terça-feira, 13 de agosto de 2013

Salman Rushdie Interviewed by Jack Livings - Part two



Salman Rushdie
Interviewed by Jack Livings

 

The Paris Review

- The Art of Fiction No. 186 - Summer 2005, No. 174

 

Part two





INTERVIEWER 
When people said you did it on purpose they meant you set out to provoke, that you asked for it. Were you conscious, while writing the book, that your secular take on Islam might be provocative?
RUSHDIE 
I knew my work did not appeal to the likes of radical mullahs. 
INTERVIEWER 
Still, it’s a big leap from that to a fatwa.
RUSHDIE 
Well, that was, of course, something that nobody could have foreseen. Nobody. It had never happened before. It never occurred to me. And you know, I found out some time afterwards that there had been an unauthorized translation into Farsi of my previous novel, Shame, done by the Iranians, who had then given it a major prize as the best translated novel that year. This meant that when The Satanic Verses was published, even Iranian booksellers thought that I was probably cool, because the mullahs had given my previous book a stamp of approval. So it surprised people in Iran as much as elsewhere.
INTERVIEWER 
But this idea that you should have seen it coming was heavily subscribed to at the time.
RUSHDIE 
After the book was finished there were one or two early readers, including Edward Said, who noticed that I’d taken these guys on and asked whether I was concerned about it. And in those innocent days, I said no. I mean, why would they bother? It’s a five hundred and fifty page literary novel in English. The idea that it would even float across their field of vision seemed improbable, and I truthfully didn’t care.
Why shouldn’t literature provoke? It always has. And this idea that somehow the person under attack is responsible for the attack is a shifting of the blame—which seemed easy to do in 1989. Recently, in England, in the aftermath of the Al-Qaeda bombings, there’s been a lot of journalistic comment saying it all began with The Satanic Verses, and there’s total sympathy now for what was happening to me then. Nobody these days is saying it was my fault and I did it on purpose, because people understand the nature of radical Islam better.
INTERVIEWER 
So, what—we’re all Salman Rushdie now? 
RUSHDIE 
Yeah. Phrases like that are used all the time now in the English press, whereas in 1989 there was a widespread tabloid belief that I was this troublemaker who had to be saved from his own kind by a government he’d opposed—the Thatcher government. And then when I decided to make a life for myself in New York, that proved my ingratitude. As if, in order to be grateful, I had to live in London for the rest of my life. 
INTERVIEWER 
But you were saying that in 1989, at the outset, the fatwa made you question whether literature was actually worth the effort. 
RUSHDIE 
It made me think, for a period of many months, that maybe I didn’t want to be a writer anymore. It wasn’t to do with the fact that it’s dangerous. It was that I felt disgusted with what had happened to me, and at a loss to know how to continue if that was how my work was going to be treated. I thought, you know, I could be a bus conductor. Anything is better than this. I’ve often said—and it’s true—that I think the thing that saved me as a writer was having promised my son a book. His life was substantially derailed, too. Not just mine. There are all kinds of things I couldn’t do with him, and things that were very difficult to do, so this was a promise I knew I had to keep. It made me go back to being a writer. When I discovered the voice for Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I felt happy again. It was the first time I’d felt happy since February of 1989. It gave me back my sense of why I liked to do my job. Then I thought, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. 
I actually remember reading the Beckett trilogy at that time. The Unnamable is almost as difficult as Finnegans Wake, but that stoicism, that great last line, is valuable. I found myself reading Enlightenment writers—Voltaire—and realizing that I was not the only writer who’d had a hard time. It may seem ridiculously romantic, but I was actually strengthened by the history of literature. Ovid in exile, Dostoyevsky in front of the firing squad, Genet in jail—and look what they did: the Metamorphoses, Crime and Punishment, everything that Genet wrote is prison literature. I thought, Well, if they can do it, I can have a go at doing it. It became easier for me to know where I stood in the world, and that was good. It just got rid of some confusions.
