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Guest Host: Katty Kay
In 1989, the Ayatollah of Iran issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, putting him under a death sentence for writing “The Satanic Verses,” a novel deemed blasphemous to Islam. Rushdie went into hiding for decades. Partly as a way to cope with the stress, he wrote a story for his oldest son, featuring a boy on a quest to rescue his father’s lost storytelling skills. Twenty years later, he’s written a companion book for his youngest son. It’s an epic adventure about the older boy’s brother quest to bring the fire of life to his dying father. Salman Rushdie talks about fathers and sons, freedom and authority, and the worlds of mythology and video games.
- Salman Rushdie Booker Prize winning author of eleven novels, including "Midnight's Children" and "The Satanic Verses."
MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us, I'm Katty Kay of BBC World News America sitting in for Diane Rehm. Salman Rushdie takes readers deep into a land of myth and fable in his latest foray into young adult fiction. His new book tells the story of a boy named Luka who travels through a magical land and completes increasingly difficult feats to revive his legendary story-telling father from a deep sleep. The Booker Prize-winning author wrote it as a gift to his youngest son Milan whose middle name is Luka. Salman Rushdie joins us in the studio to talk about "Luka and the Fire of Life." Salman, thank you so much for coming in.
MR. SALMAN RUSHDIEHello, nice to be here.
KAYThe phone number here is 1-800-433-8850, the e-mail address is email@example.com, you can of course find us on Twitter and Facebook as well. We would love to have your calls, questions and comments for Mr. Rushdie later on in the program. Salman, this is the second time that you've written a story for one of your sons.
KAYDid they begin just as every parent's bedtime story to their children?
RUSHDIEThe first one did, this one didn't. I mane, this one really began as -- began as a book. It really did begin in response to my younger son pointing out the injustice of the fact that his brother had a book and he didn't.
KAYAnd quite right, too.
RUSHDIEBut, no. I thought, like, there's no arguing with that, you know, and I always remembered there's a -- there's a song that Paul Simon wrote as a lullaby for his son and it contains this wonderful lyric. I mean, he says, if I can't sing my boy to sleep, it makes your famous daddy look so dumb. (laugh) And I thought that, you know, if you're a songwriter, you should be able to write a lullaby for your own child and if you're a writer, writer, book writer, you should be able to write a story for your child, so it's a challenge.
KAYThe stakes are pretty high for gifts in your house aren't they?
RUSHDIEYeah, well, you know, it also takes a long time, (laugh) that's the -- that's the thing. It took me -- and also the thing with this book is I wanted it to be a companion to the other book, but not just a sequel. I didn't want it to be just a return to where I'd been before.
KAYTo "Haroun and the Sea of Stories?"
RUSHDIEYes. I didn't want to go back to the "Sea of Stories," you know, and I thought in the way that when Lewis Carroll wrote the second "Alice" book, he didn't go back to Wonderland. You know, he created a second magic world through the looking glass and I thought, that's what I need to do. I need to come up with a different imaginative landscape and a different reason for going there.
KAYAnd how much did you look at Luka's life and Luka's interests in the writing of this book? How much is him and his life here in the story?
RUSHDIEWell, my son, Milan, is very much the -- in some ways the model for the character. I mean, for example, he's left-handed and in my family, that's very surprising, I mean -- and in his mother's family. It was -- you know, the left-handedness came out of the blue, but he was very definitely left-handed from an early age and I think, you know, if you bring up a left-handed child, you can see that there are ways in which it's difficult to be left-handed in a right-handed world, you know.
RUSHDIEAnd -- and so I wanted that to be an aspect of Luka's character as well in the book and to try and turn it into an advantage. You know, the thing that starts out being a disadvantage at one point in the novel, his left-handedness is what actually enables him to achieve what he needs to achieve, so -- and there's a kind of determination about Luka, you know. He's not afraid of things. You know, he comes up against these horrible adversaries and he sort of has an idea of how to deal with them and I think that also comes out of my son's character. He's pretty indomitable.
KAYAnd you've introduced into the book the bit that I kind of found fascinating, because I look at my children all the time and obviously they have something that I never had as a child, which is this whole life of video games. And so you've introduced something that your eldest son, when you were writing "Haroun," wouldn't have been in his life.
RUSHDIEWell, it would just about have been in his life because when he was a kid, that was like the early days of games like, "Super Mario" and "Sonic the Hedgehog," you know. But now of course, they're so much more sophisticated, these games, and I just thought that the thing that's interesting about them as a thing to use in a book is that they really do now create very large imaginative landscapes for the player to inhabit. And they give the player quite a lot of freedom about how to move through that landscape, you know, so the player has quite a lot of agency, so it's not unlike a character in a book, you know.
RUSHDIESo I just thought it was a way, given that this is a quest story, which is in fact one of the -- one of the oldest quest stories of -- is the quest for fire is one of the most ancient stories of all. I thought it was a way of using a very, very now language and kind of metaphor to reignite, if you like, that old story.
KAYSalman, would you read a bit from the book for us? This is from the very beginning of the book and Luka is talking about his birth.
RUSHDIEYeah, this is about the fact that there's a big age gap between the brothers, that Luka shows up much later in life, much to his -- a little bit to his parents' surprise. "Luka at first amazed people just by getting born because his brother, Haroun, was already 18 years old when his mother, Suraya, at the age of 41, gave birth to a second fine young boy. Her husband, Rashid, was lost for words and so as usual, found far too many of them.
