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Interview: Salman Rushdie

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Salman Rushdie’s involvement in Granta goes back to the third issue of the magazine, The End of the English Novel, in which an extract of Midnight’s Children was published. Then editor Bill Buford would later help to protect Rushdie during the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, in response to his novel The Satanic Verses, by hiding him in his home. Here he spoke to current editor John Freeman about his memoir of living through those years, Joseph Anton.

JF: One of the most striking things about this book is while it’s a memoir, it reads like a biography. Partly because it is writing in the third person. Why did you do this?

SR: (a) I tried the first person and didn’t like it. (b) the question of identity is important in this book; there were so many Rushdies being made up by other people . . . and, I think, I wanted to say, I'm not quite the same person as the ‘me’ about whom the book is written. The author is now in a calmer frame of mind, and two decades older; the subject is younger, and under all sorts of deforming stress.

Some of my favourite passages in the book describe your childhood in Bombay. Astonishing to know your father wanted in some way to be a Koranic scholar. Did you feel in writing Satanic Verses you were living out of that wish?

Yes, in a way. In writing this memoir, it became even clearer to me that I am very much my father’s son.

So, it appears you weren’t in some underground bunker, but in a rented house in Wimbledon, or Wales, or the Cotswolds. Or, well, any number of places. Did this constant moving ever feel like a kind of grandly exaggerated version of being a migrant?

It felt more like being a refugee.

How did you deal with the fear?

By putting it in a box in the corner of the room and getting on with my day.

This period must have – and seems to have – put your relationships under an enormous amount of strain. Several of them break down as a result – publishers, agents, spouses, friends. Are there any of them which you write about which you wish you could have saved?

I wish things hadn’t broken down with Penguin.

You became, for lack of a better word, a symbol during this time. Of Freedom, for some, of blasphemy, for others. Do you ever find wielding this aspect of yourself gets in the way of your writing?

I never felt symbolic. I felt, as I say in the memoir, actual. I didn’t like the idealized me any better than I liked the demonized me. Joseph Anton is a way of saying, I’m neither one, but a human being, sometimes right, often wrong, trying to struggle through the challenges life threw, and still throws, at me.

This book is full of some unexpected cameos. Graham Greene (who I recently learned was also at the Best of Young British Novelists party in 1983), Meg Ryan, Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Pynchon. Who gave you the best advice?

Graham Greene was the most comforting, because of his glee at the ‘trouble I'd caused’.

Now that you’ve killed off Joseph Anton, do you think you can go back to being Salman Rushdie?

I never stopped being Salman Rushdie. The books are the proof. ■

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie is published by Random House.

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