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SAL­MAN TRI­UMPHANT RUSHDIE’S RE­TURN NEW TO NOVEL, RE­AL­ISM THE FOR GOLDEN THE TI­TAN HOUSE, OF MARKS LET­TERS A WHOSE IN­SIGHTS ON EV­ERY­THING FROM NOVEL-WRIT­ING AND MAG­I­CAL RE­AL­ISM TO IDEN­TITY AND SO­CIAL ME­DIA ARE AS FAS­CI­NAT­ING AS THE WORLDS HE CRE­ATES IN HIS

Poets and Writers - - Features - by porochista khakpour

Sal­man Rushdie’s new novel, The Golden House, marks a tri­umphant re­turn to re­al­ism for the ti­tan of let­ters whose in­sights on ev­ery­thing from novel-writ­ing and mag­i­cal re­al­ism to iden­tity and so­cial me­dia are as fas­ci­nat­ing as the worlds he cre­ates in his books.

ONCE upon a time, on a day of many firsts, a writer who had lived nearly four decades on a rather wounded, un­cer­tain planet met the writer she ad­mired most, a writer who had lived al­most ex­actly seven decades on that same bat­tered earth. It was the first hot day of the year, a week be­fore the of­fi­cial start of sum­mer (high of ninety-seven de­grees in Man­hat­tan, “record-breaking heat ad­vi­sory,” every news out­let de­clared), and the first in­ter­view Sal­man Rushdie was giv­ing for his new novel, The Golden House, pub­lished this month by Ran­dom House. It was also the first time I prop­erly sat down with the au­thor who has had more in­flu­ence on me than any other liv­ing writer. The Golden House is his eigh­teenth book—his thir­teenth novel, which has some­how been more qui­etly an­nounced than one might ex­pect—but I de­voured it in a sit­ting and a half, my fa­vorite Rushdie novel in years.

If F. Scott Fitzger­ald, Homer, Euripi­des, and Shake­speare col­lab­o­rated on a con­tem­po­rary fall-of-an-em­pire epic set in New York City, the re­sult would be The Golden House. Like Rome at its col­lapse, the Amer­ica of Rushdie’s new novel—not un­like our own Amer­ica— is burst­ing at the seams. Rushdie an­chors us to a film­maker nar­ra­tor as he nav­i­gates a life in the city to which only the wealth­i­est have ac­cess, and ul­ti­mately in­ter­sects with its new­est in­hab­i­tants, the mys­te­ri­ous Golden fam­ily—Nero Golden and his three adult sons—as well as a clas­sic New York vil­lain who em­barks upon a boor­ish pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Mean­while, themes of race and eth­nic­ity, gen­der and sex­u­al­ity, im­mi­grants and na­tives, out­siders and in­sid­ers, am­bi­tion and power, money and more money form the dizzy­ing back­drop for this wildly satiric and yet pierc­ingly real world of The Golden House. Rushdie isn’t just writ­ing a New York para­ble though; this is very much a re­turn to lit­er­ary re­al­ism, but it’s largely a hy­per­real re­al­ity of our own world, one that even his most celebrated mad­cap fab­u­lism couldn’t top.

And so I found my­self at his agent’s of­fice: a maze of book-lined rooms be­long­ing to the both renowned and no­to­ri­ous An­drew Wylie, just two blocks and yet worlds away from Trump Tower. One of Wylie’s as­sis­tants es­corted me to a cozy (cramped) con­fer­ence room with an an­cient air con­di­tioner try­ing to blast away the day’s sins of pol­lu­tion and hu­mid­ity. I was a bit ner­vous and ex­cited and over­heated and then over­chilled; I put on and then took off my jacket, over and over, and this con­tin­ued un­til, a few min­utes later, in walked Rushdie.

He was shak­ing his head at the weather, armed with a per­spir­ing iced cof­fee and wear­ing an ex­pen­sivelook­ing gray suit with a pale blue dress shirt, mustering a New York mum­bleapol­ogy as a greet­ing. He was a com­bi­na­tion of flus­tered, amused, anx­ious, and ex­hausted, but he rather quickly turned charm­ingly en­thu­si­as­tic about do­ing press, some­thing one might imag­ine is cum­ber­some at best for a man with a lit­er­ary ca­reer that spans more than four decades. He smiled gently through much of our in­ter­view but also at an­other first: his en­try into a new decade. Sal­man Rushdie was just days away from turn­ing seventy years old.

This was not my first en­counter with him. I had seen him speak many times in my life—braved many metal de­tec­tors and a po­lice pres­ence at var­i­ous times all around the world to hear him—but he and I also both moved

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR is the

au­thor of the nov­els Sons and Other Flammable Ob­jects (Grove, 2007) and The Last Illusion (Blooms­bury, 2014), and

the forth­com­ing mem­oir Sick (Harper Peren­nial, 2018). Her writ­ing has ap­peared

in many sec­tions of the New York Times, the Guardian, the Los An­ge­les Times, the Wall Street Jour­nal, Book­fo­rum, Elle, Vir­ginia Quar­terly Re­view, and other publi­ca­tions around the world.

to New York around the same time, two decades ago, and I’d oc­ca­sion­ally seen him around town. One time, in my early twen­ties, at a fancy down­town party I’d drunk­enly snuck into, I blurted to the as­tound­ingly ac­ces­si­ble New Yorker, “I love your work, but I’m from the coun­try that tried to kill you, sorry!” (He didn’t say a thing but maybe laughed, and I did not re­mind him of this dur­ing our in­ter­view.)

