Big Think Interview with Salman Rushdie
The publication of his fourth novel "The Satanic Verses" in 1988 led to violent protests in the Muslim world for its depiction of the prophet Mohammad. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a death fatwa against Rushdie, which sent him into hiding for nearly a decade. Rushdie weathered countless death threats and many assassination attempts.
In June 2007, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. In 2008 he became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was named a Library Lion of the New York Public Library. In addition, "Midnight’s Children" was named the Best of the Booker—the best prize-winner in the award’s 40 year history—by a public vote. In 2008, The Times of London ranked Rushdie thirteenth on their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945."
Question: How are video games influencing linear forms of storytelling?
Salman Rushdie: That's a very interesting question and I think the answer is we don’t yet know. But I do think that I mean for instance the game that my 13 year-old boy Milan and his friends all seem to be playing right now is this wild west game called "Red Dead Redemption" and one of the things looking over… I mean I don’t even pretend to understand what is going on really, but one of the things that is interesting about it to me is the much looser structure of the game and the much greater agency that the player has to choose how he will explore and inhabit the world that is provided for you. He doesn’t... in fact, doesn’t really have to follow the main narrative line of the game at all for long periods of time. There is all kinds of excursions and digressions that you can choose to go on and find many stories to participate in instead of the big story, the macro story. I think that really interests me as a storyteller because I've always thought that one of the things that the Internet and the gaming world permits as a narrative technique is to not tell the story from beginning to end—to tell stories sideways, to give alternative possibilities that the reader can, in a way, choose between.
I've always thought of the Borges story, “The Garden of Forking Paths” as kind of model of this, that... “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a story, is a book whose author has gone mad because what he has tried to do is to offer every possible variation of every moment. So, boy meets girl. They fall in love/they don’t fall in love. That is the first fork and he wants to tell both those stories and then every variation of every moment down both those lines and of course it’s like nuclear fission. The possibilities explode into millions and billions of possibilities and it’s impossible to write that book. But it seems to me that in some ways the Internet is the garden of forking paths where you can have myriad variant possibilities offered and at the same level of authority, if you like. So I mean I think that's one of the ways in which storytelling could move. And these games, these more free-form games in which the player can make choices about what the game is going to be, become a kind of gaming equivalent of that narrative possibility.
Question: Do you worry that video games are eroding people’s ability to read novels?
Salman Rushdie: I think there are legitimate concerns there and I worry also that there is a dumbing down factor. These games... I mean they sometimes require lateral thinking. They sometimes require quite skilled hand-eye coordination and so on. But they’re not in any sense intelligent in the way that you want your children to develop intelligence to make the mind not just supple, but actually informed. And of course if people spend too much time on this stuff then it militates against that.
One of the things about "Luka and the Fire of Life," which is basically pro... Rashid Luka’s father is basically fond of the video game and defends video games to Luka’s mother, who is much more skeptical of their value. But there is a bit of the book which also suggests that the problem may be that this way of inhabiting the imagination may do something harmful to our relationship to story, to the way in which human beings have always needed and responded to the art of the story and that is something to be worried about, because I think that there is something about storytelling that is very intrinsic to who we are as human beings. So one of the characters in the book refers to man as the storytelling animal—and so we are. We are the only creatures on the earth who do this, so and we may even I think be hardwired to do it in the way that we have a language instinct. We may actually have a story instinct and so there is a legitimate concern about a new form which may erode our attachment to the story. What will that do to us as human beings?
Question: How do magic and fantasy help you arrive at realism?
Salman Rushdie: The question is: "What does truth mean in fiction?" Because of course the first premise of fiction is that it’s not true, that the story does not record events that took place. These people didn’t exist. These things did not happen. And that’s the going in point of a novel. So the novel tells you flat out at the beginning that it’s untruthful. But then so what do we mean then by "truth in literature?" And clearly what we mean is human truth, not photographic, journalistic, recorded truth, but the truth we recognize as human beings. About how we are with each other, how we deal with each other, what are our strengths and our weaknesses, how we interact and what is the meaning of our lives? I mean this is what we look at. We don’t need to know that Anna Karenina really existed. We need to know who she is, and what moves her, and what her story tells us about our own lives and about ourselves and that is the kind of truth that as readers we look for in literature. And now once you accept that stories are not true, once you start from that position, then you understand that a flying carpet and "Madam Bovary" are untrue in the same way, and as a result both of them are ways of arriving at the truth by the road of untruth, and so then they can both do it the same way.
