Salman Rushdie Interview (2003)

Salman Rushdie Interview Transcript

RSC Rehearsal rooms Clapham 03.Jan.03

[conversation takes place in a large empty rehearsal room. You can tell there's an Indian cast in residence because in the green room a packet of cardamon seeds lies next to the tea bags. Before Rushdie arrives there are the sounds of theatrical shouting and dhol drumming. The production of Midnights Children is two weeks away from first previews]

HK: So how's it going in there?

SR: Very well. Tim [Supple, director] and I work very well together. It's very fluid.

HK: Do you think the cast have got used to having the author in the room?

SR: Oh yes. I think I've stopped being the author, and now I'm just the git in the corner.

HK: Are you the sort of git who keeps shouting 'stop, that's not what I meant'?

SR: Oh, I definitely interrupt. That's what's so good about the way we work together. I come up with suggestions. The actors come up with suggestions. Together we find the best way to do things.

HK: The script is incredibly compressed

SR: I think that's right for something that's supposed to be about tumultous events.

HK: reading through it I was struck by the contrast between Bombay as a very open city, a city of possibility, versus Karachi and Delhi which are both very negatively portrayed. You seem to orientate MC around these two ideas of the city

SR: Ideas of the city have always been kind of central to my writing. I've always thought of myself essentially as a city writer

HK: There's definitely something of the city in your prose.

SR: yes people say is it Indian or British but I say well, in fact it's really urban. I spent my whole life in giant cities, and that has shaped the kind of books I want to write.

HK: What is it that you delight in about the city?

SR: Its noise, excess, many things bumping into each other, constant contradiction, stories jostling for space against other stories. That was very much the spirit of what I tried to get into Midnight's Children - how do you tell the story of a crowd, and of course the Indian city is the great location of the crowd. The thing you're saying about Bombay and Delhi and Karachi is a characteristic very much of the time the book is set in, because if you were to write the same book now, the portrait of Bombay would be much darker.

HK: I have cousins in Bombay, and women tell me it's much easier to be out in Bombay to leeave an independent life

SR: That's true, no question. In terms of the character of the icty, that actually has changed since things like the Shiv Sena took over. It's become politically a much darker scene, more gangsterism. One thing about Bombay the political gangs are all Hindu and the criminal gangs are all muslim.

HK [laughs] and what conclusion do you draw from this?

SR: It's a strange variation on Hindu-Muslim struggle. In India the cirminal world or should I say the hoodlum world is divided in that way. Delhi has actually become - the other thing that's happened to Bombay is that it's become so much more expensive than it was in those days so that a lot of interesting people have been forced out of Bombay. Bombay used to be a very artistic city and Delhi used to be very much just politics.

HK: Rather like San Francisco, everybody's drifted down to Los Angeles because they were forced out by the dotcom boom.

SR: Now Delhi has a much richer artistic scene than it used to then and Bombay is somewhat impoverished - it's priced itself out. Karachi of course is even more of a terrible place than it was then, it's now been so taken over by drug mafias, crime mafias that it's a really terrifying lawless city. One of the scariest places in the world. A really out of control city. Everybody's on the take, the criminal gangs are in league with the police …

HK: Also Bombay is a city with its own tradition of storytelling, certainly its own tradition of cinematic storytelling. How much has that to do with how you're telling the story?

SR: A lot. Bombay does also have an old theatre tradition. When Felicity Kendall's sister Jennifer Kendall was married to Shashi Kapoor, they did a lot of work setting up Bombay Theatre. JK wonderful stage actress who sadly died so yes Bombay has a theatre tradition and what now gets called Bollywood, it never got called Bollywood when I was living there. That's a new word.

HK : I recall Amitabh being quite bitter about the way the word has come into use.

SR: there's a moment in the Satanic Verses based on an incident in the life of Amitabh when he got very very ill .

HK: This is when the guy walked backwards to pray for his recovery?

