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Salman Rushdie

"When the characters come to life in your imagination and on the page, they often tell you to go in directions that you hadn't suspected you would"


Emerged from under the longtime fatwa, a relieved Salman Rushide discusses his new book, Shalimar the Clown, life in New York and his take on what is happening in the Middle East.

Chicago Life: Tell us about the process of writing Shalimar the Clown.

Salman Rushdie: This book took an unusually long time. I actually first had the idea for it more than six years ago, and for a long time, I couldn't really make it work. And then I had the idea for Fury: A Novel. It showed up and seemed much more ready to write. I put Shalimar to one side for a bit, and I thought maybe it would benefit from just being left to lay while I wrote this other book. I took about a year out in order to write Fury. When I came back to this book, I actually felt much better, but then it took me four years to write it.

Chicago Life: How do you begin to write a novel?

Salman Rushdie: In order to be able to start, I need to feel that I know what I'm doing. I do a lot of advance work and planning, but I always feel that you've got to let the book come to life. When the characters come to life in your imagination and on the page, they often tell you to go in directions that you hadn't suspected you would, and then you decide if that's a good idea or not. For instance, when I was creating the character of Max, I didn't originally think that I would have to really go into the past and tell the back story of his early life in France and being involved in the underground and so on. In the end it became clear to me that I couldn't bring him fully to life unless I really told his whole story. So there is a place where you take a deep breath and say I'm going to have to write about the underground in World War II, and you plunge in. And actually, having done it, it's one of my very favorite parts of the book. It's something that grew out of the actual writing.

Chicago Life: Does the emotional nature of your work impact you while you're writing?

Salman Rushdie: This book unusually affected me while I was writing it. It's a thing that has never happened to me before. There were bits in the book where I found myself crying. I found there were tears flowing down my face, and I thought, holy shit, what am I crying for? I just made this stuff up. But I found that these people had gone so deeply under my skin that there were moments when I was made very sad by things that were happening. So there I was, sitting alone in my study, crying like a baby.

Chicago Life: How do you relieve stress and pressure from writing?

Salman Rushdie: I don't work out. My philosophy in life is that exercise kills. My way of handling things is to eat and drink and to lead a generally degraded and debauched life.

Chicago Life: How is your life different than it was a decade ago?

Salman Rushdie: Ten years ago it was awful, and now it's fine. Ten years ago I had published The Satanic Verses, and in a way that was good because that was a book that was very, very well received, but it was still in the middle of the period in which I was requiring a lot of security. The threat was still very active, and so back then it was a dark time in my life. Now, happily, for about the last seven years, those threats have receded, and it's been an easier time. It's very hard to be under a fatwa. I wouldn't recommend it.

Chicago Life: Your life has been full of interesting occurrences. Is there one that stands out?

Salman Rushdie: One of the strange stories of my life is that when Midnight's Children came out way back in the early '80s, it was reviewed in the Chicago Tribune by Nelson Algren, whom I had never met. I then found myself in Long Island having lunch with Kurt Vonnegut, who said that Nelson Algren had just moved in around the corner and was giving a housewarming party and invited me to go along. Before we got there, he called up and discovered that the housewarming party had been canceled because Nelson Algren had just died. I didn't meet Nelson, and it was clear that his review of my book was actually the last thing he ever wrote.

Chicago Life: Do you think that some Middle Eastern countries that were once so progressive and modern have regressed?

Salman Rushdie: I do think that has happened. I have to say first of all, I'm not a great expert on the Middle East. It's not a part of the world that I have spent much time in, but I have a lot of friends who are very prominent writers and experts in that area, and one of the things they all speak of is the backsliding. If you think about Beirut and Damascus in the '60s and '70s, these were very different places. They were very cosmopolitan, tolerant. The cities were amongst the great cities of the world. The colossal decline in the culture of those cities is one of the great tragedies of the Arab world.

Chicago Life: What caused this decline?

Salman Rushdie: The rise of political Islam is what caused it.

Chicago Life: What do you think is going to happen in the Middle East?

Salman Rushdie: When asked to prophesize, I tend to resist because I've had trouble in my time, and I'm not applying for the job of prophet. There seems to be a grueling realization inside the Muslim world that a solution to the problem is in their hands and that if radical Islamists are going to be defeated, it needs to be defeated from inside Islam and not from outside it. You know, in the same way, if you think about why the IRA was brought to the center, it happened because its own constituency, the Irish Catholics, decided they would end the struggle. They couldn't bear living in that violent atmosphere, the conflict and terrorism, anymore. I think something very similar needs to happen inside the Muslim world, but it needs to be made clear by the Middle East communities and countries that they have no desire to support the violent Islamists. I think if there is going to be a victory of the so-called "war on terrorism," it will come when Muslim society begins to act in that way.

Chicago Life: What are your thoughts about Iraq?

Salman Rushdie: I would like to be optimistic about Iraq because nobody wants it to be a failed state. We're there now, and the best thing that could possibly happen is for it to succeed and for there to be a stable democratic country. It just seems that the situation is not getting less unstable but more unstable, and so, at the moment, I am quite pessimistic about the future there. I really hope to be proved wrong because it would be better for all of us if I were wrong. I think probably we are stuck having soldiers there for a very long time. If you break it, you should fix it.

Chicago Life: How is your life different in New York?

Salman Rushdie: Since I've started living in New York, I've become obsessed with baseball. I'm a mad Yankees fan, and I go to the stadium and follow the Yankees every single day. If you want to talk to me really seriously, we can discuss the problems on the Yankees team.

Published: October 01, 2005
Issue: November 2005