I mean this is the first novel in which I have actually managed finally to include a flying carpet. I really I've been wanting to do it for a long time and the immediate thing that I thought. The moment you decide you’re going to have a rug that flies through the air is you must immediately ask yourself realistic questions about it. What would that be like if you were standing on a carpet and it levitated? Would it be difficult to keep your balance? Would the carpet be rigid or would the movement of the air under the carpet make the carpet undulate? If you flew very high, wouldn’t it get very cold? How do you keep warm on a flying carpet? And I think the moment you start asking yourself those kind of practical, real-world questions the flying carpet becomes believable. It becomes a thing that might exist and if existed, it would function like this. But in the end what you’re looking for in this book, a fairy tale, a fable, an allegory, a fantasy is the same thing you’re looking for in kind of kitchen-sink realism. You’re looking for people that you can believe in behaving in ways that you can recognize, and which tell you something. Those behaviors tell you something about your own behavior and your own nature and about the life of the person next door to you as well, so human truth is what you’re looking for and you can get to that by many different roads.
Question: You’ve said that the act of writing transforms you into the best version of yourself; is it inspiration?
Salman Rushdie: It’s not inspiration. It’s concentration more and it is to do with developing skills of concentration and I think that is something which, well a few things I think about being a writer that you get better at with time. There are things that you perhaps don’t get better at. Energy is something which maybe declines, but I think concentration, focus, the ability to shut out the extraneous and focus on what you’re doing. I think the more you do it the better you get at it. I think that is true and I think it’s also true that… and I think I've heard other writers say it too, that when you write you in a way write out of what you think of as your best self, the part of you that is lacking in foibles and weaknesses and egotism and vanities and so on. You’re just trying to really say something as truthful as you can out of the best that you have in you.
And so somehow the physical act of doing it is the only way you have of having access to that self. I mean when you’re not physically writing you don’t have the key to that door and but when you get into—and certainly speaking for me—when I get into a state of properly concentrated attention then I do think that that is... I think of that as my best self, the self that does that. And I wish I had access to it the rest of time, but at least I can find my way to it through that.
It’s not inspiration. I think inspiration is nonsense, actually. Every so often I mean like one day in 20 or something, you will have a day when the work seems to just flow out of you and you feel lucky. I mean you feel and often surprised and you don’t quite know why it is working like that. And on days like that it’s easy to believe in a kind of inspiration, but most of the time it’s not like that. Most of the time it’s... I mean I wish there were more of those days, but most of the time it’s a lot slower and more exploratory and it’s more a process of discovering what you have to do than just simply have it arrive like a flame over your head. So I do think it’s to do with concentration, not inspiration. It’s to do with paying attention and I think the business of writing a great deal of it is the business of paying attention to your characters, to the world they live in, to the story you have to tell, but just a kind of deep attention and out of that if you pay attention properly the story will tell you what it needs.
Question: How should we talk about Islam and terrorism?
Salman Rushdie: The hard truth is that in the name of Islam very, very bad things are being done right now by a group that you could call a small minority of all Muslims, but it’s also wrong not... to say that they’re not Muslims. They are Muslims. And I think the more interesting way of looking at this is to look at it as a battle inside Islam, not between Islam and the West.
Right now I think there is a colossal battle taking place inside the Muslim world. The most obviously of course is the old Sunni/Shia battle. If you look at what is happening in Iraq right now for instance most of the deaths are not Americans. Most of the deaths are not foreigners. 99% of the deaths are either Sunni Muslims being killed by Shias or Shia Muslims being killed by Sunnis. If you look at what has been happening in Pakistan recently you see mosques being blown up by other Muslims. I mean, extraordinary. If an American were to blow up a mosque, there would be horror. But in Pakistan there are Muslims blowing up mosques all the time because they disapprove of the other Muslims who go to that mosque. So this is what I'm saying. There is a terrible conflict raging inside Islam which is not only Sunni/Shia because the other thing, the other nature of the conflict is between, if you like, modernity and ancient tradition; the people who want the world never to change, who believe that the values of the Arab Peninsula and the seventh century should represent the moral code for the present day, and people who feel that ideas need to modernize and progress and that you can adhere to your faith, but that faith needs to march in line with the rest of the world and needs to find a way of expressing itself in the modern world.
