In the wake of Ayatollah Khomeini's infamous death sentence, Salman Rushdie gained international renown as a champion of free speech and a challenger of fundamentalist hegemony. Among the virtues shrouded by the author's sudden iconic status, however, were a relentless sense of humor and a developing body of fiction virtually unrivaled among contemporary writers.
Step Across This Line is, foremost, Rushdie's effort to put the fatwa behind him. Writing at length about "the plague years," as he calls them, even taking readers along on his nerve-wracking return to India (the first country to ban The Satanic Verses), for the first time he sheds light on nine long years of bodyguards, secret residences, bulletproof mattresses propped against hotel windows, and the achingly slow international wrangling that finally set him free.
I am forty-five years old, and I can't leave my places of residence without permission. I do not carry keys. Sometimes there are "bad patches." During one "bad patch" I slept in thirteen different beds in twenty nights. At such times a great wild jangle fills your body. At such times you begin to come unstuck from yourself.
Supplemented by essays about Rushdie's true passions—movies, music, sport, culture, and literature—the collection reveals a playful thinker too long captive to political gamesmanship, an extrovert suffering not just the constant risk of violence but indefinite isolation from friends and peers. Whether discussing the aging Rolling Stones on tour, reality TV, Gandhi, Amadou Diallo, or the attacks on America, Step Across This Line reintroduces a visionary, charismatic man too long described by forces beyond his control.
Dave: This collection presents a much broader portrait of you than Imaginary Homelands.
Salman Rushdie: I think it's a more personal book. The big difference, really, is that a lot of Imaginary Homelands is taken up with literary criticism—more than half the book, probably. Relatively little of Step Across This Line is taken up with actual book reviews. There are articles about literature in general, such as about Indian literature, or articles pointing out that the novel has failed to die yet again, but they're larger, more essayist pieces rather than responses to individual books or writers. In that sense, it's more of a portrait of how I think and what eats me than book reviews can show.
There was a point at which I got tired of writing book reviews. The pieces about writers in here... for instance, there's a long piece about Angela Carter which was originally written to introduce her collected short stories; that forum allowed me to write a long, reflective piece about Angela, which was more satisfying than writing a book review. So yes, there's a shift away from Lit Crit toward more general, thematic stuff, which I think is more personally revealing.
Dave: There's a very funny essay, "Heavy Threads," about living above a boutique on King's Road in Chelsea in 1967. And I loved the U2 essay, in part because I'm a big fan of Van Morrison and it was hysterical to imagine him yelling at you.
Rushdie: He did, at four a.m. By then Van Morrison is ready to punch just about anybody.
No, it was a great evening, actually; it just ended badly. For most of it, he'd been in a very good mood, even agreeing to dance with me, which I thought was a big moment for me. But he does have his grumpy side.
Dave: In an essay written on the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence you argued that the bulk of good Indian literature since Partition has been written in English. Has your opinion about that changed in the last five years? Do you see signs of change? Or do you think the vernacular literature is necessarily more parochial than Indian literature written in English?
Rushdie: I got really beaten up for writing that article because it's not supposed to be true. It's one of those things: one's not allowed to admit that it's true in India. It's politically incorrect. Particularly in that there's quite a lot of envy aimed at writers in English because they make more money, they get published around the world, et cetera.
Even leaving aside the Indian writers living in the rest of the world, the fact is that the novel-reading class in India has all been educated in English and they all speak English well. It means that Indian writers in English escape the trap of regionalism inside India. Whereas a Bengali writer has difficulty being read in South India unless the work has been translated, and not so well probably, an English language writer from Bengal can be read everywhere.
We read more than two hundred authors for The Vintage Book of Indian Writing. It struck me very forcibly that if you look at the half-century before the independence of India, there really isn't any English-language writing worth a damn. If you were to make an anthology of the first half of the twentieth century you probably wouldn't include a single English-language writer. So how strange it is that in the half-century after the British left that the language they left behind should have developed so rich a literature! It's of course true that in each of the other languages you can think of one or two pretty good writers. In Hindi, Nirmal Verma; in Bengali, Mahasveta Devi; et cetera. The difference in English is that you can think of thirty.
