A FEARLESS VOICE
A Conversation with Revolutionary Writer SALMAN RUSHDIE
By Tyler Malone
Oscar Wilde once said, “If you’re going to tell someone the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” The truth is a dangerous thing, it’s a thing people hide from, a thing people kill for. But it is the duty of the writer to speak the truth. Of course, this happens in a very roundabout way. The whole idea of fiction is predicated upon the fact that the reader knows going into it that whatever will follow will be fictitious, and thus, untrue. So therein lies the paradox: the writer must speak truth through untruth. The writer doesn’t just relay facts, he invents worlds that tangentially uncover the truths of the world we inhabit–a truth beyond facts. It takes a talented and fearless voice to succeed at doing that.
Salman Rushdie is one of the great living literary icons, and certainly one of our greatest living fearless voices. As punishment for this fearless voice, not only have his books been banned in countless countries, but as just about everyone in the world knows by now: he had a fatwa put on him in 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, because of the supposed blasphemy in his book The Satanic Verses. Though it is technically still a valid fatwa, for no one can undo it except for Khomeini, who is now long dead, the rhetoric against Rushdie has been dialed down a bit in the last decade or so (but make no mistake there are still those out there that want him dead–and all for words put to paper, that’s the insane and intolerant world we inhabit). But even with religious zealots pledging to assassinate him, he continues to criticize religion, unafraid of what the repercussions could be. Recently he said to a Muslim Twitter follower of his, who tried to convert him, “Re: religion/apostasy, I’m sorry to see you haven’t realized that the prison gate is open & you can leave at any time.”
Perfectly put, in 140 characters or less. And yes, you heard me right: Salman Rushdie is on Twitter (@SalmanRushdie). A little over a month ago, he joined the Twitterverse, and hasn’t looked back since. He even started a successful hashtag #LiterarySmackdowns, where he pits two authors against one another and has his followers submit who their favorite is. Along with commenting back to many of the voters’ tweets, he then announces who the winner is a day later. So far Sylvia Plath defeated her hubby Ted Hughes, Charles Dickens unsurprisingly crushed George Eliot, Hemingway beat Fitzgerald, Dostoevsky beat Tolstoy, and Lawrence Sterne trounced Samuel Richardson by such a substantial margin immediately after Rushdie posted the duel that he ended up calling the contest early with Sterne as the obvious winner.
Whether tweeting a short message to his followers, writing an award-winning novel, or translating a book of his to the screen (which he’s currently doing for the first time with the upcoming film version of his novel Midnight’s Children), he is certainly a writer who speaks truth to power. The fatwa on his life proves that if you’re going to tell someone the truth, even if you make them laugh, as Wilde suggests–which Rushdie’s novels surely make any educated reader do–they might still want to kill you. But fatwa or no fatwa, Rushdie continues to be a fearless voice in an age overrun by fear.
Tyler Malone: It’s a complete coincidence that I’m interviewing you just after Banned Book Week, but I figure that’s as good a place to start as any. The Satanic Verses is still banned in a number of countries. Other books of yours have been banned as well. I know you are probably sick of talking about the banning and the fatwa and the whole Satanic Verses controversy, etc.–seeing as it is over 20 years old–so I’ll ask a more broad (if somewhat banal) question (and allow you to touch on your personal experience of it only if you like): I wonder if you could comment on the banning of books in general?
Salman Rushdie: I’m against it.
TM: Ha! Okay, short and sweet. Well, there are many writers banned today in various countries around the globe, quite a number of oppressed artists, why do you think art is so feared so often? Is the pen truly mightier than the sword?
SR: Authoritarian regimes have always feared fearless voices.
TM: I imagine the fatwa questions annoy you most of all. But I wonder is there any question that interviewers tend to ask that you just can’t stand?
SR: I’ve learned to deal with more or less anything that gets thrown at me. I hope.
TM: I love your appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher. You were on in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and you were just on again (for your annual appearance–ha!). You made some great comments on the Arab Spring, and made me laugh with what you said in response to far right crazies calling Obama the Antichrist: “Well, I think it’s good he’s here. I think it’s about time we have an antidote to all this crazy Christ shit that goes on in America. Bring him on.” I wonder have you gotten any flak for that statement though? Any thoughts on your appearance? And why you enjoy going on Bill Maher’s show?
SR: No, no flak. You can say anything on HBO; that’s part of the fun. This last show was one of the most enjoyable I’ve done. Seth McFarlane was very funny, Jennifer Granholm so sharp, and Van Jones was inspiring. And Bill was on fire!
TM: One of the things Real Time allows you to do in a public forum that I don’t think people get to see you do enough is discuss politics. I’m curious about some of your thoughts on Obama? How do you think he’s doing? Where are you happy with his performance? And where are you disappointed?
SR: Of course I’m disappointed in Obama, he’s too much of a compromiser for my liking, but he’s still the best and smartest option out there. And compared to the freak-show on offer from the GOP, he’s a giant.
TM: Speaking of that freak-show, what do you think the chances are that we’ll have a President Bachmann or President Perry or President Romney? Which of those possible presidents worries you most?
SR: They’re all terrifying.
TM: Switching gears, I know one of the things you’ve got on your plate: you’ve written a script for Midnight’s Children and it is currently being filmed. I always wondered why none of your books had been turned into films before (and I assumed it was probably mostly fear on the movie studios’ part of not wanting to get involved with you and thus avoid being embroiled in any sort of mass protests or attacks)? Could you tell us how this film came about? Had you always wanted to adapt your own novel to the screen yourself?