In 2015 I met him at the PEN Lit­er­ary Gala, for which I served as a table host and where fel­low table hosts who were Bard col­leagues of mine be­came known as parts of the “PEN Six” for boy­cotting the event, which rather con­tro­ver­sially hon­ored Char­lie Hebdo, among oth­ers. I had not been a fan of their de­ci­sion, as I felt very de­voted to PEN, so I went on with my table host du­ties. But a few times on Twit­ter I’d been crit­i­cal of Rushdie’s at­ti­tude to­ward those boy­cotting (Rushdie was a for­mer PEN pres­i­dent and not shy about this anger at those walking away from the gala), so when I got to the event, sev­eral pho­tog­ra­phers kept nudg­ing me to take a photo with him. I fi­nally ended up shak­ing hands with Rushdie and in­tro­duc­ing my­self awk­wardly as cam­eras snapped away. “I know who you are,” he said, and we ex­changed niceties and I walked off star­ing into my cham­pagne flute and eye­ing the metal de­tec­tors and hordes of se­cu­rity at the Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory, think­ing to my­self, “Well, if we all die tonight, at least I can die know­ing Sal­man Rushdie is not that mad at me.”

Be­cause long be­fore I en­coun­tered him in per­son, I had been his fan. My work has long been com­pared to his, and that’s no co­in­ci­dence. I first read The Sa­tanic Verses just a few years af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion in 1988 (I was ten). My Ira­nian fam­ily—Mus­lims who had fled dur­ing the Ira­nian Revolution— had been im­pressed by Rushdie’s bold con­fronta­tion of some dark as­pects of Is­lam more than his lit­er­ary prow­ess. In 1989, af­ter a riot protest­ing the book in Pak­istan, Iran’s Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini is­sued a still-in-place fatwa or­der­ing the au­thor’s death, and my aunt bought us a hard­cover, not­ing it would be worth some­thing one day. There had been so much on the news about it that I be­came ob­sessed with it—this was yet an­other in­stance in which my worlds of Amer­ica and Iran col­lided. I was al­ready dream­ing of be­ing a writer one day, and for the first time I learned that you might have to risk your life for art.

You could say that Sal­man Rushdie has changed the course of my life in many ways.

So on that blis­ter­ingly hot June day I was ner­vous to meet this hero of mine in this con­text. But what I found re­mark­able in the cou­ple of hours we had to­gether was not just that the ti­tan of let­ters is full of ster­ling in­sights on ev­ery­thing from nov­el­writ­ing to iden­tity to so­cial me­dia to mag­i­cal re­al­ism to mod­ernism to New York—but that there is also some­thing breath­tak­ingly down-to-earth about Rushdie, who often seems both sur­prised and de­lighted by any praise, who seems as in­se­cure as every writer I know (in­clud­ing me), and who feels as un­sure of the state of our world as we all do.

Here you are now at your thir­teenth novel. Or should I as­sume you are on to num­ber four­teen now?

I’m not ac­tu­ally. I have no idea what’s next. I have a com­pletely empty head. Which is not a good feel­ing ac­tu­ally. [Laugh­ter.] I al­ways feel hap­pier when I’ve got a project to work on. This book took a lot out of me.

I was ex­tra ex­cited to read it, and I feel like this is one of your best books. I’ve been think­ing a lot about your first book,

Grimus, ac­tu­ally….

No­body re­ally liked it when it came out…ex­cept Ur­sula LeGuin. She’s been my loyal critic from the very be­gin­ning.

I think it’s a great first novel.

You do? Well, thank you. I’m not so sure my­self. [Laugh­ter.] Af­ter it came out and af­ter its re­ally quite poor re­cep­tion, I did a lot of re­think­ing about what I think is wrong about it, never mind what other peo­ple said. And that process of re­think­ing is what led me even­tu­ally to Mid­night’s Chil­dren. It was par­tially a way of re­ject­ing what I was try­ing to do in my first novel, that I found my way. So in my head that’s a book I re­jected in or­der to dis­cover my path. I think it’s a book in which the au­thor has not found his voice yet. I think it’s kind of er­ratic. There are pas­sages that I think are re­ally em­bar­rass­ing. So I don’t look at it very often.

But it’s from there that you started this life­long project of bring­ing in mythol­ogy and his­tory from meta per­spec­tives.

Well, yes, that’s been there from the be­gin­ning, I think. I pre­sume you know Farid ud-Din At­tar and The Con­fer­ence of the Birds. Yes, of course. That was a text I’d re­ally al­ways liked. And so the book started there. I started to see how you might make some con­tem­po­rary fic­tion out of that idea. That part of the book I’m okay about.