SR: yes all that. It was the lead item on the news every night for about three weeks. Rajiv Gandhi cut short a foreign visit in order to come back to sit at Amitabh's bedside. It was an amazing demonstration of his stature in the country. There's a moment in the Satanic Verses when Jibreel gets sick and it becomes a kind of national catastrophe.

[HK drifts into talking about Shree 420, and the song mere dil hai hindustani]

SR: Of course that was a big film of my childhood and of course you grow up in Bombay and you grow up with the movies all around you. I had various memebers of my family, aunts and uncles, who were in some way or other involved with the movies.

HK: You think there's a genuine line of influence there in your idea of what makes a good story?

SR: Absolutely. And then afterwards I came to England and was very affected by New Wave cinema which was very big in the sixties and so I think there's a lot in Midnights Children that is very straightforwardly cinematic.

HK: cuts

SR: Cuts, exactly, and close-ups, things like that. Thre's a scene in the book when Saleem is spying on his mother at the Pioneer Café, meeting what he doesn't know is her ex-husband, he thinks is her lover and there's this curious thing where they're trying to hold each others hands but then they sort of restrain themselves from doing so and he's watching this dance of hands which upsets him because he thinks his mother is having an affair with somebody so instead of watching their hands he looks down at the table below their hands where there's a cigarette packet and he describes in incredible detail the cigarette packet, instead of what's happening just above the cigarette packet

HK: That's a very new wave way of doing storytelling.

SR: You look away from the action. But also at that moment in the story he's outside the café looking in through the window and they're at the back of the café at a table some distance away, there's no way he'd even be able to read what's written on the packet, the only way you understand it is through the convention of the close-up, and because we're all so used to that people don't even think about it - they just read it as a close-up.

HK: Also I suppose in your work they can read it as supra-rational or magic - what do you think of the term magic realism?

SR: I never liked it really. What I think is that there are a number of movements in different places in the world at different times which are all basically the same thing - magical realism is a term which in my mind applies to a particular moment in South American literature. Then in the seventies you have American fabulism with writers like Pynchon and Robert Coover and so on and you have surrealism which comes out of sort of a very similar spirit.

HK: Have you ever found it useful to orientate yourself in relation to any of those terms?

SR: No. And I think people read my stuff, there's a lot less magic noses than there used to be.

HK: I suppose the adventures of professor Solanka are unlikely but not magical.

SR: The only fantasy in Fury is a very deliberately contained story inside a story - it's quite clearly fictional, or internet, or computer or whatever.

HK The science fiction material.

SR: Right, but it doesn't seep into the fabric of the realistic story.

HK: But there seems to be a bleed anyway, to get back to this idea of city space, a space of impossible glimpses, you have glimpses of the impossible when you're driving through New York in a car.

SR: There's a thing about Dickens which was very helpful to me when I was writing that story. If you look at what happens in Dickens he's very carefully naturalistic in the background, so the fabric of the Dickensian city - which is not unlike the fabric of the contemporary Indian city - is very closely observed, almost hyper-realist in the detail of the observation. Against that are projected ideas and characters which are much larger than life. You have very big grotesque characters placed against a meticulously observed naturalistic background,and rooted in that background. And also surrealist images. You have the Circumlocution Office [Little Dorrit] a completely Garcia Marquez image. Jarndyce versus Jarndyce [Bleak House]. The dust-heaps in Our Mutual Friend. These are big surrealist images, but because they and his expanded characters are so carefully rooted in observed reality you accept them, and they enrich the reality rather than just being some kind of whimsical game on top of reality. That's some thing I thought I should try and learn from and in Midnight's Children did try and learn from.

HK: I've been reading some of your essays [Imaginary Homelands] and came up against some of the terms in which, in the early eighties, you were being forced to talk about yourself, this notion of the Commonwealth writer, which seems extraordinarily dated, you seem to have successfully sidestepped.

SR: demolished

HK: and now you've performed this gradual westward drift [Bombay - London - NYC], does the notion of home still have any meaning for you?

