Salman Rushdie: The Interview

Before driving downtown to meet Salman Rushdie on Friday, I’d set a bunch of rules for myself. Do not mention the f-word. The man deserves a break from the fatwa. Do not mention the p-word. Yes, his wife is a model. So what? Do not ask him to sign his book. This is an interview, not a reading. Do not take his photograph. Leave that to the professionals. And, of course, do not, under any circumstances, talk about your book or your blog; it’s crass, and it’s probably not the least bit interesting to him.

I had these rules very clearly in mind when I arrived at the hotel to meet him. I was met by his escort, who informed me, while we waited for him by the elevator: “Salman likes your blog.”

“What?” I was taken aback, but, hey, I thought, get over yourself. Lots of people read your blog. Big deal. For all you know, he might have been Googling himself and found one of your million references to his book. (For instance, I’d reviewed Shalimar the Clown for The Oregonian, and liked it.)

The elevator doors opened then, and out came Salman Rushdie, in blue jeans and button-down shirt, looking, well, like one might expect him to look like on a book tour. Seemingly relaxed, but a bit tired. The escort introduced us. “How do you do?” we said to one another. That’s when I noticed he had my book in his hands.

“You have my book!” I cried, rather stupidly.

“Oh yes,” he said with a grin. “I know all about you.”

This wouldn’t do. Not at all. I told him all about my rules, and the special corollary about my book. He laughed, and then explained that he’d been given a copy of Hope by a bookseller on his previous stop, in Seattle. Earlier in the day, when he arrived in Portland, another bookseller gave him a second copy, so he figured he’d take it. “You’re going to have to sign it,” he added.

Okay, cue the theme music for The Twilight Zone. Was I trapped in some alternate universe? Did Salman Rushdie just ask me for my fucking autograph? “I don’t know if I could,” I mumbled.

We went up to the second floor of the hotel, to a quiet meeting room with louvered windows. He ordered a coffee and I took out my notes. I had several pages of them; there was so much I wanted to ask him. To find out what the interview was like, you’ll have to read The Oregonian next Sunday, but suffice it to say that he was a consummate conversationalist, quite candid, and very funny. Here are a few snippets to whet your appetite:

On Shalimar the Clown: “It’s my first village novel.”

On the book he most enjoyed reading recently: Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala.

On young, male, Indian writers who’ve been ripping his work recently: “They’re always saying: Move on Granddad.”

On those who say that it’s impossible to write fiction after 9/11: “It’s like saying you can’t paint after 9/11.”

On how he feels about being asked to predict the future of Islam: “I resist it. I’m no good at prophecy.”

The reading itself took place at the First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland. The line went around the block, but we managed to get good seats. There were about six hundred people in the audience. I don’t think I’ve ever been to such a large reading here.

Rushdie read several excerpts from Shalimar the Clown: A little passage about Pachigam (the ‘paradise’ of the book), Boonyi and Shalimar’s first tryst (Adam and Eve, meet your apple), a scene with Max in Los Angeles, a little internal monologue on the Indian colonel, and finally the arrival of the Iron Mullah in Shirmal (the snakes in the paradise). He was asked only one question about the fatwa, and he joked, “Thanks for asking this question-I haven’t heard that one before.”

He was asked about his use of English and whether he could write a novel in Urdu. He replied that his command of written Urdu is just not as good anymore. He’s tried to use English in a way that would render the rhythms of the languages spoken in India (Urdu, Hindi, and others, sometimes by the same people, sometimes within the same sentence.) If he were writing in Urdu, he wouldn’t do the same sorts of things with language he’s done in English.

Rushdie was asked whether he thought any of his books could be made into a good movie. “I certainly hope so, but at this point not even a bad one’s been made.” There were a couple of theatrical adaptations (Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and Midnight’s Children) so he thinks there’s potential for film adaptations as well.

Another person asked, “When are you going on the Jon Stewart show?” His reply: “I don’t know.” It would certainly make for an interesting interview.

Speaking of which, I must now go and transcribe the tape. Look for the article in The Oregonian sometime this week or next.