The misfortune of an interesting life

Salman Rushdie spent almost a decade in hiding after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him
The misfortune of an interesting life
These days, Rushdie seems serene and quietly happy—exactly the type to be calm in the eye of a storm, literary or otherwise | Alberto Estevez/EPA/Keystone Press; Mohsin Raza/Reuters

Midtown Manhattan is almost afloat, battered by a near-monsoon. Sheets of rain drench anyone foolhardy enough to cross 8th Avenue, but when Salman Rushdie saunters into the Wylie Agency, umbrella in hand, there’s nary a droplet to be seen on his pinstriped suit.

He may look rather devilish in photographs, but in person, Rushdie, now 63, seems serene, unflappable, quietly happy—exactly the type to be calm in the eye of a storm, literary or otherwise. In a spacious office, he reminisces about how much smaller Andrew Wylie’s headquarters were when the literary super-agent poached him in 1987; the move helped the predatory Wylie earn the nickname “The Jackal.” The next year, Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, which would vault him to an unforeseen level—and undesirable type—of fame in 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him.

Ancient history, in one sense: Rushdie is no longer a cause célèbre, forced to dash from one hiding place to another. And today, he is here to speak about his second children’s book, Luka and the Lake of Fire, a boisterous adventure tale dedicated to his 13-year-old son Milan, the inspiration for Luka. It’s a sequel of sorts to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, published 20 years ago, but the circumstances of their creation couldn’t be more different. “When I wrote Haroun,” Rushdie recalls, sitting back on a couch amidst Wylie’s literary memorabilia (a street sign reading “Philip Roth Drive,” a photograph of William S. Burroughs taken by Allen Ginsberg), “it was the year immediately following the attack on The Satanic Verses. The themes [in Haroun] have to do with language and silence, with those who rejoice in chatter and those who want to shut them up.”

Rushdie dreamed up the story while in hiding. British bookstores selling The Satanic Verses were being bombed, and Special Branch policemen were moving him around secret locations in England; he’d recently separated from his second wife, and for security reasons, had limited contact with his then 11-year-old son Zafar, to whom he dedicated Haroun.

The few interviews he gave during that time were conducted in undisclosed locales; journalists tended to describe him as a man bravely facing a completely derailed life. In 1993, fellow Booker winner John Banville wrote of finding in Rushdie “an immense and somehow sustaining sadness.” Literature became one of his few consolations, and Haroun was his first book with a happy ending: the hero saves his father, a storyteller, from being silenced.

This time, Haroun’s brother Luka takes on a similar task: he must bring their father the Fire of Life, which burns in a distant lake in the World of Magic, in order to waken him from a near-comatose sleep. Not surprisingly, given this theme, Rushdie counts himself among the parents who see their children as “a kind of salvation,” he says. “When Milan was born, I remember thinking, ‘I’m quite an old father, and when he’s 20, I’ll be 70.’ When there’s a large gap in years between the parent and the child, the subject of mortality becomes very real. You want to be able to raise your child; you want them to have a parent. That became the thing I tried to dramatize in this book.”

Rushdie, who moved to Manhattan in 2000, goes back to London often to spend time with his sons: Zafar heads the PR agency Rushdie Media (with clients such as Moët Hennessy and Next Models), and Milan is still in school.

With his younger son, Rushdie enthusiastically plays the video games that inspired the book: Luka’s magical quest to save his father, Rashid, involves action-packed levels with extra lives to help him complete his task. The novelist showed his youngest son the beginning of the book with some trepidation, as it features a “death figure” that sucks away at Rashid’s life. “To my pleasure, it didn’t upset him,” Rushdie notes. “That made me think, ‘This kid’s got a little bit of darkness in him—I can actually use that.’ ”

Luka, like the best folkloric children’s tales, is full of grotesque images, both funny and disturbing. The darkest are found in a chapter where Luka and his companions visit the “Respectorate of I,” a state run by large talking rats that demand fawning adulation. Rushdie calls the section “an attempt to show how political correctness can be a deadening, rodent-like infestation in a society. It seems to me that people have begun to offer all kinds of views—some of them cockeyed—and disagreement is construed as offensive. Whereas in any open society, disagreement is the stuff of life.” Rushdie bemoans the rise of a “you’re either with us or you’re against us” mentality, in politics and society itself.

