admire in talking rabbits and twisting word games, but Rushdie also makes the point that Carroll was writing for one particular child, Alice Liddell, just as A.A. Milne created Winnie-the-Pooh for his son Christopher and J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan for the Llewelyn Davies boys.

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Out of the specific comes the universal, a lesson useful to Rushdie as he publishes Luka and the Fire of Life, a 12th-birthday present for his son Milan, but also a quest story that speaks to readers of all ages about matters of life and death.

"There is something about writing for a specific child that means you avoid the trap so much children's literature and movies can fall into of creating generic children who aren't people," Rushdie said in a phone interview from New York, where he now spends much of his time, while sharing custody of Milan with his ex-wife in London.

This is Rushdie's second book for younger readers. His first was Haroun and the Sea of Stories, published for his older son Zafar at the start of the dark decade Rushdie spent under the fatwa pronounced on him by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini after the publication of his controversial novel The Satanic Verses.

Zafar, Rushdie's son by his first wife, lived the second half of his childhood unable to tell friends when and where he had last seen his father, while Rushdie tried to fool people into thinking he was not seeing him at all.

Milan, on the other hand, was under 2 when the fatwa was lifted and Rushdie says his one vague memory of the period is of "the drivers" who used to accompany his father everywhere. His major anxiety was catching up with a big brother 18 years his senior.

"My younger son Milan read Haroun and the Sea of Stories when he was about 9 or 10 and immediately began a campaign for a book of his own," Rushdie says. "I saw his point but I also felt that I had to come up with a book that I wanted to write, for me as a book of mine rather than just to be read by him."

Like Carroll, who did not pen a straightforward sequel to the first Alice book but instead created a different magical logic in Through the Looking Glass, Rushdie was determined to create a fresh world, not simply a repeat of Haroun's. Luckily, he already had crafted a language for the task.

"The language of the fable was for me the clue to both books. If you look at the way fables are written they actually use very simple language ... yet what they explore are things that are not necessarily simple."

What the 63-year-old Rushdie needed to explore was death: he was 50 when Milan was born, to his third wife, editor Elizabeth West. "It worried me at the time. I thought when he's 20 I will be 70. If you have a child, you want to be there for the child. ... So the subject of life and death becomes serious."

And so, Rushdie created a story about a boy, Luka, younger brother to Haroun, who must save their father, the storyteller Rashid Khalifa. The man affectionately known as the Shah of Blah has fallen into a mysterious sleep, and by quizzing Nobodaddy, his father's hovering and increasingly substantial ghost, Luka discovers that, like heroes of ancient times, he must capture the fire of life to awaken his parent.

Luka's quest, however, unfolds according to some very contemporary rules. He can easily amass extra lives along the way and sees a counter in his eye that keeps track of how many he is losing as he battles querulous rats, deep mists and angry fire gods to climb through levels of magic and achieve his final goal. In Luka's magic world life is as cheap and plentiful as in a computer game.

Not so in our real world, nor in Luka's.

"The engine that moves this story is that his father, who has only one life, will lose that life and not be able to have another one. On the one hand, you have this sense of life being very, very precious, singular and fragile and against that you have this world where lives are to be found behind every bush and can be spent casually and renewed," says Rushdie, who currently plays the iPhone game Angry Bird while Milan favours Red Death Redemption.

"Many of the people who have devised these games have clearly studied literature, they have studied the structure of the classical quest narrative," Rushdie says, describing the process of surmounting obstacles to achieve a goal. Milan, now 13, approved the results - the book would not have been published otherwise, Rushdie says - and his position on his father's mortality remains unchanged by this airing of the question: "Milan's view of this is that I am going to live forever and that, broadly speaking, is my view too." To a man who spent a decade under a death sentence, his life might seem particularly precious, singular and fragile, but publicly, Rushdie shows no anxiety.

"It's been over for longer than it happened," he remarks, adding that Zafar now runs his own PR agency in London and appears unscathed . "He could have grown up to be a very damaged or troubled person. Instead he has become this calm, gentle, very sweet, gigantic guy," his father says.

Still, Rushdie - who will appear at the Toronto Reference Library next week - agrees that he personified a clash of cultures that continues to this day, and that it is unusual in history, if not in novels, to have a character who can single-handedly represent an issue. So, with some distance now from those years, he is writing his memoirs.

"I needed to wait until I had proper creative distance from the material so I could look at it objectively," he says, "and turn it into a book of mine instead of some emotional confession, a blurt." He is about a quarter of the way into the project and hopes to finish by the end of 2011.

That is going to make it a busy year, because he is also working with Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta on a screen version of Midnight's Children, the novel about children born on the eve of India's independence that won him the Booker Prize in 1981, and the Booker of Bookers in 1993. The production is now scouting locations and investors.

"Obviously, we are not going to shoot it in Canada," Rushdie says with a laugh. "There are various locations around South Asia we are looking at now." The pair have eschewed the studio route - the script is Rushdie's and only Rushdie's writing - and they hope the film will also be ready by the end of 2011.

"One of the great thing about being a writer is that you just keep going," he says, pointing to the late-career achievements of the 77-year-old Philip Roth, who recently published his 27th novel. "My plan is to bop 'til you drop."

Milan is right: his Shah of Blah isn't drifting off any time soon.

Follow on Twitter: @thatkatetaylor

 

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