I used that book and the Shah­nameh in my sec­ond novel, The Last Illusion, and it was you who taught me to how to do that.

Oh! Tak­ing in myth and mash­ing it up with con­tem­po­rary New York and the Amer­i­can psy­che and Mus­lim iden­tity, bal­anc­ing all that….

Oh, good. Well, the thing I al­ways felt about the great sto­ries, the myths, is how much they con­cen­trated into a very small space. I re­mem­ber much later, when I was writ­ing The Ground

Be­neath Her Feet, where the Or­pheus story is quite cen­tral to that—I mean, you could tell the story of Or­pheus and Eury­dice in un­der a hun­dred words, and yet there’s so much in there that if you start un­pack­ing it you can write a six-hun­dred-page novel. I think that’s what the great myths do: They give you these in­cred­i­bly con­cen­trated pieces of mean­ing that you can un­pack al­most like Mary Pop­pins’s bag; endless stuff comes out of it. So I’ve quite often gone back there. Not so much in this book, but, for in­stance, in the novel be­fore. I re­ally tried to re­visit those sto­ries. Not just One Thou­sand and One Nights but sto­ries of that sort. I’d writ­ten these two books for younger readers out of that same kind of sen­si­bil­ity, but if you read those sto­ries they are not writ­ten for younger readers. I mean, One Thou­sand and One Nights is an adult book. It’s not a chil­dren’s book.

Def­i­nitely. But I some­times think we of the East can han­dle more adult sub­ject mat­ter, just like we can han­dle darker hu­mor a bit bet­ter.

Maybe. Grow­ing up in In­dia, with this kind of story ma­te­rial as the first fic­tional air that you breathe, was re­ally a gift—and not just One Thou­sand and One Nights, but the an­i­mal fa­bles and of course The Ma­hab­harata and The Rubaiyat and all these grand nar­ra­tives. It gave me a way of think­ing that I’ve never en­tirely set aside. Although I’ve al­ways slightly re­sisted the kind of mag­i­cal re­al­ist tag be­cause I be­lieve that be­longs prop­erly to that group of South Amer­i­can writ­ers, and it should be kept for them.

Yes, I feel that way too. What about the term fab­u­lism?

Well, I think mag­i­cal re­al­ism, fab­u­lism, French sur­re­al­ism, it’s kind of all the same thing. And then if you look at the his­tory of lit­er­a­ture, it’s all over the place all the time—I mean Kafka’s a mag­i­cal re­al­ist and so is Go­gol. The point is it’s a kind of writ­ing that’s al­ways been around. But then some­times you don’t want to do it. With this book, I re­ally didn’t want to do it. So I just think of it as one of the avail­able ways of telling a story, and what you do de­pends on the story you want to tell.

I think a lot of peo­ple for­get that fab­u­lism is main­stream world lit­er­a­ture— and that the do­mes­tic or psy­cho­log­i­cal re­al­ism we have in the United States is the anom­aly. As an Ira­nian, I used to find Cheever, Salter, Yates, and oth­ers so ex­otic. For me, they were the other.

Yes. Cer­tainly, I mean, Cheever is quite ex­otic. [Laugh­ter.] The thing about re­al­ism in its great hey­day is that it de­pended on there be­ing an agree­ment be­tween writer and reader about the na­ture of re­al­ity. And so that when Trol­lope or George Eliot are writ­ing, they can ex­pect their reader to have, broadly speak­ing, the same world­view as them­selves. They would agree about what the world was like. When you have that agree­ment, then you can build a re­al­ist novel on that. But we now live in a time when that con­sen­sus has very much bro­ken down. We don’t have an agree­ment about the na­ture of re­al­ity. I mean, re­al­ity is now an ar­gu­ment. And some­times it be­comes a vi­o­lent ar­gu­ment. So I don’t think you can write re­al­ism in the way that peo­ple used to be­cause of this prob­lem about con­sen­sus, about there not be­ing a con­sen­sus about what is real. I mean, look what’s hap­pen­ing in this coun­try. There are nar­ra­tives about Amer­ica now that have al­most no meet­ing point. One man’s truth is an­other man’s lie. When you live in this kind of mo­ment, you have to be aware of that. And so my view is that re­al­ism is very broad church—on one end of it you’ve got Ray­mond Carver, and on the other end you’ve got James Joyce. I mean, Ulysses is a com­pletely re­al­is­tic novel—it’s just that high mod­ernism did some­thing else with re­al­ism.

The funny thing in this dis­cus­sion is that we who are stylists and lan­guage writ­ers—and I know that’s a dicey term too—get this ques­tion­ing from readers and crit­ics that cen­ters around our style and its re­la­tion to sub­stance. As in, why do you choose to tell it in the way you are telling it?