While he’s not one to relish conflict, he’s prepared to disagree openly, for instance, with his evangelically anti-religious friends Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Religion, for Rushdie, should never inform public policy, but “it doesn’t seem right for me to go into other people’s private lives and tell them what they should be like.”

In his recent memoir Hitch-22, Hitchens writes that one of the worst mornings of his life came in 1990 when he heard that Rushdie had written a conciliatory article titled “Why I have embraced Islam.”

“Mmm. He wanted me to be more combative,” says Rushdie, steepling his fingers in contemplation. While he does denounce what he sees as the “terrible backsliding in the world of Islam in the last 50 to 60 years,” noting mordantly that he has “perhaps more reason than even Hitchens to dislike it,” he holds out an olive branch. “Islam also means my grandfather, who I thought of as a very open-minded and tolerant man. It seems to me that there are millions of people inside Islam who would be more like my grandfather than [like] the Ayatollah Khomeini.”

If Haroun was, in part, an attempt to address through fiction the issues of censorship and intolerance that Rushdie was then facing, Luka was integral to Rushdie’s aim to write enough books to “bury” that period of his life. When I last interviewed him, in 2008, he was just conceiving of the book and expressed the hope that “the more work I can do, the easier it’ll be to go beyond that moment.”

But now, in an about-face, he is unearthing rather than burying his fatwa era. He spent the first part of this year reading various accounts of his exile, finding the results “interesting and bizarre,” and is currently writing a memoir of that time, to be published in 2012. Last month, Wylie arranged a worldwide deal with Random House; the book promises to be the biggest literary event of Rushdie’s career since The Satanic Verses.

“For a long time,” he says, “I felt that [a memoir] was the last thing in the world I wanted to write, that I’d come out of that period of nine years and I wanted to get back to the day job and be the writer that I had always wanted to be. But I also knew in the back of my mind that this was a really good story and I was the only person who could tell it, because nobody else knew it.”

Which isn’t to say that nobody else thinks they know it. In 2008, a former Special Forces driver, Ron Evans, attempted to publish a memoir that made a number of hurtful and inaccurate claims (among them, that Rushdie’s bodyguards were so keen to be rid of him that they locked him in a cupboard so they could go to the pub). Rushdie sighs when I bring it up: “Oh, that stupid thing.”

He succeeded in extracting an apology from Evans and having the book pulped, but others may have similar designs. Is writing the memoir, then, a means of wresting control from those who would warp his story?

“A little bit,” he admits. “There’s been all kinds of speculation, some of it unpleasant, like that bunch of lies [Evans] tried to put together to make himself some money. It became a very prevalent myth in Ireland that I’d spent a lot of those years living in Bono’s guest house. If you want to be invisible, would you go to the guest house at the bottom of the garden of the lead singer of U2?” Rushdie chuckles. “I’ve spent three or four weekends there—this was magnified into the ‘fact’ that I was living there. Various other friends of mine said in interviews that there had been occasions where we had dinner together or spent a weekend. Ian McEwan, for example, said something of the sort, and then suddenly there were these articles about how Ian McEwan sheltered me in those years, and I thought, ‘This is just silliness.’ ”

But his main motivation, he insists, is to tell “an interesting story.” Perhaps writing Luka closed a literary circle for Rushdie, allowing him to turn the page on an incredibly difficult time and freeing him to recollect it in tranquility, so he could finally write about it. For the compulsive storyteller, who wreathes every book with layers of myth, legend, and literary allusion, it surely would be a waste to leave his own unique story untold.

“Somebody asked Saul Bellow about whether he would write an autobiography, and he said, ‘What would I put in it that I haven’t put in my novels?’ I sort of understood what he meant: the better use of experience is its transmutation into literature rather than to do it directly.” Rushdie smiles wryly. “But then I had the misfortune of acquiring an interesting life.”