SR: in the new book of essays [Step Across This Line] there's one about the Wizard of Oz, and one of things I try to say is that everyboy leaves home. The journey from childhood home to adult home is one everybody makes. You start off in one house, your parents house, but then you leave and you make your own home. So yes, in a way it's more drmatic when you do it across culture and across continents from one country to another but essentially it's a process - migration - that is in every life, and in the end what home feels like is the place you make.

HK: but these days especially it seems an increasingly politicised term, against a backdrop of globalisation this idea of the particular, the idea of being rooted comes up again and again in quite unpleasant contexts.

SR: I agree - as you know I'm sure - what I've been banging on about for a quarter of a century now, is a set of ideas which I hope are more hopeful about the consequences of migration and the way in which things are not only lost but gained in the act of migration - but of course the idea of home becomes problematic and the question for any individual or community of migrants is exactly the question of what you keep and what you dump and what you accept and what you don't accept about the place you come to.

HK It seems to me that as long as that's thought of as an active construction of home, then we're all safe and happy, but when it becomes naturalised, in connection say to a particular patch of soil, then we're in trouble.

SR I think on the whole roots have been responsible for a lot of the world's biggest problems. I'm a first generation migrant, unlike someone like say Hanif [Kureishi] or you.

HK: It was our fathers who made the journey.

SR: Hanif grew up in Bromley. I didn't. I grew up somewhere else. I first came here when I was fourteen but my family never moved here.

HK Do you have a lot of family in India?

SR My father's dead but my mother's there and my sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins, all over India and Pakistan so even when I was here at boarding school, even when I was here at Cambridge, my family weren't here so I was going back all the time. I really only actually made the act of migration after leaving university. Certainly my parents' assumption was that I would complete my education and go back.

HK to use your skills for the motherland.

SR To go into some dreadful business. When I told my father that I wanted to be a writer, his first reaction was absolutley horrified and negative. I think he said 'what will I tell my friends?'

HK: I remember my family being very pleased to hear I was going to Oxford, but then reaction being a little flat when it was discovered I was going to do English literature rather than something decent, something scientific or technical. I think for many years I had the reputation around the family of being a bit thick.

SR Well it's not a real job is it, that's the thing. Certainly that was my father's initial reaction. But then he bought me my ticket back to England, gave me start up money. It wasn't what he wanted for me, and I was the only son, and it certainly wasn't the plan, but fortunately he lived long enough to see that it worked out.

HK Here's a 1982 quote. [from Imaginary Homelands] "British thought and British society has never been cleansed of the filth of British Imperialism" and you go on to say that's a potential which is still there, available for exploitation. This is from the perspective of 1982.

SR I think think it's a bit different now. In the seventies and even during the time I was writing Midnights Children I was doing a lot of voluntary work in race relations organisations.

HK Can you tell me more about that?

SR: Mainly there was this thing called the Camden CRC [Community Relations Council], and there was a long period when I was chairman of the community work committee, in charge of all the people there who were working with the Bangladeshi or African community or whatever, I did that for eight or nine years, there were all kinds of moments when I was involved in lobbying against the Nationality Act, whatever the big issues of the period might be.

HK there's a very up-against-it tone to some of those pieces, you describe demonstrations in Southall and the police writing NF with their fingers in the breath on misted up windscreens.

SR I know about that stuff because I was there and involved in those things in a very frontline way. One of the things that everybody who's been involved in that stuff says is that you can only do it for a certain amount of time, you bang your head against the wall of that problem, and after a while you just have to stop and let somebody else do it. So I did it for a while and then I guess around the time Midnight's Children got published I stopped.

HK you thought it was more useful to spend your energies in other ways?

SR I could more usefully write about it, and that's the reason some of that writing is there, and it was in a way a better thing than being somebody at a demonstration.

HK: My perspective growing up in the early eighties here was that there weren't any Asian people on the TV. I didn't know who to look to or who to be and that's very different now.

SR I think it's also different at the ordinary human level of the interaction between the communities. At the time that article was written you would never have seen Asian girls dating white guys, and you would double never have seen Asian girls dating black guys.

