I DO WONDER what Salman Rushdie makes of novelist and critic Zoe Heller’s mauling of his autobiography, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, in The New York Review of Books?
When we meet in London to discuss the movie version of Rushdie’s acclaimed novel Midnight’s Children, though, Heller’s “hatchet-job” – as it’s been termed – hadn’t been published. The conversation did turn to criticism, though, and Rushdie was on fine form, full of eloquent disdain and easy charm, a man with a sense that he has little to prove. I wonder if that’s still the case?
If it is, perhaps it’s the result of two massive undertakings being completed almost in unison. Within a month or so of publication of his autobiography, tackling a profoundly painful period of Rushdie’s life – the impact of the fatwa imposed on him by the Ayatollah Kohmeini after the publication of The Satanic Verses (1988) – the movie of Midnight’s Children, which Rushdie adapted, executive produced and for which he provided the narration, enjoyed a packed premiere at the London Film Festival. The writer took to the stage with director Deepa Mehta and a gaggle of pretty young things who make up the cast, and entertained the audience with ease. Rushdie may have spent nearly a decade in hiding, but he’s also a man who is conspicuously comfortable in the limelight. Likely, this is not entirely unrelated to the vociferous criticism that he attracts.
“I don’t know what to say about literary critics,” he says, raising an eyebrow circumspectly. “I think it’s probably best to say nothing.”
I wondered if he felt that in New York, where he’s been based for the past ten years, there is a more open attitude to writers who branch out into different projects and who maintain a high profile, but he doesn’t seem convinced.
“I think it used to be the case that you used to get a better ride, that there was a more level playing field in America than here,” he says. “I’m not sure anymore. I think it might be a little better over here and a little worse over there. The world is so shrunk now, you’ve got a lot of English critics writing in American magazines so it’s not clear anymore.”
As it transpires, Rushdie’s comments were prescient. Heller is a British writer who, like Rushdie, moved from London to New York around a decade ago. Her vituperative smack-down of Joseph Anton has set the literary pages alight, but Rushdie is known for his spats. There was one (recently resolved in fact) with John le Carré and there have been several others with publishers. Thus far, Rushdie has remained silent on Heller. Perhaps he was telling the truth when he insisted that getting older – he’s 65 – has given him “a kind of liberation from caring” about what other people think.
“Doris Lessing really doesn’t care what the critics say. In fact, she orders her publishers not to send her the reviews and gets cross with them if they do because she doesn’t want that in her head. She’s going where she’s going and that’s where she wants to go. I’m not sure I’m quite at Doris’s level of unconcern because it is genuinely Olympian, but what I think happens at a certain point in your life is that you understand that time is finite – you don’t have that many more years. If you’re lucky there are 15 or 20. If you’re very lucky. It might be ten or five. So then you think, don’t waste time. What is there that you really want to do? Do that. When you’re making decisions like that you don’t really care what people think.”
In a grey wool suit, with a v-neck sweater over his shirt and tie, Rushdie looks like a retired Harley Street physician as much as a literary grandee. His voice is a little hoarse from the manic schedule of promoting Joseph Anton and Midnight’s Children (“It was not planned,” he says. “In fact I did my best to de-plan it”), but it’s clear that he’s enjoying himself. And there is most definitely a sense that this is a man ready to begin a new chapter in his life.
“For a long time after I came out of the tunnel of the fatwa, all I wanted to do was to get back to writing novels,” he says. “Then I would be frustrated because novels would come out but people would want to ask me about the fatwa. I used to resist talking about my life because I felt it was getting in the way of the work I’d just done. Now I think, OK, here it all is. You want to know about it? Here’s everything. And from now on do not f***ing ask me about it because it’s there, it’s there. In that sense it does feel like closure.”
The other part of that closure is the Midnight’s Children film. Rushdie’s audacious and celebrated novel is a magic-realist imagining of India’s partition. It spans from the stroke of midnight and India’s independence in 1947 to the war with Bangladesh in 1971. Combining politics and history, family saga and fantastical imaginative verve, it’s a breathtaking book. The film is obviously historical too, but Rushdie insists it’s also relevant to now.
“It interests me that people have responded to it as though it’s not a period piece, although it is,” he says. “There are two things in Indian history – one is the incredible optimism and potential of the place, and the other is the betrayal of that potential, for example corruption. Those two strands intertwine through the whole of Indian history, and maybe not just Indian history. The way we look at any society and see its incredible potential, but we also see the forces eating away at that.”
The other aspect of the story that lends it relevance is the relationship of the individual to history, the question of whether we are masters of our times.
“That idea is eternal,” Rushdie says. “It is one of the great themes of literature – to what extent do we make our own lives? To what extent are our lives shaped by forces that we can’t control? That’s what War and Peace is about.”
One might also say, that’s the theme Rushdie tackles in Joseph Anton. He’s reimagining his own story and in doing so, wrestling it back into his control from circumstances which were utterly beyond it.
“This was the big, unwritten book that I had,” he says. “Now I think if I died tomorrow, it’s enough, there’s enough there so everything else is gravy. I do think it is a kind of liberation because I’m the kind of person temperamentally who doesn’t want to do the things he did before.”
This may explain Rushdie’s significant involvement in Midnight’s Children. He’d never written a screenplay and so now was his chance. He insists, too, that he was the person who could show the novel the right amount of disrespect in the process of adapting it.
“It wasn’t as difficult as you’d think,” he says. “The way you write a screenplay is that you close your eyes and run the movie in your head and then you write it down.”