RUSHDIEIn Suraya's hospital ward, he picked up his newborn son, cradled him gently in his arms and peppered him with unreasonable questions. 'Who have thought it? Where did you come from, Buster? How did you get here? What do you have to say for yourself? What's your name? What will you grow up to be? What is it you want?' He had a question for Suraya, too. 'At our age,' he marveled, shaking his balding head, 'what's the meaning of a wonder like this?' Rashid was 50 years old when Luka arrived, but at that moment, he sounded like any young, greenhorn father flummoxed by the arrival of responsibility and even a little scared.
RUSHDIESuraya took the baby back and calmed its father down. 'His name is Luka,' she said, 'and the meaning of the wonder is that we appear to have brought into the world a fellow who can turn back time itself, make it flow the wrong way and make us young again.' Suraya knew what she was talking about. As Luka grew older, his parents seemed to get younger. When baby Luka sat up straight for the first time, for example, his parents became incapable of sitting still.
RUSHDIEWhen he began to crawl, they hopped up and down like excited rabbits. When he walked, they jumped for joy. And when he spoke for the first time, well, you'd have thought the whole of the legendary torrent of words had started gushing out of Rashid's mouth and he was never gonna stop spouting on about his son's great achievement."
KAYVery lovely. I love the fact that he talks with too many words. How much of the relationship between Luka and his father, and he was of course -- Rashid is an older father when Luka was born, is there in your relationship with Milan?
RUSHDIEQuite a bit. I mean, first of all, I think all boys, especially 12, 13-year-old boys, essentially believe that their father is useless, you know, and needs rescuing all the time. And so the story about -- which is about a boy having to rescue his father, is based in that kind of psychological reality (laugh), you know, but it's -- it's also the case that yes, we are, you know, older -- the subject of age -- when you're 50 years older than your son, the subject of age is always in your mind, certainly in mine, you know. The question of mortality becomes a more serious question. You know, you want to feel that you're going to be around to watch your child grow up.
RUSHDIEYou want to feel that your child will have a father when he needs a father while he's growing up and when there's a 50-year age gap, the possibility that that might not be the case is there. You know, when he was born, I remember thinking, when this child is 20, I'll be 70, you know, and, how much of his life will I be able to see and so on. So that's the serious engine at the heart of. I mean, I think the book is kind of fun, but the serious thing at its heart is this question of life and death. You know, the existential question, will you live to see your child grow up? And when Rashid falls into this coma-like sleep, it becomes the child's duty to try and save his life, so that's the engine of the plot.
KAYWhen you were writing, "Haroun," of course, you had a different type of threat hanging over your life. This was when the fatwa against you was at its height. You were very restricted in your life, so in both the books, there is an oppressive force, almost. Here it's mortality, in that one it's...
RUSHDIEYeah, that's right there are different dangers. In that case, it's quite right that the threat was -- the threat in the book was a kind of fairy tale version of the very actual threat outside the book and this time around it's a fairy tale version of another very actual threat, which is, you know, nobody gets out of here alive. And I think children actually respond very well to serious material in books, you know. And you don't have to pussyfoot around it. These days, I think one of the things that is interesting about this age of book, this book -- these books that are sat on this interesting frontier between childhood and adulthood, you know.
RUSHDIEThey take on all kinds of things, you know. They take on child abuse, violence, drugs, crime, et cetera and children, I think, are not as innocent as they used to be. I think, you know, my son at 13 is a lot more knowing about the world than certainly I was at 13.
KAYAnd it's been done in movies for awhile now.
RUSHDIEYes, exactly. I think movies you know have cracked this problem of finding a way of straddling the age groups. You know, I think there's a whole range of films you can think of, from "Star Wars" to "Avatar" to, you know, to "Indiana Jones" to Pixar movies like "Ratatouille" et cetera where you simply don't ask whether the film is for a grownup or a child, you know. It's I mean "Toy Story 3," it's for everyone, you know. And I thought that tone of voice, if you can find that tone of voice which allows a grownup access in one way and a child, if you like, access through a different door, then that's -- that's something you -- it's be nice for you to be able to do in books as well.
KAYAnd what are the challenges of writing -- I mean, obviously, you've written so much for grownups, but for writing for children. How -- I mean, if you wanted a book that appealed to both adults and children, presumably you did have to change the voice a bit or change the way the story was constructed a bit.
RUSHDIEYeah, not so much, though, 'cause the interesting thing about this kind of form, which is sort of essentially comes out of the fable or the fairy tale or folk tale, you know, is that once you've set that kind of tone of voice -- I mean, the nature of the fable is it uses quite simple language, you know, even though it's not discussing simple issues, you know. So you don't have to compromise that much. I think there might have been one or two places where I cut a sentence in half and made it two sentences, you know, but -- to make it easier for younger people to follow the syntax, you know.
RUSHDIEBut not very, very much. I think you can really just -- somebody said, I can't remember which, it was a great children's book writer who's just gone out of my head, who said, you don't write down to children ,you write up. You know, children are very, very demanding readers. People don't -- children don't finish books they don't like. In fact, they usually follow the policy that Dorothy Parker recommended when she said, this book should not be put down, it should be thrown across the room in great force (laugh). You know, if you don’t want to see your book flying across the room, you know, you have to do some work.
