Salman Rushdie: The Shah of Blah in Menlo Park


The Shah of Blah celebrated being in “a great bookstore” last night, and lamented he had “never made it to Kepler’s before.”

“I am delighted to finally find my way to Menlo Park.”

Delighted to be in – what?  Menlo Park?  At Kepler’s?  Salman Rushdie, who has lived in London, Bombay, and New York looks forward to quietly signing books for a hundred people in this polite little burg?

Clearly, this was not the abrasive Salman Rushdie I remember from 2008.  Was there the sort of metaphysical body switch one might find in his latest book Luka and the Fire of Life?  Even the voice was different:  The word choice was distinctly British, but the accent softer, Americanized.  There wasn’t a bodyguard in sight.  He was nothing but charm and affability.  (I wrote about the recent kerfuffle with Jon Stewart and the Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam here and here and here.

Luka and the Fire of Life was written for his son Milan.  His older son advised Rushdie:  “Dad, don’t write novels. Write series.”

“It is very good commercial advice.”  He didn’t take it.  It was more than two decades between his first children’s fantasy, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and the sequel. 

What motivates him to “make it new”? “A low boredom threshold,” he said.  “Repetition is the most boring thing in the world for me.”

Here are my notes as he answered questions from the audience:

Are Western audiences missing a lot of the cultural references?

“They’re missing something, sure, but they’re all still sitting here,” he said, indicating the audience.  Polite Menlo Park laughter.

He noted that William Faulkner is now popular in India; apparently, “what they’re getting is enough.”

We lose cultural references not only in space, but in time, he said.  Tolstoy, for example, is full of references that are lost to a 21st century audience.

But still, he said, it’s fine if only one-and-a-half billion people get it – “merely one-fifth of the human race.  So it’s kind of a private joke.”  More polite laughter.

How long has he been writing books?

“Books that got published?  Since 1975.  I was writing before that – just nobody liked it.

How did he move from unpublished to published?

“I started to write better books.”  It took “12 and a half years getting it wrong.”

“I’m grateful my earlier efforts never saw the light of day,” he said – it’s the   advantage of being a novelist over a playwright.  “You can make your mistakes in private.”

But a play’s not alive till it’s performed.  “You’re naked, vulnerable in front of an audience.”

Are his books autobiographical?

Writing from the borderland (Photo: Mae Ryan)

“People are always asking if the characters in my book are autobiographical,” he said, noting it was any novelist’s most-frequently asked question. “It means I must have had one helluva life.”

He recalled giving opposite answers to this question to journalists in the same city, on the same day.  When the responses were published at the same time, “nobody even noticed.”

He also commented on the longing of readers to be in the book.  He recalled meeting a “very grand” lady covered in jewelry and carrying a fan.  She swatted him with the fan, and accused him of representing her in his book. “Naughty boy!  Never mind.  I forgive you.”  He replied to no avail: “Madam, you have to accept that this is the first time I have ever laid eyes on you.”

“I don’t know why you’re going on about it.  I said I forgive you,” she replied haughtily.

On roots

“The place you land is not the place you start from.”

Rushdie said that we live in a world where “everyone knows everything within ten seconds.”  But he recalled growing up in a slower world in India, where communication was pretty much left to the radio and newspaper.

He commented on “the individual in the world to whom the idea of roots is not important — not uprooted, but who moves around in the world without a sense of belonging.”

“We have privileged roots and the idea of belonging in our culture,” he said. “Other ideas are not given air time, except in art,” where we often celebrate the outcast, the voyager, the cowboy, the adventurer. “Official culture says, ‘Stay home.’”

On imagination and reality

“Things cross between imagination and reality,” he said, noting that we live among “things even our grandparents would have found ridiculously fanciful – airplanes, cellphones.”  (Well, his grandparents perhaps.  Mine whizzed about in airplanes.)

“Before you can make a wheel, you have to imagine a wheel.  The world begins in imagination and move into reality.”

“I wanted to write about that borderland.”

And not a word about the fatwa.

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One Response to “Salman Rushdie: The Shah of Blah in Menlo Park”

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