I think that’s a good ques­tion to ask your­self, ac­tu­ally. One of the things I do when I’m teach­ing peo­ple is I say, “There are a num­ber of ques­tions you have to ask when you are be­gin­ning a project: one is what are you writ­ing about and what is the story you are telling; then you have to ask whose story is it; then you have to ask why are you telling it; and then the big­gest and most im­por­tant ques­tion is how are you do­ing it and why are you do­ing it that way?” The how ques­tion is what makes a work of lit­er­a­ture work or not work. I mean, with Ulysses there is not much story. Man works around Dublin for a day. His wife is un­faith­ful to him. He meets a younger writer in the red-light district. I mean, re­ally not very much hap­pens. But the how is what makes it this gi­gan­tic work of lit­er­a­ture.

We often talk of voice, of au­thor­ity, which is also a neb­u­lous con­cept for stu­dents, but the Rush­dian sto­ry­teller voice is some­thing I’ve grown up with and is so com­fort­ing to me. I al­ways know it’s you. And I know my sto­ry­teller is ac­tu­ally my au­thor. And I feel that with

The Golden House, too.

One of the things that was a dis­cov­ery for me here was the nar­ra­tor. In the very early stages of work­ing on this book, I had the very boring idea that he should be a writer. [Laugh­ter.] And I started writ­ing it like that and then I thought, “Stop it, this is so aw­ful!” It would be bet­ter if he were a tax ac­coun­tant than a writer. But then I thought, you know, I’ve al­ways been very in­ter­ested in cin­ema. I’ve maybe not writ­ten about it as much as I’d liked to have. I think ac­tu­ally a lot of my for­ma­tive ed­u­ca­tion was in the world of the art­house cin­ema. The mo­ment I could think of him as a young film­maker, it re­ally opened a huge se­ries of doors for me in the book—first of all, he’s more in­ter­est­ing that way, and sec­ond

it al­lows me to use a whole num­ber of cin­e­matic tricks and de­vices. There are mo­ments when the book slips into a sort of screen­play and it can have a kind of mon­tage ef­fect, col­lag­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of scenes next to each other. That sim­ple de­ci­sion to make him not a writer but a young film­maker al­lowed me some for­mal pos­si­bil­i­ties that oth­er­wise the book wouldn’t have had. Then this thing hap­pened that was even more sur­pris­ing. I thought at first, even as a film­maker, he’s been this eye-of-the-cam­era kind of fig­ure just watching, and the story would be about this crazy fam­ily. And the more I got into it, the more I re­al­ized, ac­tu­ally it was about him—that ac­tu­ally the book was just as much his story as the story of the Golden fam­ily. And so it was some­thing I didn’t set out to do, it started be­ing a sort of bil­dungsro­man, a novel that was about get­ting wis­dom—this young man, through his en­gage­ment with these peo­ple, in a way learn­ing how to be a man and be­ing at­tracted to ter­ri­ble deeds and hav­ing to sur­vive his own mis­deeds. I thought, “Oh, I didn’t know that—I’m writ­ing a book about him.”

I thought about that choice and thought about Fitzger­ald and The Great Gatsby and his de­ci­sion to give us the novel in Nick’s point of view.

Ev­ery­one says Gatsby, but I don’t think I even thought of Gatsby ex­cept in the most tan­gen­tial way. Be­cause to me what’s in­ter­est­ing about Gatsby—I mean, many things are in­ter­est­ing about Gatsby—but one thing is that al­most ev­ery­one in the novel is from the Mid­west, and it’s about peo­ple from the Mid­west com­ing to the East Coast and be­ing screwed up! [Laugh­ter.] And the survivor, which is Nick, goes home. So it seems to me Fitzger­ald is talk­ing about that. I mean, I sup­pose the ob­vi­ous Gatsby thing is rein­ven­tion, which, af­ter all, is the great sub­ject for the Amer­i­can novel, from Huck­le­berry Finn. But I think the ques­tion of iden­tity has be­come so cen­tral that [in writ­ing] this book [I saw] it in all sorts of forms, you know: what hap­pens to mi­grants, what hap­pens in gen­der iden­tity. I mean, the sub­ject of iden­tity has be­come huge, and in many parts of the world, as you know, it’s be­come heav­ily politi­cized. Like in In­dia, iden­tity and au­then­tic­ity are now be­ing in­ter­preted by Hindu na­tion­al­ists as mean­ing only one par­tic­u­lar kind of In­dian is an au­then­tic per­son, and these other peo­ple are in some way what V. S. Naipaul might have called “mimic men.” And iden­tity is­sues can be­come re­pres­sive. And so in an­other part of my head I felt I needed to get into that be­cause this is what ev­ery­body is think­ing about.

It’s amaz­ing to read your new book in this time pe­riod. Will you find it frus­trat­ing, or will you be open to it be­ing now con­stantly com­pared to life in Trum­p­lan­dia?

I mean, yeah, of course, it does go from Obama to Trump. And I kind of guessed right. I mean, I’m sorry to say it. [Laugh­ter.]

When was it writ­ten?

