The Performer: Award-winning author Salman Rushdie

The award-winning writer on fame, infamy, measuring success and managing risk.

Author Salman Rushdie (Photo: Chris Woods)

Salman Rushdie knows a thing or two about risk. The British–Indian author’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, earned him the wrath of Muslims around the world, including Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued a fatwa against him for what he considered the book’s unfavourable depiction of Muhammad. Risk remains a key element in Rushdie’s writing, notably in his latest book, Luka and the Fire of Life. He currently is adapting his novel Midnight’s Children with Indian–Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, and planning his memoirs. He spoke with Canadian Business managing editor Conan Tobias.

A bibliography of Salman Rushdie’s works of fiction

Grimus (1975)
Midnight’s Children (1981)
Shame (1983)
The Satanic Verses (1988)
Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990)
East, West (1994)
The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995)
The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999)
Fury (2001)
Shalimar the Clown (2005)
The Enchantress of Florence (2008)
Luka and the Fire of Life (2010)

What is your creative process? Do you have a daily writing routine?
I do it like an office job. There are writers who wake up at dawn and work till noon and then go and drink, but I’m not like that. And I think it’s because when I was young, before I could make a living as a writer, I worked in advertising for a while, and the great thing about that is you get rid of all kinds of ideas of inspiration and ego. If the client’s coming in on Thursday at 2:30, it’s got be good, so you just come in and do your work and make it good, on time, meet the deadline.

What separates good writing from bad writing?
I think the really important things about writing are, first of all, the ear. You have to be able to hear the world, you have to hear how people talk to each other. Then there’s the question of the eye. You have to be able to look at the world in a way that’s unusual, or particular to you. And then there’s something more intangible, which has to do with having a kind of vision, having had a view of how things are, you know? And if you’ve got those things, then that is the basis of good writing, I think. And the greater the writer is, the more evident those things are. If you read Garcia Márquez, you know there’s nobody else in the world who can do that, and you know it’s him.

How do you define success as a writer?
Obviously, there’s artistic success, and there’s worldly success, and they’re very frequently not the same thing. And very often commercial success has nothing to do with artistic success, and one of the ways you tell this is by looking at the immense commercial successes of previous generations. You know, nobody is reading Peyton Place now. Nobody’s really reading The Valley of the Dolls, even, I don’t think. So these books, which were gigantic commercial successes, they were of their moment, and then they vanished, because their purpose was not to endure, whereas I think a writer like me really is hoping to create something that will be of lasting value. And one of the ways that I would measure literary success is by that measure — whether it endures.

Do you care about critical success at all?
Well, I mean, I’ve had my share of it, and my share of the other thing, too. Yes, of course. You know, I would prefer people to like my books. It’s always nicer when people like your books. Luka and the Fire of Life, for example, is having a pretty nice ride in the papers, and I don’t deny it makes me feel happy.

Have you written any books that you consider failures?
Well, my first novel, Grimus, is a science–fantasy novel that really … I mean, I tell my friends not to read it. It was like a false start. But it had a benefit to me, which is that it was such a kind of damp squib when it came out that it made me…it obliged me to rethink everything I thought about how I should write, you know? And out of that process of rethinking came Midnight’s Children, which ended up really establishing me as a writer.

There was a period of your career where your celebrity was quite high. You’re not in the public eye to the same degree today. Are you comfortable with your level of celebrity now?
It’s fine. One of the things that was so awful about that was being famous for the wrong reason, you know? Not because of the things that I did that I would hope people would respond to, but because of this huge political scandal. The hangover of that, it’s still there. I think people who haven’t read my books still know about — or know something about — [the fatwa], even though it happened 20–odd years ago, and it just feels like the albatross around my neck, really. So that kind of fame was very unattractive, to me, and I’m happy that that’s faded. Celebrity is not what it’s about. I won’t deny it’s good, it gets you tables in restaurants, all that, but it’s got almost nothing to do with why I became a writer. Nobody who’s a serious writer does it to be a celebrity, otherwise it just proves that they’re really stupid.

You spoke recently in Edmonton at a Risk and Insurance Management Society conference. What did you talk about?
That was very interesting, because it was a very specific subject, which I know something about. Through my years of contact with police, one of the things I found very interesting was that the concepts of risk and threat are very carefully defined, and they’re not the same thing. So there can be a threat against an individual which is considered to be high, and yet the level of risk attached to a given action by that individual may not be that high. Like, if you believe that there is a high level of threat against a person, but on the other hand, one day, in the afternoon, he goes into a movie theatre when nobody knows he’s going to be there, and he goes in after the lights are dark and he comes out before the lights come up, the level of risk attached to that is very low. So one of the things that happens, intelligence services assess threat, police forces assess risk. And I got to understand that quite well, and so I thought, “Well, I’ll go and talk to these risk assessors about that.”

How did you relate that to finance?
Well, I didn’t. They could relate it. I just told them about my understanding of it, and they could draw their own conclusions. One of the things I also tried to talk to them about is the idea of risk in art. That’s to say that in my view the greatest art is always that art which pushes boundaries outwards and offers some new possibility that didn’t previously exist. And the greater the artist, the greater that growth of the possible is. But that’s the risk, to go to the edge and push outwards, you know? So I wanted to talk to them about the idea of artistic risk, you know, and how in fact you don’t really do anything interesting as an artist, in my view, unless you go to those edges and push in that way. And that’s the real risk.