That's why I wanted to highlight what's happening in English. Whereas everywhere else there's just the usual trickle, in English in the last twenty-five years in particular there's been a kind of flood. So it's the most striking and obvious and interesting phenomenon taking place in Indian literature. It seemed worth pointing a finger at it—but then people tried to bite the finger off!
Dave: In an essay about The Wizard of Oz, you discuss the tradition within bookselling to segregate children's books, classifying them as distinct from books for adults. Thankfully, that tradition has started to lose favor recently. I finished Haroun and the Sea of Stories a few days ago—a "kids' book"—and I really enjoyed it.
Rushdie: It's beginning to shift. The buzz in publishing now is this thing called "the crossover book." Harry Potter of course is what started it. The Philip Pullman books are interesting because in fact they're pitched, I think, slightly older. And Michael Chabon's new one [Summerland] is obviously a bid for that trench of the market that gets both the kids and the grown-ups.
I think Haroun was a little ahead of all that. It was quite deliberately written in such a way that people didn't ask whether it was a children's book or a grown-up's book. A child could pick it up, read it, and get a child's pleasure out of it; an adult could get an adult's pleasure out of it. In bookstores, when it came out, the good ones put it in both parts of the store; the less good bookstores didn't know what the hell to do with it. At that time people hadn't got the understanding that these books could appeal across age groups. Essentially, Harry Potter created that understanding.
Sometimes people were really mystified in terms of how to sell Haroun, but when I was writing it, given that initially I wrote it for my son (although of course in the end I was writing it also for myself), what I thought was that I was writing it for him at two different ages. At the time it came out, he was eleven—not coincidentally, Haroun is eleven, as well, in the story—and I wanted him to like it then; that was the whole point. Had he not liked it then that would not have been okay; the first task was to please his eleven-year-old self. Then I thought, Well, one of these days he's going to grow up, and I want him then to read it in a different way, to find out more of what his father was trying to tell him. I'm very happy to say, just in terms of the audience of one, that seems to have succeeded. Now that he's read it as a grown-up he still loves it, but he has quite a different sense of it.
You know your child very well; you can even project the adult he might turn into and write for that. I thought if I could get that right it would probably appeal to other eleven-year-olds and other grown-ups.
It struck me while I was writing the book that a lot of the children's books I most admire, the great classics of children's literature, were written for one child. Winnie-the-Pooh was written for Christopher Robin Milne. Alice in Wonderland was written for Alice Liddell. And so on. You can identify, in many of those great classics, a particular child that was to be pleased. Somehow, if you could please that one child, you'd end up pleasing children.
It was an unusual writing experience, and in that sense probably the most pleasurable: to write for one reader and have that reader actually like it. That was very nice.
Dave: The idea of borders and frontiers appears again and again in Step Across This Line, whether it's the distinction between children's books and "grown-up" novels or the boundaries between nations. I couldn't help thinking of Milan Kundera. Much of his work has been consumed by the idea of borders.
Rushdie: I'm a big fan of Kundera, so it's a perfectly fair comparison. I wasn't consciously thinking of him when I wrote this, but it doesn't have to be conscious, does it, if that's just part of what you've taken in?
Anyone from Central of Eastern Europe clearly has an acute awareness of the function of the frontier in his or her life, whether it's the Iron Curtain, a frontier designed to trap people inside, or the break-up of Czechoslovakia into demarcated, partitioned Czechoslovakia.
England in a way is lucky. It's an island, so the frontiers are given by the sea. But the rest of Europe? If you were to make a frontier map of Europe, then time-accelerate it, it would look like snakes going this way and that way. Between France and Germany sometimes the French border goes east to the Rhine; sometimes the German border comes and occupies the whole of France. The Polish-Russian border moves all the time. The borders of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire are endlessly shifting. If you live in this world where the frontier keeps rushing past you one way and another, and changing your life when it does so, it gives you a keen sense of the shifting nature of frontiers. Clearly, Kundera has been partly formed by that, and in a way, me too.