KAYWell, I don't think many people will be sending "Luka and the Fire of Life" flying across the room. Salman Rushdie is here. He is of course the Booker Prize-winning author. His new book is "Luka and the Fire of Life." The phone number here is 1-800-433-8850, the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be opening the phones is just awhile, but we're going to take a quick break right now. Stay listening.
KAYWelcome back, I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. You've joined our program listening to Salman Rushdie talking about his new book "Luka and the Fire of Life." Salman, just before we went to break, we were talking about how you wrote the book and what you described as the facility of writing a book for adults and for children. How much did Milan get involved in the process of writing the book?
RUSHDIEWell, there was a -- he actually was helpful. In fact, his basic piece of advice to me before I started writing it, he said, Dad, don't write books, write series (laugh). And -- and I mean, it's true that if you look at his friends, everything they're reading is volume five of nine, you know. Everything is a series.
KAYRight. That's true.
RUSHDIEIt's taken me 20 years to come up with volume two of this series (laugh), so I'm not doing very well.
KAYBecause they get to know a character and they want to stick with that character.
RUSHDIEYeah, yeah, yeah, but he also was very helpful in another way. The kind of villain of this book is a character who calls himself Noble Daddy, who is a sort of Angel of Death, if you like, you know, and who is literally filling up -- looks like Luka's ailing father and is sort of gradually filling up with his life, so to speak, so becoming less see through as he sucks the life out of the dying father and he's scary. He's supposed to be scary. And it worried me that he might be too scary, you know, 'cause I think children like being scared in books, but they don't like being disturbed. You know, they don't like being freaked out.
RUSHDIEAnd I wondered whether I had crossed that line, you know, so -- so I gave Milan the first two chapters of the book to read and I didn't tell him anything. I just said, just read it, you know, secretly keeping my fingers crossed 'cause if he doesn't like this, I'm sort of screwed, you know, (laugh) 'cause it's really important in the book.
RUSHDIEAnd at any rate, not only did he approve of it, but it turned out to be his favorite character. And I -- so that made me feel a, that I had not crossed that line, you know, and b, I thought, oh, well, this kid's got a little darkness in him, you know. So I could maybe push that a bit more and I think it's -- you know, it's kind of all George Lucas' fault, really, 'cause what he showed kids was that Darth Vader is more interesting than the good guys.
RUSHDIEYou know, you don't see...
RUSHDIEThere is no boy in the world who is trying to pretend to be Luke Skywalker.
RUSHDIEAnd millions who have tried to put on the helmet (unintelligible).
KAYAlthough Hans Solo is always a bit of a favorite.
RUSHDIEYes. A little bit, but the...
KAYBecause he's a rogue.
RUSHDIE...yes. But they really want is to put on the helmet and do the weird breathing (laugh). And so that idea that the villain can actually be attractive, you know, is something that I discovered was also his response -- Milan's response to this book.
KAYSo let's describe the book a little bit. Luka meets -- Luka's father falls into this very deep sleep and he meets Noble Daddy, this figure who is almost sort of a hologram of his own father...
KAY...but is sucking the life out of him.
KAYAnd he takes him into this magical world.
RUSHDIEYes. He has known -- I mean, Luka has known, because his father's a story teller who has told stories about this magic world all his life, so Luka knows that just -- if you were to just stumble somehow to the right of the world we live in, just a step to the right, there's this other world, which is where magic comes from. And in the -- at the heart of that world, there is this magical thing called the Fire of Life and if he could bring that back, that might be able to restore his father's health and life.
RUSHDIEYou know, but the problem is that it's impossible. In the first place, you can't stumble to the right into the magic world and if you do, you can't steal the fire of life 'cause nobody's ever done it and if you do steal it, you can't bring it back 'cause that can't be done, either, so he's asked to do, you know, three impossible things before breakfast, so of course, that's what he decides to do.
RUSHDIEHe sets off, he does manage to stumble into the magic world accompanied by his companions, a dog called Bear and a bear called Dog and -- who, of course, in the magic world can talk. And they set off on this quest to find the fire of life. And I can't tell you whether they find it or not, but it would be disappointing if they didn't, wouldn't it (laugh) ?
KAYIt -- it would be a little bit disappointing. But along the way, they meet a whole cast of fantastical characters and you develop this game, really, and he has to literally, as my children do when they're playing computer games -- and I have to say, when I watch my boys playing computer games, it drives me absolutely crazy. And the first thing I want to do is shut off the computer game and tell them to read a book. But you, of course, much more brilliantly saw them -- saw Milan playing with his computer game and have incorporated into the novel.
RUSHDIEWell, I think, you know, there's a -- the thing that's useful about some computer games is that they do follow some of the format of a traditional quest narrative, where you have to complete one of -- you know, defeat one adversary or overcome one obstacle in order to reach the next one and so on until you reach your goal and that's not unlike...
RUSHDIE...a quest. Like not unlike the quest for the Holy Grail or the "Pilgrim's Progress," whatever it might be. They have the same essential idea.
KAYYou mean, this is what I should be telling myself next time I see them and it's annoying me that they're still on the computer again?