It was writ­ten last year. I mean, 99 per­cent of it was writ­ten be­fore the elec­tion. I was also aware of the fact that if things had gone an­other way there may have had to be some re­shap­ing done to it, which sadly I didn’t have to do. There’s also some­thing about an arc that goes from a mo­ment of great op­ti­mism to its op­po­site, which has a kind of shape…it has a good shape. It’s an aw­ful thing to say: that this thing that is very bad for Amer­ica is very good for the novel. It pro­vides this light-in­to­dark­ness tra­jec­tory. Which is not the tra­jec­tory of the story—I thought that was good be­cause oth­er­wise it could be read as some kind of straight­for­ward al­le­gory, and I didn’t want it to be. I mean, ob­vi­ously I can’t pre­tend there isn’t an echo of some Trump stuff in there, but it seems to me to be very much some kind of back­ground, not fore­ground. It is not like an at­tempt to write a Trump novel. It doesn’t ig­nore that it’s hap­pened, but it is not what the book is about.

Who do you think is your ideal reader these days? Do you think about that?

I don’t have an ideal reader, but I ac­tu­ally like who my readers are. Just in terms of who shows up. First of all, I’m happy to say lots of peo­ple show up. That’s good! But also they are a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­body. I mean, any pub­lisher will tell you that with­out mid­dle-aged white ladies there would be no fic­tion; there would be no pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies. [Laugh­ter.] But I re­ally like that my read­er­ship is ex­tremely di­verse. And also in terms of age there is a very wide range. There are al­ways a lot of very young peo­ple. It’s kind of nice when you’re about to turn seventy to feel that there are peo­ple who weren’t born when you started pub­lish­ing books, who have an in­ter­est in what you are do­ing.

I used to see my stu­dents dis­cover you on Twit­ter all the time.

Yes. Well, I have aban­doned Twit­ter. It was just the mo­ment to stop. I started be­cause some­body said why don’t you try it and you might find it in­ter­est­ing, and I did, and then you ac­quire all these peo­ple—I think it’s at one and a quar­ter mil­lion or some­thing—I mean, it’s quite hum­bling when you look at Neil Gaiman or Stephen Fry and so on. Okay, so it’s only one and a quar­ter mil­lion. And then you get to the up­per ech­e­lons like Justin Bieber, and then for­get about it. But it was in­ter­est­ing to be able to have a way of talk­ing to a mil­lion peo­ple di­rectly, and then be­cause of the phe­nom­e­non of retweet­ing you ac­tu­ally are talk­ing to many more. And that was in­ter­est­ing. And then I just sud­denly thought, “I don’t want this noise in my head.” Jonathan Franzen has al­ways been sort of a de­nial­ist of all this stuff, and I re­mem­ber he gave some state­ment some­where say­ing writ­ers should know bet­ter. And at the time I re­mem­ber think­ing, “Okay, Jonathan, you do that and I’ll do this,” but ac­tu­ally I’m more and more agree­ing with him. I haven’t missed it for a nanosec­ond. I deleted the app.

Do you think you’ll come back?

I don’t know. If you are on a book tour and you’re go­ing to be in San Fran­cisco to­mor­row, it’s quite use­ful to say I’m reading at such-and-such to­mor­row, so I might do that. Twit­ter is a way of reach­ing a lot of peo­ple, but it’s also so bad-man­nered. I think the anonymity is what does it. It al­lows peo­ple to be dis­cour­te­ous in a way they’d never be if they were sit­ting in the same room as you and if you knew their name.

A while ago I had some­one tweet at me “Go kill your­self,” and then I met the per­son and said, “Hi, I am here now; how do you feel?” but of course the re­sponse was, quickly, “Oh no I didn’t mean it.”

Oh, yeah, now it’s a fig­ure of speech! [Laugh­ter.] I just think some­how we’re bring­ing up a gen­er­a­tion of rude peo­ple be­cause of the ease of it and lack of ac­count­abil­ity and lack of con­se­quences. So I just thought, “I don’t like it; I don’t like the tone or voice of it,” so I stopped do­ing it.

I do ap­pre­ci­ate that you are very much en­gaged with your au­di­ence. When I moved here twenty years ago, I’d see you at par­ties. You’re a writer who’s very much in the world and you haven’t done that thing that writ­ers some­times do, which I think of as an ob­ses­sive glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of an in­tro­ver­sion that might be more mis­an­thropy.

Yeah, I’m not like that. I’m not like that as a per­son, so why would I be like that as a writer? I mean, I ad­mire writ­ers who can just shut the world out, but I think the great thing about the novel is that it plunges its hands deep into what’s hap­pen­ing. I’m into the idea of try­ing to know as much about as many parts of the world as pos­si­ble. Don’t just sit in your own com­fort zone. Try and be in rooms that are dif­fer­ent no mat­ter what hap­pens in those rooms. Get deep into the mat­ter of life, you know? And you can’t do that in an ivory tower—you have to be in the world. And cer­tainly this city. Who can write about it if you don’t get into it? You can’t just sit in your lit­tle apart­ment and imag­ine New York. I’ve been here a long time—it’s been al­most twenty years now. And the way I’ve writ­ten about it has changed in that time. Be­fore I was liv­ing here I wrote The Ground Be­neath Her Feet, about an­other New York that doesn’t ex­ist any­more. It’s about when I first dis­cov­ered New York—I first came here in the early sev­en­ties, I must have been twenty-six or so. That’s that other city: CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, dirt, and mug­gings.

