Guest of Honor

Salman Rushdie on His Real World Approach to Crafting Tall Tales

The award-winning author digs into his latest work, "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights," discusses the awkward process of going "full literary frontal," and his unexpected Yankee pride. You can hear Brendan's extended interview with Rushdie here.

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Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Salman Rushdie is widely considered one of the world’s great writers. His blend of magic realism and historical fiction have garnered him the Booker Prize, a British knighthood and — for his novel “The Satanic Verses” — a notorious fatwa that sent him into exile.

He has a new book out called, “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.” In it, a huge storm strikes New York and strange things start to happen. A gardener’s feet no longer touch the ground, a baby with the ability to sense corruption appears in the mayor’s office, and a fissure opens between earth and the world of the jinn – a group of mischievous creatures with supernatural powers that live in a different dimension and a world war ensues.

When Brendan met Rushdie, he asked if the author pitched Hollywood before writing his book.

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Salman Rushdie: You know, Hollywood has always turned me down, it’s true [laughs]!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Really?

Salman Rushdie: Yeah, I don’t think they’ve ever got it quite. So, yeah, I have to write my own disaster movies [laughs].

COVER

Brendan Francis Newnam: So how did you arrive at the frame of this book, this “War of the Worlds”?

Salman Rushdie: Well, it arrived gradually. Initially, I wasn’t sure that that was gonna be the actual shape of the book. I had fragments of it, I had always the character of Mr. Geronimo, the gardener whose feet stop touching the ground…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes.

Salman Rushdie: …And in the beginning, I thought it might just be a novel about him. And then, I had in another part of the forest on my desk, this story about this jinn princess, you know, genie princess, who comes to earth and falls in love with a man — the philosopher — and basically falls in love with the human race. And then it gradually- it just grew outwards from that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Before we go any further, we should probably point out to English majors in the audience that this book is called “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,” which adds up…

Salman Rushdie: Which, if you do the math…

Brendan Francis Newnam: …To “One Thousand and One Nights,” which is an alternate title to “Arabian Nights,” which is a book of tales that come from Persia, ancient Persia…

Salman Rushdie: From India…

Brendan Francis Newnam: …Middle East, and India as well. It’s a book you’ve referenced in other novels of yours. What role did it play in this work?

Salman Rushdie: It’s part of everything really. I mean because, it’s- really these “wonder tales,” as they’re known, of which the “Arabian Nights” is the most famous compendium, but by no means the only one, if you grew up as I did in India, that’s your first engagement with literature. I mean you hear them originally as children stories, although in fact they were not written as children stories.

Point is that this wonderful storehouse of magic stories was the thing that made me fall in love with literature in the first place. And what happened to me is- you know, the last time we talked, we were talking about my non-fiction book, the memoir.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes.

Salman Rushdie: And when I finished writing that, I spent three years or so trying to tell the truth. And to tell you the truth, I got sick of the truth. I thought, “That’s enough truth.” You know? And emotionally, it made me swing to the other end of the spectrum, and, “What is the most crazily imagined book I can come up with?” And that took me back to the source, if you like, to the stories that had made me first fall in love with stories, and think, “Do something like that! Do something like that. Only bring it to New York.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. But, lest people think that you abandon the truth, this book is rich with allusions to pop culture, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed. You made a reference to Das Racist, which is kind of an arty-

Salman Rushdie: Rap group.

Brendan Francis Newnam: …Former hip-hop group here in Brooklyn.

Salman Rushdie: I met him actually, I met DJ Heems.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes!

Salman Rushdie: And he asked me for some advice, and so we had a couple of drinks, etcetera. So yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Only a couple? Well done, you survived unscathed!

Salman Rushdie: Well, when I say, when I say a couple [laughs]… may not be exactly telling the truth.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s kind of a roll of the dice, to incorporate pop culture references.

Salman Rushdie: I’ve always done it though. I’ve never made a distinction between high and low, you know? I just, I’ve never done it. If you grow up in Bombay… Bombay is this interesting place. It’s like if Hollywood was in New York. If you pushed the film industry into Manhattan, that’s what Bombay is like. So you grow up with pop culture everywhere.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes.