SR: You’re quite wrong about the fear. The problem has been the complexity of the books and the absence of parts for the likes of Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts. But there are conversations now about a couple of other books so maybe Midnight’s Children will start a trend. The film came about because I was friendly with Deepa Mehta. She asked me if she could direct it, and I said yes, and sold her an option for $1.
TM: Just a buck, eh? Well, your novels certainly belong on screen. And I imagine you’d love to see them there because you’re quite a lover of film. I know you’ve said that when you were a student in England, you sometimes felt you received a better education by visiting the cinema than you did from going to the library. You’ve always loved the movies. You even wanted to be an actor at one point, I’ve heard. What is it about the medium that you love? And who are some of your favorite directors?
SR: I grew up in a movie city (Bombay), so the movies are in my blood, I guess. Fellini, Visconti, de Sica, Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, Kurosawa, Ray, Buñuel, Hitchcock, Renoir, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Altman, Welles…how long have you got?
TM: I’ve got all day. Ha! But speaking of favorites: what is your favorite new book that you’ve read this year? (Of course, I have to try and get a book recommendation from one of my personal literary heroes, right? You can’t fault me for that…)
SR: I’ve been reading and much enjoying Patrick de Witt’s Western The Sisters Brothers.
TM: Another thing you’ve been enjoying recently is the Twitterverse. I quickly became a follower of yours after you joined, you’re quite funny and insightful–which I suppose isn’t surprisingly to anyone who’s read any of your novels. How have you been enjoying the experience? What, in your short time on it thus far, do you see as the benefits and the problems of this new form of communication?
SR: I didn’t think I’d like it. In fact, I’m enjoying it. I like the immediacy, the brevity, and the democracy of it.
TM: You tweeted the other day about playing Scrabble with Kylie Minogue. Any other odd interactions with celebrities that people might not expect you to partake in?
TM: I know you were a president of PEN, and tweeted not long ago: “Meeting of all living PEN ex-presidents to discuss 90th anniversary next April. Oldest human rights organization in USA deserves celebrating!” As a PEN president, what do you think the role of a writer is in relation to the world he or she lives in? Is there a political component to writing that the writer must face?
SR: I’ve always thought so, but other writers don’t. To each his own. I think PEN American Center does heroic work on behalf of writers in prison, and persecuted, around the world.
TM: As a writer myself, working on my first novel, I’m curious what advice you have for young writers?
SR: Just get to the end. I’ve always found that once you get to the end you can see the whole clearly and understand what needs fixing.
TM: Your last book Luka and the Fire of Life is now in paperback. I know you’ve mentioned that in your time since writing it, you’ve been working on a memoir. Is that currently what you’re working on? Or what else do you have in the pipeline?
SR: Memoir will come out next September, the movie of Midnight’s Children will also come out next year (not sure of release date yet), and now I need to start work on this TV series I’m doing for Showtime, The Next People. About which, right now, I’d prefer to say absolutely nothing.
TM: And so we’ll leave it there. Thanks so much for talking with me, Mr. Rushdie.
SR: My pleasure.
Salman Rushdie is the award-winning writer of such literary classics as Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses.
Salman Rushdie interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written and Edited by Tyler Malone
Photography by Patrick McMullan, Jimi Celeste, Koek, Jamie McCarthy, Will Ragozzino, & Clint Spaulding for Patrick McMullan.com
Design by Marie Havens
Salman Rushdie, PIER 59 Studios 15th Anniversary Party, PIER 59 Studios, NYC, February 12, 2010, Photography by Patrick McMullan for Patrick McMullan.com
Salman Rushdie, THE MOTH BALL/LA DOLCE VITA – The Annual Benefit for THE MOTH, the Acclaimed Non-Profit Organization Dedicated to Promote the Art of Storytelling, Capitale, New York, November 18, 2008, Photography by Jimi Celeste for Patrick McMullan.com
L – Francesco Clemente & Salman Rushdie, Julian Schnabel Birthday Dinner Party at Galleria Illy, Galleria Illy, New York, October 26, 2005, Photography by Jimi Celeste for Patrick McMullan.com
R- Annie Leibovitz & Salman Rushdie, The First Annual NORMAN MAILER Writers Colony Benefit Gala, Cipriani 42nd Street, NYC, October 20, 2009, Photography by Will Ragozzino for Patrick McMullan.com
Salman Rushdie & Bono, SALMAN RUSHDIE Launch Party for “Luka and the Fire of Life,” The Bowery Hotel, NYC, November 15, 2010, Photography by Clint Spaulding for Patrick McMullan.com
Jeffrey Deitch, Shepard Fairey, & Salman Rushdie, SHEPARD FAIREY “May Day” Exhibition Opening Reception, Deitch Projects, NYC, May 1, 2010, Photography by Will Ragozzino for Patrick McMullan.com
Anna Wintour & Salman Rushdie, Vanity Fair Oscars Party, Mortons Restaurant, Beverly Hills, CA, March 24, 2002, Photography by Jamie McCarthy for Patrick McMullan.com
Salman Rushdie & Julian Schnabel, Julian Schnabel Birthday Dinner Party at Galleria Illy, Galleria Illy, New York, October 26, 2005, Photography by Jimi Celeste for Patrick McMullan.com
Salman Rushdie, SALMAN RUSHDIE lunchtime book signing LUKA AND THE FIRE OF LIFE, Powerhouse Arena, Brooklyn NY, November 16, 2010, Photography by Koek for Patrick McMullan.com