RUSHDIEIt's not often that you can use the terms "Pilgrim's Progress" and "Super Mario" in the same sentence (laugh).
KAYI will try.
RUSHDIEAnyway, so it just seemed like a way of using the modern language to talk about this old stuff, but yes, he has -- he has saving points and so on so he can save his achievements and proceed. But the other thing that I thought was interesting is the idea of life in the gaming world. You know, where life is plentiful, you know, and cheap. You know, lives fall down from the trees and you can find them hidden under bushes. I mean, jump on toadstools and lives come out of them, you know, and so on and you could have hundreds and hundreds of lives and spend them. Doesn't matter, get some more. And so here's a book after all about life and death, but it's about on the one hand, Luka's father's life. There's only one of those. And to lose that life would be a tragedy, a calamity and you can't replenish it, you know.
RUSHDIEAnd on the other hand, you have this idea of life in the gaming world of being plentiful and cheap and replenishable easily, you know. So I wanted to just contrast, if you like, the reality, the real world in which life is precious and easily lost, you know, and on the other hand, life in the fantasy world, which is infinite, easily replenished and life is everywhere.
KAYAnd at one point in the book, Luka's mother reminds him, of course, this is not the real world.
KAYAnd that in the magical world, there are all of these lives, but remember that the real world is different.
RUSHDIEWell, you know, Luka's mother is very important in the book because she is the one who does remind him that life is real. You know, that -- she says to him at one point, in the real world there are no levels. There are only difficulties, you know, and you're going to have to learn to face those. And she's, of course, very scornful of what she thinks of as her foolish husband who's always encouraging the boy to play these stupid games instead of getting on with his math homework and so it's important that the two parents represent these two spirits, you know. The spirit of reality and down to earthiness and facing the world as it is and on the other hand, this more fanciful dreaming spirit, you know, and I think we need both, really.
KAYSalman, is it -- is that the side of the book, do you think, that is written more for adults? I mean, is it too simplistic to suggest that the adventure story is there for your son, Milan, and the moral dilemma of the book or the moral question of the book is the more adult side or not or do you think Milan was just as intrigued by this relationship between reality and the game world and life and death as -- as you were?
RUSHDIEWell, I think there's probably -- there's a -- you know, on balance, I suspect that grownups will respond more to these more sort of questioning aspects of the book, you know, and younger readers more to the narrative and the kind of fun of it, but I do think that younger readers are perfectly able to grasp and grapple with these serious, you know, existential questions. And as long as you find the way of introducing them, you know. And I didn't think of it like that. I didn't think, oh, this is the grownup bit and that's the kid's bit. You know, I just was -- I was just writing it.
KAYWe have an e-mail here from Debra who writes to us saying, "Hi. As a computer game professional for over 20 years, are the computer game rights for this book taken? I've also done a lot of work with computer games in the Middle East. This would be a great cross cultural game."
RUSHDIEOh, well, great and possibly lucrative question.
KAYDebra, he will keep you posted.
RUSHDIEYeah, I mean, the interesting -- the answer is that we have been talking to a few gaming people and there are some people who seem, you know, attracted by the idea of seeing whether it could be a game, but we have not sold the rights yet, Debra, so make your bids soon (laugh).
KAYAnd the sequels?
RUSHDIEWell, that's, you know...
KAYI mean, 'cause you -- are you leaving the door open as you have suggested as Milan told you wisely that...
RUSHDIEWell, I do think...
KAY...you should write a series.
RUSHDIEWell, I do think that there are some things that could happen. At the moment, I don't have volume three in my head, but I do think that, for instance, having written one book about Haroun and another book about Luka, the two brothers, it would be possible to write a book in which they had some kind of joint adventure. And the other thing I worry about is that maybe I need a girl. I mean, I have the misfortune of not having a daughter, but it would be nice to find an adventure for a girl. And so I was thinking about that, too.
RUSHDIEBut also, it's just when in this novel, in "Luka and the Fire of Life," when Luka enters the magic world and is traveling through it, one of the things he becomes aware of is how big it is. You know, that it's -- when he's up on this flying carpet at a certain point -- I've always wanted a flying carpet in a book, by the way -- I finally got one in --- and he's...
KAYI think I'd quite like a flying carpet in life, actually.
RUSHDIEExactly. I think we all need one. And he's up there on this flying carpet and he sees that it's a gigantic world, that everywhere you look, there are different kinds of land, you know, in the distance to the right and the left and so on. And he -- you know, he can't possibly explore it all, you know, and nor can the book. The book goes on its particular journey, but it means that there's quite a lot of stuff that I haven't written about that would allow me to revisit it, so yes. I also think I'm sort of a believer in the rule of three. You know, if you have two things, you need a third thing.
KAYDo you think you've also got to a stage where this is the kind of book you want to write, where you've -- do you see yourself writing more fun children's adventure stories and fewer...
RUSHDIENo, no, (unintelligible).
KAY...big prize-winning epics or not?
RUSHDIENo, no, no.
RUSHDIEI sort of don't know, really. I mean, it's...
KAYYou don't have a pattern in your head?
