Born in Bombay, India, Salman Rushdie has made a name for himself over the last few decades in both traditional and nontraditional ways. The traditional: Win the Booker Prize. Get knighted. Non-traditional: Work with U2. Go into hiding after publishing The Satanic Verses and appearing on an Al Qaeda hit list.
Luckily, there’s (almost) no danger now, and Rushdie’s newest book, Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights is a tale of jinns (genies), magic, the every day, philosophy, and more. The idea was to tell an Arabian Nights fantasy story set against the backdrop of the modern world, mostly in New York City. New Times spoke with Rushdie about the novel, writing influences, and what he’s working on next.
New Times: Did you grow up with a lot of books in your house and what is the first book you remember reading?
Salman Rushdie: My parents had a pretty big library so there were books everywhere—obviously those were not kids books. I remember reading mostly British children books as American children’s books tended not to get to Bombay, so books like Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland, along with Superman and Batman comics, I read a lot of those.
What inspired you to write Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights? I read that it started with Geronimo the gardener.
That was the first character I had, yes. Initially, I thought I might just be writing a book about him [Geronimo] but then I began to think of a larger scale book. What I wanted to do was to find a way of talking about the feeling of strangeness that many people have in the world today, the feeling that the world is changing so fast and metamorphosizing into things that people don’t understand or grasp, both politically and technologically.
When did you get interested in magical realism?
I’ve never thought of it as magical realism because if you grow up in India with all these amazing fable-like stories all around you, that becomes your first literary influence if you like. And certainly for me it was the thing that made me fall in love with writing and reading. And so I thought that kind of writing—the literature of the fantastic, the fable, the fairy tale—was normal. Realism was something that I discovered much later and always seemed not normal. So my sense of what was the natural way to write was that route. And then I found myself responding strongly to western literature that seemed to have echoes of that tradition, so I found myself liking books by Kafka or Gogol or Bulgakov, writers in the western tradition who were doing something outside the frame of naturalism.
Who are you reading now?
Because I'm going to start teaching a course at NYU in the Spring semester on the non-fiction novel, I’ve been reading a lot of writers like Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List, books like that. At the moment, most of my spare reading is that, trying to prepare my course.
Since you're coming to Miami on Friday, I’m wondering if you’ve read Didion’s Miami?
Yes, I have, I’m a big fan. And I’m also an enormous fan, by the way, of Carl Hiaasen. And I once had the good fortune to have dinner with him many, many years ago with our mutual publisher, Sonny Mehta. And I remember saying to Carl — and all his books are about the skullduggery that goes on in Miami politics and so on — ‘what’s really going on,’ and he took a deep breath and stopped talking an hour later. And it was an amazing picture [of Miami], what you as a visitor never see.
U2 sought you out to use your lyrics (found in The Ground Beneath Her Feet). If you could collaborate with any band or musician today, whom would you choose?
(Laughs) Oh, my, that’s a tough question. The trouble is that a lot of people that I like are such wonderful songwriters anyway they certainly wouldn’t need me to write lyrics for them. There was a moment after that U2 episode when Blur wanted me to cooperate with them and I had this meeting with Alex James from Blur to talk about what we might do together but unfortunately he drunk an enormous amount of absinthe, so the meeting didn’t go that well.
What is your next project, or what are you working on now?
One of the things I’ve always regretted is that I have not written more short fiction. At the moment I’ve got files with four or five short stories in them in different degrees of completion, so yeah, I think I’m just going to write a bunch of short stories next.
Do you have a favorite short story or short story collection?
I have a few favorite short stories that I really love. I’ve always loved the literature of the American South. Eudora Welty’s story, “Why I Live at the P.O.” is an amazing story, and Flannery O’Connor’s, “Good Country People.” If I had to pick two short stories to tell people they had to read, I’d pick those two.
Salman Rushdie will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, September 18, at Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus Auditorium, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami. Admission requires the purchase of the book at Books and Books stores or online. Every purchase includes a voucher good for two entries to the reading and book signing. Call 305-442-4408 or go to booksandbooks.com for more info.
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