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Two Vodkas and One Iced Coffee with Salman Rushdie

VICE caught up with the iconic author to discuss his 12th novel, 'Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.' As he chatted about everything from fatwa to Twitter feuds, Rushdie proved he is as controversial, and incredible, as ever.

by Aidan Flax-Clark
Sep 9 2015, 4:00am

Portrait by Michael Marcelle

This article appears in the September Issue of VICE

In Salman Rushdie's novels, Mughal emperors have dreamed wives into existence, and men who survive falling to Earth out of airplanes have dreamed up scandalous alternate biographies of Muhammad. The latter dream, from The Satanic Verses, crossed the boundaries of fiction into the realm of reality in 1989, courtesy of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who pronounced it "against Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur'an" and issued the infamous fatwa calling for the author's death.

Rushdie's own dreams contain no such power. "Very boring," the author himself proclaimed them, sipping an iced coffee in the Russian Tea Room in New York. "I feel that I use up so much of that dream juice, you know, in my daily work, that my dreams are like: I wake up in the morning and read the Times, or I wake up, get up, and go for walk." He added: "I always sleep very well."

It was a little after 5:30 PM on a weekday in July, and Rushdie had been existing the past few months in that nether realm between finishing a book and having it published. He had given me two hours to talk, and we were spending it over drinks and snacks in one of the restaurant's iconic red-leather banquettes. The Russian Tea Room, long known as a place where an expensive smorgasbord of big shots could gather and look impressive near one another—Rushdie remembered being courted there by his agent, Andrew Wylie, back in the mid 80s—was, on the day we were there, virtually empty. The antique-samovar-bedecked café felt like a mausoleum of decadence and frippery. Chandeliers festooned with Christmas-tree ornaments hung over gilded phoenixes soaring from cornices.

The 68-year-old, Indian-born novelist carried himself with what seemed a practiced restraint, the kind of protective measure you could imagine someone with his public profile uses to shield himself. But he seemed to also possess a certain delicateness that his hands—small and almost frail-looking—were emblematic of. I was hesitant to shake them. I was equally nervous to talk to him. The man has written some of my favorite novels. He is also someone you hear stories about. Three different people—none of whom had actually met him—had warned me that he was kind of a prick. Somebody else claimed to know someone who'd had an incident with him over email, or maybe it was text, that may or may not have involved emoticons unbecoming for a Booker-winning Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

As Rushdie finished his iced coffee, I asked him how it felt to be the subject of stories, often rather public stories, told by other people. "I truthfully do not give a damn," he replied. "I'm very fortunate that I've had a good ride as a writer. People have responded very well to my work, and it's given me a good life."

Even if he doesn't care about people's accounts of him, Rushdie—who was anything but a prick in the time we spent together—is preoccupied with humanity's enduring, instinctual hunger for the telling of tales. "It's always struck me," he said, "that stories are what children ask for the moment they feel loved and fed. If they have a roof over their head, one of the first needs is, 'Tell me a story.' They don't want you to say, 'Let me tell you about your grandmother when she was young.' 'Once upon a time' is what they want."

How we tell stories and why we need them so deeply are questions at the heart of Rushdie's most recent book, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. The novel, his 12th, traces a near-apocalyptic conflict that occurs in our time between humankind and jinn, mythic creatures that the Qur'an says are made "of smokeless fire" and who live in a world that is, Rushdie writes, "separated from ours by a veil." Two Years, as Rushdie shorthands it, was breathed to life by the great wonder tales of India and the Middle East—The Ocean of the Streams of Story, the Hamzanama, the Panchatantra, One Thousand and One Nights. His fascination with the books, which are prolific in their jinn lore, has persisted since childhood and saturated his writing since at least 1981's Midnight's Children. It is wound perhaps more tightly than ever into the DNA of Two Years, right down to the title, which equals 1,001 nights.

Rushdie began the novel after the 2012 publication of Joseph Anton, his memoir, written in a Henry Adams–esque third person. "I really had an emotional response to having finished [that]," he said. It impelled him to "get back to the fictionality of fiction."

