Cheers to Salman Rushdie
Novelist Salman Rushdie, whose new book, Fury, will be published by Random House in September, kicks off the twenty-first annual Margarett Root Brown Houston Reading Series on September 10 at the Alley Theatre.
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Brian D. Sweany: It’s a pleasure to talk to you, Mr. Rushdie. We’re looking forward to your visit. Have you been here before?
Salman Rushdie: I’ve never been to Houston. I did, many years ago on one book tour, go through Dallas, but that’s it. Texas is a whole new world to me, but my view of traveling is that the best way to do it is to arrive with no expectations. I never have anything in my head before I show up.
BDS: Let me ask about Fury, which feels far more contemporary than most of your works. It’s set in the United States—New York City to be exact—and it relies heavily on pop culture. You even mention Joaquin Phoenix and the movie Gladiator. Are you becoming more interested in that?
SR: Well, even my novel Midnight’s Children is interested in pop culture—it just happens to be Indian pop culture. I’m equally interested in both high and low culture, and I’m quite interested in the intersection between them. I’ve always felt for years that a work would arise from my being more in the United States. Then, you know, for the obvious reasons, it was difficult for me to spend time here, otherwise you might have had these books ten years ago. So I feel that it’s a date long overdue, and I’m happy finally to keep it. I set myself the task of writing something extremely contemporary. I wanted to write about the very present moment. And so, of course, there was kind of an immediacy and an urgency that came out of that decision. Really, it just took my breath away. This book arrived in a way that quite often scared me. It is certainly the book of all my books that came at the greatest speed. It just went out of me; I can’t explain it. I am usually a pathetically slow writer. I have gotten used to the fact that it takes me a really long time.
BDS: Despite the differences in tone and setting, I noticed that the main character from Midnight’s Children, Saleem Sinai, is similar in many ways to the main character of Fury, Professor Solanka. Both are trying very hard to tell their “story,” both are products of time, and both are trying to establish a certain distance from the characters around them.
SR: It’s interesting that you’d make that connection. The only thing else I’d ever written that came out of me in this torrential way was Midnight’s Children. I hadn’t had anything like since Midnight’s Children, which was written twenty years ago. It’s ridiculous that Midnight’s Children is twenty years old—where did that time go? I’m fond of Professor Solanka, because I’ve wanted for a long time to try and develop a way of writing in which the interior life of the character has the same kind of excitement as the narrative’s dramatic action. That the reader shouldn’t feel, “Well, now we’re going to stop the action while somebody thinks for a while.” That the two should feel seamlessly intertwined but also as exciting as each other. I feel that the way Solanka goes through his life—examining it and arguing with himself about it—I’ve come a bit closer in being able to do that. I also just like him. He’s attractively wounded.
BDS: Tell me about your cameo in the film version of Bridget Jones’s Diary, starring Renée Zellweger.
SR: Renée was wonderful, I thought, and at the premiere we had a little joke. I told her that my performance is what held the film together—and she agreed. She thought it was a pivotal role. You know, there was a lot of talk in England about a slim girl from Texas playing a slightly overweight girl from Notting Hill, but it was a triumphant comic performance. For me, it was very simple. Helen Fielding, the author of the book, is an old pal of mine, and she asked if I’d come along and make a fool of myself, and I said, “Why not?”
BDS: I may regret asking you this, but did you know there was a Seinfeld episode in which Kramer thought he saw you at his health club?
SR: I’m proud of the Seinfeld episode. About a year ago I saw Jerry Seinfeld in New York at a party, and I said that—of all my achievements—I was extremely proud to have been a story line. I was also a story line on Cheers and, of all places, The Golden Girls. I was apparently staying in their hotel, but nobody ever saw me. I’d always just left.
BDS: Has your private life returned to normal now that the fallout from The Satanic Verses has subsided?
SR: Becoming sloganized on both sides of the fence—either for or against—was one of the oddest phenomena. People who had read my books from the early days always knew that my writing was quite funny. But somehow, because what happened with The Satanic Verses wasn’t funny, people thought I couldn’t be funny either. The darkness of the political event transferred itself in many people’s minds on what they thought my writing must be like. It’s a great relief now that all that is fading into the past and that people can judge the writer who’s really here rather than the one who was invented by the media. All those versions of me that were floating around were often bewildering, because most of them didn’t feel to me at all like me. All I can say is that this is me. Finally, people can have a look at that and decide what they think.
The problem is that taxi drivers in strange foreign cities came to know my name. It was so horrible that in a funny way it didn’t get that many more readers. People thought, “Oh, he’s some weird dark writer who writes about Islam.” And I’m not. It’s my job to give a reader a good story and hold his attention. That’s what I’ve always tried to do.
My life is pretty ordinary now. I remember when all the trouble started, one of the problems I found was that my work was appearing in the news pages instead of the book pages. I always looked forward to the moment when it would get back on the book pages, and that seems to have happened now. I have been able to go back to the ordinary life of a writer, which is, after all, not particularly exciting. Less excitement has been a good thing in my experience.