This article by MJ Franklin originally appeared on Mashable.com on September 8, 2015
Mashable: The first thing I wanted to say is: Welcome back to fiction! How has it been?
Salman Rushdie: Frankly, it’s a huge pleasure and relief! I spent several years writing a memoir, and by the end of it, I had my fill of nonfiction. I don’t think I’ll be going there again for a while.
Really? Why not?
It really never occurred to me when I became a writer that I would write a book about myself. Then I acquired the problem of an interesting life and I thought, “Okay, I have to do this.”
But once I’d done it, I didn’t really feel a huge sense relief or of a burden being put down.
Did you learn anything about writing fiction or your own process by writing nonfiction?
I think the process of writing is so revealing of oneself to oneself that you do hopefully gain a little wisdom each time. I love the release of fiction. I love the fact that fiction gives the imagination free reign.
There’s always been kind of two voices in my head, one of which has been a kind of yarn-spinning fabulous voice, and the other has been a real interest in history and fact. And I think both of those are very good ways of telling the human story and exploring human nature.
Quite often what I try to do is jam both these voices into the same book.
And how do you balance those two sides: the historical and the wildly imaginative?
I just think that something very interesting happens when you allow those two discourses to collide with each other. The historical somehow acquires a kind of fictional glamour. It begins to shine. And the imagination, I think, always works best and is most effective when it’s really grounded in some kind of vision of the real.
When you’re telling a fairy tale and it’s not grounded in some vision of the real, then it’s just whimsical. And to my mind, it’s not interesting. When you’re telling a fairy tale and it’s not grounded in some vision of the real, then it’s just whimsical. And to my mind, it’s not interesting. Or it’s a children’s story. You’re just saying, “Once upon a time…” and anything can follow that sentence.
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, which is probably one of the most fantastic books I’ve ever written, is nevertheless enormously grounded in real places.
That’s one of the things I loved about the book — that these characters seem so grounded even if they are floating.
I am really glad to hear you say that. It’s a book about real people to whom a kind crazy set of things happen.
What I was trying to get at really is that many of us feel that we live in a world in which the rules have ceased to apply, in which crazy things can happen in any minute. And I thought, how would I dramatize that in a story — the idea that the world is spinning out of control and is bewildering and is changing in ways that we don’t fully grasp? That the ordinary laws by which we have understood the world to function don’t necessarily seem to work anymore? So I thought I’d start with the most basic law, which is the law of gravity. Let’s see what happens if you take that away.
But I was trying to express a true feeling that a lot of people feel -– that the world is strange, that it is becoming stranger by the second, and that it is spinning out of our grasp and out of our comprehension.
Why tell that story in this particular form, in folktales?
As I said, part of it was a reaction against the hyperrealism of the last book. Also because these kinds of stories — these so called “Eastern Wonder Tales” — were the things that made me fall in love with literature in the first place.
I suppose I just had a desire to go back to the source, go back to the thing that made me fall in love with literature to begin with. To see if I was to drink at that fountain again, what kind of story would it allow me to tell.
What did you discover while going back to your roots?
It renewed my faith in the power of fiction to intensify our perception and perhaps our understanding of the world. Not in the way that journalism does and not in the way that the news does, but by creating parables and metaphors and images and phrases that hopefully make something happen in the reader’s head — which is another way of getting at the truth. The way in which stories can tell the truth and also make it different, so that even the darkest truths can acquire a kind of beauty. even the darkest truths can acquire a kind of beauty.
I think that comes through in the structure of the book, with these vignettes and parables. What do you hope readers will take away from it?
I hope that they will take away a sense of pleasure. The purpose of the book, first of all, is to give intense pleasure if you can. I hope people can just say it was a great experience reading it. And I hope they will remember the story.
It’s at one level a story about storytelling. It’s a story that’s crowded with stories on purpose. It sort of deliberately tells too many stories. It has stories nested inside of stories, stories breaking off in order to tell other stories. The idea of a crowd of stories is something I’ve been interested in since Midnight’s Children.
