The following is an interview I conducted for a magazine project I began while studying journalism in New Hampshire called The Grayscale Timelines (GST).
When thinking about today’s most renowned authors, many readers will consider names such as Stephen King, Joan Didion, George R.R. Martin, or the reclusive Thomas Pynchon. When debating which author has had the greatest social impact, it is without question Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s work stands out as prolific, deeply eloquent, and influential. His novel Midnight’s Children (1981) won the Booker Prize upon its release and the “Booker of Bookers” in 1993, commemorating its 25th anniversary.
Rushdie’s most controversial book, The Satanic Verses (1988) resulted in a public death threat from Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This lead to Rushdie being placed under federal protection by the United States government, even after the 1998 declaration by Iran’s president, Mohammed Khatami, that the threat was lifted. Today, Rushdie’s address remains unlisted.
But on the night of September 22nd, Rushdie was not appearing at the Portsmouth Music Hall to discuss his past, but rather his future, and his first novel published in seven years, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.
Before reading from selected excerpts from his new novel, Rushdie, 68, whose perpetually calm demeanor was complemented by a solid gray suit, addressed the audience, “Thank you for coming to hear about a really weird book,” he said. Afterwards, he sat down with Virginia Prescott of NHPR’s “Word of Mouth” to discuss his new novel, and his response to recent political events. Rushdie would often motion for the conversation to steer away from these issues, stating “I’m just a writer,” he said. “I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be the talking head that’s wheeled out.” When pressed for his views on religion though, Rushdie was obliged to respond.
“I think God is an invention by humans in order to explain things they don’t understand,” he said.
As the talk went on, Rushdie was able to explain details of his new book, and joke about Twitter – “there’s a zero before that seven, only 1.07 million followers,” he said – applause came from the crowd at the end, and Rushdie was directed backstage.
In a room swarmed by fans lining up to get a picture with Rushdie, an open table spread of Bailey’s and coffee and chocolate covered fruits lined the closed curtains that parted the privileged patrons from the rest of the world. As the crowd died down, I was directed over to Rushdie for a private interview. He sat at a small gray table with a glass of water, looking like a man who had just gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson.
In Midnight’s Children Saleem says “if small things go, will large things be left behind?” Can you explain this quote, and how might it tie in to issues facing the world today?
It’s similar to what [Arundhati Roy] was talking about in her book God of Small Things. If you don’t get the little things right, the big things won’t work, and the human character is brought up in small detail. To be able to pinpoint detail is what it is to write. If you can’t get significant details right, about a person or about a place, whatever it might be, the thing has no effect, it doesn’t work. So yeah, if small things go the big things disappear afterwards because they lose value.
What would you say to a college student who is afraid to grow up?
I think growing up is scary, but the alternative is dying as an immature creep. So grow up, otherwise you’re stuck being Peter Pan.
Having spent much of your life in England and now New York, do you feel at all like an outsider when you write about India?
When I’ve written about India I’ve not felt “other,” I’ve always felt like I’m part of what I’m writing about. In terms of England, yes, I do think I felt like a little one step outside the world. In New York I actually feel like I fit in, better than I fit in anywhere really. So finally, maybe I’ve stopped being India.
Is it important for Americans to read books about foreign countries?
I really do think for a long time Americans were very parochial in what they read, they basically read American writing. I think this is an age of such great translations that the world’s literature is suddenly available to us in very accessible forms. And I really strongly recommend that students, whoever I talk to, read outside your world. Read Japanese literature, read Russian literature, or read Afghan literature. You’ll get to understand the lived experience of other places in the world.
How do writers become great writers?
Just write. Writing is really hard, it will make you grow up faster than anything else.