Salman Rushdie in Conversation with Hal Wake
Excerpts from a public conversation at the Vancouver Writers Fest.
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With editorial assistance from Tom Cho.
On September 19, 2017, author Salman Rushdie appeared at The Vancouver Writers Fest in a public conversation with the festival's artistic director Hal Wake. Excerpts from their wide-ranging conversation follow, covering such topics as film, writing "operatic realism," metamorphosis, and more. Minor edits have been made to these excerpts for grammar, clarity, and brevity.
Also among the topics discussed was Rushdie's latest novel, The Golden House. This novel is narrated by an aspiring young filmmaker named Rene. The plot concerns a real estate tycoon, Nero Golden, who immigrates to the United States under mysterious circumstances. Soon, he and his three adult children assume new identities, reinventing themselves at the apex of New York society.
On Film… and Narrators Who Write Books
Well, I'm going to start by taking you back in time a little bit. Twenty-five years ago or so, you wrote a thoughtful and beautifully clear essay about The Wizard of Oz. I still remember reading it in The New Yorker at that time when it was published. You've said that The Wizard of Oz—the movie, not necessarily the series of books—was your first literary influence. How did that film influence you?
Well, I wrote my first story as a result of seeing it and I was, like, eleven. I came home from seeing a movie at the Regal Cinema in Colaba, Bombay [now Mumbai]. The very large number of brown people here would know what I'm talking about.
Anyway, I was very struck by [the film] and I came home and wrote a story called "Over the Rainbow," unoriginally, but it wasn't anything to do with Oz. It was about a little boy like me in a city like my city, walking down the sidewalk and finding not the end of the rainbow, but the beginning of the rainbow, arcing up in a way and, usefully, with steps cut into it.
So, he goes over the rainbow and he has adventures. I can't remember [it all]. I remember he meets a talking pianola at one point.… Anyway, I wrote it out in handwriting and my father got his secretary to type it up and it was, like, six pages or something. He said that he would look after it because if he left it with me then I would lose it. And then he lost it.
So, it doesn't exist?
Which is a very Wizard of Oz story because The Wizard of Oz is about the unreliability of adults. It's about how Aunt Em and Uncle Henry can't even save Dorothy's dog, you know, and the Wizard is a fraud.
In a way, Dorothy has to grow up and take the place of the adults who can't help her. There's this wonderful climactic moment when she gets the Witch wet. But literally, the Witch grows down and as the Witch grows down, Dorothy grows up. So, yes, it's about the failure of adults to be anything but useless. And so, my father fell into a very Oz-like condition.
And it's gone?
And it's gone.
I mean, thank goodness it's gone, really. I'm sure it wasn't great. No, actually, I would have loved just to have a look at it.
In this novel [The Golden House], your narrator is a film writer and director, and he says at one point, "Weddings always make me think of movies. Everything makes me think of movies."
How much do you share with Rene? Because this book is filled with movie references.
It is. I think unfortunately the nonsense in his head is nonsense in my head too. If you grow up in India, if you grow up particularly in the city of Bombay, you can't avoid becoming a major mainlining movie addict because the city is simply obsessed with movies and movie stars and so on. And so that becomes just part of the air you breathe. The most important thing of the known universe is the cinema.
When I was a kid, it's different now, but when I was a kid, obviously, you've got all the new Indian films, but back then, you used to very quickly get first-run American films too because there were individual movie theaters that had links to individual film studios.… So you grew up with a knowledge of both.
And then, when I was in England, particularly when I was in college, it was sort of the golden age of the sound cinema. There's this period from the late 50s to the early 70s, which I think by general [consensus] is the great moment of the sound cinema in the world, [in] world cinema. In Cambridge, there was a small art house movie theatre which was called The Arts Cinema, which like everything else is a coffee house now. I'm sure it's excellent artisanal coffee.
But I feel that in that relatively small room, I really got most of my education. It's very hard now to explain to young people what it was like when films which are now thought of as the classics were this week's new movie. When you would go to the cinema and the new movie was Belle de Jour, and the next week it was Fellini's 8½, and the next week it was Antonioni's Red Desert, and the next week it was Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal, and the next week it was Kurosawa's whatever, and Satyajit Ray.
