Author Salman Rushdie Offers Wisdom to Aspiring Writers

Tuesday, October 27, 2015
Hanover — Acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie made a case for the power of myth — or, as he called it, the “wonder tale” — Monday afternoon during a talk at Dartmouth College, where he argued that stories have a profound influence on everyday life.

“I want to talk about falling in love with stories and books, because I believe that the books and stories we fall in love with make us who we are,” he told a crowd of more than 700 at Dartmouth’s Spaulding Auditorium. “Or, not to claim too much, that the act of falling in love with a book or story changes us in some way, and the beloved tale becomes a part of our picture of the world, a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives.”

That power is double-edged.

Rushdie — whose elliptical, fantastic stories have earned him prestigious awards, international fame and a death sentence — knows this well. His 1988 novel The Satanic Verses , which featured a fictionalized prophet Muhammad, riled the Muslim world and prompted Iran’s supreme leader to demand his execution. Fanatics firebombed bookstores and attacked translators of his books, and he spent a decade in hiding under the protection of British authorities.

The episode, which has long colored his public image and which he chronicled in his 2012 book Joseph Anton: A Memoir , did not come up Monday. But Rushdie did have a few choice words for societies that he saw as censorial, including his most recent home, the United States.

“I think also what’s happening in America now is censorship being driven by political correctness, a desire to limit what can be said about a whole range of subjects — sexuality, and everything else,” he said in response to an audience question. “That’s becoming quite difficult: the idea of putting trigger warnings on books and that kind of thing.”

“Hearing people say what you don’t want to hear is one of the great joys of an open society,” he added later, to applause. “It’s the thing that makes you think.”

He mentioned hard-line Islam’s influence in the Middle East, but saved the sharpest criticism for his home country of India, lambasting the subcontinent’s “bitter, stifled, censorious, sectarian present ” and the ruling Hindu nationalist party’s desire, as he described it, to return to an imagined golden age “without such inconveniences as other religions to complicate matters.”

Rushdie is on tour to promote his new book, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights , a retelling of One Thousand and One Nights set in contemporary New York City. As have many of his others, this novel, which chronicles humans’ coexistence with otherworldly “djinn,” or genies, uses the supernatural to address current issues — in this case, the relationship between faith and science.

In his lecture Monday, he traced the genesis of the book to his childhood in Mumbai, where he absorbed eastern folklore, Britain’s left-behind literature and the influx of contemporary western culture alike.

When the city was known as Bombay, Rushdie could still see the Milky Way at night, which in Hindu legend is an ocean of milk churned by the gods to produce a brew of immortal life. As a boy, he said, he looked up at the sky and imagined that if he stuck out his tongue, he could catch the dripping nectar.

Sometime between those years and his first novel, published in 1975, he developed his signature style.

His most lauded work, Midnight’s Children, came six years afterward. A magical retelling of the independence and early years of India, the novel won the Man Booker Prize and, decades later, was recognized as the best in the award’s history.

“ This is the beauty of the wonder tale and its descendant, fiction: that one can simultaneously know that the story is a work of imagination — that is to say, untrue — and believe it to contain profound truth. The boundary between the magical and the real in such moments ceases to exist,” Rushdie told the audience.

Earlier on Monday, Rushdie spoke to creative writing students at Dartmouth, and later that afternoon he handed out numerous writing tips — and writing laments — as well.

“I don’t know,” he told an audience member who asked what drove him to improve. “You feel terrible about your writing every day.”

Writing is hard, he told them, and it continually puts one at the limits of one’s abilities. Sometimes, to make sure he’s headed in the right direction, he imagines that Salman Rushdie the reader is looking over his shoulder, evaluating the sentences as they form.

The elation that follows a good passage is what keeps him going, he said.

And for authors entering the trade today, he offered a spin on a chestnut repeated in writing workshops around the world.

“Many young writers today start with the mantra ‘write what you know’ pinned to the wall behind their writing tables,” he said. “And as a result, as can testify anyone who’s taught a writing class, there’s a lot of stuff about adolescent suburban angst.”

“My class would be a little different,” he said, speaking over a wave of laughter. “Only write what you know if what you know is interesting.”

If your surroundings are not a Maycomb or a Yoknapatawpha, he told the crowd, try moving elsewhere.

“The other solution is to remember that fiction is fictional,” Rushdie said, “and try to make things up.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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