Around 15 years ago, Salman Rushdie was leaving the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The city had just become his adopted home. He was heading towards the exit when he spotted a figure approaching along the corridor. The figure was Donald Trump.
“This was a long time ago,” Rushdie recalls. “Long before he had expressed any political ambitions. When he was just this lummox, this kind of New York buffoon.”
Trump began gesturing at Rushdie. “He did this thing where he pointed at me with his shapely and very long index fingers.” Rushdie mimes Trump’s take on “finger guns”.
“Then Trump said, ‘You’re the man.’”
Rushdie was so surprised he glanced over his shoulder. “In case ‘the man’ was behind me. But apparently, I was ‘the man’.” He laughs. “I have no idea why. But I also knew there was a correct answer. And this was, ‘No Donald, you’re ‘the man’.” Apparently satisfied, the “all friendly” Trump moved on.
Whether the 45th president of the United States has told anyone that Sir Salman Rushdie – knight of the British realm, writer of the Booker of Bookers ( Midnight’s Children ) and arguably the most famous writer of the past three decades – called him “the man” remains a secret to this day.
Rushdie recalls this glancing encounter at another of the world’s great venues – the Sheldonian Theatre, in Oxford, Britain, one of the first buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Originally intended to host the university’s graduation ceremonies, today it stages everything from plays to classical concerts.
Only the biggest writers read in the Sheldonian’s main auditorium: J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, David Mitchell, Hilary Mantel and Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka have done so recently.
Rushdie is backstage – or, to be precise, below stage, in a green room in the depths of the theatre. In an hour’s time, the 70-year-old will appear before a packed house to discuss his life, times and new novel, The Golden House, which features, among other things, a cameo by The Joker – the nemesis of Batman recast as a dead ringer for the strangely coiffed “buffoon” Rushdie met at the Met.
“I didn’t want to talk about Trump [in the novel]. His name does not appear. There is a joke that DC Comics are taking over Washington DC.”
Rushdie proves an amiable and wide-ranging conversationalist, moving from his adoration of Harry Kane (Rushdie is a fan of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club) to chit-chat about backstage rituals. Such meta-conversation feels very Salman Rushdie.
“I was once at an event where the Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing, and they had actually asked for a bowl of M&Ms with the blue ones taken out. The blue colour was not organic like the other colours. Some poor sod had to go through them all …”
Even knowing his well-publicised association with rock music gods U2 (they collaborated on Rushdie’s 1999 book The Ground Beneath Her Feet), it still sounds weird to hear Rushdie discuss funk metal titans and allude to Van Halen’s infamous demand for a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed (the request was a test to discover whether a promoter had read their detailed list of technical demands).
Rushdie’s rider is not in this league. Before sitting down to talk, he deliberates between sandwiches; roast turkey or pastrami and emmental. The nearest he gets to rock ’n’ roll excess is the opening of a small can of pre-mixed gin and tonic. He gazes at it in wonder.
“Gin and tonic. In a can.” All the fantastic happenings in Rushdie’s fiction – from his science-fiction debut, Grimus (1975), through his revered allegory of India’s 20th century in Midnight’s Children to the world-altering controversy of The Satanic Verses (1988) – and he expresses astonishment about pre-prepared gin and tonic?
Such convivial ease wasn’t greatly in evidence a few minutes earlier. The problem wasn’t Rushdie himself but rather the challenge of gaining admission into his presence. This wasn’t an issue when I last interviewed him a decade ago, for The Enchantress of Florence (2008). That meeting was conducted in what I realise was the relative safety of his British publisher’s offices. Tonight, out in the real world, I received a lesson in what public life is still like for Rushdie.
Arriving at the Sheldonian, I find each one of its five entrances is locked. Racing around the building’s perimeter, I understand what Lewis Carroll saw in Oxford when writing Alice in Wonderland: doors everywhere, in all shapes and sizes, but hardly any of them open. Aware that time is passing, and with Rushdie’s PR not answering her phone, I circle again until, finally, one of the doors does open. A group of large, besuited men appear, all looking similarly serious. I run over and ask if I can enter.
“What do you want?” one of them asks, peering closely at me.
“I’m here to interview Salman Rushdie.”
“I’m a journalist,” I add. This doesn’t help.
“Do you know Holly?” This sounds more of a test than a question.
“Holly? No, I don’t. Who’s Holly?”
“You don’t know Holly?”
I do know Rushdie’s PR, I explain, but she’s not answering her phone.