Dave: As a result of Partition, the part of your family living in Karachi suddenly found itself in a different country, no longer Indians but Pakistanis. In Step Across This Line you describe going to England as a fourteen-year-old and encountering an image of India among the British that was unrecognizable to you.
Many of the essays explore the process by which we create identities for ourselves, as individuals and as nations. Now you've been in the United States for three years. Another identity shift.
Rushdie: I don't feel American. I do feel like a New Yorker. I think there's a real distinction there. A city allows you to become a citizen even when you're not a national. That's the place that I've reached. I'm very content with my decision to spend time in New York and I'm not intending to stop any time soon. I'm not an American citizen and I have no plans to take citizenship, but I do feel that being rooted in New York is increasingly becoming a perspective that I have. That's interesting.
I still go to London a lot because of my children. When I go there and I start reading the papers and so on, it's clear that the position from which people think is so different—and now it feels odd to me. That's to say I've now moved into understanding the world from the kind of positions Americans think about things. I go and I'm constantly shocked by the relatively alien mindset with which I'm confronted and with which I used to be completely at home. So it's a change.
Dave: Regarding the current situation in Iraq, you've been fairly outspoken in saying that America needs to spend more time making friends and less time making enemies. As you spend more time in the United States, how does that affect your view of the current political situation?
Rushdie: Now I'm somewhere in between the American and the European perspective, if we're talking about Iraq.
There's a kind of suggestion in Europe and Britain that Saddam Hussein is not as big a problem as he's being made out to be, and that this is a war being fought for trivial reasons such as finishing the job that Bush Senior started. Those kinds of suggestions are made routinely. My own view is not in favor of an early military operation, but I don't believe that Saddam Hussein isn't a problem. I think he's a very big problem. I think he's very likely to become a bigger problem. There's beginning to be more and more evidence shown to us that his procurement program, to get hold of the materials to build weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, is back in gear; that he is actually sending people around trying to acquire this stuff. Whether he has acquired it yet, who knows, but it's clearly his intention.
It's also clear to me that without the American threat of force he would never have agreed to let the weapons inspectors back in. So you could even say there's already been one success from the threat of force.
The reasons I'm worried about it are more pragmatic. First of all, even the United States, with all its power, cannot afford to be completely isolated in the world. The world is too interpenetrated a place now. It's not in America's interest to put itself in a position of being totally isolated. That's one reservation I have.
Another serious reservation I have is that the Generals don't want to do this. Generals usually have a very good sense of not wishing to commit their soldiers to battle, to take life and to lose life, unless they have a very clear briefing about what their targets are and what the end-date is. I think the real problem is that I haven't heard anything that suggests that the Administration in America has worked out what to do after Saddam. You can't start a war if you don't know those answers. Is the intention to remove Saddam and then put in another strongman at the head of the Ba'th party structure, in which case what guarantees that he won't just turn into another Saddam? Or, are you going to dismantle the Ba'th party and, if so, what will be the structure of the state? Will you be obliged to rely on the military in the absence of that one-party state? Is it then going to be the case that the American government in the name of freedom puts in place a military dictatorship, and how is that going to play? Or, are they actually going to try to reconstruct a democratic society in Iraq, in which case we have to accept that it's going to take a very long time because there hasn't been a democratic society there—and no institutions of democracy, no such things—in thirty or forty years.
Even though there are, in exile, genuine democrats who wish to reconstruct a democratic Iraq, it's going to take a generation. I don't think it's been explained to the American people that a very large number of American troops has to remain in Iraq for fifteen or twenty years. I'm not talking about five thousand; I'm talking about fifty thousand or seventy-five thousand. All those people are going to be in danger constantly. There would be the rhetoric about this being an American client state or a puppet regime. It may even result in another anti-American state taking place in Iraq because how long can the soldiers stay there?
