It’s hot-town in mid-Manhattan but, deep in the shadows of a soaring office tower, the cover band is cool, resurrecting the Beatles note for note to the munching luncheon crowd. The faux fab four have reached The Ballad in their set, and the words, written by that famous immigrant to New York, echo over the concrete: “Christ, you know it ain’t easy … They’re gonna crucify me.” A funny/serious lyric, a bit of poetic licence taken with a religious text, a metaphor that turned tragically real.
High on the tower’s 21st floor, the offices are lined with books as mute as the office workers – an eerie silence pervades the agency of Andrew (The Jackal) Wylie. I am shown to a corner in the quiet, and there await the arrival of another famous immigrant to New York: the author of The Satanic Verses, a funny/serious novel, a bit of poetic licence taken with a religious text, a metaphor that turned bizarrely real.
During the near-decade of the fatwa pronounced upon him, from Valentine’s Day in 1989 to the fall of ’98, Salman Rushdie was the most prominent writer on the planet for reasons that no writer would ever want – his book universally known but rarely read, banished from the groves of literature and thrust into the tumult of politics. So he became as partitioned as any of the divided characters in his fiction.
Suddenly, an intrinsically sociable man retreated into enforced seclusion, visible in his celebrity yet invisible everywhere else, demonized by his haters and deified by his defenders but neither deserving nor wanting either label, a reluctant symbol in the fractured world of fact. And though the fatwa has ended, the demonizers linger.
“Fuck ’em. To hell with them. Actually, my life has been pretty much your average writer’s life for over a decade now. But I remember Martin Amis had this phrase back when it happened; he said that I had ‘vanished onto the front page.’ So I feel happy to have re-emerged onto the book pages and now the film pages.”
Yes, the voice is Rushdie’s. He has arrived – light grey suit, unbuttoned dress shirt, black boots, thinning hair, stumpy hands, a garrulous imp – to break, no shatter, the strange office silence. Some writers, certainly not all, are born talkers and, for over two hours, his conversation flows in tributaries, surging forth into passionate pronouncements, branching off into witty anecdotes, generous in its depth and ease. I can’t speak to his reputation as a party animal, or to that parade of four ex-wives on the domestic scene, yet this much is evident: The public Salman Rushdie is a gracious, charming and, apparently, unscarred fellow.
The river of talk opens with two “splashes,” a pair of his creative efforts come to fruition almost simultaneously. The first, set to unspool as a gala at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9, is the adaptation of Midnight’s Children, his most critically lauded novel, directed by Deepa Mehta and written for the screen by Rushdie himself. The second, slated for release a mere 9 days later, is Joseph Anton, his memoir of the fatwa period. The title refers to the pseudonym he employed then (think Conrad and Chekhov), and the contents, sight unseen, promise to be a publishing sensation. Indeed, the sight had damned well better stay unseen – the book is being treated like a state secret.
“I’ll get killed if I talk about it now. Commandos will come through the door.” Big hearty laugh. No doubt, in the memoir, words like “kill” and “commando” will be loaded. Here, they’re happily playful again, returned to their healthy place in the land of self-effacing humour.
It’s the cinematic splash, then, that commands our immediate attention. The movie was conceived over a dining-room table: “I was in Toronto four years ago in September and Deepa and I had dinner. I had the rights to Midnight’s Children, and we signed a contract for, like, $1, with an option to renew for another $1. Initially, I didn’t want to do the screenplay, but if I had said no we wouldn’t have been able to raise the money. Also, I knew you had to adapt it by not being overly respectful of the text, and the person who can be most disrespectful of the book is me.”
It took two years of disrespect to prune the novel – a sweeping account of partition-era India and of the magically realistic children who were born at the painful stroke of midnight’s declared independence – down to a feature-length script. He’s enamoured of his movie, of course, but not of the movies, not any more: “Certainly, the Hollywood cinema, there’s almost nothing of interest coming out of there.” His tone isn’t accusatory, just regretful, because film once played a huge role in both his life and his fiction. A near midnight’s child himself, born in 1947 in Bombay, Rushdie got packed off to put the Anglo into Indian, schooled at Rugby and later Cambridge where, in the tiny arts cinema, he surfed the multiple New Waves.
“I always felt I got a lot of my education in that little room. When I was teaching at Emory last year, I tried to tell them about what it felt like when those were the new movies – La Dolce Vita, Masculin Féminin, The Seventh Seal, then a Visconti movie, a Truffaut movie, Satyajit Ray, every week from all over the world, including America. As a writer, one of the things we all learned from the movies was a kind of compression that didn’t exist before people were used to watching films. For instance, if you wanted to write a flashback in a novel, you once had to really contextualize it a lot, to set it up. Now, readers know exactly what you’re doing. Close-ups too. Writers can use filmic devices that we’ve all accepted so much that we don’t even see them as devices any more.”