HK: So the whole Banglatown fusion of Bangladeshi and Caribbean and Cockney wasn't there.

SR Nothing, non existent. Bangladeshi parents then would have been more horrified if their children had gone out with black people than with white people

HK: Still now.

SR: but they're losing the ability to stop it. So I think a lot of things have changed, and even when I wrote the Satanic Verses which is much later in the eighties, it came out in 88, the reason the big central section in the novel is called City Visible But Unseen is exactly to say that here's this life, this huge life of the migrant communities in London, it's not make believe. Go to Brick Lane. Go to Wembley or Brixton. And yet nobody was talking about it.

HK: So invisible from the perspective of the metropolitan cultural elite

SR But now that's changed too. Really if you were going to try to write about the same subject now you'd write about it very differently. So I think both that racism essay and the Satanic Verses are a product of a slightly different period.

HK: I think you can paint quite a positive picture of London and the South East and given that we are (as I have read) in a "post Zadie Smith era"

SR: poor old Zadie.

HK: Yup, already an era.

SR: And not even thirty. So what am I? A dinosaur?

HK [laughs] Given that there is this Benetton advert version of what it is to be a Briton being retailed to us by our government and simultaneously we have what's been happening in Oldham, that seems to be a different kind of invisibility.

SR I was really shocked by what happened in the North because I had really begun to think we might have got past that stage, but you know, now we discover we're not.

HK: The economics of a declining mill town and spatial segregation between the two communities.

SR: I was very saddened by that because I was beginning to have a more optimistic view of British race relations and obviously - in those cases at least - it's not tenable. It was interesting for me to have spent that period of time deeply involved in that subject. One of the things that always annoyed me about what happened around the Satanic Verses was that it obscured was the fact that it was a novel about London. Most of the SV is a novel about London in the era of high Thatcherism.

HK: All that high/low rise and fall stuff - the aspirational dimension of that period.

SR: It's a novel about that moment and it's a metropolitan novel about England. You read every day that the trouble with the novel in England is that nobody takes on contemporary subjects and so on. And I think hang on there is this very long book that did actually do that.

HK: I find that the general set of terms set for writers by newspaper criticism is woeful. There's this vocabulary of sympathy and realism and everybody has this authenticity fetish.

SR it's a very conservative moment in metropolitan newspaper lit crit. A lot of us who are my generation talked about how fortunate we were that at the time at which we began to write there was a very different spirit around.

HK: I think for me looking back to the 1970's there was this glorious experimental stuff that was getting written and discussed.

SR: Well, people wanted it. That's the thing. It was being very positively received. Take early McEwan for example.

HK: So where did it go? Why did things change?

SR I think it ended around the end of the eighties - suddenly people retreted from that much more interesting in my view approach to writing - it became smaller - people's critical horizons, even imaginative horizons in the case of many writers became much narrower and more circumscribed. I thought - these things go in cycles I guess, but I don't particularly respond to this part of the cycle.

HK I remember being a 20 year old Pynchon fan and couldn't get enough of Oulipo and so on and it was very shocking to me when I first started trying to send things to agents - there I was armed with all my French theory expecting to get a positive reception in 1990.

SR: Well, you don't get anywhere in England with French theory.

HK: I realised that later.

SR: We were lucky that we all came out in a moment where people seemed to be wanting new ways of saying things and responded very well to that and I think Midnights Children was a huge beneficiary of that. When I wrote it I thought you know I wonder if anybody's going to read this apart from close members of my family, because in those days the novel about India in English was all Heat and Dust, British experiences of India and so on. For me, it was good that it was so well received in India, given that it might not have been what with the tension about Indian writers who live abroad but here what it did which was interesting was that people responded to it because it wan't a raj novel, beause it wasn't about english experiences of india but about indian experiences of india in which the english were peripheral. I had absolutely no expection that this would happen because it had never happened.

HK: There seemed to be an expectation that MC would inaugurate a period where voices from the former British empire would write their versions, and it kind of didn't work out that way - there was a lot of stuff from India but not so much from anywhere else.