What I'm saying is these are very large issues, and unless you know the answer to these things you must not go to war. You don't know what you're fighting for. Regime change involves knowing what the successor regime will be and how it will be achieved. Be straight with the American people about the length of time these troops will be committed and the cost in human terms as well as financial terms.
If somebody said to me, "Do you want Saddam Hussein removed?" I'd say probably yes, in the same way I wanted the Taliban removed. And I still think the removal of the Taliban has been a real gain for the human race. So would be the removal of Saddam Hussein. But at least in Afghanistan it was possible to piece together pretty rapidly the beginnings of a successor state; those people were there and such. Maybe that's possible in Iraq. I'm not saying that it isn't. What I'm saying is that I haven't heard it yet, and I think we should hear it before the shooting starts.
Dave: And even in terms of what we hear, it's hard to know exactly how to digest the news, or even why we hear what we do at any given time. The amount of information at our disposal can be staggering when we're trying to understand the big picture. It reminds me of The Moor's Last Sigh, in which one of the characters ages too fast.
Rushdie: Life moves for him at double speed.
Dave: In Fury, there's what amounts to a similar kind of information overload—but it's not simply information overload; it's disposable information overload. So little of it is meaningful: Buffy, the models, the Marks, Lara Croft, even the Disney costumes that have been sighted near each of these murders.
When people tried to describe your early writing, they often called you a magic realist. With Fury, your writing has evolved to a state that feels more like Science Fiction to me at times. Yet what is both troubling and successful about the novel is that the action occurs on Earth, in a contemporary setting, and it's overloaded with factual details about modern life. Yes, you made up an island republic?
Rushdie: ?but it's sort of a version of Fiji.
Dave: Right. Very little in the book is outrageous in itself.
Rushdie: You're right: it's a kind of hyperrealism. There's painting like this where so much is put in so exactly. Too much information, you know, too much detail: every dog, every hair on every dog, and every nail on the dog's toes. Hyperrealism can create an atmosphere of surrealism because nobody sees the world in such detail.
In that sense, the Impressionists were more truthful about how we see the world: there's a center of vision and a larger field of vision, then there's stuff that's indistinct. There's also motion and all kinds of things that create inexactitude.
If everything is exact and frozen in a bright light, one of the things this does is to shine like a searchlight on its subject instead of the kind of Vermeer single light source, which puts things into deep relief. This kind of blaze of light facing the subject, it's quite deliberate. It was an attempt to create a dislocating mood without doing anything surrealistic, to show how you can use reality, itself, and just by staring at it intensely you can make it look very odd.
It conforms to that ancient rule of writing, which is: make it strange. If you're going to try to get people to see what you want them to see, you have to take them by surprise. You have to come at it in a way that gets past habituation, because we all have a deeply habituated way of seeing the world. In order to get us to see freshly, the writer has to catch habit off guard. You're right, there's a lot of information overload in there, but it's for that reason, as if to say: Suddenly it feels really odd and strange and surprising, and yet it's all true. Nothing is made up, you know. If it works right, it makes readers see afresh, see the world anew. That's what it's for.
Dave: There's a similarly disorienting technique employed in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Throughout the novel, you describe familiar quite differently than the way our history teaches us. And other important historical events don't happen at all.
Rushdie: That was trying to say: Here's a world that is clearly our world—it's not Mars and it's not fairyland—but fiction is not the world. Fiction is a slightly different place. I wanted to make that clear.
Some fiction occupies a very different place: Tolkien's Middle Earth, for example, though even Middle Earth still has connections to the world because Tolkien wrote it during the Second World War and even though he tried to deny it it's quite clear that the battle against evil in The Lord of the Rings has some connections to the battle against evil, or the battle against Hitler, that was being fought at the time he was thinking about the book and beginning to make it. But his book goes so far from the original that it becomes its own thing and you can enjoy it never thinking about Hitler.
