Salman Rushdie: from Mordor verse to Midnight’s Children
He likes to blur the lines between fact and fiction, and if pushed he might recite some Tolkien in Elvish – this is not the type of conversation one associates with Rushdie
Salman Rushdie: ‘If you don’t have a pretty clear sense of who you are, you’re not going to write good books.’ Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images
Of all the things you don’t expect to hear when you answer your phone, the words “it’s Salman Rushdie here” must be pretty close to the top of the list. It’s not as if I’m not expecting the call. The death sentence imposed on Rushdie by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 after the publication of his supposedly blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses has long been revoked, but the contact details of the most famous novelist in the world still aren’t given out to strangers. You don’t call Salman Rushdie: he calls you.
Rushdie is in Dublin for the Dalkey Book Festival this weekend. I’ve been warned that, during our phone conversation, he won’t talk about the fatwa. Or about his personal life. Or global politics.
On top of all that, he has produced three of my favourite novels of all time in Midnight’s Children, Shame and The Moor’s Last Sigh. I’m so jittery with nerves that when the phone rings – at precisely the agreed moment – I nearly fall off the chair.
Rushdie has written two children’s books. Haroun and the Sea of Stories appeared in 1990, and Luka and the Fire of Life was published in 2010. With 20 years between them, did he approach the pair very differently?
“The two were sort of opposites to write,” he says. “In the case of Haroun, I knew the story – it was one of those rare occasions for me when the story arrived almost fully formed. The problem was how to tell it. In the case of Luka, I felt I knew how to tell it, but the story took a lot of working out. Whichever book I’m writing, there’s always the question of finding the appropriate language for it. But once I’ve found that language and that tone, I just let rip really.”
As a master of the fantastical, it’s that very particular narrative tone of Rushdie’s – innocent yet self-aware, veering from portentous to hilarious – that, when it succeeds, sweeps you up and carries you off, bobbing happily with the tide.
This is also how oral storytelling works, so it comes as no surprise to hear that as a young writer Rushdie was fascinated by the Indian storytelling tradition.
“Those narratives are constructed out of many inter-looping narratives, which are held together by the performance of the voice,” he says. “I thought it would be interesting to see if I could find a written-down way of doing something like that.”
The road to Midnight’s Children
Fans of Midnight’s Children, and there are many – this is the book that not only won the Booker Prize but was chosen as the Booker of Bookers on the prize’s 40th anniversary – like to think that the author arrived on the literary scene fully formed, and produced an instant masterpiece. As he wryly explains, that is not the case.