CEDAR RAPIDS — Sir Salman Rushdie never dreamed the book he considered his “least political novel” would touch off a firestorm of violence and incite a death threat that would haunt him for a decade.
“That just shows you writers can be wrong about their work,” Rushdie, 65, of New York City, said Tuesday night (2/12/13) while fielding questions from students during the 10th annual Coe College Contemporary Issues Forum.
Even though he’s never considered himself a provocateur, his writings have stirred plenty of controversy on the world stage.
The three leaders he’s rankled through his criticism of regimes in Pakistan, India and Iran — including the Ayatollah Khomeini — all died shortly after those books were published.
“Dictator elimination appears to be a service I can provide,” Rushdie said as the audience burst into laughter.
In an exclusive Gazette interview before his speech, he said he considers “The Satanic Verses” backlash to be just one chapter in his life — a part of his past he doesn’t even think about until journalists bring it up.
“It’s been over for longer than it went on,” he said. “It’s been a dozen years since there was really any issue.”
That chapter, however, plays out in his 656-page memoir, “Joseph Anton,” published in September. The book recounts the aftermath of the Ayatollah’s fatwa, issued Feb. 14, 1989, in which the leader called on Muslims to shoot Rushdie on sight.
Thus began an underground odyssey that kept the author on the move, under police protection and in a constant search for the next safe house.
“The first year, year and a half was a time of great upheaval,” he said, “and then it gradually calmed down a bit.”
Eventually he was allowed to have a more permanent place to live, but it could not be made public beyond family and friends.
“The way this thing came to an end, it wasn’t like somebody just threw a switch one day. It slowly got better, and one of the things that really helped me was America. There’s no question the reason I now live in New York is because I was allowed to come here in those days, initially for short periods of time — a week or 10 days, and then eventually for long periods of time — two or three months — and live like a free man. The American authorities agreed to allow me to make my judgments and take my chances, and that felt like a huge relief.
“So one of the important steps back on the road to a normal life was coming to spend time in the United States. So then when I did get out of the security trap, it seemed natural to continue to live in the place where I had begun to regain that freedom.”
He moved here permanently around the end of 1999, beginning of 2000.
The title of his memoir comes from the pseudonym he adopted while living underground in London — Joseph Anton — an homage to authors Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.
Joseph Anton is vastly different from the relaxed author who travels freely, lectures at colleges 10 to 15 times per years and has been consulting and writing the screenplay that is bringing his 1981 novel, “Midnight’s Children,” to U.S. cinemas in April.
Anton is “a younger self,” he said. “First of all, this is something that happened to me when I was 25 years younger. I was trying to re-enter the cast of mine, of my 40-year-old self. Also, of course, the person I was then was under really appalling and intense psychological pressure, and that was deforming in all kinds of ways.
“Many of my friends who knew me through that period say that I seem younger now than I did then. I think that’s just because there was a terrible burden, and so that’s something I wanted to write about … Yes I managed to get through it, but that was a different me. It was a me under quite intense pressure.
“One of the reasons for the whole third-person thing in the book is that I wanted to say yes it is me, but it’s also in a way not me.
The place I’m in now, which is happier and calmer and able to look back at the past and reflect on it and understand it and write about it — that’s a very different place than the place I was in those years.
“I wanted to say yes, of course we’re the same person, but the differences in our circumstances are so extreme that there’s a sense in which we’re not quite the same, and that’s the reason for making that distinction between the character in the book and the author writing the book, even though of course, they are actually the same person.”
Finding his creative voice again wasn’t easy.
“Fear is something you always have to have a strategy to deal with,” he said. “A lot of people who have been in very alarming situations have all said some variation of what I came to believe, which is that you have to put it in a box and put it in the corner, because otherwise, it takes over your life and you can’t do anything else. You have to play a mental trick on yourself — to just set it to one side so you can get on with your day.
“I managed to find a way of doing that, and actually, writing was the thing that allowed me to do that, because writing is so all-consuming, in terms of your mind and your self. If you’re really concentrating on writing a book, there’s no room for anything else — certainly no room for fear. Starting to work again — ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ was the first one, and then others – was one of the ways I was able to deal with it.
“I’ve always thought that it was lucky that I was a novelist. A novel is a thing you can sit in a room and write. I thought how much worse it would have been if I’d been a playwright or a filmmaker. Supposing ‘The Satanic Verses’ had been a film or a play. It would have been much harder to write them and get them put on, because people would have been scared. It would have been much harder for me to get financed to make a movie. So really, my work would have been interfered with much more,” he said.
“But fortunately, the art of literature is something you can do, one man alone in a room, and so, I was able to continue.”
He rebukes the label “provocateur.”
“In fact, I kind of slightly regret that that albatross got hung around my neck. I’m just writing my books. One of the problems is, if a storm erupts around your book, as it did around mine, there’s a lot of people who will say, ‘Well, he went out to court that.’ Actually, who would want to court that kind of calamity?
“My view is that I’ve never thought of myself as that. I’m just trying to respond to the world I live in as best I can,” he said.
“Let’s not be falsely innocent, because clearly, there have been books of mine in which I’ve taken on public subjects. In my novel ‘Shame,’ there’s a sort of version of a military dictator not unlike Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator of Pakistan at the time. In those cases, yes, the book is a kind of argument and if people don’t like it, well tough. But yes, you’re writing it to have that kind of (effect),” he said.
“The odd thing about ‘The Satanic Verses’ is that I thought it was the least political book I ever wrote. I thought this was a very personal book about migration and about my views about belief and faith and identity, with less politics mixed in than the ones that came before, and then it turned out to be the opposite of that.”
Rushdie was raised in Bombay, India, in a Muslim family that didn’t practice the faith in an overt way. He is an atheist today.
“I grew up in a very secularized atmosphere,” he said, among children who practiced many different faiths. “My neighborhood where I lived, the boys I played with, were from every conceivable background — some were Christian or Jewish, Parsi or Hindu or Muslim or Sikh or whatever.
“Our attitude was that we would celebrate everybody’s holidays, because that way we got more holidays. None of us really had a strong sense of coming from different religious traditions. We felt all of it was available to all of us. … Religion was just there, but you didn’t take it that seriously. India, sadly, has changed a lot. It’s beginning to suffer more and more from religious sectarian trouble.”
This complicated man who enjoys his sons ages 33 and 16, sees his professional legacy as relatively simple.
“If you’re a writer of my kind, you’re trying to write books that will last,” he said. “My friend Martin Amis has this wonderful phrase where he says that what you hope to leave behind you is a shelf of books.”
His shelf holds at least 24 books, ranging from novels and children’s books to non-fiction and essay collections.
“That’s what I’m proud of — the fact that I’ve been doing this for a long time now. My first novel came out in 1975, so it’s almost 40 years. Actually, it is 40 years, if you count all the crap I wrote that never got published at the beginning,” he said with a laugh.