The man tells me to check in at the Sheldonian’s reception and the door is firmly shut. I can’t find any reception. Feeling increasingly desperate (the interview should have started), I see another door open. Luckily, the woman opening it does know Holly, and runs off to find her. When I finally set foot inside the building, I am checked out by a dead ringer for the band of serious men. I am questioned again and inspected before my bag is searched.
“It’s been like this all day,” my guide tells me wearily, as she escorts me into the bowels of the theatre.
Rushdie himself is a contrasting portrait of cheerful efficiency, signing books as fast as his pen can carry him.
Either Rushdie is oblivious to the security detail outside, or simply resigned to it.
Three decades after the fatwa issued by Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini ordering the author’s assassination for the blasphemy that was The Satanic Verses, he no longer has round-the-clock bodyguards, but clearly high-profile public appearances are another thing entirely.
We don’t talk about the fatwa today, or not directly. At one point, I mention the series of terror attacks on London in the name of Islamic State that have inspired security checks at almost every event: my three-year-old daughter had her bag searched at the ballet only the day before.
“I think the same as you,” he tells me. “This is the new normal. I always thought that Isis as a state would not survive. And it is very much on the edge of destruction. I think there will soon not be any territory controlled by the so-called Islamic State. But I always thought that would lead to this spread of low-technology, privatised violence. Rent a car and run over some people. I am afraid there will be a bit of that.”
The ostensible reason for our conversation today is The Golden House, which, even if he says so himself, has been generally well received.
“People have compared this book to The Great Gatsby, The Godfather and The Bonfire of the Vanities. I keep thinking, ‘What would that book be like?’ But I’ll take it.”
These exalted comparisons reflect a plot that skips nimbly from Indian gangsters laundering money for terrorists through Bollywood to life in New York over the past decade and a half. The novel’s unmissable swiftness – most chapters last only three or four pages – is an attempt to reflect the unmissable speed of contemporary existence. “It is just about living in a world which is changing very radically and at high speed. That’s what I wanted to capture.’”
The result feels like a characteristically meandering shaggy dog story but on fast forward. There is a tragic punchline concealed by the complex, interlacing plots: we know the novel’s central protagonist, the enigmatic billionaire Nero Golden, is harbouring secrets when he swaps Mumbai for New York soon after Barack Obama’s 2008 election.
For all its creative sleights of hand, The Golden House is, as its blurb insists, an expressly realist novel – one that insinuates the Goldens’ larger-than-life adventures within the past decade’s headlines, great and small: the election of Obama and birth of Islamic State, Birdman ’s triumph at the Oscars and the Mumbai terror attacks, mass shootings in American towns and the emergence of a reality-television star as political leader.
Nor are broader cultural trends neglected: the irresistible spread of the superhero, video games, jihadi terrorism and the internet.
Given that realism is not a form commonly associated with Rushdie, what has changed? Is it Rushdie’s writing, or has the world itself become so wonderful (to use a favourite word from The Golden House) that magical realism is now surplus to requirements?
“I have pulled back from the flying carpets,” he concedes, before noting this isn’t a repudiation of the fantastic so much as a refinement of it. “What is so great about Dickens, for example, is the world of his books is incredibly realistic. If he is describing a factory, it is obsessively, hyper-realist. But the people he projects against that canvas are larger than life. The reason you believe them and like them is they are so deeply rooted in a real place and time.”
And yet, he continues through mouthfuls of sandwich, modern life does seem increasingly to resemble the fantastic excesses of his novels.
“It is also that the world has caught up. Ian McEwan was in New York a week ago. I had dinner with him. I was saying that if we had come up with the plot of the last few years in a novel, our publishers would have said, ‘Go away and work harder.’ There is that thing about truth becoming stranger than fiction.”
One can see this in The Golden House’s treatment of transformation, which it could plausibly be argued is Rushdie’s defining theme. He has found myriad ways to narrate change, whether it is wrought on a nation (Midnight’s Children) or an individual consciousness (Shalimar the Clown ).
The agents can be human or the broader sweeps of political and religious history: Machiavelli’s intrigues in The Enchantress of Florence; how Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Muhammad Zia ul-Haq re-organised Pakistan in Shame (1983). But the form that made Rushdie famous is magic: the enchanted animals in his children’s story Luka and the Fire of Life (2010); the miraculous free-fall from an exploded plane that opens The Satanic Verses.
The transformations in The Golden House are no less startling, but most are drawn from reality. The Goldens are transformed by moving from India to New York. As they trace the same trajectory as Rushdie himself (minus his long sojourn in London), I wonder if two decades in the Big Apple have altered him.
