Salman Rushdie on His New Novel, With a Character Who Floats Just Above Ground
Salman Rushdie was a teenager when he first learned that his last name was invented rather than inherited.
“My grandfather wasn’t called Rushdie,” he said. “My father just made it up. He made a really good choice. It came from his interest in the philosophy of Ibn Rushd.”
Later Mr. Rushdie came to share his father’s obsession with the work of Ibn Rushd (pronounced Roosht), a 12th-century philosopher better known in the West as Averroes. Now, he has made him a central character in his new novel, “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.”
The novel opens in 12th-century Spain, where the philosopher has unwittingly fallen in love with a beautiful woman named Dunia, who is actually a jinnia (or genie) in disguise. The story jumps to New York City in the near future, as Ibn Rushd and Dunia’s distant descendants discover they have special powers, like the ability to shoot lightning bolts from their fingertips or turn tree branches into gold. (Some of their superpowers are more like minor inconveniences: A gardener named Geronimo hovers a few inches off the ground, but is otherwise fairly average).
In the final chapters, the supernatural beings take part in an epic war being fought by powerful genies over the future of humanity, leading to an action-packed climax that reads in places as if Kafka had written a blockbuster superhero movie.
During a recent interview at his publisher’s office in Midtown Manhattan, Mr. Rushdie spoke about his love of science fiction, his failed television series, being on Al Qaeda’s hit list and his falling out with the novelist Peter Carey. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q. This novel shares some of the themes you’ve explored in the past, like the conflict between religious belief and reason, but, stylistically, it feels looser, mashing up medieval philosophy and Islamic mythology with an almost Marvel Comics-like science fiction universe. What inspired you to create these superhero characters and a “War of the Worlds”-style fantasy plot?
A. Science fiction is where I started out, really. When I was a kid, I was a complete addict of science fiction. It was one of my earliest interests as a writer, and I’ve just taken a long time to circle back around to it. It was also a reaction against writing my memoir. I’d spend two or three years trying really hard to tell the truth, and by the end, I was sick of the truth — enough truth, let’s make some [expletive] up.
Q. What was the idea that gave rise to this story?
A. I had Mr. Geronimo the gardener and his detachment from the earth. The thing that made me want to write it was the idea that he would only be half an inch off the ground. Flying up in the sky, that’s not interesting, but to be half an inch off the ground, which is just as big a breach of the law of gravity — it’s funnier.
Q. One of the narrative threads in the novel has to do with the centuries-old philosophical debate over reason versus faith, which you bring to life by having powerful jinn wreak havoc on the world, upending the laws of physics. Why was fantasy a good vehicle to illustrate these abstract ideas?
A. It connected in my mind to this idea I had about living in a world where the rules are breaking down, where the world is changing so fast in all directions that a lot of people have a sense of bewilderment. You don’t actually know what the rules are anymore, and you have a sense that maybe there are other people much younger than you who do know what the rules are, and are thereby make billions by inventing, what, Snapchat? What the hell is that? That, apparently, is worth billions. Novels are worth, if you’re lucky, a six-figure sum.
Q. Do you use Snapchat?
A. No. I know that it exists.
Q. You’re an outspoken atheist, but in your fiction, at least, you seem to have a soft spot for mythology and polytheistic religions.
A. Ideas are interesting to me, and religions are a place where ideas have been very subtly embodied for thousands of years. All literature started as sacred literature.
Q. Your novel is a homage of sorts to the myth of Scheherazade, who told stories every night to delay her execution, and the title is a riff on “One Thousand and One Nights.” It struck me that you have experienced the inverse of the Scheherazade story, after being a target for execution for your novel “The Satanic Verses.”
A. Yes, the anti-Scheherazade. My life is what it is, and clearly it affects what I think. Scheherazade is one of the great authorless figures. No one has any idea who made her up, so it’s easy to think she made herself up. But there she is, one of the immortal characters of literature, and how can you not fall in love with somebody who civilizes savage people by telling them stories?
Q. A few years ago, you were working on a science fiction series for Showtime. What happened to that?
A. That died, like all these things do. The thing that I had been developing for Showtime was also a kind of a parallel world story, in which it was our earth and another variation of it, and they somehow come into contact with each other. Anyway, that didn’t happen, but I had been thinking a lot about these parallel world ideas, and how do you make that happen, and what are the complications of it. So I now see that as having been interesting preparatory work for the way this book turned out.
Q. Will you take another pass at writing for film or television, maybe reviving the science fiction plot for another network?
A. I’ve got the rights back because I’ve got a good lawyer. But I’m not sure the creative juice is there anymore. I’ve already used that idea.
Q. I hear you watch “Game of Thrones.”
A. I like the girl with the dragons, and I like the short guy, and I want them to win.
Q. You were very vocal in supporting the PEN American Center’s decision to honor the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this year, something that some other writers, including Peter Carey and Francine Prose, opposed, because they said the magazine perpetuated bigoted ideas. Were you surprised to be on the other side of an ideological divide from some of your peers?
A. I could not believe it. Still can’t believe it. So many writers who are old friends. It was really shocking. Now, of course, the lasting damage is in some of those friendships. I haven’t seen any of them, nor have any of them been in touch with me. I felt a sense of injustice, that these people were executed for drawing pictures. If we’re a free-speech organization, how can we not be on their side? For Mr. Carey to say to The New York Times that he didn’t see it as a free-speech issue, I thought, “What?”
Q. He’s a friend of yours, right?
A. Well, was. It’s bewildering and saddening.
Q. You’ve been living in the open for years after going into hiding following the fatwa, but you’ve gotten threats from other extremist groups more recently. In 2013, Al Qaeda’s magazine Inspire put you on its hit list, along with other public intellectuals they view as hostile to Islam.
A. A lot of magazines put me on lists. I think I’m in more danger from n+1 [the literary magazine] than from Al Qaeda.
Q. The United States is on the brink of possibly ending sanctions against Iran and opening up diplomatic relations. As someone who was given a death sentence by the country’s religious leaders, how do you feel about this development?
A. Truthfully, I really do not know what I think. I am quite conflicted about it. On the one hand, the last decade or so show us that war hasn’t worked, so maybe try peace. The other argument is, we’re talking about Iran. These are, how shall I put it, unreliable people. I’m on that strange ground where I don’t quite know what I think. Which is all right — I’m a novelist. Fortunately I don’t have to rule the world.
Q. You have taken to Twitter to engage with your fans and occasionally trade barbs with critics. What appeals to you about it?
A. I have very up and down feelings about Twitter. There are long periods where I can’t be bothered. I like it for bringing me information. And, of course, it’s useful to be able to tell people you just published a book, when there’s a million people following you. Then you look at Neil Gaiman, and then you begin to feel ashamed of just a million people. And then you get to the real enormous intellectuals of Twitter, you get to Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian, and then you just feel like a worm. Just a million. There are times when I kind of agree with Jonathan Franzen’s view that you should just stay away from the stuff.
Q. You’ve teamed up with other artists on various projects [including a sculpture with Anish Kapoor and a ballad with the band U2]. What appeals to you about working with artists in other mediums?
A. I don’t look for these collaborations. There was this very funny moment, just after U2 and I made that song. When it got out that U2 and I had collaborated, there was, like, five minutes when every British pop group thought, oh, Salman Rushdie, we could write a song with him.
Q. So, can we look forward to a One Direction album with Salman Rushdie?
A. I’m open for offers. Talk to my agent, as they say.