When I wrote Fury, I thought it was a novel of ar­rival, about com­ing here. I can’t write the novel in the way Don DeLillo would write New York; that wouldn’t be pos­si­ble. But there was an­other kind of New York novel about com­ing here; most peo­ple in this city came from some­where else, so I thought I’d write about that. And The Golden House—I think be­cause I re­ally have been here a long time—it is just prob­a­bly the most New York New York novel I’ve ever writ­ten.

You not only re­fer to but you cre­ate a mythol­ogy of New York City.

Well, you no­tice al­most all the ma­jor char­ac­ters are im­mi­grants. Ev­ery­body is from Ar­gentina or In­dia or Burma. And that’s on pur­pose. I tried to cre­ate a kind of New York that feels like it’s mine, that feels like a city for me to write about.

I often think there’s a way New York City em­braces those of us who are from other places, per­haps even bet­ter than some white peo­ple—say, the ru­ral white Amer­ica the New Yorker Trump tried to ap­peal to.

I al­ways thought of my­self first of all as a kind of big-city writer. I spent al­most all my life in Bom­bay, Lon­don, or here. I think if that’s your frame of mind, it’s not so dif­fi­cult to ad­just from one big city to an­other be­cause you know how it is to live in a big city. But if you’re com­ing from some small ru­ral com­mu­nity, I think there are jour­neys that are from the depths of Amer­ica to the big cities that are maybe more com­pli­cated than from an­other coun­try to here, as

long as it’s one me­trop­o­lis to an­other. So I know I fit very eas­ily into any kind of big-city en­vi­ron­ment—I know how it goes. For me the op­po­site has been dif­fi­cult, which is to write about out­side the city. When I wrote Shal­i­mar the Clown, a lot of which takes places in a Kash­miri vil­lage, I re­ally set my­self the task of say­ing, “You have to be able to write about this.” Be­cause cer­tainly in In­dia the re­al­ity of the vil­lage is very, very im­por­tant; be­cause of the way the pop­u­la­tion is dis­trib­uted, most peo­ple still live in vil­lages. Two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion lives in vil­lages of less than two hun­dred peo­ple. So one could ar­gue, and peo­ple do ar­gue, that the ur­ban re­al­ity of In­dia is not typ­i­cal— and ac­tu­ally the ru­ral re­al­ity is the real one. So I made my­self en­ter into that other re­al­ity, which doesn’t come nat­u­rally to me.

This goes back to your say­ing ear­lier what is the real—what is the real ex­pe­ri­ence, what is the au­then­tic per­son—and I think es­pe­cially to­day we have to com­pli­cate that ques­tion and the nar­ra­tives.

Well, I think we are just liv­ing in a mo­ment when we are be­ing asked to nar­row our­selves—you know, when we are asked to frame our­selves more and more nar­rowly. That’s true of po­lit­i­cal iden­tity, gen­der iden­tity, cul­tural iden­tity. The Mu­seum of Iden­tity in the novel is ob­vi­ously made up, but I’m amazed that it doesn’t ex­ist.

I al­most had to look it up.

And I’m sure it will ex­ist. Two years from now there will be a Mu­seum of Iden­tity. I mean, it’s a comic de­vice to ex­plore all this, but I think one of the great things that the novel has al­ways known is that our iden­ti­ties are very plu­ral. You know, “Do I con­tra­dict my­self? / Very well then I con­tra­dict my­self.” That idea that we are not uni­tary selves, that we are very poly­mor­phous. To make char­ac­ters in a book in­ter­est­ing and alive they have to be like that— if they are only one thing then they are dead. I tried to ex­plore that over the years quite a lot. We all have this ca­pac­ity to shift our­selves ac­cord­ing to our cir­cum­stances. All the time. To say you’ve got to choose one of those things, to me, it’s a strait­jacket.

I often use the ex­am­ple of pil­low talk with peo­ple I teach. That voice that very few of us hear, that pri­vate self. What then if your mother sud­denly calls you in the mid­dle of it? What will your voice sound like then?

Yes, when your selves col­lide.

Some young peo­ple worry that this is a big prob­lem. And I often have to tell them it’s not a prob­lem.