RUSHDIENo. I don't think writers' lives or imaginations go in a straight line. You know, I think they loop around and go in unexpected directions, you know. There would be moments in my life where, for instance, where I thought I might not write another novel that was set in India and immediately, the next novel was set in India, you know, so I think you can't ever predict where it's -- I mean, right now, the thing I'm writing is a nonfiction book. I'm writing a memoir and that's going to take me 'til the end of next year at least, you know, and hopefully come out the year after. And then beyond that, I just literally can't see beyond that, you know, so anything I said now would be not true.
RUSHDIEBut, I mean, I can see myself doing another one of these, but no. I can't see myself not writing adult fiction.
KAYTell me about the memoir, why you've decided to write it now and what it's -- what it is that you want to explore in it.
RUSHDIEWell, I mean, obviously, the reason for doing -- I mean, having -- I would've never thought I would write an autobiography, frankly. I mean, it wasn't of interest to me. And then I had the misfortune of acquiring an interesting life (laugh) and there was a moment when...
KAYSome have interesting lives thrust upon them.
RUSHDIEYeah, there was a moment where it got really too interesting, so -- and those -- I always knew with one little corner of my head that this actually was a good story, the thing that I was trapped in, the thing that happened after the publication of "The Satanic Verses." And I always knew that at some point I would need to tell that story, if only because most of it, you don't know. I mean, a lot of what happened never really came into the public demand.
KAYIn terms of your daily life and what it was like to live with a fatwa over your head or...
RUSHDIEWell, I think, actually, that's the most -- you know, see, I -- my guess about how -- about what people would like to hear about is not so much the political material, et cetera, et cetera...
KAYNo, no, no. I think they want what it was like to wake up every morning and how you lived under semi-house arrest.
RUSHDIEWhat would it be like to be that person in that situation, you know, and not just the individual, but his family and so on, you know. And I think that the human story is, in my view, the interesting story. And I, for a long time, didn't want to write it. People would tell me to write it and I didn't want to. And now I just -- just instinctively felt the time was right, so I'm having a go.
KAYLet's go to the phones now to Henry who is calling us from Washington, D.C. Henry, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show" to speak to Salman Rushdie.
HENRYYes, hello. Speaking of lucrative rights, my young son and I, when we read "Haroun," really wanted to see it turned into a movie and we thought that the Japanese Director Miyazaki, who does great animation, would be a perfect director. Now, did I read correctly that you've sort of sold the rights to "Haroun" to someone to make the movie for?
RUSHDIENot exactly, but we are -- there is a conversation going on about both the books, actually, but, you know, actually, Hollywood gets more interested when there's more than one book because, you know, they want, as they...
KAYThey, too, like the series idea.
RUSHDIEThey, too, like the idea of a property that they could make more than one film. So now that they've got two books, they're actually more interested than they were when there was only one. So we're working on it. I also think it...
KAYWell, that's quite an interesting idea, having a Japanese director working in -- talk about cross cultural.
RUSHDIENo. I mean, I think Miyazaki is a great director and I think on the whole, he just makes his own films. I think the films he makes come out of his own imagination rather than anyone else's. I also have a feeling that I'd quite like it to be -- the thing that's happened now, that you can make these films which look like live action even though a lot of them is computer generated. The way that the Harry Potter films are made, you know, so you could have a flying griffin, you know, which looks exactly as if it were a real one or a unicorn that looks like a real one or a monster that looks like a real monster mixed in with live action actors and my instinct is that if we could afford it, if we could raise the money and so -- that would be a way to do it.
KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, please do call 1-800-433-8850 or send us an e-mail to WAMU -- email@example.com. Let's go to Meeker who calls us from Granite Falls, N.C. Meeker, you've joined the program.
MEEKERThank you so much, Miss Kay and Mr. Rushdie. I'm so honored to talk to you.
MEEKERHello. I'm calling because when I heard that you had done a story of this magnitude, a quest, instantly my favorite quest came to mind. It would be probably "The Once and Future King," "The Talisman" by Stephen King and also "MirrorMask" by Neil Gaiman. And I wondered how if -- did you research, you know, the quest tradition for yourself or did you just kind of jump into it?
RUSHDIEWell, I mean, actually, I am a great fan of "The Once and Future King," you know, "The Sword in the Stone," all those things. The books much more, I must say, than the Disney movie of the "Sword in the Stone."
MEEKERHa ha, yes.
RUSHDIEBut I loved T.H. White as a younger reader and I still do, so yeah, that's certainly -- I mean, not just the T.H. White version of the story of King Arthur, but the story of King Arthur in itself I think has always been -- I always loved that. Neil Gaiman, I think, is a wonderful writer and a friend of mine and, I mean, if this book's half as good as one of his and gets half as many readers as he does, I'll be very happy.
KAYSalman, we were talking about your memoir and how you wanted to write about that period when you were living under kind of almost semi-house arrest and in seclusion and in hiding because of the fatwa. How different is that now? I mean, do you ever still feel when you're walking down the street, do you get nervous, do you...
KAYYou feel your life has completely returned to normal now?
RUSHDIEWell, I mean, yeah. I mean, it's really -- it's been -- you know, it went on for nine years, really, '89 to '98 and so it's been over for longer than it happened, if you know what I mean, so it really is a long time ago in my life and hasn't really affected my daily life. Actually, it doesn't come up except when I'm talking to journalists now (laugh), really, so.
