Salman Rushdie on The Satanic Verses at 25: "There Are No Pictures of Me in Hiding in My Memoir Because I Looked Like Sh*t"
Fans wait for signatures and Rushdie's healing touch last night at Miami Dade College
Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses being published in England. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence on Rushdie as punishment for the supposed blasmphemy in the novel, leading Rushdie and his family going into hiding for nearly a decade, constantly accompanied by an armed security detail. Rushdie's memoir of this period, Joseph Anton is newly out in paperback and the author was interviewed on stage last night at Miami-Dade College by Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan.
Before being introduced, the two were just a couple of guys with tidy facial hair, eschewing neckties from the side of the stage. They shared private jokes and rocked on their heels, waiting for the event to begin, betraying little of how their lives had been changed by a novel that was now a quarter century distant from its first edition. Literary placket watchers may have noted that Kaplan had his top two shirt buttons undone but the older writer only allowed himself one.
"In the late 1980s, as you all remember," Kaplan said, taking the rostrum in advance of Rushdie, "The Satanic Verses was under a huge attack all over the world. Part of being a bookseller was that we had to stand up for what was right and not be intimidated by those who tried to silence authors. So we proudly put it in our windows. And we did get some threats."
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The man who bore the brunt of those threats, however, stood expressionless next to a potted plant, one hand clasped patiently over the other wrist. Over the 30 years of the Miami Book Fair International, which Kaplan co-founded, Rushdie has been a frequent guest. Hence being brought back in a series of lead up events celebrating the Fair's history.
When Kaplan finally called Rushdie to the pair of armchairs and microphones awaiting them, Rushdie wiped at his goatee like an actor applying one last dab of makeup and bounded up the stairs with a smile for the crowd and a hug for Kaplan.
Kaplan began his questioning by asking about Rushdie's father, a man whose legacy hangs over much of the memoir and Rushdie's fiction.
"Anyone who reads my books can see they are full of sons who have difficult relationships with their fathers," Rushdie said. "Yeah, I was pleased to get away from him for a while but we became very close towards the end of his life."
When Midnight's Children came out, Rushdie's father was unhappy "because he thought the father was unflattering. But I said that if I really wanted to be unflattering, I wouldn't have left out all the things I did."
This didn't exactly ease tensions between father and son, but when friends started congratulating his father on the book's success, "he had to shut up."
Rushdie's father died about a year before the publication of The Satanic Verses. Just after Kaplan asked him what he thought his father's reaction to the book would have been, an embarrassed Nepalese gentleman's telephone rang in the row in front of Cultist.
"Let's ask him!" Rushdie cried, although the Nepalese man opted to send the spirit of Rushdie's father to voicemail instead. The burden was then on Rushdie to suppose from this plane of existence.
"He never wanted me to be a writer because he didn't think of it as a real job," he said. "Which is right. If my son wanted to be a writer, I would encourage him to get his head examined.
"He fortunately lived long enough to see it wasn't such a stupid idea. One thing I inherited from him was a complete lack of religious belief, which was a great gift to me," Rushdie said. He also got from his father a "complete fascination" with religion and so, "had he been alive, [The Satanic Verses] would have been my father's favorite book because it spoke to his concerns."
But Rushdie's father did not live to see the book's publication. In fact, his death shaped a key part of the story.
"I was writing the last part of the novel when he was dying in of cancer in 1987," Rushdie said. "He died very fast but fortunately I was able to get back and spend the last week of his life with him."
At the time, Rushdie was writing the portion of the novel in which a son was going back to see his dying father, something he claims was coincidental.
"In an earlier draft, the son gets back too late and the son is left with all this unresolved material," he remembered. "That's how I'd written it and I thought it went really well."
But then he had that "extraordinary" last week with his own dying father. He wondered if it was exploitative to write about it.
"You know, you only have one father and he only dies once," he said. "To use that in a novel only weeks after it happens has certain moral problems."
He decided to give it a try and, if it felt false, he would remove the new section.
"But I thought it was one of the best passages I've ever written."
Before all that happened, Rushdie was just a struggling novelist, looking to find his voice. Kaplan pointed out that early in his writing career, Rushdie was working in advertising at Ogilvy & Mather, where he "came up with famous jingles."
"I was very young, in my defense," Rushdie said. "The weird thing about Mad Men is that it has arrived at the moment [in the early 1970s] when I was working at advertising." The environment in his office was "almost as sexist as Mad Men but not quite as much. People drank, almost as much as on Mad Men, but not quite as much."
