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
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,
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
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
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.