SR: Well, Australia and the Caribbean. I'm slightly to blame for that because I'm the person who wrote the article that was published in the Times to which they gave the headlline 'The Empire Writes Back' - so I'm responsible for that damn phrase.

HK: You realise this will inevitably end up being called 'When Hari met Salman'. I'm thinking of putting a note in with the copy.

SR saying please do not call it that. [laughs] They will of course. Too large a target.

HK: So The Empire Writes back - why didn't it unpack in the way that was expected?

SR: I think the thing that was true about it is the development of English into a world language. That is something that has happened and is interesting, but that's not so new, after all the Irish were doing that quite a long time ago. The Irishing of English, the Americanising of English has been going on for two hundred years since Fennimore Cooper and Huckleberry Finn but I've always thought that one of the great things about English is its flexibility. There's now a very distinct Caribbean literature and a very distinct Indian literature and a very rich Australian literature and various parts of Africa, so that did happen, but the intersting thing to me is the way linguistically the project varies from place to place, what Walcott does with it and what Peter Carey does with it But the reason I objected to the idea of commonwealth literature is none of those writers would believe they belong to a common school.

HK: Right, it's a whites and the rest kind of category

SR: It was created inside the universities as a way of getting more jobs. There was this thing, English literature which was the canon, Leavis and all that stuff, but in order to get more books studied they created this thing commonwealth literature which had different professors etc. And it became a kind of ridiculous segregation. If you're going to study Anita Desai you need to read Jane Austen. How would you not? If you're going to study me as we've just been saying you maybe need to read a bit of Dickens and Tristram Shandy so you can't ghettoise it. The great surprise of MC in the west was the ease with which it was accepted. Rather than being thought of as some kind of oddball thing -

HK: It became a mainstream commercial success. And now we have this category "the great Indian novel".

SR: The thing with MC was that it was percieved to come out of nowhere - it didn't of course - but that's how it was seen - and there was a period when it took up all available space and now I think what's interesting is that there are so many writers either in India or of Indian origin elsewhere, there's now real diversity.

HK: And it seemed to define a style which came to be expected of Indian writing. Expansive, busy. I mean, a Carveresque Indian writer would be perceived as an odd fish.

SR: They wouldn't know what to do with it. But take writers like Raj Kamal Jha for example.

HK That's who I was thinking of. That book was a very good book but because it

had that sort of blankness to it, the spaces in the prose - but it tanked commercially

SR: Well, people wrote very respectfully about it. There are other writers Amit Chaudhuri - another very - one of the things that is true I sort of felt for Zadie when the book came out and suddenly she was compared to me but white writers never get compared to Indian writers.

HK Zadie always bitches to me that she gets sent every black women's book going and nothing else and you must get the same.

SR: I know - because actually the author said so - that one of the books that was very directly influenced by MC was Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. But did anybody see that?

HK: They'd be looking every other direction.

SR: But that's the conclusion almost nobody draws because the ghetto thing is still there. Across the divide in this direction you can't have influence. Just as I couldn't have written what I've written without having read a lot of English and American literature - it doesn't all come from oral narrative traditions. But that was the great thing about MC is that it just broke down that wall.

HK: I suppose there was you, and then Hanif

SR: Hanif has the movie dimension as well.

HK: I supose it was really My Beautiful Laundrette more than the prose fiction.

SR: I think he is now writing the best fiction of his life but actually in those days it was certainly Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie that brought him to people's attention. And he had the great good fortune of having a young Dan Day Lewis. I always used to feel very close to Hanif in those days, and had a sort of kid brother feelig about him. And there were then so few of us and now there's loads of us, and it's all a lot easier. For instance this thing with the RSC. I was thinking about it, had we tried to cast this play when the book came out we couldn't have done it. There weren't enough good British Asian actors.

HK: I recently saw again the Merchant Ivory film of passage to india. That was 1984 and I'd forgotten they blacked up Alec Guinness to play Godbole.

