Things we knew about Salman Rushdie prior to talking to him: 1) The Indian-British author was the target of a fatwa issued in 1989 by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini ordering Rushdie’s execution (Islamic fundamentalists perceived his portrayal of the prophet Muhammad in The Satanic Verses as heretical). 2) Rushdie made a cameo appearance in 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. 3) The 61-year-old plays the part of Helen Hunt’s ob-gyn in the recent film Then She Found Me. 4) He was formerly married to model and Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi. 5) He’s speaking at City Arts & Lectures on June 18 to promote his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence (Random House)—a complicated, fantastical tale of war and politics, gender and society, set in Renaissance Italy and Mumbai. What we now know about Salman Rushdie that makes us wish he were part of our fold, like a favorite uncle or something: Read on for details, but here’s a hint … NASCAR.
Enchantress incorporates many magical elements. The role of fantasy in fiction makes sense, but what is the role of fantasy in reality?
I think one of the ways we live in the world is to wing into being the things that we imagine. Science and invention are obvious examples of that. So is falling in love. And, of course, if you’re religious, which I’m not, then you live in that world of fantasy too.
Does Enchantress have its roots in any of your real-life stories?
When I was 21, I spent a summer in Florence. I was an impoverished student, and there were days when I had to choose between gelato or pizza, because I couldn’t afford both. I was also falling in love with the place and its past. The character of Machiavelli is one that haunted me even then. He was such an interesting man—in many ways very likable—but still, when you say his name, people think “devious.” I thought I should rehabilitate him, since I do know what it’s like to be demonized. I also relate to Emperor Akbar’s character, standing on the frontier between the past and the future. Behind him are all these bloodthirsty warlord ancestors, but he’s trying to create a world that’s more civilized, tolerant and cultured.
How did you manage to keep straight the large cast of characters and the shifting timelines?
That’s the way my head works! I do make some notes—there are various pieces of paper arranged all around my computer, which give me the illusion that I know what I’m doing. But the serious architecture of the novel takes form in my head. I went to enormous lengths to make the novel flow very naturally, but if the reader has to pay attention a little, well, that’s not such a bad thing.
You’ve got a dark reputation. How do your roles in romantic comedies fit into that?
After I graduated from university in the late ’60s/early ’70s, I spent a couple of years in London’s fringe-theater scene. But I realized that if I became an actor, I’d probably starve. So I thought I should write. I guess it didn’t turn out too badly. But acting has always felt like … an unscratched itch. Bridget Jones came about when [author] Helen Fielding rang me up and said, “Would you like to make a fool of yourself?” Out of the blue, I was approached to play the part of Helen Hunt’s ob-gyn in Then She Found Me. I had to learn how to work an ultrasound machine. If you ever need an ultrasound, I’m your man. But the thing I most regret turning down—because it coincided with the book tour for my last novel—was a little role in a movie that was then called Untitled Will Ferrell NASCAR Movie. The producers had this silly idea to ask incredibly improbable people to drive race cars. I think they also asked Lou Reed and Julian Schnabel. I like Will Ferrell, and I wouldn’t have minded driving a race car.
What’s the greatest misconception about you?
Any time I speak in public, somebody comes up to me afterwards and says, “Who knew that you were so funny?” I always say, “Well, I guess only the people who’ve read my books.” I am perceived as being a very serious, dark individual. And I’m just not—sorry to disappoint! But I think it happened because of the fatwa. Because it wasn’t funny, I couldn’t be funny. Because it was theological and incomprehensible, I must be theological and incomprehensible. I keep trying to chase that away.
Well, if you keep doing romantic comedies …
That’s my plan! Actually, I’ve become friendly with one of the Farrelly brothers. So, you know, watch for me in an upcoming Farrelly brothers film.
What movie genre would your life story fall into? And who would play you?
Horror-comedy. I couldn’t play myself, of course. Only someone incredibly good-looking could do an accurate portrayal: Johnny Depp as Salman Rushdie? You never know.
Causes Salman Rushdie Supports