Salman Rushdie's fourth book, The Satanic Verses, prompted a fatwa against him in 1989. Yet, over the past 40 years he has published 11 others, including Midnight’s Children that won three Booker awards. His latest novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, has a “War of the Worlds” plot in which the descendants of a female jinn (genie) and her human mate—a learned scholar called Ibn Rushd—take on the dark jinns who are trying to enslave the human race. Set in the future, the novel talks about a time when the familiar rules of the world fail to apply. It deals with the age-old issue of faith versus reason and how the two cannot be delinked.
A disciplined worker by day and a socialiser by night, Rushdie says he strives for writing that “stands the test of time”. For him, the most difficult job is to bring the characters alive on the pages. Yet, he calls it the most enjoyable one. A lot of writers, Rushdie says, retreat from the world while working on a book, but he prefers to be with the people he cares about. It energises him, he says. Rushdie also likes to interact with young authors to get an insight into how people from another point in time, raised in a different world, think and do things. He is active on social media, which he says is the opposite of books. Tweets have no long-term life, but they have a useful immediacy, he says.
In an interview, Rushdie talks about his writing process and why he thinks it is a private act.
How can you tell you are ready to start a new book?
Usually because an idea is nagging at me. Sometimes, you have a person you want to write about, sometimes, there is an event you want to explore. If an idea sticks around, still interests me, crops up every morning when I wake—that tells me I need to pay attention. And, sometimes, that can take many years.
How do you work? And has it changed over the years?
I have always told myself to treat it like a 9-to-5 job. You just go do it. It doesn’t matter whether you are feeling good that day. I don’t think writers or artists can afford to have a 'creative temperament' or wait for inspiration to descend. You have to simply sit there and make yourself do it. And, over the years, that is a discipline I really developed. What has changed is that when I started out, I used to get a lot more written in a day—four or five pages—than I do now. Now I write much less, but it is closer to a finished piece.
How do you know when a book is finished?
Exhaustion. It is not that I’m physically tired, but my imagination is. There is a point at which you are not making it better; you are just making it different. You have to be good at recognising that point.
Do you solicit feedback?
I don’t share work in progress because I find it is too fragile. If I am writing a funny scene, and I show it to you and you don’t laugh, I feel sad, lose confidence. So, I bring it as far as I can before I show it to anyone. But then I become very interested in what publishers and friends have to say. It is not so much about needing them to like it, although that is always nice. What I really want is for them to tell me where the problems are. You need nonsycophantic people who will tell you the truth.
You are close to many other writers. How do you support and inspire one another?
If I said we got together and talked about literature, I would not be telling you the truth. We talk about almost everything else. But we do have a kind of instinctive understanding of one another, because we are all doing the same thing. What has also been valuable is getting to know writers much younger than myself. There is a tendency to be very engaged with your own generation and to feel inspired by or to argue with the generations that came before. So, it is easy to forget the generation that comes after. But those young writers are as helpful as old friends. They keep you fresh.
What is the most difficult part of your job?
Understanding the world is a very difficult thing. Bringing human beings to life on the page is a difficult thing. I have always felt that a writer should also have some relationship with language that changes all the time—new voices, new styles, new manners—and that is a constant wrestling match. What is most difficult is that it should not feel difficult to the reader. But I’m making it sound like it is only hard work. It is not. It is actually the most enjoyable thing I can think of doing. It is exhilarating, much more so than publishing a book. Actually, as time goes by, I dread the moment of publication more and more.
Why? Because of the publicity rounds?
Yes, partly because of what is expected of you. But also, it is a very vulnerable moment. When you write, you fool yourself into thinking that it is a private act. You are alone in a room. No one else is reading. It is just you and the page, and you are trying to make it work. So, it seems like something that is just yours and nobody else’s. And, then along comes publication, and you are obliged to admit that this thing is actually an extremely public act. And you feel naked. It is like undressing in public.
Your first book was panned. Why did you keep at it?
Writing really is a calling. It is necessary for the person doing it. The world is drowning in books; even if you read a great masterpiece every day, you would never be able to read all the ones that exist already. So, if you want to add a book to that mountain, it had better be necessary. Otherwise, save the trees.
How did you respond to criticism early in your career and has that changed over time?
Anybody who claims that they don’t care is probably lying. I was very shocked when my first book was received unkindly. It was upsetting. But it was also very helpful because it made me question all over again what I thought about writing and how to go about it, and start again in a different way. And that led to Midnight’s Children. So, maybe, it was a mistake I had to make in order to find the writer I had it in me to be. By the way, that first book is still in print and doing quite well, so sometimes you lose the short game but win the long one.
How did the fatwa affect your work?
Immediately after, I didn’t have much time or head space to think about work; the world was shouting in my ears. But I didn’t want to be derailed as an artist. So I told myself quite firmly, “Just go on being the writer you have always been.” And if you show my books in chronological sequence to somebody who knows nothing about my life, I don’t think that reader would say, “Oh look, something terrible happened in 1989, and all the books after that are affected.” I think they would see continuity in the literature. And I am proud of that, the fact that I was able to go on being myself as an artist.
You are very active on Twitter. What is the appeal?
Just immediacy, being able to say what you have to say right away, unmediated. I resisted Twitter in the beginning, but a friend twisted my arm, so I tried it, and to my complete shock, I am at a million followers. It puts a megaphone in your hand. And when there is something to shout about, it is useful to have a megaphone.