It takes two staffers to carry the table into the back room of Books & Books. Though it's the same spindly-legged piece of wood at which scores of other writers have sat and autographed copies of their books, owner Mitchell Kaplan carefully inspects the location, which today is of crucial importance. "They wanted him to be able to get out that door fast," he explains, gesturing to a door several feet away that leads to an alley. "They also didn't want him to be seen straight through that doorway," he adds, and indicates a sight line that extends diagonally through two of the store's other rooms to the front entrance at the corner of Aragon Avenue and Salzedo Street in Coral Gables.
You can't take any chances when your book signer is the focus of a fatwa.
On this last Friday in January, Bombay-born novelist Salman Rushdie, in hiding and under guard since the Ayatollah Khomeini put a bounty on his head in 1989 for blaspheming Islam, has popped down to South Florida to sign copies of his new book, The Moor's Last Sigh.
Since September the 48-year-old Rushdie has been on a worldwide -- albeit unusual -- tour to promote the novel, his first since The Satanic Verses occasioned the death sentence. (The Iranian government has declared that the late ayatollah's decree isn't binding, but officials have refused to formalize that assertion by putting it in writing.) He has kept his itinerary secret, showing up at bookshops with little warning and no advance publicity. Kaplan himself didn't hear of Rushdie's plans until earlier in the week, when he got a call from a publicist at Pantheon Books, Rushdie's publisher, inviting him to the Delano hotel for a private dinner party for Rushdie and a handpicked guest list of local writers and literary types.
"They told me he was only going to be in town for a day and he might drop by the store. Then yesterday I found out he would be coming," recalls the slim, quiet Kaplan. Rushdie's people sent an advance man who cased the store to ensure the best possible security precautions. "It's been fairly low-key," Kaplan says. "We had Jimmy Carter here last year, which was a little more intense."
Kaplan had made a few phone calls to friends and members of the media, requesting that they discreetly spread the news by word of mouth, and by 10:00 a.m. twenty people have shown up, including novelists Bob Antoni and John Dufresne. Kaplan asks the small crowd to form a line for the signing. Novelist Fred D'Aguiar, lugging a stack of Rushdie tomes, gets the first spot.
"This is great, Mitch," says the just-arrived Sonny Mehta, president of Pantheon, a division of the publishing leviathan Random House. "So how are things? The book is selling?"
"Yes," Kaplan replies. "The book is selling."
Someone spots the guest of honor. "Here he is! Here he is!" a woman gushes. Flanked by two stone-faced bodyguards and trailed by his publicist, Rushdie sweeps through the door and smiles widely at the scene. Slightly paunchy, he is cloaked in black, from T-shirt to blazer to pants to shoes. Cameras flash and the crowd shifts for a better look.
"Well," Kaplan offers once the author has settled himself into his chair and the guards have positioned themselves on either side of him, "I'll start to bring in some people."
"Yes, people," Rushdie replies, his eyebrows arching upward above heavy lids. "Absolutely."
But before Kaplan guides the first in line into the room, Miami Herald columnist Liz Balmaseda steps forward and introduces herself, thrusting out a hand to be shaken and a book to be signed. "How are you doing? How's freedom?" she blurts.
"Oh, it's wonderful," Rushdie replies. "It's everything it's cracked up to be!"
Then the signing begins, Kaplan leading in visitors a few at a time, under the careful scrutiny of the security men. The author is disarmingly pleasant.
"We interrupted watching you on Donahue to come here," one confesses.
"Any chance you'll be here next month?" asks another.
"No, alas, I'm only here today."
"Would you make this out to Connie?"
"It's my pleasure."
Clutching four copies of The Moor's Last Sigh, Bob Antoni introduces himself. "Yes, right, Divina Trace," Rushdie says, leaning back slightly to behold the younger writer. "I read your book. But I got rather disappointed because there was this whole row about what your passport was." (A few years back Rushdie and Bill Buford, at that time editor of the literary magazine Granta, named a list of the top up-and-coming writers from the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Antoni, a native of Trinidad, was initially selected for the list but was dropped when it was learned he was a U.S. citizen.) "I really wanted to have your book on my list, but the nationality thing got in the way."
As Rushdie chats and signs, Sonny Mehta and Pantheon publicity director Suzanne Herz converse with Kaplan. "He's really enjoyed meeting people and talking to them," Mehta says. "It's the first time he's been able to do this in eight years in this country."
"He's having a ball," Herz adds. "He hasn't been on a book tour since before The Satanic Verses was canceled. He's out!"
This tour, she elaborates, has taken the three of them and the security detail around Europe and to South America. Rushdie first popped up in the U.S. this past month, with several appearances in New York. Since then he's traveled to Washington, D.C., Chicago, and the West Coast, granting interviews, autographing books, and giving a few invitation-only readings along the way. But the Books & Books foray is unique. While Rushdie has visited other bookstores, Herz explains, the entourage has never provided store owners with more than "five to ten minutes'" advance notice, content to have the author sign whatever copies of his books happened to be in stock at the time. "This is a whole new thing -- the fact that people were called and told he would be here at a certain hour," she says. "There's a very solid relationship between Mitchell and [Pantheon]. We felt comfortable with Mitchell."
The line dissolves after about half an hour -- during which time, Kaplan estimates, more than 100 people passed through -- and nearly everyone leaves except the media. As Rushdie starts in on the stock copies, he discusses his recent life and his emergence from hiding.
He's fed up with Iran's refusal to formally withdraw the death decree -- "this thing," as he refers to it -- and of the imposed confinement. "I'm trying to get back to this, and it seemed an appropriate time to do it," he says. "I miss it. It's been a long time."
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On the subject of his future plans, he is evasive but good-natured. Asked how long he will be in the U.S., he replies wryly: "For a certain amount of time."
"Can you tell us your exact itinerary?" a reporter asks jokingly.
"It is, in fact, exact," Rushdie deadpans.
He seems most intent upon emphasizing the twofold purpose of his tour: to thumb his nose at the death decree and to recoup his literary reputation. "It increased my fame and decreased my stature," he says of the fatwa. "In a strange way, it damaged the reputation that I had. And this novel, I'm happy to say, is going a long way toward restoring the damage. It's chasing clouds away."
At about 11:00 Rushdie and crew prepare to depart for a day of interviews and the dinner party at the Delano. Kaplan hands the author a gift, a copy of The Cockfighter Journal by the late Miami writer Charles Willeford. Ram centsn Mestre, a member of the Herald's editorial board, presents Rushdie with a slim volume by a Cuban poet, Miguel Gonzalez. Finally, Rushdie graciously complies with several requests for photos: one with Kaplan, another with a Time reporter, a third with Mestre and Balmaseda. "We wouldn't do this for Madonna," Balmaseda whispers afterward.
With that, Rushdie is escorted through the rear door and into a waiting Lincoln Continental driven by an enormous, vaguely menacing bald man. The big car pulls out of the alley, turns north onto Salzedo, and then heads east along Aragon, one of its tinted rear windows rolled down ever so slightly.