The Ground Beneath Her Feet is very much closer to the world outside the book. The shifts just suggest that if the world is at right angles in front of you, the world of the book is skewed five degrees. It was a way to foreground —to use the fashionable term—the idea that the world of the book is not identical to the world of the world. Most people I know who read the book were initially caught short by the fact that, for instance, Lou Reed was a woman.
Dave: Why would that catch anyone by surprise?!
Rushdie: Exactly! And the Watergate affair was a novel. Things like that. But then people began to enjoy it. It became like a game they could join in.
One of the ideas that I really enjoyed was that in what I was imagining as the world of this book as distinct from the real world, it would be right that fictional characters from other books should have the same status of reality as characters from my book, right? Whereas, let's say, the authors of those books clearly could not be in my book because they didn't exist in the fictional world. So that Zuckerman was real and Philip Roth didn't exist. And Humboldt was real and Bellow didn't exist. The internal world of books, the other fictional universes, are places you can get to from my fictional universe, but you can't get to the real world from there. Sal Paradise is real and Jack Kerouac is not.
I really enjoyed playing that particular game because I think it said something about how the whole world of books is one world of the same order and the world we inhabit is also one world of the same order, but the two orders are not the same. There it is. It started out being quite a marginal aspect of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, then of course it became a big aspect of it.
I remember thinking about the Borges story, "The Garden of Forking Paths." In that story, you remember that the idea is that The Garden of Forking Paths is a book in which the author tries to give every possible variant of every possible situation so that the book explodes like a nuclear chain reaction and becomes impossible. What I thought that I was doing was in a way the opposite of that. Instead of having an endlessly proliferating series of universes or dimensions or realities, I had suggested that here were these two realities and that they're on a collision course. That's to say there's the world of the imagined and this other world that may or may not be the one we're actually living in, and only one of them can survive. It ends up being a crash instead of a fission. In the end, that gave the book its shape. What started out as a kind of joke suddenly revealed itself to have much greater potential.
Dave: In The Ground Beneath Her Feet there's a persistent commingling of what you might call high and low art, intellectualism and vulgarity, however you want to classify the dichotomy. In Fury, the same dichotomy is present, but now it appears within individual sentences. Maybe this is another aspect of the bright light you referred to earlier: within a single sentence, you're making wholesale shifts, seamless but severe.
There's been perhaps an evolution toward this style over the course of your career. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is very much rooted in Greek mythology and, concurrently, pop culture. In Fury, the high and the low are so tightly wound together, line by line, as to be inseparable.
Rushdie: If I look at the language project of my writing, that's the direction it's been trying to go for a long time. I'd started with a slightly different project, which was not to find these fast slides between, as you say, high and low culture. Trying to suggest that Homer and Homer Simpson are the same kind of thing? there are still people who really resist that stuff, but for me it just seems natural. If I like The Simpsons and I like The Iliad, why shouldn't I talk about them in the same sentence?
But talking specifically about the language project, if you look at Midnight's Children, it's not quite that; it's to try and find a way of making English acquire the rhythm and flavor and music of Indian languages. To try and bring a kind of Indian vernacular speech, an Indian sense of metaphor, across into English.
Then there's a certain point at which I felt that I'd done enough of that as felt fresh. Your relationship to language shifts as you go through your books and as you get older. I thought, Well, I know how to do that and, if I want to, I can do that now, but it's more interesting to look at this other thing, to try to make the language more capacious, to try to bring into it every kind of material.
I was very interested in what you describe as these fast transitions inside a sentence. Initially I'd been interested in fast transitions of mood: that a paragraph can begin as tragedy and end as farce, or the other way around. I'd tried often—Shame does it a lot—tried to make a book in which, so to speak, the clouds are moving very fast across the sun: you have light, dark, light, dark. That should be able to happen in a page, in a sentence. I guess then I started thinking about other kinds of rapid transition, of the sort that we're talking about now.