But I still never know how people are going to respond to a book. I just have no idea. I thought The Satanic Verses was my least political novel. Maybe that’s beginning to be true now. After all this fuss, at last that book is beginning to have a literary life—particularly in the academy. It’s being read not just in comparative religion courses or in Middle Eastern politics courses. I get letters that don’t even mention the Islamic stuff. I get letters from people responding to the comedy in the novel, which is one of the things nobody ever talked about—how could it be funny when the thing that happened to it was so unfunny?—and I think: Finally! In a way, it makes it worth having fought the battle, that this book has managed somehow to survive, and can now finally be a book instead of being a hot potato, a sloganized scandal. It is, at last, a novel. 
INTERVIEWER 
In both The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children, as well as some essays, there’s a notion that you’ve ascribed to yourself and your characters alike: the god-shaped hole. Does that phrase still speak to you?
RUSHDIE 
There is in human beings a need for something that is not material, a thing that gets called spiritual. We all have a need for the idea that there is something beyond our physical being in the world. We need exaltation. If you don’t believe in God you still have the need to feel exalted from time to time and consoled, and you still need an explanation. And you need the other thing that religion gives you, which is community, the sense of something shared, a common language, a common metaphor structure, a way of explaining yourself to people. A shorthand. Religion provides all of that to people who can have it. Now, if you can’t have religion, then those are big absences that you have to find somewhere else. That’s the hole. The two big questions of religion are where do we come from and how shall we live. I’m interested as a fiction writer in the fictions we have made up as a race to explain our origins, but I’m not interested in them as explanations. I don’t go to priests for the answers to these questions. When we do, look what happens. Khomeini happens. The Taliban happens. The Inquisition happens.
INTERVIEWER 
So where do you go?
RUSHDIE 
Almost anywhere else. The question of how shall we live is a never-answered question. It’s a constant argument. In a free society we argue about how we shall live, and that’s how we live. The argument is the answer, and I want to be in that argument. It’s democracy: the least bad system available. The explanatory power of religion is the easiest thing to do without. The rest of it—the consolation, the exaltation, the community—that’s harder. The place I’ve gone in my life to fulfill that is literature, and not just literature, but movies, music, painting, the arts in general. And then there is love. The love of your wife, the love of your children, the love of your parents, the love of your friends. I invest a lot in the idea of friendship. Always have. Particularly because my life has been torn away from its place of origin and flung around the world. My family relationships were not broken, but they were strained in many ways. Friends are the family you build. I live very passionately among the people I choose to live with. It gives me my sense of community and of being more than just a machine. 
I grew up in a country where almost everybody has deep religious beliefs—including the urban intelligentsia—and where people don’t just think of religion as something abstract, but believe that making offerings to the gods has a direct impact on their happiness and their progress in the world. It’s a country where hundreds of millions of people believe that the gods are directly intervening in their daily lives, so their relationship with the gods is a daily matter, pragmatic. That’s my world; I have to take it seriously. Also, it’s important to enter the heads of people who think in ways that are not your own, and to let that way of thinking determine the outcome of their stories. 
INTERVIEWER 
Can you talk about your procedure when you sit down at the desk?
RUSHDIE 
If you read the press you might get the impression that all I ever do is go to parties. Actually, what I do for hours, every day of my life, is sit in a room by myself. When I stop for the day I always try to have some notion of where I want to pick up. If I’ve done that, then it’s a little easier to start because I know the first sentence or phrase. At least I know where in my head to go and look for it. Early on, it’s very slow and there are a lot of false starts. I’ll write a paragraph, and then the next day I’ll think, Nah, I don’t like that at all, or, I don’t know where it belongs, but it doesn’t belong here. Quite often it will take me months to get underway. When I was younger, I would write with a lot more ease than I do now, but what I wrote would require a great deal more rewriting. Now I write much more slowly and I revise a lot as I go. I find that when I’ve got a bit done, it seems to require less revision than it used to. So it’s changed. I’m just looking for something that gives me a little rush, and if I can get that, get a few hundred words down, then that’s got me through the day.