Back then, Rushdie was himself part of a cultural renaissance, a gifted generation of British writers that included Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Timothy Mo. He took longer to find his voice, but when it came – in Midnight’s Children, Shame, The Satanic Verses, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Shalimar the Clown – the timbre was distinctive. These novels vary in quality but not in method: riven characters, shifting locales, politically explosive yet wryly comic in tone, Western realism injected with levitating doses of Eastern magic.
So a factual memoir is a radical departure for him. The writing process, though, remained similar: “Really, you have to make people live on the page, whether they’re people you actually know or ones you’re making up.” Oops, a quick check for commandos, and he changes the subject, back to another radical departure and another cultural renaissance, this time in cable television. Salmon Rushdie, meet Showtime. Yes, he’s writing a pilot for a proposed series called Next People. Here’s the What: “It’s a science-fiction series but with no rocket ships or aliens. Ideas fiction.”
And here’s the Why: “Television is allowing work of a kind that has somehow been forced out of the cinema. A lot of it is much more a writer’s medium – David Chase, Matthew Weiner; these are the creative forces, the showrunners. Also, unlike 10 years ago, you can approach any actor with an idea for a TV series and they won’t throw you out of the room.”
In truth, the Rushdie-Showtime connection shouldn’t surprise us. A New Yorker since 1999 (albeit with a flat in London for flying visits to his two sons. Aside: “I’m not planning to marry again. My sons have strong views on that.”), Rushdie is tightly plugged into Americana, pop and political. As such, he laments the disappearance of indigenous writers from the American conversation: “Most American writers don’t get asked their opinion on current affairs, whereas in Europe and England we still do. There are writers here who are the most sophisticated commentators, but they’re not asked. Like Don DeLillo, who sort of forecast most of the modern world before it happened. Why don’t they ask Don what’s happening? It used to occur a generation earlier, with Mailer or Sontag or Vidal.”
Obviously, Rushdie is an exception to that exclusionary rule. Having been politicized, he is allowed to politicize: “I used to write a monthly column for the New York Times Syndicate. But I stopped because I found it really hard to have one extreme opinion a month. I don’t know how these columnists have two or three ideas a week; I was having difficulty having 12 things to say a year.”
I suggest those columnists may have a more forgiving notion of what constitutes an idea. He smiles, and continues: “I was always a writer who was invested in public issues, and thought one should be involved directly in the argument. But I’m getting less interested in rushing onto television to talk about politics.”
Why? “Getting old, I guess. I’m more interested in doing my day job. There’s a moment where you’re not a kid any more, when you realize time is finite.”
Well, if nothing else, age offers perspective and, looking out from his 65 years, Rushdie is perfectly positioned to scan the current literary landscape. He likes what he sees: “Ten years ago or so, I was a little depressed about what was getting written, because I felt people had moved toward much smaller canvases. But I think there’s been a revival. I very much admire David Mitchell. He’s a supertalented and really serious writer. The movie of Cloud Atlas is at TIFF, no? And I think Zadie Smith’s getting better and better. In American writing, there’s always been a strong immigrant strain, but now there’s a whole new branch of it, Nam Le with his Vietnamese background, or Junot Diaz. Suddenly, you have a new kind of immigrant literature becoming American literature, and that’s very invigorating.
“At the end of a writing life, it’s always nice to see that the next thing is happening, and it’s quite clear that there’s a lot of incredibly gifted young writers now.”
However, the end isn’t quite nigh. After the twin splashes and the requisite job of publicity and the accompanying cult of fame, what then? “I do have a novel in my head. And I look forward to having a couple of years of just quietly sitting down and writing.” Or, as he once more eloquently put it: “Writers are really good at creating that quiet space, in a room with the door shut. Writing’s too hard, and most of the time you feel dumb. It’s so difficult, you don’t have time to worry about being famous. That just seems like shit that happens outside.”
* * * * *
Outside where stuff happens, the luncheon crowd has dispersed, but the midday’s children remain hard at play. While a homeless man sleeps at the sidewalk’s edge, while a sexy girl dances around her static boyfriend, while Joseph Anton rests in peace and Joseph Anton waits to be born, the faux band is keeping it real, and wise words float up through the shadows into the light: “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on.”