Our waiter came by, and we ordered food—cold borscht for me and meat-stuffed crepes for Rushdie. I asked for a vodka, neat and cold—anything that Prince Vladimir, as my receipt later told me our waiter was named, might recommend. Rushdie followed suit and dropped the coffee and took his drink with tonic.

"Most of these stories were not written for children," he continued, "in the way that most of the Grimm tales were not written for children." In Joseph Anton he recalls his father reading them to him during his own childhood in Bombay (now Mumbai), where he was born in 1947, eight weeks before Indian independence.

"He wouldn't read them exactly," Rushdie clarified. Prince Vladimir returned with glasses of Jewel of Russia, the "drink of the czars." We clinked. "[My father] would just retell them in his own way."

Rushdie said he imagined how he might repurpose the stories into a "grown-up novel"—something that wasn't set in "ancient Baghdad with Harun al-Rashid, people in Harem pants." The intrusion into the present of a mythic folkloric past proved ideal, and the jinn were perfect for delivering it. With history and tradition that predates Islam, the supernatural beings—better known in the West as genies—are "oddly amoral," Rushdie said, "a tribe of people for whom ethics just doesn't signify, who are entirely capricious and whimsical."

Rushdie praised all the Indian and Middle Eastern tales for their level of amorality and secularism. They are about "human nature, about people being cunning, sly, deceitful, greedy—and sometimes well behaved and courageous. They're not full of saints and angels. There are goblins and dragons, which I much prefer."

On the subject of dragons, Rushdie said he "got very into" the Game of Thrones TV show but admitted to losing interest during the most recent season. "I like Peter Dinklage. I like the girl with the dragons. I kind of want them to win. I want them to get married and have the dragons," he said, picking at some frisée. "Because they've got an air force, which nobody else has. I want the air force to arrive and do terrible things to bad people."

So far in 2015 the public image of Rushdie has been not that of a great novelist but instead one of a cantankerous hardliner. This goes back to April, when six writers announced they wouldn't host tables at the PEN gala, in protest of the literary organization's decision to give its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine whose office was attacked by terrorists in January on account of its cartoons of Muhammad. A disgusted Rushdie called the protesters "pussies" and "six authors in search of a bit of character."

"Free speech is really a yes-or-no question: 'Do you believe in it?' The moment you say 'but,' you've stopped believing in it."

I suggested that his past experience, of having lived under a fatwa, might have contributed to his spite. "What it made me feel," he replied, "is that people didn't learn a fucking thing. Or even worse than that is that people learned the wrong lesson. They learned the lesson of appeasement, as opposed to understanding that free speech is really a yes-or-no question: 'Do you believe in it?' The moment you say 'but,' you've stopped believing in it."

His calling the writers out like that "created quite deep rifts." A few among the six—Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, and Taiye Selasi—were old friends. Now, he said, "they don't want to talk to me anymore."

Rushdie, who served as president of PEN from 2004 to 2006, said that when he asked Cole what he was "playing at," Cole claimed that the difference between Rushdie's case and that of the Hebdo cartoonists was that Hebdo's people were killed for perceived racism. Rushdie categorically disagrees: "They were executed for perceived blasphemy. And it made me feel that—this is what I mean about learning the wrong lesson—had the attack on The Satanic Verses happened now, all these people would have been on the other side."

Whether you see him as a bitter crank, a treasure of world literature, or a Padma Lakshmi–marrying glitteratus, Rushdie remains focused on his work. Sipping a second vodka tonic, he talked about possible projects for television and having "a little thread to pull on" leading him toward his next novel. "But I don't know where."

The narrator of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights says that stories are not the creation of a single mind; rather they descend from "experience retold by many tongues to which, sometimes, we give a single name." One Thousand and One Nights, for example—which has no single author—we remember not for any person who made it but for the tales inside.

I asked Rushdie whether that kind of disappearing act appealed to him. "Well," he said, "if the work of my contemporaries and myself lasts a few millennia, our texts may become authorless too. Which would be no bad thing. I do like the idea of books being famous and authors remaining anonymous."

Follow Aidan on Twitter.

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