One of the things I think about a great city — a city like New York, or where I started out, a city like Bombay, which are remarkably similar by the way — is that in a city like this, there is a crowd of stories jostling on the street every day. There are all kinds of narratives from all over the place intersecting, bumping into each other, stepping over each other, having fights with each other, falling in love with each other. All these stories from everywhere crowd in our streets.
So it seems that one way of representing the city, one way of representing urban life, is to deliberately tell a crowd of stories, too many stories. The idea of being prolific, of the cornucopia, has a lot to do of what it’s like to live in a great city like this.
In a sense, the book rose out of that spirit too. That sense that your central story –- the story of Geronimo and Dunia -– has to force its way through a crowd of other narratives.
And as a reader, it’s also rewarding, right? That you’ve gone through this core story, the one story, but that’s totally enriched by all of these other stories too.
I hope so. It’s like getting 10 novels in one. If I had written this book another way, it could have been 1000 pages long. If I had unpacked every nuance of every story there is in there, it could really have been a giant, ominous novel. It could have been a kind of David Foster Wallace novel.
But I actually really, really didn’t want to do that. I think there is something about this kind of storytelling that wants to be told speedily, quickly, wittily and never slow down. I think if Kafka’s Metamorphosis was 400 pages long, it would be unbearable. 400 pages of someone being a bug, you’d think, “Stop it!” At 50 pages, it’s one of the great masterpieces of all time.
So I think there’s a real lesson in this kind of writing — sometimes, less is more. Sometimes, if you can crystallize and calculate the story you are trying to tell, that’s what you need to do. You don’t need to write a three-volume novel about it.
That’s really interesting, because I feel like the literary world is in the age of the long novel.
It does seem to be, yes. I think I’ve done something deeply unfashionable, which I am really, really pleased about.
I do think that with Karl Ove Knausgård and Elena Ferrante and all of this, people seem to be plunging into these super realist, apparently totally autobiographical, monstrously long novel sequences. That seems to be what people are going for right now. Well this is the opposite, folks! This is the anti- Knausgard.
I have to be straight — I’ve written my share of long books. But I do think the swiftness of this book is one of the characteristics I really wanted to have.
You mentioned that you like revisiting the past and diving into history. What are the older books you would recommend to readers?
There are some American writers who deeply inspired me as a young reader, and I don’t know that people read them anymore. I don’t know how many people read William Faulkner anymore, but if you want to read one William Faulkner, you should read Sanctuary. Sanctuary is just one of the greatest novels ever written and probably the best novel of the American South that exists.
I don’t know if Saul Bellow is something that is on young readers’ reading lists, but I would strongly recommend The Adventures of Augie March. It’s one of the most enjoyable picaresque novels ever written by an American writer and some people claim it as the great American novel. Which is perhaps the wrong thing to say about it because that makes it sound not fun, and actually it’s a really funny novel.
And while I am on the theme of American literature, read Portnoy’s Complaint. If you haven’t read Portnoy’s Complaint, read it today.
Is there anything else you want readers to know about this book, or the process of writing it?
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about recent American literature is the way in which new stories have been brought in from all over the place. Whether it’s Junot Diaz or whoever it might be, there are new stories and narratives that are being brought in people’s luggage and are becoming a part of the new immigrant literature of America Whether it’s Junot Diaz or whoever it might be, there are new stories and narratives that are being brought in people’s luggage and are becoming a part of the new immigrant literature of America, and I think that’s been enriching for American literature.
And I must say, I did think, “I can do that too.” I have been living here for 16 years. I’ve got a bag full of stories from somewhere else. Let’s see what happens if I unleash those stories on New York City. How would that turn out?
So this book is my contribution to that process, which I think is very interesting thing going on in American literature. I think it’s been very rejuvenating for American literature, this new wave of writers.