You had good taste in film.…
But what skills do [films] give you as a writer? It's clear that you've seen all of the great films ever made but in what way, if any, has it shaped you as a writer?
Well, one of the things that's happened, through the fact that we've all watched a lot of movies, is that we have all to some degree internalised certain kinds of film language. And it's actually changed the movies also.
If you look at old films, for example, silent films with title cards with the words on, the title cards stay on what seems like an absurd amount of time. And that's because we've become faster looking at films. So, you could have shorter cuts now and we still can read it. So, I think we've learned about all sorts of things, flashbacks, cross-cutting between different narrative strands. There's a whole range of things which are the grammar of the cinema which we all know. We all know it without even thinking about it consciously. And so, you can use that in books now.
Do you do that consciously or when you say that we've internalised that, is that simply part of the way we see the world?
Well, I think it is. But in this book, it's done more consciously. Because Rene. . . I think of him as recently out of NYU film school and with a bunch of like-minded people in the Village trying to make his way and making little videos that get embedded on the [web]sites of magazines and dreaming of auteurship. So he thinks of the Goldens as what might be his big subject…
so he starts watching them, infiltrating himself into their lives. The way he writes or narrates the book is guided to some degree by the fact that he's thinking about a movie to make. So, there are moments when the novel briefly slides into something like a screenplay and then out again.
And it actually says "cut" at the end of the scene.
Yes, it actually has film directions. There are moments when there are techniques which you could recognise as voice-over as well. There's the deliberate use of a certain amount of film techniques.
The thing that makes [Rene] an unreliable narrator is that at one point, he admits that, of course, he's their neighbour, but like anyone, we don't know everything about our neighbours' lives. We know a little bit. We suspect some more. And the rest of it, we make up. So there's also consciously and confessedly in the way he writes the book an element of possible invention, except we don't know which bits he's inventing.
I love the way you say "the way he writes the book".
You wrote the book.
No, I made him up and then he wrote the book. I'll just explain what I mean by that. There are moments when a narrator's voice becomes a thing you can't fight against. You just have to do it his way. Because once you've set it in motion, it's that.
On Writing "Operatic Realism"
So, the sensation that I had reading the novel is that sometimes I felt like I was in a hall of mirrors where I was in a movie within a movie with a script. That sort of looking, constant reflections back on—
Yes. But you were in a hall of mirrors. That's what it is. It's a hall of mirrors. And sometimes, the mirrors are distorting.
You can't rely on those mirrors always.
No. You can't rely on a novel. That would be a stupid thing to do.
I've lived my whole life guided by novels, so I guess [that's] a big mistake.
But another way of putting it is that you spent your whole life misguided by novels. Novels are treacherous creatures. They're not always doing what they say they're doing.
Rene wants to make a series of films, not just the one, and he kind of lists the [themes]: "migration, transformation, fear, danger, rationalism, romanticism, sexual change, the city, cowardice and courage; nothing less than a panoramic portrait of my times."
Yeah, he's not modest Rene.
Your goal was as ambitious?
Well, a novel can do more than a single movie because it's longer. It has more space. But I did want to write something like a panoramic social novel. I find myself reading Edith Wharton and James Baldwin and Henry James, and thinking, "How do you do this? How do you try to capture a moment of history without it seeming just like newspaper reports?"
One of the writers that really helped me was Dickens. Because one of things I've always loved about Charles Dickens is that first of all, the settings of his novels are unbelievably detailed in their naturalism. They're fantastically real, almost hyper-realist in their attention to detail.
Secondly, he had the most amazing range of places he could go. He could write about anywhere in his society. He could write about murderers and pickpockets on one hand and he could write about aristocrats on the other, and then everything in between. That's because he consciously went out to find out things
instead of sitting in his extremely comfortable home. He went out to get into as many different places as he could. Of course, he had some hardships as a child. . . . But he really made a big effort to learn his society, so that he could portray every part of it. I've always thought that's the thing to do. Get out of your comfort zone, get into rooms you don't belong in, see what happens to you.
And did you do that?