I don’t like to of­fer a util­i­tar­ian view of reading lit­er­a­ture, but one of the uses of lit­er­a­ture is that it shows you what hu­man be­ings are re­ally like. And they are not like that. And thank good­ness we’re not, be­cause we would be much less in­ter­est­ing if we were. And I don’t like that there is a kind of rhetor­i­cal pres­sure that, I think you’re right, young peo­ple feel quite strongly right now. Although I won­der if there’s al­ready a backlash against it. I think we live in a time when the world moves so fast that yes­ter­day’s or­tho­doxy is to­day’s un­ortho­doxy. I worry about the fact that now num­bers of young peo­ple for what seems to them to be vir­tu­ous rea­sons be­come pre­pared to es­pouse ideas of cen­sor­ship—that cer­tain things should not be said be­cause they don’t agree with them. And they don’t see what a dan­ger­ous choice that is. But again, ev­ery­one talks about what’s hap­pen­ing in the academy, and I have to say I have been teach­ing in the Amer­i­can academy for twenty years now and I have not had a sin­gle ex­pe­ri­ence of that sort. Not one per­son has ever tried to say these things are im­proper thoughts. But what I’m say­ing is that I’m not sure there is as much of it as we have been led to be­lieve—it might be more ex­cep­tional than we think. Cer­tainly in classes I’ve taught, there has been ab­so­lute in­ter­est in that way of think­ing.

I’ve mostly had stu­dents re­ject trig­ger warn­ings.

Ex­actly. I’ve had the same ex­pe­ri­ences— stu­dents re­ally dis­like the idea of trig­ger warn­ings, as they should. Be­ing sur­prised by a book is one of the good things about it.

I saw an in­ter­view you gave in late March that made me re­flect again on The Sa­tanic Verses and your ex­pe­ri­ence there. You talked about how there is hu­mor in all you do, some­thing I was drawn to in all your work. And one of the things you dis­cussed in the in­ter­view that moved me was that hav­ing the fatwa made peo­ple ac­tu­ally for­get how funny The Sa­tanic

Verses is.

Yeah, no­body says it’s a funny book…ex­cept peo­ple who read it. But I think what hap­pened is that it col­ored peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions of what sort of writer they thought I was. And be­cause it was such a dark event: In a way the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the at­tack were as­sumed to be also the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the writ­ing. But that’s been a cloud that still hovers around me. I think for some peo­ple it gets in the way of pick­ing up the book, like, “Oh no, that’s not my kind of thing,” be­cause of as­sump­tions made be­cause of what hap­pened.

And our names, I’ll bet. They see for­eign names and think, “Oh, no, this must be some heavy thing.”

Yes, ex­actly. All I can do is con­tinue to write. I mean, The Sa­tanic Verses was my fifth pub­lished book, and this is my eigh­teenth. I cer­tainly tell peo­ple not to read that book first—to read al­most any­thing else first.

I found my­self rec­om­mend­ing to a stu­dent to read Joseph An­ton first.

Well, I’m happy, ob­vi­ously, but I just think of that as hav­ing done what I wanted it to do. When I started out as a writer, if you had asked me whether I would ever write an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, I would have said ab­so­lutely not. That would be the least in­ter­est­ing thing in the world. And then I ac­quired an in­ter­est­ing life. Then I thought, “Given what hap­pened, I don’t want some­body else to be the per­son telling that story,” so at some point I felt I had to do it. But still, I don’t think of my­self as a non­fic­tion writer even though that’s the long­est book I’ve writ­ten.

Do you have peo­ple read your work be­fore it goes out?

No­body sees any­thing un­til I’m fin­ished. Then it goes here [to An­drew Wylie], and then it goes to the pub­lish­ers. Then I do have a few friends I show it to, yeah. I re­ally find it too fright­en­ing to re­veal a work-in-progress. It’s so frag­ile. If I show you some­thing and I know it’s not quite there yet and you say this is in­ter­est­ing and it’s not quite there yet, I get de­pressed. I mean once, years ago, when I was much younger, I went to a reading of John Irv­ing’s in Lon­don in which he said this is a first draft and in­vited the au­di­ence to make sug­ges­tions. And I thought, “That’s so scary.” I could have never done that. So what I

“When I started out as a writer, if you had asked me whether I would ever write an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, I would have said ab­so­lutely not. That would be the least in­ter­est­ing

thing in the world. And then I ac­quired an

in­ter­est­ing life.”

con­sider to be fin­ished is where there’s a point at which I’m not re­ally mak­ing it bet­ter any­more. I’m just push­ing things around and mak­ing them dif­fer­ent, and then I think, “Now I need to know what other peo­ple have to say.” With all the many hats that you wear— hu­man­i­tar­ian work, an ap­point­ment at NYU, the talks, the trav­el­ing—are you writ­ing every day? When I’m writ­ing a novel, yes. The novel comes first and ev­ery­thing else has to take a num­ber. I’ve al­ways had this view that you wake up every day with a lit­tle nugget of cre­ative juice for the day and you can ei­ther use it or you waste it. My view is, there­fore, you write first. Get up, get out of bed, get to your desk, and work. Usu­ally a cou­ple of hours, un­til I know what I’m do­ing that day. Then I can go have a shower and the rest and then go back to it. Do the work first; oth­er­wise it doesn’t get done. I’ve al­ways thought of the nov­el­ist as a long-dis­tance run­ner; that’s the marathon. It doesn’t mean a marathon run­ner is a more gifted ath­lete than a sprinter, but it’s just that kind of ath­let­ics. It’s long-form, you have to chip away at it, let the mark posts go by and trust that one day the fin­ish line will come. You can’t even think about the fin­ish line when you start. I won­der if that’s why your work has a con­sis­tency to it that I feel. I can re­ally see your project as an au­thor. There’s a logic to it all. That might be eas­ier for you to see than me. Me, I don’t want to do the same thing every time. I’m al­ways look­ing for some way to get at it in a way I haven’t done be­fore. For ex­am­ple, the last novel came af­ter Joseph An­ton and was in many ways a re­ac­tion to it—be­cause af­ter this im­mense piece of non­fic­tion, I wanted to do some­thing very, very fic­tional, some­thing on the other end of the pen­du­lum. And then I thought, “Well, that book goes as far into that as you could, so what else can I do that I haven’t done be­fore?” And this kind of mod­ernist way of ap­proach­ing re­al­ity is where The Golden House came from. It came out of think­ing about mod­ernism.