SR: Well David Lean was a very foolish man. They also had him dangling his feet in a holy tank. Ridiculous stuff. Even when we started - there'd been midnights children projects for as long as I can remember, people coming along, wanting to flim it and this and that and we were stumped on the area of casting.

HK: And you at least managed to retain control of the rights so you could shepherd something towards its conclusion.

SR: But now - embarass de richesse - So many wonderful actors to choose from. One of the saddest things about when the bbc tv project failed is that we'd already fully cast it and there were all these actors - we were only two weeks from principal photography, it was really dreadful. Esentially what happened is that the political situation in Sri Lanka exploded, which was where we were going to film it. It was good in one way because they'd taken the precaution of taking out political insurance so they didn't lose a packet, but of course it then became uninsurable, because nobody would give you the political insurance again, once you'd claimed your millions of pounds. So that's what happened, and it was very sad, and one of the things I felt saddest about was that these actors who would say to me.

HK They had the role of their lives

SR Right it was only about four or five years ago that this happened. They said you know, if you're an Indian actor in England, they said we run into each other because we're all up for the same hospital orderlies and the same cornershop Patels etcetera, and the opportunities were very limited for them. The most thrilling thing for me [about MC] is how excited they all are and the incredible commitment. They're going at it 150%. It's wonderful to see this very talented group of people giving it everything they've got. It's very moving to be the author and see people engaging that passionately with your work. It's a big show, twenty actors, multimedia and so on. I remember with Haroun [and the Sea of Stories] when we did it at the National [Theatre 1998], and Haroun by comparision was small, ten actors and a musician, and that from previews to press night tightened so much that we took 25 minutes off the running time without cutting anything. I'm sure this will happen with this. I'm sure the first couple of previews will play half an hour longer. It's mostly a very young cast and the degree of their commitment is quite spectacular. It's one of the great things for somebody who's sat in a room for years and years, it's something to see this group of talented people going into the text in such detail.

HK Scary at points I should think

SR There are bits which I hadn't seen. For instance, one of the actresses who wasn't even playing the part of Aunt Emerald said you know the thing about her is that she's always doing things she doesn't want to do because of family duty, and when the poet is hidden in the cellar she doesn't want it to happen but because her father says this is what we're doing she goes along with it, and later on she doesn't want to have Saleem to stay with her but because her sister asks her she can't refuse and actually I'd never thought there was that in her character, that sense of duty, and that's what happens when actors enter character. If you read memoirs of the great Shakespearean actors the things they have to tell you about Hamlet or Othello you would never find in an academic book because no professor ever played Hamlet, but Olivier did. The way in which an actor inhabits a role, and inhabits the sentences and language shows things you can't see from outside.

HK Like rereading your own book.

SR And remaking it also of course, because it's a very different version. Tim [Supple] and Simon [Reade] and I have been hammering away at this for a year and a half, sending drafts back and forth.

HK: Is this mainly what you've been doing?

SR: There is a novel bubbling away, waiting for my attention. Once this is over I'll be back to that.

HK: Does that mean back to New York?

SR: Well I'm always back and forth but this is the longest time I've been back in England for four years. I've been here for almost two months because of the play.

[HK talks about negative reactions to Fury]

SR: There's just a moment when it's your turn. There's nothing you can do. I wasn't expecting what happened with the last novel. Suddenly it was my turn to get a kicking. And I'd done all these incorrect things like go and live in New York.

HK: Oh well they were never going to be nice to you after shamefully abandoning the joys of London for New York.

SR: I never abandoned it. I've still got a place in London. My children are here.

HK: The way the story was narrated was he gets onto a plane in a huff saying you were horrid to me I'm going to go and drink cocktails.

SR: It's complete shit. I just thought are we still so backward that we don't understand someone can have a house in two places? Instead of having your cottage in Cornwall you can just have a place in another town. A writer's life is mostly very quiet. What's wrong with going out to parties? It seems there's some problem with going out if you're a writer.

HK they'll probably start missing you now

SR Well let's not go too far.

An edited version of this conversation was printed in Time Out.