Salman Rushdie: The movies are an obsession in India. And the music that comes out of the movies is the pop music of India. And so, you can’t think, “Oh I’m only interested in the classics.” If you grow up in that city, the nature of your sensibility is mixed.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, pop culture and fantasy aside, the real conflict at the heart of this story is between two philosopher characters: one who believes in God and thinks people should conduct their life in fear of God. And an Aristotelian philosopher who believes in reason, and this battle kind of gets wrapped up into the jinn battle. And this resonates with what we see in the headlines today with ISIS and the role of religion of government in various places…

Salman Rushdie: I mean, you see, the thing is this: I think that if you’re going to write fairy tales, you have to be actually writing about the real world. If you’re going to write either historical or futuristic fiction, you have to be writing about the present. Otherwise, it’s just whimsy, and therefore, it has no effect.

Brendan Francis Newnam: There’s nothing to it, yes.

Salman Rushdie: There’s nothing to it. And, or it’s a children’s story. If you’re going to write grown-up material using this kind of technique, then yes, the purpose has to be to say something about the world as the author sees it. I mean, I think it’s fun this book. I think it’s quite playful, and antic and-

Brendan Francis Newnam: Lots of sex.

Salman Rushdie: Lots of sex. Which for me, by the way, is really unusual.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes, that’s true.

Salman Rushdie: You know, the sex in my books has almost always been off stage.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Very British.

Salman Rushdie: Well very Indian too, where that stuff gets cut out of movies.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes, yes.

Salman Rushdie: But, I used to feel quite awkward about direct, descript, full frontal.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes, full literary frontal, yes.

Salman Rushdie: Yeah, sex. There really isn’t much of it in my books, so this one will rectify that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, well, if that’s not an enticement to buy the book, I don’t know what is. It is time for the two standard questions we ask our guests, and the first one is: what question are you tired of being asked in interviews?

Salman Rushdie: Oh, I’ve got very bored with the “F” word.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh yes.

Salman Rushdie: The five letter “F” word.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes, your five letter “F” word, the fatwah. The religious edict that sent you into hiding.

Salman Rushdie: Yeah, but I have to say, that since the publication of the memoir….

Brendan Francis Newnam: “Joseph Anton,” yes.

Salman Rushdie: “Joseph Anton,” which was all about that period of my life. I’m getting asked that question less.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well that’s also a clever part of media jiu-jitsu, which is by giving them, saturating them with this kind of-

Salman Rushdie: Yeah, “You wanna know about this? Here’s everything! Here’s, 650 pages.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: “Bullet points about this.” And then they’re looking for the next shiny object. The shiny object is no longer shiny.

Salman Rushdie: Exactly.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, the second question is: tell us something we don’t know and this could be a personal fact about you, you haven’t shared in interviews, or it could just be an interesting fact about the world.

Salman Rushdie: Oh, well I don’t have any interesting facts about the world today. But, me, I don’t know, what can I tell you about me? That I’m a crazy Yankee fan?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, I knew you were a big football, like a soccer fan.

Salman Rushdie: I’ve now, I mean 16 years in New York, the interest in soccer is a little diminished. But ever since I first came to New York in the early ’70s, you know, I had friends who were avid supporters of different teams, and who would take me here and there. Don DeLillo took me to Yankee stadium. I mean, he’s boy from the Bronx. And Paul Auster has always been a big Met fan. So I had people vying for my support.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Pretty literary group of jocks you hang out with.

Salman Rushdie: Yeah, I rejected the Mets, I’m sorry to say.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You don’t seem like a Yankees guy to me, though. The Yankees seem way too, kind of rich and elitist for you.

Salman Rushdie: Well I don’t know about– you know, there was an interesting thing a few years ago, the Times commissioned a piece of market research about the fan base.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes.

Salman Rushdie: And of course, we know the conventional wisdom about the fan base, which is: the Mets are the team of the people and they’re blue collar. And the Yankees are rich, smart asses, and should be hated. In fact, what it turned out in this survey, the profiles of the two fan bases were just about identical, except the Mets had slightly more college graduates. Which is-

Brendan Francis Newnam: Interesting, so by being Yankee fan, you’re more man of the people.

Salman Rushdie: We’re actually more, more demotic, more a man of the people.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m not gonna go online to call up the payroll different between the Mets and the Yankees right now [laughs]…

Salman Rushdie: No, no, let’s not discuss that.