Salman Rushdie is a man whose life is made up of many stories. There's the one about the boy born in Bombay to a non-practicing Muslim family and always felt like he was in the minority. There's the one about the unknown author who was catapulted into international fame with Midnight's Children. And then there's the most famous story of all, the one about the fatwa that caused an international rift between Iran and Britain, which remains a threat to this day.
So it's no surprise Rushdie's new book, Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights gets its inspiration from perhaps the greatest storytelling collection of all, The Arabian Nights. Though as Rushdie points out, that particular book is only one of the many that bring together fables to reflect our world back to us, like India's Humzanama and Kashmir's The Ocean of the Streams of Story. Rushdie's latest work plays its own part in looking at society — both past, present and future — through a new lens, one that incorporates mythological creatures into the all-too-familiar everyday.
In a conversation with The Huffington Post Canada, he describes the book was a matter of "[unpacking] my bags in which all these stories from elsewhere are, and kind of [throwing] them at Manhattan and see what happens."
He's a man full of surprises, and in our interview, we uncovered plenty more.
1. He considers himself a New Yorker
"I've lived in New York for a long time now, almost 16 years. I think I qualify as local by now. But I think 10 minutes qualifies. That's one of the things I like about the city is how it lets people in. You can sort of arrive with your bags and put them down, and there you are, you’re a New Yorker."
2. In fact, he's going to be an American soon — and wants to get in with the new generation of American writers
"I will probably be [a U.S. citizen] by the time [of the election]," he says in response to a question about the presidential race. And no, he won't give up the British passport. But he does see the current movement in American literature as one he wants to be part of.
"There’s at this moment a whole bunch of very talented writers from countries which traditionally were not inspirations for American literature. Suddenly you have people like Jhumpa Lahiri, who comes from South Asia, or Junot Diaz from the Dominican Republic ... Khaled Hosseini, Yiyun Li, Nam Le, all these writers bringing stories from everywhere, and making them a part of American literature. And I think it’s been very enriching. So I thought, well, I’ve got some of those stories. So that was an almost conscious desire to be a part of this new movement in American literature, which brings stories from elsewhere and makes them a part of American literature."
3. He thinks sex is hilarious
In Two Years ..., the genie-like characters of the jinn have sex — a lot of sex. And plenty of reviewers have pointed that out. To Rushdie, however, there's one reason and one reason only for it: "The sex was there for reasons of comedy.
I wanted the jinn to have one characterisitc that was first of all very exaggeratedly not human, superhuman, but also in another way sort of absurd. In my view, the only way of writing about sex, for me anyway, I’m not Henry Miller, is as comedy ... It’s very odd for me because I don’t really … there’s not a lot of sex in my books. I’ve always sort of shied away from it and had it happen offstage. I think there’s one lovemaking scene in The Moor’s Last Sigh, but other than that, I really can’t think of too many. So this one has a lot, I’m sorry to say."
4. He loves science fiction
While his new book would be classified as fiction, it could go under any number of categories. Italo Calvino's fantastical Our Ancestors trilogy served as an inspiration (and a quote from Calvino is an epigraph in the book), and elements of sci-fi are easy to find. And as far as Rushdie is concerned, that's just perfect.
"I’ve always been interested in science fiction, so there’s I think an element of that in [this book]. In fact, one of the places it started from — before I wrote this, I was working for a while on a television program for Showtime, which was more clearly science fiction than this is, but it was also a parallel world idea ... And that didn’t happen, but it meant that during the time I was thinking about that, I was working out a lot of parallel world things — what can you do and what are the problems of having that kind of set up. I now see that failed project as having been, in a way, useful preparatory work in this way."
5. He sees evil magic in the ordinary
In Rushdie's book, jinns go in and out of the world as we know it, but it's obvious Rushdie believes they're around us all the time. But where?
"I think there’s ogres all around, it’s not just of one kind. Some of them are on Wall Street, and some of them are in the Middle East. They're everywhere. I was in New York at the time of Hurricane Sandy and afterwards there were photographs printed from the air, looking at the blackout in Manhattan .. only one building was brightly illuminated in the otherwise absolutely blackout of downtown Manhattan, and the building was Goldman Sachs. And I thought, you know, you can’t make this stuff up. As a metaphor of what was happening, that was the one place that had the ability to remain blazing with light, while the whole city was plunged into darkness."
6. He thinks novels are like conversations
"One of the things that makes the novel such a uniquely wonderful form is that it’s about a single voice, not representative of anything, just one person saying, ‘Here’s how I see it. Here’s something I think is interesting, what do you think?’ And I think that’s the real reason for the enduring power of the novel and why it doesn’t go away is that it’s like a single person talking to you, inside your head. It feels like a one-on-one engagement and I think that sense of being a minority of one is a very good place to write from."
7. He thinks social media can be a lot of fun — as long as you treat it that way
"I don’t have a Pinterest thing and my children forbid me to ever even think about using Snapchat. I think they’re probably right.
I have a Facebook page and I have a Twitter thing, and I treat them very differently. Facebook I let hardly anybody in unless they’re actually people I know. And Twitter is sort of everybody, you can’t police it in that way.
When I’m really writing, writing, when I’m seriously deep in a book, there’ll be months when I don’t even look at the Twitter feed. And in those periods I kind of agree with the Jonathan Franzen position that you don’t need this noise in your head.
But at the other times — it’s a place to go and play. And my view is, unless you’re doing this kind of thing [book tour] where you’re doing readings and meeting readers in different places, a lot of the time writers don’t meet their readers at all. And so to be able occasionally to have somebody send you a tweet about your book — whichever book, not just this book — and be able to have a little back and forth conversation with somebody, it’s kind of nice, I like it."
8. He thinks pop culture is just as important as high culture
Seen here presenting an award to Leonard Cohen at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012.
Two Years ... is splattered with references to everyone from Donald Trump to E.T., and despite his reputation as a member of the intelligentsia, Rushdie thinks those are exactly the kind of topics writers should cover.
"I’ve never separated those things in my head. First of all, if you grew up in Bombay, you’re living in the biggest movie city in the world, which is also the city where all the popular music comes from. So it’s like Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley and New York, all in the same city. So you just get used to the fact that all of this stuff is there all the time.
And what I really think is that the novel is not at all an elitist form. The novel is the opposite of that. If you think about Dickens, he could write about the slums or the houses of aristocrats. he could write about criminals or lawyers or people in debtors prison. And I think he made it his business to know as much about his society as he could. And in all sorts of different layers of places.
My view is that popular culture is very important because it’s what everybody knows and shares, and it becomes a way in which ordinary folks think about the world. And if you’re going to write about real people, you need to know. You need to know, what is the nonsense in their heads? And it can be and usually is a mixture of everything — bits of high culture, bits of low culture — I think even those words don’t matter anymore. There’s just culture."
9. He once wrote ads for Air Canada
Fun fact: in his job as an advertising copywriter in his 20s, Rushdie once travelled across Canada to learn about the country for the airline. So his appearance at the Banff Centre at the end of September was a homecoming of sorts for the man who fondly remembers a train ride through the Fraser River Valley to Calgary and up to the mountains, more than 40 years ago.