“People have been asking me that and I don’t know the answer, really. I think I am a bit old to be transformed. I think I am who I am at this point.”
Resident in New York since 1998, he points out that his relationship with the city goes back far longer. “I first went there when I was a kid – I was 25, in the early 1970s. I’ve always had a lot of friends there. I wasn’t a stranger in town. I was going to a familiar place.”
This is not to say that New York in particular, and the US in general, didn’t demand adaptation. “One thing you discover is that America is much more bureaucratic than England. The paperwork is exponentially greater. If you want to cross the road you have to fill out forms.”
Given that mass shootings are a recurring preoccupation in The Golden House, how about guns? “The one thing about America that [an outsider] cannot understand is their attitude to guns. It is incomprehensible. If you are in a room in London, you have a reasonable expectation that nobody would have a gun. If you are in the equivalent room even in New York, you still ask yourself, ‘How many guns are here?’ And New York isn’t as bad as some parts of America.”
We talk only days after Stephen Paddock’s massacre in Las Vegas. I mention one commentator who noted complacently that many people bring guns to hotels. “But 23?” Rushdie exclaims in disbelief.
What does he make of our apparently unquenchable search for Paddock’s motivation? “I am sick of motive,” he says, sharply. “He is a crazy evil dude who wanted to kill people.”
He adds: “There used to be this argument that Iago in Othello is under-motivated. One of the great critics of Othello [Samuel Taylor Coleridge] described him as having motiveless malignity. He’s just evil.”
Rushdie may have remained largely unchanged by New York, but the same cannot be said for the Goldens. No Golden is more changed than Nero’s youngest son, D, who is almost reborn in America. His quest for a fresh start culminates in a crisis over his masculinity and a tortured debate about whether to transition to a woman.
There can’t be many humans more accustomed to controversy than Rushdie. Nevertheless, I ask whether he hesitated to explore this most contentious, divisive and complex of contemporary issues.
“It is like walking on eggshells,” he acknowledges. “But I thought that is the reason to do it. Especially if you are living in Manhattan these days, the whole LGBT subject is right there all the time. If you are writing a novel which is trying to be contemporary – about the day before yesterday – then you have got to face the things that people actually have on their minds.”
Rushdie had two points of entry. “If you grow up in India, and in Bombay in particular, there has always been a quite visible transgender community – the so-called Hijra community. You used to see them mostly at weddings. They would come and dance and sing. It would be simultaneously fascinating and a little scary as a kid.”
Decades later, when he was asked by the Gates Foundation to write an article about Aids in India, Rushdie returned to his birthplace to meet the Hijras for himself. “They are very vulnerable to Aids because a lot of them are obliged to do a great deal of sex work.
“I spent some weeks getting to know this very guarded community that doesn’t easily trust or open up and tell you their stories. Eventually they kind of did. One or two were very assertive and politically activist, but many more were really quite wounded. Almost all had the experience of being rejected by their family and the town they grew up in. One or two had made a peace with their parents, but that was very much the minority.”
Rushdie mentions two New York friends, one of them close, who have transitioned more recently – one in each direction, as he puts it. “I suddenly found myself going through the stages, as it were. I have to say initially I was completely surprised. It didn’t occur to me that my friend who went from female to male thought of herself as male. It was very successful. That is to say, he is a much happier person than she ever was.”
The Golden House retained one intriguing subsidiary transformation engendered by Rushdie’s friend’s transition – one that highlights the emotional intricacy of the issue. “When she was a lesbian, she had a girlfriend who continued to be the partner after the transition. Having been gay she became straight, as it were. That was quite interesting and shows something the novel tries to talk about: which is that, actually, love is more powerful than matters of sexual choice.”
Quite what Trump, an outspoken critic of gender reassignment, would make of this gender fluidity is a matter of public record. Rushdie’s initial reluctance to confront Trump on the page was swept aside by his unlikely triumph in the 2016election.
“He forced himself into the book. When I started writing two-and-a-half years ago, I wasn’t thinking about him. He hadn’t manifested himself at that point. When he intruded into all our consciousnesses, I had to deal with all of this somehow. There’s an interesting arc that goes from all that happiness [with Obama] eight years ago to its antithesis now.”
Rushdie recalls two other encounters with Trump in addition to crossing swords at the Met. “I met him, absurdly, at a Crosby, Stills and Nash concert at Madison Square Garden.” He was, Rushdie reiterates, perfectly nice. “The thing that was unexpected, let’s say, is he appeared to know the words to the songs. He was on his feet with his kids singing along. I thought, ‘Donald Trump knows the words to Woodstock.’”