At the time, he said, advertising agencies were hiring unconventional types to do their creative work. "I made a Clairol Loving Care commercial with Nicholas Roeg," he remembered, as well as another commercial with Tony Scott "that looked quite like Top Gun."
But Midnight's Children began to sell well, allowing Rushdie to quit his job. And his success continued, then with Shame and leading up to The Satanic Verses, drawing on research he did at Cambridge as the university's first student of Islamic history, a then-neglected field.
There wasn't an immediate outcry over the novel.
"The one or two English language bookstores in Tehran had imported it and were selling it openly. Shame had won a literary prize there," Rushdie said. "Well, it was pirated in a Farsi translation and that won the award. People said, 'The mullahs must think his last book is okay because it won this prize.' So they sold it for six months without any trouble, without any objections. So when people tell me that 'He must have known'..."
But then things shifted when a mysterious decree was issued from the bedchambers of the dying Ayatollah, a written decree that Rushdie said no one has actually ever been able produce. The danger and the global fame it brought him were immediate. He and his family had to stay out of sight for nearly a decade with the protection of an armed security detail. The memoir's title comes from the name Rushdie assumed while in hiding, an amalgam of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov's names.
As for choosing it for as the title for his memoir, Rushdie said, "The great novels of the 18th and 19th centuries were always people's names," like David Copperfield and Tristram Shandy. "Those are good names and I wanted one of those [for a title of a book]. Eventually, I got one but it turned out to be mine."
The swirl around the fatwa could sometimes feel like it was happening to someone else, part of which is why Rushdie chose to write the memoir in the third person.
"There was a period then of a decade when every journalist in the world wanted to interview me and not a single one wanted to talk about my work," he remembered. "And if you think the thing that is valuable about you is your work, that's hard."
At "the moment the excrement hit the ventilation system," Rushdie was interviewed in England by Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes.
"He asks a couple of preliminary questions. His third question (and you can find this on YouTube, by the way) was, 'After this happened, your marriage broke up.' 'That's true.' 'So what do you do about sex?' And I thought, this is 60 Minutes?
"As it happens," Rushdie explained, "I had met the woman who became my wife and became the mother of my son, but wasn't about to tell Mike Wallace that."
Instead, he replied, "Actually Mike, I'm quite grateful for the rest."
To Rushdie, "the world was more surreal than it was possible to understand."
"It was a very dark time. My friends who saw me through it continue to be my close friends. They say to me that I look younger now than I did then, even though I'm 25 years older. One of the reasons there are no pictures of me in this book are because I looked like shit."
Plenty of time has passed since Rushdie emerged from hiding. Kaplan wondered why now was the right time for Joseph Anton.
"Writers don't make plans; they write more or less on instinct," Rushdie replied. "When I emerged from this period, the last thing I wanted to do was write about it. The idea of spending years writing about it and then talking about it was horrifying."
Though he had written nonfiction, long-form memoir was not something he had attempted up until Joseph Anton.
"The idea of why I became a novelist wasn't to write about myself but to make shit up," he said. "So I went back to the day job. But I had kept notes, a journal, and I knew I'd write about it."
Now, of course, the environment around the book has changed. From Rushdie's perspective, given the rapid turnover of the news cycle, "If you're under 30, this is ancient, forgotten stuff." And many of the people who had protested against Rushdie at the time were under 30, he explained. In the intervening years, "they grew up."
He recalled "a young man coming up to me and confessing that he had been one of the organizers of the demonstrations against The Satanic Verses. He said, 'It's okay because I'm an atheist now.'
"So I said that was progress. He said, 'And then recently, I finally read your book and I couldn't see what all the fuss was about.' But you're the person who was making the fuss!"
Rushdie remains "very proud of The Satanic Verses" and thinks that it's "one of the best books I ever wrote. I'm glad to see with the storm having died down that people are finally able to read it as a novel, not a political hot potato. And a lot of people like it."
It is to these readers that Rushdie has shifted his attention.
"I don't see why the people who read it and like it are less important than the people who didn't read it and didn't like it," he said. "The only thing that makes a book endure is that people like it. Scandal fades and the book fades when the scandal fades. Any book that lasts for a hundred years, that's the only reason why it's still read. The people who attacked the book had their say for 25 years and maybe now the people who liked the book can have their say."
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