KAYDid it -- does is come up when you're talking to your sons?
RUSHDIEWell, they know about it 'cause my older son had to live through it. My older son was nine when the trouble began and more or less 18, 19 when it finished, so for him, it was, you know, a really important part of his growing up and...
KAYAnd an important part of your relationship with him.
RUSHDIEYes. And I'm sort of amazed. He could've been very messed up by it. You know, a lot of children would've been -- would've reacted to it by becoming, you know, disturbed or -- instead, he's -- you know, he's really demonstrated extraordinary strength of character. He's turned into this very, very level headed, very calm kid. But my younger son doesn't know about it all. You know, he grew up after it happened.
KAYThe author Salman Rushdie is with me in the studio. His new book is "Luka and the Fire of Life." We'll be taking more of your calls and questions after this short break. The number is 1-800-433-8850, the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We're going to take a quick break. Do stay with us.
KAYWelcome back, I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm and I'm joined here in the studio by Salman Rushdie. His new book is "Luka and the Fire of Life." And we will be taking more of your calls, comments and questions. Let's talk to Al who joins us from San Antonia, Texas. Al, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
ALYes. With regards to the memoirs, you know, we are constantly bombarded with information regarding Islam and how tolerant it is and how moderate it is and yet when it comes to freedom of speech, this gentleman, your guest, has gone through hell because of his speech. He spoke up and it really points to the fact that it is a totally intolerant religion. Would he comment on that?
RUSHDIEWell, I mean, I'm the wrong person to deny that, but no. What I think is this. I think that there's a strain in the world of Islam which, at the moment, is in great political ascendancy, which is intolerant not only of freedom of speech, but of its people's rights in general. I mean, if you look at the way in which human beings are treated in the Iran of the Ayatollahs or indeed, the Afghanistan of the Taliban, you can see that those are pretty tyrannical regimes. Whether that's intrinsic to the religion or not, I think, is a more difficult question and I'm not sure that it is at all.
RUSHDIEI mean, I know, you know, my own family is a Muslim family and certainly, I would think of them as being pretty tolerant people, most of them, except for one or two uncles (laugh). But I think there's no doubt that there's a strain -- an aspect of Islam, the radicalized Islam, which is currently enjoying an enormous amount of power in the world and that's an appalling phenomenon and may be the most dangerous of our time.
KAYAnd I think the challenge for many Americans is distinguishing between that strain which is radical and intolerant and the vast majority, as you suggest, of Muslims.
RUSHDIEWell, I think that it is very difficult because in human nature, being what it is, it's easy to lump everybody in the same boat, you know, but I think it's important to try and make those distinctions.
KAYWhen the fatwa was lifted from you, Salmon, did you immediately feel that you could reemerge into the normal life, come out of the shadows again and what was that process like having lived in semi-seclusion for so long at the risk of preempting your memoirs?
RUSHDIENo, you're going to have to wait I'm not giving away all my surprises, but no, obviously, it was a gradual process, you know. I mean, you have -- it's one thing to do a deal with the Iranians, it's another thing to believe them and so you had to -- it had to be verified and I'll tell you about that next time (laugh).
KAY(laugh) We'll have you on for that one as well. Let's go to Shawn, who joins us from Savannah, Ga.
SHAWNYes, hi. I was wondering how Salman's relationship with his son, Luka, has changed after he read the book the first time, that is, and as he's gotten to know the book.
SHAWNHas he come closer? I, too, am an older father and a storyteller, performer and writes for my son and -- but he's still young and I'm just looking forward to those middle school years and thinking, oh, I wonder how this is gonna change.
RUSHDIEWell, we -- you know, we always have been very close, but it's true that he was very -- I mean, I was very nervous when I finished the book and gave it to him because it was obviously very important to me that he should like it. And so I think for both -- I think he was probably quite nervous, too, you know, 'cause he -- it was obviously very important to him that he should like it and so once we both discovered that he did like it, that was -- of course, it was pleasurable, but it was also a great relief.
KAYAnd he was the first reader?
RUSHDIEYeah, I had to keep everybody at bay, you know. I had my agents and publishers saying, where's the manuscript? And I said, I'm sorry, you can't have it 'cause my son's reading it. And they said, well, why hasn't he finished it? And I said, well he's -- you know, he's got chemistry homework (laugh).
RUSHDIEYou know, he's not going to be able to read it until the weekend. And that was quite enjoyable. I quite liked that part. But eventually, he did finish it and gave it the thumbs up and that was the point at which -- and he's reading it again now. I mean, it's true. He read it a year ago in manuscript and now he's reading it again in book form and I think enjoying it more, you know, this time. I think it was Oscar Wilder said, if a book's not worth reading twice, it's not worth reading once, you know, and so he seems to be liking it the second time around.
KAYAnd how much input did he have into it? I mean, how much -- particularly, you know, this whole world of computer games, which I'm not sure how much you do in terms of playing computer games with your children. Perhaps you do a lot more than I do, but how much did he do in help in terms of guiding you through that whole world?
RUSHDIESome, you know, there's -- for example, he has a dog called Bear, you know, a Labrador and I used to make a joke saying, well, obviously your next pet should be a bear which you would call Dog. And then every time you shout Dog the bear would come and every time you shout Bear the dog would come. So we'd had that as a sort of family joke and one of the great things about being a writer is that you can make come true, at least in the pages of a book, so that came out of that.