Now that conflict it seems to me is happening everywhere in the Muslim world. If you look at the opponents of the Iranian regime, the green movement in Iran, that clearly represents a young, liberal, modernizing spirit that exists in that country. And in every Muslim country you will see that. You will see particularly young people. They don’t want to live according to the rules that the old gray-beard mullahs set for them, so I think if we want to look at the Muslim world you have to look at it in those ways. You have to look at it as a world in conflict. And what we need to do is to support, I think, that modernizing positive way of being a Muslim, which involves living in the world as it is. Support that and encourage that, and be extremely critical as we should be, of that other tyrannical, despotic, medievalist Islam, which unfortunately is in power in a lot of places.
I often think that the best way to liberate Iran is just to drop Nintendo consoles from the air and Big Macs.
Question: As an immigrant living in England, do Indians question your authenticity to write about India?
Salman Rushdie: There can be that kind of resentment, and certainly writers in India sometimes feel that writers of the Indian Diaspora get a disproportionate share of the attention. And those writers who have made their lives in Bombay or Delhi or Calcutta or et cetera are paid less attention.
I just think this subject of authenticity, which has become much discussed is a kind of fake subject in a way because if you think about it, western writers have always given themselves the right to go live anywhere they feel like. You know? I mean when Ernest Hemingway went to live in Paris nobody said well he stopped being and American writer. When Scott Fitzgerald was living in the south of France same thing. Gertrude Stein, whatever it might be. There is such a long history of American writers going to live elsewhere and still being obviously American writers. Or not just where they live, but also subject matter. American writers have always given themselves the freedom to write about anything they feel like writing about. If John Updike wants to write a novel set in Africa, he does. If Saul Bellow wants to write a novel set in Africa, he feels free to do so. Whereas sometimes if the reverse happens, if a third-world writer wishes to set a novel in Illinois, he might be asked what he thinks he is doing. And that is a hangover, I think, of a kind of cultural colonialism that again I think that is fading away. But I think there is no reason why writers from anywhere in the world shouldn’t allow themselves those same freedoms, to live where they like and to write about whatever they choose to write about. So the only question in the end is: "Is it any good?" And that should really be with books. It is the only interesting question.
Question: How difficult is it to watch your friend Christopher Hitchens’s very public battle with cancer?
Salman Rushdie: You know, you start losing people and people start getting seriously sick. And I mean I had a moment about a decade ago, just over 10 years ago, where when we were all around 50 where 3 people that I was very close to, 3 writers—Raymond Carver, Bruce Chatwin, Angela Carter—all, give or take a year, around 50 years old—50, 51, 52 years old—all dropped dead within a year of each other and that felt like... It feels like a hole in the world when somebody that has been an important part of your life, of your own being in the world suddenly there is just an absence where there used to be a presence. And of course one of the things you lose—I wrote about this when Angela died—is that you lose a version of yourself. You lose yourself as that person saw you and responded to you.
I think the great thing and one of the things and what Christopher Hitchens is doing, I think, magnificently demonstrates is that you have to live until you die. And that is great phrase from Joseph Conrad from the now improperly titled "Nigger of the Narcissus," where the title character is extremely ill and obviously dying on a boat and his shipmates ask him, “Why did you come on the boat? You must have known you were not well. Why did you come on the boat when you knew that you were seriously ill?" And he says this famous line. He says, “I must live until I die, mustn’t I?” And I think that is the answer to being human, is that we all... it’s going to come to all of us, but the point is to use the time you have. And I think that is what Christopher is doing in the most laudable way. He is making this heroic effort to live, to continue to be himself, to argue, to write, to debate, to speak, to speak out if you like, and to continue to be himself in the world. And I think that is all any of us can do.
Question: Do chicks dig fatwas?
Salman Rushdie: No, they don’t. They don’t, but they might dig writers though. I mean I think, no... that wasn’t a great moment actually in terms of girlfriend numbers.
No, I think women like men who do interesting things. I think that we’re lucky as men that women are able to look beyond the physical towards something else, and I think people... I mean I like it in men too. I like men who do interesting things. And I think that sense that people have had a life that they do something in the world, et cetera. That is interesting to me and I mean I gather it’s interesting to women as well.
Recorded November 12, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler
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