Yes, I did. I've always done it. That's just a thing I do. I always try and get into places that I shouldn't be in. Or that it's unusual for me to be in. In order to find out what happens there. Otherwise, how do you write about the world if you don't look at it?
But then the thing that [Dickens] does, and which I think this book does, is that onto that extremely realist background, he projects characters who are larger than life.
It wouldn't really be interesting if they weren't.
But the reason we believe in them, the reason we buy them, is because they are so deeply rooted in this reality that is created. They grow out of it organically. And then we believe their kind of operatic nature.
There's a thing that Rene says, [near] the passage you quoted, where he describes what he wants to make as "operatic realism". In a way that is what I'm trying to do, which is to do what opera does, which is to magnify. To take real stories of real men and women and blow them up, but still project them against reality. So, that's really what the book is trying to do.
On Metamorphosis, Migration, and Identity
I know that you have been interested in and written about metamorphosis and transformation. What interests you or fascinates you about metamorphosis and transformation?
Well, I think it's what we all do. I think human life is a process of metamorphosis. We start off as little vomiting creatures and we end up as bigger vomiting creatures….
So, I think transformation is the nature of life. In my case, it's been underlined, if you like, by the phenomenon of migration. Since so much of my life has been shaped by, first, a migration from India to England and then, a second migration from England to America, the transformation in itself that migration brings about is something I've always [been] interested in.
In this novel, almost everybody is from somewhere else, in the little neighbourhood where Rene and the Goldens live. There's a Burmese diplomat, there's an Italian couple getting divorced. Even Rene's parents who are college professors originally came from Belgium. That's quite deliberate, that I wanted it to be a portrait of an immigrant New York.
I think it was Pico Iyer in a conversation I had with him years ago—long enough ago that I didn't realise how right he was at the time—who was talking about how migration is the theme of our time.
Yes. This is the age of migration. There's never been a time in the history of the human race when so many of us ended up in a place other than where they began.
And it affects everything. It affects communities, it affects individuals. Every time somebody moves somewhere and enters a community, everything shifts. The culture shifts.
And the self shifts. Because the roots of the self have a lot to do with place. That's to say, you've come from a particular place which you know and where you are known. You come from a particular community which you know and by which you are known. You speak a particular language. You have a particular set of ideas or belief systems, etcetera. And you move across the world and all of that goes out the window.
Suddenly, you're in a strange place amongst strangers. Maybe the language isn't the language that you most naturally speak. Maybe the belief systems are different. Everything is different. Then you have to ask yourself, what do you in that situation? What do you adopt from the people around you? What do you preserve of what you've brought with you? How can you be a person in this place without any of those roots?
You have to "re-root" yourself as a self. So, it's profound existentially, as well as socially and politically. So, as I say, because it's been in a way the story of my life, it becomes an important subject.
What you're talking about in that particular description is identity and self-identity. But there's a whole other focus on identity in this novel. There's a museum of identity and I get the sense that you're not wildly keen on identity politics as we experience them.
No. I'm very pleased about the museum of identity though.
It might happen.
I think there'll be one next week. Actually, when I was writing the book, I actually had to look it up to make sure that there wasn't one already and there isn't. But I think there might be, because it's become such a preoccupation, identity understood in so many different ways, that it could well be something that deserves a museum.
What are the problems you see with our focus on identity?
Well, I'm not exactly sure what precisely the Canadian preoccupations are. But identity is quite a different subject in different parts of the world.
In the United States now, when you say "identity", people assume you're talking either about race or gender. It's located in those conversations. If you say it in India, people think you are talking about religion. You're talking about religious identity, Hindu-Muslim issues. If you say it in England, people right now in the middle of this Brexit nonsense think that you're talking about this imaginary golden age of England, when everybody wore straw boaters and traveled around in punts. And they weren't any horrible foreigners around. So, this imaginary golden age, which obviously never existed.
Actually, a friend of mine who's an Indian novelist who's now a politician in India, Shashi Tharoor, said on British television recently something very simple that I've never heard said before quite like that. He said [that] when the British came to India, it was just about the richest country in the world. It was incredibly wealthy.