Speed has always been something I've been interested in in prose. At least that you should play strange games with it, with speed. A strange thing happens if you take tragic material and speed it up. There's a story by Kleist called "The Earthquake in Chile," which is only about four or five pages long. It's about an earthquake in Chile and lots of people get killed. Every single thing that happens in the story is hideously tragic and sad, but there's so much that happens, and the story is told at such breakneck speed, that it becomes funny. The tragedy doesn't stop being a tragedy, but it acquires a comic note by the acceleration of the telling.
I remember when I read that I thought, There's something to be learned here, which is: if you play with the tempo of something, it actually affects the meaning quite dramatically. You can take something mournful, speed it up, and it becomes like The Keystone Cops. Or you can take something funny, slow it down, and it becomes melancholy or it reveals other dimensions, and so on. So I've often been very interested in the issue of tempo in writing and what it does if you tell the story at the wrong speed.
One doesn't often get a chance to talk about technique so I'm glad to be able to do it. This is the stuff writers really spend a lot of time thinking about. It's the stuff, in a way, that readers aren't really even supposed to notice. It's supposed to have an effect on them in such a way that they don't know where the effect comes from. Why do I feel sad in this bit? Or, Why do I suddenly feel happier? Why do I want to laugh even though there's no gags? This is a kind of deep structure and, as I say, your relationship to it changes over time. Right now, in Fury and in what comes after it, I'm sure, I'm very interested in this kind of intensity of contact between all kinds of culture, between the most arcane and the most everyday. To see where they join, or if they don't join to make them.
Dave: How did you get involved in the filming of Bridget Jones's Diary?
Rushdie: Easy: Helen Fielding, who wrote the book, is an old pal of mine. She rang me up and said, "Would you mind making a fool of yourself?" That's literally what she said. She said they were filming a scene at a book party and they wanted to have some real writers there, people they thought the public would recognize, so would I do it? I'd always wanted to act, so it scratched an itch for me.
It was very enjoyable. It was just three days. Because it was the party scene all the principle actors were involved, so I was able to watch these very good comic actors doing their stuff. It was great fun. I hoped that the phone would start ringing and I'd be offered lots more parts, but no such luck.
Dave: You've described how reading from Fury changed after September 11. You said that it was odd afterward how the novel almost became?
Dave: Right, nostalgic. Though my first impression upon reading it was that so much had changed even apart from 9-11. The world you're describing, particularly in those opening pages, is a world of economic boom with no end in sight.
Dave: The world changed so drastically within a year from the time you finished writing it.
Rushdie: That's one of the reasons I felt such a sense of urgency about getting it down: I had a sense that this wasn't going to last long. This bubble is going to burst. Obviously I didn't foresee calamity, but I did see that these moments in a city, or in a society, are usually pretty brief; this sense of infinite possibility doesn't go on. People fall back to earth. That's I think what drove me to write this book with such urgency that it actually interrupted another book and took precedence.
In retrospect, it was as if I was driven by some kind of prescience or foreknowledge which, of course, I wasn't. But what I did think is exactly what you say: that the world is going to change fast, and if I want to capture this moment, I better do it fast because any second now it isn't going to be here to capture. I think September 11 in a way underlined and dramatized that change, but you're right: the change was happening anyway.
I always thought the book, if I did it right, could at some later point— which we're already at, as it turns out—be a kind of evocation of an age. In the way, to be vain, that you look at the Jazz Age through Fitzgerald. A book that is correct about its moment can have an enduring value because it evokes the moment and makes people able to enter the moment in a way that is otherwise hard to do. Frankly, if I read nonfiction stuff about the twenties I'm kind of bored quite quickly. Endless flappers and charlestons and speakeasies? you know, stop it. But when you get into Fitzgerald's world his genius is such that you're drawn in.
Sometimes literature is the way in which the past can really be captured and held, in such a way that we're able to enter it. I hoped the book would be that. I still hope the book will be that; it's just shocking how rapidly the future has arrived.
I sat in a room talking with Salman Rushdie for an hour and he was the one that brought up The Simpsons. Odds makers really took a bath on that one. Rushdie visited Powell's on September 25, 2002.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State