INTERVIEWER 
Do you get up in the morning and start writing first thing?
RUSHDIE 
Yes, absolutely. I don’t have any strange, occult practices. I just get up, go downstairs, and write. I’ve learned that I need to give it the first energy of the day, so before I read the newspaper, before I open the mail, before I phone anyone, often before I have a shower, I sit in my pajamas at the desk. I do not let myself get up until I’ve done something that I think qualifies as working. If I go out to dinner with friends, when I come home I go back to the desk before going to bed and read through what I did that day. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is to read through what I did the day before. No matter how well you think you’ve done on a given day, there will always be something that is underimagined, some little thing that you need to add or subtract—and I must say, thank God for laptops, because it makes it a lot easier. This process of critically rereading what I did the day before is a way of getting back inside the skin of the book. But sometimes I know exactly what I want to do and I sit down and start on it. So there’s no rule.
INTERVIEWER 
Is there anything in particular that you read to help you along when you’re working?
RUSHDIE 
I read poetry. When you’re writing a novel, it’s so easy to have odd bits of laziness slip in. Poetry is a way of reminding myself to pay attention to language. I’ve been reading a lot of Czeslaw Milosz recently. And then, from over the other side of the fence, I’ve been reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which is wonderful. It’s so well written, with moments of really sloppy writing mixed in, misused words—you know, evidentially instead of evidently. Incredulously instead of incredibly. Clearly the publisher—somebody—thought it’s all part of his Bobness.
INTERVIEWER 
Evidentially.
RUSHDIE 
I like the Randall Jarrell line: “A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” I think that’s true. If you’re going to write a hundred, a hundred and fifty thousand, two hundred thousand words, perfection is a fantasy. If you’re Shakespeare and you’re writing sixteen lines, you can create a perfect thing. I suspect though that if Shakespeare had written a novel, there would be imperfections. There are imperfections in his plays—there are boring bits, if one’s allowed to say this. If you’re reading for the love of reading, you look for what it gives you, not for what it doesn’t give you. If there’s enough there, a misstep is easy to forgive. That also happens in literary criticism. There are critics who approach work on the basis of what they can get from it, and others who approach in terms of what they can find wrong with it. Frankly, you can find something wrong with any book you pick up, I don’t care how great it is is. There’s a wonderful riff in Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, in the chapter called “Emma Bovary’s Eyes,” when he points out that her eyes change color four or five times in the book.
INTERVIEWER 
In Shalimar the Clown, why did you name your main character Max Ophuls? After the film director?
RUSHDIE 
I just liked the name. The interesting thing about the Franco-German border near Strasbourg is the way in which history has continually moved it, so that the city has been German sometimes, and French sometimes, and I wanted Max to have a name that is both French and German, because I wanted the history of Strasbourg to be in the name.
INTERVIEWER 
But why not make up a name?
RUSHDIE 
I don’t know. Names stick. I just kept thinking of him like that, and in the end I forgot about the film director.
INTERVIEWER 
Can you read fiction while you’re working on a novel?
RUSHDIE 
Not much. At least, not much contemporary fiction. I read less contemporary fiction than I used to and more of the classics. It seems they’ve hung around for a reason. When I wrote Fury, for instance, I read Balzac, in particular Eugénie Grandet. If you look at the opening of Eugénie Grandet, it uses a technique like a slow cinematic zoom. It starts with a very wide focus—here is this town, these are its buildings, this is its economic situation—and gradually it focuses in on this neighborhood, and inside the neighborhood on this rather grand house, and inside this house a room, and inside this room, a woman sitting on a chair. By the time you find out her name, she’s already imprisoned in her class and her social situation and her community and her city. By the time her own story begins to unfold, you realize it’s going to smash into all these things. She is like a bird in this cage. I thought, That’s good. That’s such a clear way of doing it. 
