Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Book Talk by Salman Rushdie

Last night, I attended a book reading by Salman Rushdie for Two Years Eight Months Twenty-Eight Nights.

This was my first experience seeing him in the flesh. Having read a couple of his books, his reviews, people's discussions about him, and his tweets, I had formed an impression of his personality that was borne out by his commanding stage presence and formidable display of intelligence. What I had not realized is how funny he is. He really seemed to focus in on the questions that were being asked of him and sometimes his answers were flippant and irreverent, sometimes serious, but always witty. Even when he was promoting his other books, he did it jocularly.

He started off the talk with saying how many brilliant young writers there were "these days...taking up space. I should get a T-shirt that says: 'Not Dead Yet.'"

He talked in generalities for a moment or two before launching into a précis of the book from memory. Here's a shorter version from the front jacket of the book:

In the near future, after a storm strikes New York City, the strangenesses begin. A down-to-earth gardener finds that his feet no longer touch the ground. A graphic novelist awakens in his bedroom to a mysterious entity that resembles his own sub-Stan Lee creation. Abandoned at the mayor's office, a baby identifies corruption with her mere presence, marking the guilty with blemishes and boils. A seductive gold digger is soon tapped to combat forces beyond imagining.

Unbeknownst to them, they are all descended from the whimsical, capricious wanton creatures known as the jinn [djinn], who live in a world separated from ours by a veil. Centureis ago, Dunia, a princess of the jinn, fell in love with a mortal man of reason. Together they produced an astonishing number of children, unaware of their fantastical powers, who spread across generations in the human world.

Once the line between worlds is breached on a grand scale, Dunia's children and others will play a role in an epic war between light and dark spanning a thousand and one nights—or two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights. It is a time of enormous upheaval, in which beliefs are challenged, words act like poison, silence is a disease, and a noise may contain a hidden curse.

It's a novel of magic realism. Rushdie said that in this book, he deliberately set about having "stories crowding each other and the narrative. The main narrative then had to disperse these stories and emerge" like Lazarus to the surface of consciousness. "Minor characters were introduced and wasted."

In this book as in his other books, he said that there are two threads to his narrative that intertwine: the fabulist or surrealist one and the historicist one. (He trained as a historian.) In all his novels, he attempts to say something truthful about the world in a surreal dramatic way. He went on to say, "Underneath all the news of the world, there's conflict between unreason and reason, between belief and disbelief. This is among people and also within us. So a jinn is like the psychological Id within us and emanating from us."

When asked what advice would he give beginning writers, he said, "Read widely. Writers don't belong to any team. They're one individual voice saying, 'This is it.' Thus, reading changes you. And you look at the world differently."

When asked, how does he know a book is done, he described some of his creative process. His imaginative energy drives his first draft. He stressed that he always advices first-time writers to get the first draft down any which way they can, then they can tinker with it. Only after the draft is down that he can see the big picture and what needs fixing. "At some point, I reach the point when I'm not making the book better. I have reached creative exhaustion." Then he shows it to beta readers, but never before then. He's not looking for praise from these readers but detailed critique on what doesn't work. Of course, then he went on to say that he continues to tinker with the book till the publisher puts its foot down and the book is sent off to be printed.

When asked, what does he do when he hits the blind wall and is stuck. He said that that happens to him in every book. What he has learned is that the problem is never at the point where he's stuck but further back. He then sets about finding what went wrong. "In doing this, I discover the book I am writing as opposed to the one I thought I was writing."

"Beginning writers are always told, 'Write what you know.' But what if what you know isn't all that interesting? Go and find an amazing idea if you don't have one." Famous writers of all stripes have scoured newspapers, researched books, attended talks and court trials, and eavesdropped on conversations searching nuggets of stories."

Of the Man Booker 2015 Longlist, Rushdie recommended Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account. (It unfortunately did not make the shortlist announced today.)

On winning prizes, he said, "It's wonderful when you receive one, and you don't care when you don't. The best acceptance speech of the Booker Prize I have heard is by Kingsley Amis who lurched up to the podium drunk and said, 'I have always despised the Booker Prize...until tonight.'"

When asked about the first book he fell in love with, he answered that there were a pair of books: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He said that the imagination therein is superlative and the writing so beautiful. It greatly influenced his own imagination and writing. "These days, while the action is exciting, the prose in children's books is not very special." And he says that not being taught to appreciate beautiful prose in addition to the story is a loss for children.

It was a very entertaining talk: humorous, erudite, articulate, confident, and radiating general bonhomie.

[Edited 9/29/15: Great podcast interview with Brian Koppelman on Slate.]