And when the British left India, it was one of the poorest countries in the world. Where do you think all that money went? Where do you think the wealth went? It went to support this idea of bucolic dream England. That was built on the oppression of a quarter of the planet. But the—
The colonial project.
The imperialist project. [But] the British don't think that. They think they left behind roads and parliaments and jolly-good-show. But they…
And cricket. At which everybody got better at than them. This is actually the fate of the English, to invent games that everybody gets better at than them.
Anyway, so the point is that identity becomes tied into various kinds of fantasies of the nation and of the self. And what worries me most right now is that there's pressure on us, I think, to define our identities—this is where identity politics comes in—
but to define our identities, more and more narrowly, to think of ourselves as just this thing and not that thing. The trouble is when you do that, when you define yourself very narrowly, it becomes very hard to find common ground to a lot of people.
Immediately building a fence of some kind.
And so it creates hostility and creates an adversarial society. One of the things that I think the novel, as a form, has always known is that human beings aren't like that. Human beings are mixed-up. That we're a bunch of selves, not a single unitary self. The way we are with our children is not the way we are with our employer. The way we are with our employer is not the way we are with our lovers or our friends.
We are this whole cacophony of selves. As Walt Whitman famously said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself." That idea of the self as being contradictory and irreconcilable, but multiple, multifarious, you will find in every good novel ever written. I think it's one of the reasons I think why it might still be worth reading novels, just to remind ourselves that this is human nature. Human nature is like this. It's not like that. It's not like, I am this one thing and screw you if you're not.
On the Novel as a Moral Project
What does synderesis mean? Rene's father says it's the most important word he'll ever know.
His parents are both philosophers, thinkers, etcetera. Anyway, synderesis is the philosophical idea that we as human beings—and I'm just going to put it colloquially—are kind of hardwired to want to have a knowledge of good and evil.
Not that we know what good and evil are, but that we want to know how to describe the world in terms of right and wrong, good and bad. This is why children accept the instruction of parents in terms of "This is right, that is wrong; do this, don't do that." Of course, they push the boundaries… But in the end, they need to know that there's a shape of the world in which certain things are right and other things are wrong. I think we all want to do that; we all want to have a moral sense. That need for a moral sense is what is called synderesis.
And is that not the essence of the project of the novel, essentially?
Yes. Well, not all novels have a moral project, but I think the great ones do and all the novels that I think of as the grand masterpieces are, in some sense, to do with ethics, right and wrong. Yes. And so, this book, in its small way tries to do that too.
On Home… and a Gift from a Fan
At the end of your essay on The Wizard of Oz, you write, "There's no longer any such place as home—except, of course, for the homes we make, or the homes that are made for us." Have you made a home as… ?
Yes. I do feel very much at home in New York City. I'll sometimes say to my friends that it's the place where the square peg finally found a square hole.
Grid system helps.
Yes. I love those numbered streets.
Yes, I do. But really, the home you make is amongst the people you love. Home is not necessarily a place. It's a group inside which you feel at home. That's the sense of which I do think that we all make a home.
We are all familiar with the phenomenon of leaving home and making a home. It's one of the things about human life, that we do that. But I think that real home is in other people.
Can I just say before we ask [anything] else that
one of my proudest achievements about that essay about The Wizard of Oz is that I got a fan letter from a munchkin.
A real munchkin?
Yes. And not just any old munchkin, but the Munchkin coroner. If you remember in the film, with the black hat and the scroll, and he says [speaking in a Munchkin voice], "I've thoroughly examined her. She's not only really dead, she's really most sincerely dead."
Yes. He was very old, he was living in a J. C. Penney Retirement Home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Don't ask me why. His name was Meinhardt Raabe and he wrote me a note saying that he'd read the piece in The New Yorker and that he had liked it.
As a thank you gift to me, he included in his letter a production still of his big scene where he's on the steps of the Munchkin Town Hall with the scroll of which it says in gothic letters "Certificate of Death". And underneath it, he's filled in my name. So, I have a Munchkin Death Certificate.
I remember thinking at the time, "How funny is this?" and then I thought, "No." I had this image of him in his room in the retirement home in Fort Lauderdale with a big stack of these color Xeroxes, firing off letters to people….