RUSHDIEThere's also -- in the book, there are these hybrid creatures called elephant birds who are the repositories of memory and so on and so on, but that came out of the fact that he, on a holiday, found little cast iron -- wrought iron figures which some local artist had made of hybrid animals, you know, and one of them was an elephant bird. And he wanted all these animals in the story. And I said, you can't have all the animals (laugh), there's too many. I said, but you can pick one, so he picked the elephant bird and then I had to find a reason for having an elephant-headed bird in the book.
KAYAre there any computer games, you think, are not -- I mean, you come out with a quite positive view towards computer games. Are there any that you think are beyond the pale?
KAYThat you wouldn't let your children play? That you don't -- that you do think, actually, are destructive for children in terms of the creative process?
RUSHDIEI don't -- yeah, I don't like the really violent ones. I mean, there's a lot of these games which are -- the kind of war games sort of -- there's this game that's very, very popular now called "Call of Duty" -- "Call of Duty, Modern Warfare II" and there's a new one, you know, "Black Ops" or whatever coming out now and I don't know, I'm not a fan of those because they seem to me to be in some way cheapening the idea of what life is, you know, 'cause all you do is blow people up, kill people and then move on. So I don't like it to have too many of those games around, but the problem with teenage boys, you know, is it's difficult to stop them.
KAYThey don't always listen to their dads.
RUSHDIEIsn't it terrible.
KAYBut do you -- do you every worry that the world of children of living in these video games and spending so much time playing on them means that they are doing less of reading Salman Rushdie's lovely novels?
RUSHDIEYeah, well, I do -- and one of the things that I think the book talks about or tries to hint at is that, yes, on the one hand, the book is kind of -- is okay about video games and just kind of playfully incorporating them, but it also does suggest that this other world, the world of story, is incredibly important to us as human beings, you know, and it's very important to hold onto that and not allow it to be lost. I mean, the death figure, Noble Daddy, says to Luka at one point that, you know, man alone, he says, man alone is the storytelling animal," you know. He says, do porpoises have narrative purposes? He says, do elephants elephantisize? No, they don’t. You know, man alone burns with books.
RUSHDIEAnd I think that idea that there is something intrinsic to our nature as human beings, which is in the world of story, you know, it's almost the second thing we ask for when we are born after nourishment, you know, is we want somebody to sing us a song or tell us a story, you know. And so it's very close to the heart of human nature and I think needs to be -- needs to be protected and defended and the book does say that in a way, that there is a worry that this side of our nature will be eroded by the new technology.
KAYYou clearly felt that in "Haroun" to some extent, too, because the quest there is to refind the storytelling. Do your children value storytelling?
RUSHDIEWell, yeah, I mean, I think my youngest son, Milan, is actually the bigger reader of the two. He's actually an extraordinary reader and he just this summer read Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," which is not bad for a 13-year-old, I think. But yes, certainly in his case, he loves that world of story. His brother -- his older brother does read, (laugh) but doesn't read my books. He reads other people's books.
KAYLet's go to Christina in Sterling, Va. Christina, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
CHRISTINAHi, first of all, I'm just a fan of both of you. I was first turned on to Mr. Rushdie's books in college when "Midnight Children" was required reading. I've been reading your books ever since.
CHRISTINAAnd it's been a pleasure listening to this show today, but I was actually calling about a news items that, I guess, it happened last year and I don't even know if this is correct, but I'd heard that your name was on the list, a petition, to release Roman Polanski. And I was just wondering if you would comment on that and explain why you wanted your name on that list?
RUSHDIEWe -- all right. Well, I mean, it's, yeah, it's a little bit of a side issue, but I just think that he's an old man and was long ago forgiven by the woman that he assaulted and it's a little -- I just felt that it was -- that the assault on him was a little case of being, if you like, more Catholic than the Pope. I think if the woman who was actually involved said that she would much prefer the matter to be left alone and that she had forgiven him long ago, I think the rest of us can begin to think the same way. I mean, I think that's the short answer.
KAYLet's go to Cindy in Barrington, RI. Cindy, you've joined the program to speak to Salman Rushdie.
CINDYHello. First, I just wanted to comment that it was after 9/11 that I decided to actually read "Satanic Verses" because I thought about what could I as an individual actually do that they wouldn't like and that was the thing that came to my mind and so I did read it at that point. But the question I have was whether or not you're familiar with the Oz books -- Frank Bond's...
RUSHDIEYes, of course.
CINDY...books, which I know as I got a whole bunch of them from an uncle of mine as a child and read several and read them to my children and seem to be the same kind of quests.
RUSHDIEMm-hmm. Well, yeah, I've actually written -- I wrote a long piece about "The Wizard of Oz" some years ago. It's in my book of essays "Step Across this Line" and actually had the -- one of the most delightful fan letters I've ever received. I got a fan letter from a munchkin. And actually, not just any munchkin, either, the munchkin coroner, you remember, who has to certify that the witch is dead, you know. And he says that, she's not only really dead, she's really most sincerely dead.