INTERVIEWER 
Do you go to the movies a lot?
RUSHDIE 
A lot, yes. Much of my thinking about writing was shaped by a youth spent watching the extraordinary outburst of world cinema in the sixties and seventies. I think I learned as much from Buñuel and Bergman and Godard and Fellini as I learned from books. It’s hard now to explain what it feels like when the week’s new movie is Fellini’s 8 1/2, when the week after that it’s the new Godard movie, and the week after that it’s the new Bergman, then it’s the new Satyajit Ray movie, then Kurosawa. Those filmmakers were consciously building oeuvres that had a coherence, and in which themes were explored until they were exhausted. There was a serious artistic project going on. Now, whether it’s films or books, we’ve become a much lazier culture. Filmmakers get bought out just like that. You make one interesting film and off you go into moneyland. The idea of building a body of work that has intellectual and artistic coherence is gone. Nobody’s interested.
INTERVIEWER 
What did you learn from watching these movies?
RUSHDIE 
Some technical things—for instance, from the New Wave’s freedom of technique, a freeing up the language. The classic form of film montage is long shot, medium shot, close-up, medium shot, long shot, medium shot, close-up, medium shot, long shot—like a kind of dance. In two steps, out two steps, in two steps, out two steps. It can be unbelievably tedious. If you look at the films of the fifties being cut like that, it’s sort of like editing by numbers. So Godard’s heavy use of the jump cut made you jump. To go from the wide scene—bang—into the face of Belmondo or Anna Karina. One of the reasons why, in the films of Godard, a character will sometimes address the camera directly—
INTERVIEWER 
—is because they didn’t have the money to film the full scene.
RUSHDIE 
That’s right. But I liked that idea, the breaking of the frame, the fact that many of these films were funny and serious at the same time. In Alphaville, which is a very dark film, there’s this wonderful scene where Lemmy Caution, the down-at-the-heels private eye, arrives at the flophouse where he discovers that all the superheroes are dead. “Et Batman?” “Il est mort.” “Superman?” “Mort.” “Flash Gordon?” “Mort.” It’s hilarious. And I love Buñuel’s use of surrealism, which doesn’t stop the films from feeling real. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, people sit around a table on toilet seats but go quietly to a little room in order to eat. And I like both Bergmans—the mystical Bergman of The Seventh Seal and the close-up, psychological Bergman. And Kurosawa taking us into a completely closed culture, the world of the samurai. I don’t think like the samurai thought, yet you’ve gotta love Toshiro Mifune scratching himself—you’re immediately on his side. It’s one of the things you want a work of art to do, to take you into a world you haven’t been in, and to make it part of your world. That great period of filmmaking has a lot to teach novelists. I always thought I got my education in the cinema. 
INTERVIEWER 
Were you consciously taking this in and applying it?
RUSHDIE 
No, I just loved going to the movies. I was having a better time in the movies than in the library. Nowadays I find that people who like my books tend to say that they’re very visual, while people who don’t like my books tend to say that they’re too visual. If you’re a writer, people like you for exactly the things that other people dislike you for. Your strengths are your weaknesses. Sometimes the same sentences are held up as examples of how badly I write and how well I write. People who like my writing say they like the female characters. The people who don’t like my books say, Well, of course, he can’t write about women.
INTERVIEWER 
You were talking about how your generation of British writers was loaded with talent. What is it like for you here in New York?
RUSHDIE 
In America there is a younger generation with real ambition. But there was a moment when American literature got a little unadventurous. Raymond Carver was a very ambitious writer, and his books are incredibly original because they push the boundaries of how to say things, how to suggest things, but I think that a lot of the school of Carver became an excuse for saying banal things in banal ways. As if that was all you had to do—have two people sitting down across the table with a bottle of whiskey talking to each other in clichés. Now I think there are, once again, attempts to do startling things. Some of them work and some of them don’t. But I like to see that spirit again. Oddly, in England in the seventies and eighties, we resisted being called a generation. Most of us didn’t know each other. We didn’t see that we had a project. It wasn’t like the surrealists, who had a manifesto. We didn’t discuss our writing with each other. I was having enough trouble finding my way; I didn’t want ten other opinions. I thought I had to find my own way.