Anyway, so yes, I have that. I framed it. It's one of my precious possessions.
An Audience Question on Writing Humour
There was a lot of moments in The Golden House that are quite funny. I was wondering how important to your writing comedy is, if it's something you sit down, and you feel it needs to be placed there? Or it just comes out in the writing process? How does that affect the overall book?
Yes, thank you, because I keep trying to tell people that these books are funny.
I remember with the last novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, suddenly as if a light bulb had gone off, a lot of critics said, "It's a funny book." And I kept wanting to say, "Yeah, but so are all the others." Comedy is difficult and making people laugh is actually harder than making them cry. As a reader, I like books that have humour and I find books difficult—even if they are very great books—which don't have humour.
But do you work at it or does it come out?
Both. Anybody who writes anything that's supposed to be funny knows that it doesn't just come out. Sometimes it does, but very often you have to work at it. The whole thing about writing is that it is very, very hard. The trick of it is to make it look easy, but that's the deception.
Every sentence, whether it's serious or comic, is very hard. There are days when you're having a hot streak and you can write a little bit where you think, "Okay. That's really good, don't touch it." I wish there were more days like that. But yes, I do like the stuff to be funny and I like funny in general. In the last 10 years or so—more than that, from the time of the George W. Bush presidency—I've been very grateful for comedians. I mean, not to have them in the White House, that's a mistake.
People like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and so on. I feel that they have given us a sharp portrait of what's happening in America better than conventional journalism has. They've made us laugh as well. So, yes, I think comedy can be very serious, too.
An Audience Question on Rushdie’s Relationship with His Editor
I would like to know a little bit more about your relationship with your editor. Given that your references are so broad and you bring so much knowledge and such broad knowledge into your books. I wonder about whether or not you have an audience in mind and what your editor is saying. Does she actually [say], "Rein it in. Folks aren't going to get this", or what?
No, she doesn't say that. Well, different writers do this differently. Some writers work very closely with editors during the process of making the book and others don't.
I, myself, find it very difficult to show anything until I think it's what I call finished. What I mean by that is, when I think I can't make it any better. When I think I'm just pushing things around, but they're not really getting better.
At that point, I become extremely interested in what editors and close friends who I give the book to read have to say. I really don't need them to pat me on the back and tell me I'm wonderful. I much prefer them to tell me what problems they have and then see if I agree with them and if so, how to solve them.
There were various moments in [the writing of] this book which were enormously improved by editorial commentary—somebody saying, "I don't understand this" or "I need more explanation here" or "Why does this happen?" and "Why didn't that happen?", and so on. I understood that there were things I hadn't made clear that I needed to make clear.
Even the title of the novel. The working title of this novel was, The King in the Golden House. That sounded fabulous and like a fairytale. My editor said to me, "You haven't written a fabulous fairytale. The title is misleading, it doesn't sound like the book." She suggested shortening it to The Golden House. I initially went, "Ah! Cutting off half my title." It felt like an amputation. I just thought, "I'm going to think about this for a couple of days" and the more I thought about it, the more I realised that she [Susan Kamil, Rushdie's editor at Random House] was right. So, with this book, starting with the title, the editor has been very significant.
Beyond that, I've become much better at listening to what people have to say than I used to be. When I was a kid, my view was, "Did you write this book? I don't think so. I think it's my name on the book and it's going to be my name on the book for a really long time. So back off." Now, I think I could do with all the help I could get. I've genuinely become much more open to accepting it.
Salman Rushdie is the author of thirteen novels including his latest, The Golden House. He is also the author of a book of stories, and four works of non-fiction. A Fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature, Salman Rushdie has received numerous awards and recognitions, and his books have been translated into over forty languages. View full bio
Hal Wake has been engaged with the literary community in Canada for more than 30 years. He has conducted on-stage interviews with Alice Munro, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Richard Ford amongst many others. He has hosted or moderated hundreds of literary events, and he has served on granting juries for the Canada Council for the Arts, the BC Arts Council and the City of Vancouver. He is an Honorary Member of the Writers Union of Canada and he was the Artistic Director of the Vancouver Writers Fest until 2017. View full bio
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