I do think of you as a mod­ernist au­thor.

Well, if you think about it, mod­ernism is a hun­dred years old. You know, mod­ernism isn’t mod­ern.

I love it so much. I tend to feel less aes­thet­i­cally in­ter­ested in a lot of what was cat­e­go­rized as post­mod­ern.

I re­mem­ber do­ing an event with Ed­ward Said at Columbia, and in the Q&A this gen­tle­man stood up who was clearly a mem­ber of the fac­ulty—and he seemed very agi­tated—and he said, “We’ve al­ways claimed you as post­colo­nial­ist; are you still with us?” And I said, “Well, you know, we just met!” I think the thing about post­colo­nial­ism is that, yes, ob­vi­ously there was a pe­riod where it was very im­por­tant, es­pe­cially in In­dia, and there is an ob­vi­ous sense in which Mid­night’s Chil­dren is post­colo­nial­ist. But

it was seventy years ago. No­body in In­dia thinks very much about the Bri­tish Em­pire. The sub­ject is gone. So now you’re in a mo­ment that’s post-post­colo­nial. I think the same thing is true for post­mod­ernism. That we’ve gone a few steps more than that now—there isn’t a name for it, but there doesn’t need to be.

A mod­ernist fan and writer friend of mine, Can Xue, calls her work neo­clas­si­cal ex­per­i­men­tal in­stead of, say, avant­garde.

Well, I just don’t like la­bels. If some­one tries to put me in a par­tic­u­lar box, I im­me­di­ately want to be in a dif­fer­ent box. I’ve never been a great gang mem­ber. There are writ­ers who like to travel in packs—I don’t like that. The thing about mag­i­cal re­al­ism is, those guys re­ally were think­ing to­gether in a way. They ac­tu­ally had a kind of project in the way the French sur­re­al­ists had a project. But I have the Grou­cho Marx po­si­tion: not want­ing to be a mem­ber of any club that would have me as a mem­ber. I just think what is great about this art form is that it’s one sin­gle in­tel­li­gence say­ing, “Here’s how I see it.” An in­tel­li­gence that no­body owns. It’s just this one per­son say­ing, “I will tell you this.” And you can be lucky or un­lucky—the point of that is it’s a big gam­ble. But the de­sire to be that in­di­vid­ual voice I think is what makes a nov­el­ist. Every nov­el­ist I’ve ever loved has that thing where you know it’s them. You pick up a ran­dom page of DeLillo and it’s no­body else.

This re­minds me of your re­ac­tions when peo­ple bring up the No­bel Prize. I’ve seen you laugh at the idea, though I per­son­ally think you should be up for it al­ready.

But look at who gets it. [Laugh­ter.] You know, I’ve been lucky with prizes a lot of the time, and un­lucky a lot of the time, and that’s just the game. But I don’t think of it as se­ri­ous.

You’re not perched by your phone on No­bel an­nounce­ment day?

No. I mean, of course it’s nice when you win and it’s not so nice when you don’t, but I don’t re­ally care. The thing that is much more of a prize to me is what we were say­ing ear­lier, which is that the books en­dure. If you are writ­ing this kind of work, not pop fic­tion, the pur­pose is to write some­thing that will en­dure, that hope­fully will be around long af­ter you’re not around. Martin Amis has this nice phrase that I al­ways quote—what you want to do is leave be­hind a nice shelf of books. You know, Mid­night’s Chil­dren is a re­ally old book now—when I started writ­ing it, it was 1976. The fact that it has man­aged to re­main in­ter­est­ing to peo­ple two or three gen­er­a­tions later, that’s a prize. Books sur­vive only be­cause peo­ple love them—there’s no other rea­son why a book sur­vives ever. Books don’t sur­vive be­cause of scan­dal. If The Sa­tanic Verses sur­vives, it won’t be be­cause of scan­dal. Peo­ple for­get scan­dal. Af­fec­tion is the only thing that makes lit­er­a­ture sur­vive. That’s all there is.

Sal­man Rushdie and Porochista Khakpour in the Man­hat­tan of­fice of Rushdie’s lit­er­ary agent, An­drew Wylie.

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