INTERVIEWER 
Do you write letters?
RUSHDIE 
I’m notorious for being a bad letter writer. It’s my wife’s biggest complaint about me. Would I please write her some letters. What’s the point of being married to a writer if you don’t have any love letters? So, I have to do it. But, no, I have no great literary correspondence. I have some things, though. In 1984, the first time I went to Australia, I began to read Patrick White. I traveled a little bit with Bruce Chatwin on some of the trips that led to The Songlines, and I was struck, moved, by the Australian desert. Then I read White’s book, Voss, and was really taken with it. It was one of the few times in my life that I wrote a fan letter. White wrote back, saying, Dear Mr. Rushdie, Voss is a novel I have come to hate. He said, I could send you some of my books that I still have some feeling for, but one does not wish to burden people with books they do not wish to read. And I thought, Fuck you, too. You know, I’ve written this really warm letter and I get back this crabby old thing. When I went to Australia again, I never made any attempt to contact him. Then he died, and his biographer, David Marr, wrote to me. White threw everything away, but in the top drawer of his desk there was this very small bunch of letters, most of which were from his bank manager, and three or four nonbusiness letters, of which mine was one. And I thought, How stupid can you be? I’d completely misunderstood his letter. I’d read his self-deprecation as grumpiness.
INTERVIEWER 
How do you decide when to ship a novel off?
RUSHDIE 
Embarrassment is a good test. When you feel you wouldn’t be embarrassed by people reading what’s on the page, then you can let people read it. But with Shalimar I did something I’ve never done before: I showed it to a few people—my agent, my wife, and my friend, the writer Pauline Melville. I also showed it to my editors, Dan Franklin at Cape and Dan Menaker here at Random House. I showed them the first hundred and fifty pages, then I showed it to them again at about three hundred and fifty, four hundred pages. I don’t know why I did that. I just thought, I never do this, so I’m going to do it. I’m getting to the point where I think, I don’t have to do things just because I’ve always done them. I liked that I was able to show people along the way and have their enthusiasm. Whether that means I needed more reassurance, or whether it means I was more confident, I really don’t know. I think it’s somehow both at once.
INTERVIEWER 
What hand have editors had in your work?
RUSHDIE 
What I remember best are two really valuable pieces of editing work that Liz Calder did with Midnight’s Children. One was at the end of what is now Part Two and the beginning of Part Three when there’s a time jump of about six years from the end of the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 to the moment of the Bangladesh war in 1971. What I had originally done was jump further forward—to the end of the Bangladesh war—then jump back to the beginning, and then go forward again. So there’d been seven years forward, one year back, and then forward again, and that scrambling of the timeline was the one moment in the book where Liz said her attention was broken. That was very valuable. There’s still the six-year jump, but I went back and restored chronological sequence, and it cleared up those forty or fifty pages enormously. 
The other thing was that there used to be a second audience figure in the novel. In the book as you know it, Saleem tells his story to Padma, the pickle woman. In the earlier version he was also writing the story down and sending it to a woman journalist who remained offstage. So the oral narration was to the woman in the pickle factory, and then the written version was being sent to this other figure. Liz and one or two other early readers all agreed that this was the one completely redundant element of the book. They said, You’ve got a good character sitting in the room with him, with whom he actually has a relationship, and you don’t need this abstract second figure of a journalist that he wants to send his writing to. I initially thought they were wrong, and then was persuaded to have a go at removing that character. The character fell out of the book so easily—I remember it took about two days—that it made me see very clearly that a character who could be removed so simply was not properly integrated into the story. They really saved me from a bad mistake. Now if I look at that removed material, it’s kind of awful.