Their third and final summit meeting was at the US Open. Learning that Rushdie’s son loved tennis, Trump offered use of his private box. “You know, nice. But, of course, being Mr Trump, he had to say it was the best box: ‘You have gotta see this box because it is really better than all the others.’”
Rushdie expresses less admiration for Trump’s later incarnation, sounding infuriated and exasperated when I ask if he understands why voters backed his promise to “Make America Great Again”.
“I want to know when it was great. I want to know what is the moment to which we are aiming? Is it the 60s, when there was sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll and everybody dying in Vietnam? Was that the moment? Was it before women had the vote? Was it when there was slavery? When is the ideal moment? What can one say: there he is, until he isn’t.”
Still, Trump’s early manoeuvres as president have had some strange effects. His aggressive foreign policy, in Asia above all, placed Rushdie in the unaccustomed position of rooting for China as the world’s peacemaker. “I think Korea is the subject right now. Really, it’s remarkable to have to hope for the Chinese to sort it out. I worry that you have got two people [Trump and Kim Jong-un] strutting about and feeling they have to prove their cojones. It may be that China is the only sane person in the room.”
He sounds less alarmed by, or at least more inured to, the recent instability on the border separating China and India.
“They are always having those disputes, ever since the war of the 1960s. This is all about very high mountain areas where nobody can possibly live. It is just a question of the Chinese over the crest of the mountain point their guns down and the Indian guns pointing up. That makes people feel uncomfortable.”
Rushdie has never visited the Chinese mainland, but fondly remembers a month spent in Hong Kong almost four decades ago.
“One of the things nobody tells you about Hong Kong is how beautiful it is. Everybody says high rises and so on. But the actual territories and harbour are so beautiful.” He was visiting his then brother-in-law, who worked for the BBC and lived on Cheung Chau island. “We would walk along the little waterfront. Get some food. It was the most idyllic place.”
One place Rushdie does not describe as idyllic is Twitter. An avid user until the end of last year, he has gone noticeably silent over the past 12 months.
“I enjoyed it for a while. I had this direct conversation with readers. Then, I don’t know whether I changed or it changed. I had various writer friends, like Jonathan Franzen and Martin Amis, who have always been very anti social media, saying, ‘What the f*** are you wasting your time for?’ I got to the point when I thought, ‘They are right. I don’t need this noise in my head.’ I have never missed it for a second.”
Rushdie didn’t delete his account, however, for fear of encouraging a cyber-impostor. “There’ll be somebody tweeting pretending to be me who is not me.”
Rushdie believes Twitter has “become a darker place. A place of mass trolling and a lynch mob mentality”. Indeed he calls on the internet’s major companies to improve security on their platforms.
“There is so much dark traffic going on through places like Facebook.” Did Rushdie himself ever get trolled? “I was surprised. I got some: the moment you are critical of [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi, the bots come after you. Anyone who steps out of line in Modi land gets a very hostile response. But I didn’t have much.”
Rushdie lasted long enough, however, to become conscious of Twitter’s literary pecking order.
“I merely had a million and a quarter followers compared to the tens of millions elsewhere. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Stephen Fry have multiple millions compared to my pitiful one and quarter.”
If Rushdie’s competitive juices flow at these statistics, they continue, if kindly, when I ask about Kazuo Ishiguro winning the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. “Well, you know he is a very old friend. You can only be happy for your old friend. I mean he is younger than me. He is irritatingly younger than me.”
I mention reading an article in the New Republic predicting any number of possible winners – including Rushdie – but not “Ish”.
“Look, sometimes the Nobel surprises us by making an interesting and unusual choice. I remember when they chose the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. I had never heard of Szymborska. Then I read her and thought, ‘You guys are completely right.’ Ishiguro is an amazing artist. So good for him.”
Rushdie’s PR arrives and beckons him to the soundcheck ahead of tonight’s performance.
It is far easier to leave the Sheldonian than gain admission. Pushing through the still closed main entrance, I find a long line has formed to hear Rushdie speak. As I wander past, I check that my dictaphone recorded our conversation. I hear myself ask a question that Rushdie himself poses in The Golden House: what is a good life?
His answer sounds more urgent than anything else he said during our conversation. “What is a good life?,” Rushdie repeats. “Not lying. This is an age of lies.”
And with that, he was gone. ■