RUSHDIEAnyway, he sent me a fan -- he wrote -- this piece that I wrote was published in The New Yorker magazine and he obviously read it and he sent me not only a nice note saying that he liked the piece, but he sent me like a color Xerox of his big scene when he's standing on the steps of the town hall with this big scroll on which is written, certificate of death. And underneath it, he'd filled in my name. So I now have a munchkin death certificate. I thought, how funny is this joke, you know.
KAYI think that whoever sent it to you, whoever the munchkin is, should actually be writing himself, it sounds like.
KAYLet's go to Shrirahm (sp?) who joins us -- who's calling in from Washington.
SHRIRAHMYes, hell, Salman. Good morning.
SHRIRAHMKatty, this -- my question is, were your children's books based in any way on Indian mythological stories because I agree with you very much that children love stories.
SHRIRAHMAnd Indian myth is full of all kinds of imaginary characters.
SHRIRAHMAnd all kinds of fantasies.
RUSHDIEWell, you're quite right. And I think to have grown up in that tradition surrounded by these fabulous stories of ogres and fairies and (word?) and all sorts of imaginary beings and flying carpets and magic creatures and magic implements of all sorts. It's a wonderful...
RUSHDIEIt's a wonderful way to -- it's a wonderful context to have grown up in out of which, absolutely, these books grow. I mean, for instance, this is a book, "Luka and the Fire of Life," which has a lot of animal characters. It's probably the most animal of my books. You know, there's the dog called Bear, the bear called Dog. There's a coyote at one point who helps in the theft for fire, you know. And other -- there's a lot of -- there's the elephant-headed birds, there are dragons, there's all sorts of animal creatures and that, of course, comes out of an Indian tradition of animal fable, which there are lots of, as you know. And, for instance, the "Punja Tunja" (sp?) stories, so yes, I mean, I wouldn't be the writer I am without having grown up in that tradition.
KAYAnd have your children grown up in that tradition, too? Because actually now, of course, they spend their time between New York and London.
RUSHDIEBut I mean, I try to -- you know, yeah, I try to send them in that direction. I mean, they've been to India with me a few times and feel...
KAYDo they feel Indian at all?
RUSHDIEYeah, they do. They very much feel it is part of their story, you know. And I think what you can do as a parent is introduce it to them, you know, and say, here it is, and show them the places and make them meet people and be part of the world in a sort of non-touristic kind of way, you know, because I still have many friends and family around the country. But then after a certain point, you have to leave them to discover it for themselves. You know, they have to go by -- not with you, you know. I mean, my 31-year-old son has been to India three or four times with me but, I think, now his idea is going with dad may not be the best way to go.
RUSHDIENot as cool as it might be.
RUSHDIENot as cool as it might be.
KAYBut you also incorporate into this book characters from other mythologies, from western mythologies. Venus makes an appearance at one point.
RUSHDIEYeah, well, I think there's -- one of the ideas of the book, which is a comic idea, but not entirely comic, is this idea of discarded religions. You know, there's -- Luka has to pass through this land of former divinities, you know, people who were once God-like like Venus or Ra, in whom nobody believes and nobody much cares about anymore. You know, I thought how sad that must be to go from being God, you know, to being nobody. And so I thought there were comic -- there was comic possibilities there. And the other reason for this kind of trans-cultural mythology that the book has is that I discovered when I was reading around the book that the fire story -- the fire theft -- the quest for fire story is literally in every culture in human history.
RUSHDIEI mean, wherever you look, you know, whether it's China or Native American myths or South America or Europe, everywhere, every single culture has a story about the theft of fire, you know. And it's obviously the arrival of fire in the lives of human beings was a transforming moment. You know, it was maybe a moment at which we actually became human beings. And so the story of the acquisition of fire is at the heart of every single narrative tradition in the world and so I wanted to somehow blend some of those together into this book.
KAYIf you did write a sequel to this book and it did include a girl, would it have to be a girl that you knew?
RUSHDIEWell, I think, it might have to be based on a girl that I knew because, I mean, one of the things I like about a lot of the greatest children's books is that they were created for specific children. You know, I mean, Alice was -- there was an actual Alice. There was Alice Little.
RUSHDIEChristopher Robin. Even J.M. Barrie writing "Peter Pan," you know, was friendly with these five boys, the Llewellyn Davies children and really wrote the books -- the Peter Pan stuff for them. So I think it's so often the case that by writing specifically for an individual or small group of children, that you care about that you somehow manage to do something more interesting to a wider group.
KAYIs it different from when you were writing adult fiction?
KAYWhere you're not -- where you can't envisage them. You hope that your readers are going to love it and you hope that you touch something, but you're not writing for an individual.
RUSHDIEYes -- no. And you're not so closely modeling characters on individuals. I mean, I think that's -- and of course, some writers do, but I think, on the whole, in adult fiction, your -- the characters in your books are usually either just out of your head or composites, you know, and you couldn't really say that this character comes from that person, you know. I'm sure that there wasn’t an original of (word?), for example, you know. And so in that sense, it is different, yes. You do -- I found writing these books thinking more closely about a real person on whom it was modeled.
KAYWell, we look forward to the next book and whoever the young lucky girl is that's going to be the character in it. And I'm sure Milan is very happy. Salman Rushdie, thank you so much for joining me in the studio. The book is "Luka and the Faire of Life." Thank you.
KAYI'm Katty Kay, I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm and thank you all so much for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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