The one other book in which I think there was really constructive editing was my Nicaragua book, The Jaguar Smile. It was reportage. I came back from Nicaragua in 1986, and wrote it in a few months. It’s still quite a short book, but the original version was a bit shorter. Because of the speed, Sonny Mehta—who was, at that time, the editor of Picador in England—said he had some concerns about the text, and he actually more or less line edited the book. In almost every case he asked for more information. It was never that he was taking things out, always that he wanted more. He said, You’re assuming too much knowledge—I need to know who these people are, what this moment was, background, etcetera. He just made me flesh out the book much more, and that was valuable.
INTERVIEWER 
Besides The Jaguar Smile, you’ve written Imaginary Homelands, Step Across This Line, and other nonfiction. Is there another nonfiction book in the works? 
RUSHDIE 
Not yet. At this moment I feel—how shall I put it?—I feel that my life has become rather dramatically nonfictional. In a way there’s too much factual material surrounding me, and I feel the need to get out from underneath that rubble of fact and get back to the business of imaginative writing. I feel full of stories, and until I feel I’ve shaken off the dust and really restored—well, not restored, but explored—the stories I have to tell, which are invented stories, I don’t really want to go back to fact. I want to do less and less of it. 
One of the things that writing Shalimar the Clown taught me was that it doesn’t matter how much research you do. I did a lot more research for that book than I’ve ever done for a novel, but I learned that research will only get you so far. In the end, to make the thing work, there has to be a serious imaginative leap. You have to be able to get inside the skin of people, and feel them and understand their thought processes and learn what they want to do with the story. So even writing this heavily researched book strengthened my belief that what I really am interested in is that imaginative leap. At the moment I’ve been doing this New York Times syndicated column once a month, and I have a contract for this year, but I have a strong feeling that I might leave it at that for a while—because I’d rather be writing short stories. So I’m having a very strong fiction impulse right now.
INTERVIEWER 
Is that a fact?
RUSHDIE 
Exactly—I could be lying. Never trust a writer when he talks about the future of his writing.
INTERVIEWER 
OK, so what will your next book be?
RUSHDIE 
The next book I think I’m going to write is a novel that imagines an early connection between Italy of the Renaissance and the early Moghul empire. Originally I had planned to call it “The Enchantress of Florence.” Meanwhile, my little boy—my second son—is agitating for a children’s book. He loves Haroun and the Sea of Stories, but he knows it was written for his brother. If I’ve got a really long period of serious research to do, it might be nice to write a children’s book while I’m doing that. Maybe I can do a little reading and for a few hours a day write a fairy tale. 
Then there’s “Parallelville,” a futuristic, science-fiction-slash-film-noir idea, sort of Blade Runner meets Touch of Evil. I’m also considering writing a book that I’ve tentatively titled “Careless Masters.” I imagine it as a big, English novel that starts off as a story about boarding school and then takes those characters into adulthood, making it a state-of-England novel. The most extended thing I’ve ever written about England is The Satanic Verses, which no one thinks of as a novel about England, but is actually, in large part, a novel about London. It’s about the life of immigrants in Thatcherite London. 
INTERVIEWER 
Do you get edgy if you don’t write every day?
RUSHDIE 
I feel much better when I know where I’m going. On the other hand, some of my most creative moments are the moments between books, when I don’t know where I’m going, and my head freewheels. Things come to me unexpectedly, and can become a character or a paragraph or just a perception, all of which can turn into stories, or a novel. I work just as hard when I’m not writing a book as when I am. I sit there and let things happen, mostly I throw away the next day what I wrote the day before. But pure creativity is just seeing what shows up. Once something has shown up, then it’s more focused, and it’s more enjoyable. But this in-between time is when unexpected things happen. Things happen that I previously thought were outside my ability to imagine. They become imaginable. And they come inside. That’s where I am right now. 

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5531/the-art-of-fiction-no-186-salman-rushdie
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