Rushdie says he’s had “a lifetime of being involved with movies”. He’s referring to growing up in Bombay, “a movie city”, where he lived until he was 13, before moving to England to attend boarding school, Rugby, then Cambridge. He’s also written about film, indeed, in the novel Midnight’s Children there are trips to the cinema on Saturday mornings and imaginary movies that spool in the heads of Rushdie’s characters. He is also, he tells me, on the advisory board of the Telluride Film Festival. “I’ve been around movies for long enough to know what I’m doing. I don’t know why everybody said Midnight’s Children was unfilmable – it’s just another long book that has to be turned into a movie. If you can turn War and Peace into a movie, or Anna Karenina … those are longer.”
The process of bringing the novel to the screen was epic though, nearly four years from the earliest planning when Rushdie was having dinner with the filmmaker Deepa Mehta in Toronto. Mehta, Oscar-nominated for her film Earth, asked Rushdie who owned the rights to his novel. As it happened, he did. He jokes that he gave Mehta the rights for $1 with the option to renew for another $1 after two years. He’d also charge $3 for the screenplay, making him the princely sum of five bucks. There had been a “couple of attempts” to get the rights, but not for a while, he says.
The last one was about 15 years ago when the BBC wanted to do it as a mini series.
“I think, truthfully, the fatwa had something to do with it,” he says. “I think there was a period of time when there probably wasn’t great enthusiasm to make films of my books,” he laughs, wryly.
The fatwa still looms large in Rushdie’s life. It’s been 15 years since Iran announced that the death threat would no longer be pursued. But there was a report that Iran had made an attempt to interfere with the filming of Midnight’s Children in Sri Lanka.
“Well, somebody did,” Rushdie says. “My suspicion is that it wasn’t a very high-ranking official. I think sometimes peripheral figures trying to please their bosses do something that they think will reflect well on them.”
He sounds casually bored by the whole thing. Defiant, but in a very low-key way. The threat came to nothing, since the filmmakers had the support of the Sri Lankan government. “The president of Sri Lanka had personally guaranteed that we could film there, so when this weird curveball arrived from Iran we were able to quite quickly get to the president’s office. It was quite a weird 48 hours, but it was only 48 hours.”
Quite different to the last weird curveball from Iran, then.
“Yes,” he laughs, “that took a lot longer.”
Indeed, in the decade that Rushdie was in hiding, his eldest son, Zafar, from his marriage to Clarissa Luard, grew from a nine-year-old boy into a young man of 19. His second marriage, to the American novelist Marianne Wiggins, ended and, his third, to Elizabeth West, began. They have a son, Milan, who was born in 1999. In 2004 Rushdie married Indian American presenter and model Padma Lakshmi. Their marriage ended in 2007. Rushdie’s private life has been remarkably public for a writer. His high profile is more akin to that of an actor, coincidentally the only other profession he was ever interested in pursuing. There was a brief cameo in Bridget Jones’s Diary and there have been rumours that he has a part in Mehta’s next film.
“Ah,” he says, smiling. “Her next project is about the artist Matisse and I’m not playing Matisse. Some French dude gets to do that.” Mehta has though, he says, written a very funny script about Sikh gangs in Vancouver focusing on the conflict between two rival factions, one led by an “evil old dude”, the other led by a young, Bollywood movie star-type.
“She wants me to play the evil old guy,” he smiles. “I’ve always wanted to play a gangster, actually. It’s been one of my great ambitions. I remember years ago seeing Gattaca with Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. The villain in that film is played by Gore Vidal. I remember thinking, if Gore Vidal can do it, so can I.” He chuckles.
Rushdie’s explanation for the fact that some writers are drawn to acting is that it’s also a process that involves entering into character.
“That’s what you do as a writer, you’re trying to create these characters on the page and make them live. I think a lot of playwrights end up wanting to act, like when David Hare wrote his play about his visit to Israel and Palestine and he ended up performing it.”
He says that when he was a student at Cambridge, he did much more acting than writing. He did, for a time, think that was the path wanted to follow. “I really wanted to. But I think was probably right not to. I think there’s a moment when, if you’re at all smart, you begin to watch great actors and you realise what you’re not. I remember going to see the first production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud and I thought, ‘whoah, can’t do that’. So I think it was probably a good idea not to give up the day job.”
Maybe, but it doesn’t mean that Rushdie is content to simply set about writing another novel – he’s been developing a sci-fi series for US channel, Showtime.
“It’s crazy, paranoid politics plus science fiction,” he says of The Next People. He’s written a second-draft of the pilot and is now in talks to proceed. “I’ve never written television drama, but the way the 60-minute drama has developed in America, there is so much good stuff. And when you’re on cable, like Showtime, you are released from all restraints – there’s no language restraint, no sexuality restraint, no violence restraint – you can do anything you want.”
It’s not surprising that Rushdie is interested in what’s become very much a writer’s medium. He mentions Matthew Wiener, creator of Mad Men, and David Chase, the man behind The Sopranos. Of course, he’s aiming high.
“Suddenly there’s a way for television writers to be in charge of the project, to have the creative power that normally only producers and directors have had. So that’s appealing. I’m giving it a go. A pilot is a long way from having the series picked up, but we’ll see.” He shrugs. “But there’s another bit of me that really just wants to go and sit in a room and write a novel.”
He takes a sip of water and leans back in his chair.
“If you’re one of the writers in the lucky position of being given the chance, then for goodness’ sake take it. It’s an exciting moment. The end of one passage of time and a door opening into whatever’s next.”
• Midnight’s Children is in cinemas from Boxing Day