A touch of vulgarity

Salman Rushdie talks about Bob Dylan, Princess Di, the brutality of love, the banality of the rock 'n' roll scene and the end of the fatwa.

Published April 16, 1999 12:11PM (EDT)

Among the odd side effects of the fatwa the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini leveled on novelist Salman Rushdie 10 years ago (it was withdrawn in February) has been the Solzhenitsynification of one of world literature's jolliest writers. As soon as there was a price on his head, Rushdie became, for many people, one of those serious, noble literary figures the public speaks of with hushed respect but barely reads.

So when news about the theme of Rushdie's new book began to circulate last year, quite a few people were tickled. "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" is a rock 'n' roll novel, and rumor had it that the author had gone on tour with U2 to research it. Not quite, although Rushdie is friends with U2 front man Bono, and the band once pulled the embattled scribe onstage at a concert so that the crowd could cheer their support for him. More to the point, there's nothing anomalous about Rushdie's choice of milieu for the new novel. His work often revels in pop culture, from the kitschy Bollywood film extravaganzas of his native India to American television. In a story from the pre-fatwa collection "East, West," two men caught up in a political tragedy have called each other Chekov and Sulu since their youths, when they first bonded as "Star Trek" fans. Rushdie has even said that the movie "The Wizard of Oz" was his first literary influence.

"The Ground Beneath Her Feet" transposes the Orpheus myth -- a musician's attempt to rescue his beloved from the kingdom of the dead -- into the story of VTO, a '70s rock band located on the cultural spectrum somewhere between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Vina Apsara, VTO's singer, and Ormus Cama, its songwriter, are lovers. Vina vanishes in an earthquake that destroys half the Pacific coast of Mexico on Feb. 14, 1989 -- an event that, along with the mammoth success of an Indian rock group, marks the world of "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" as a skewed version of our own: What actually happened on that date was the declaration of the fatwa.

Salon Books talked with Rushdie in the Manhattan offices of his literary agent. He was in New York enjoying an unprecedented amount of freedom and preparing for his first public reading in 10 years.

What made you decide to write a novel about rock 'n' roll?

First of all, I just like it. Secondly, I've known quite a lot of these people over the years, and that gave me some confidence that I could do it without making a fool of myself.

I started out wanting to write a grand-passion love story, a contemporary version of the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. And then I thought: Orpheus is a singer. And I wanted it to be a novel that was very much about the contemporary world. If there was going to be music, I wanted it to allow me to enter into the contemporary easily. If I'd only been trying to write a novel about rock 'n' roll, or about the rock business, it would have been a lot less interesting for me.

What kind of subjects in contemporary history were you pursuing?

Well, for example, the Vietnam War. That was my political awakening -- the protests against that war. It was the first war that was really articulated by rock 'n' roll. Not just that there was protest music, which there was; the war had a soundtrack. Celebrity culture is another example.

Those are such big things, and yet you say you wanted to write a love story, which is such an intimate thing.

What I've always tried to find in my books are points at which the private lives of the characters, and also my own, intersect with the public life of the culture.

Do you think there's something transfiguring in celebrity culture that makes it hard to write about the inner lives of the very famous?

It's very difficult to write about people like that and let readers continue to feel any kind of identification with them. Obviously they still have an interior life, but it becomes so impossible to conceive of them that way. There are great deformations of ordinary life that result from great fame, but I think they're more external. Inside, people can survive. I've known people to whom it happens, and the ones who are very tough and resilient -- the ones who survive it -- actually do manage to retain a human scale inside the madness. But it's difficult.

You must have a sense of how that feels.

I might have had a little bit of it, yes.

What interests you about the connection between personal life and the larger movements of culture?

We can't, nowadays, separate our private lives from the public sphere in the way that Jane Austen's characters could. The public sphere has intruded in our lives, and the old view of a man's character's being his fate seems to me no longer entirely true. Bombs drop on you and don't pause to ask whether you've led a good life. All kinds of things over which we have decreasing amounts of control can affect our fate.

Wasn't that always true?

No, I don't think so. War used to be something you could stand on the nearby hill and watch. Now we have total war; everybody's in it. We have total economics as well. Everything affects everybody. The Malaysian currency shakes, and people around the world are seriously affected. History and our private lives are now wound into each other in a more intimate way than they used to be. And so it's always interesting to me to show the private life against that larger context.

A lot of today's fiction doesn't show that so much. It doesn't attempt to show what it's like to have the media saturating your life and bringing distant events into your living room.

That's true. I think there have been generations of writers -- before the present younger generation, if you like -- who were more historically and politically minded. In America, Pynchon, DeLillo, Mailer and Roth -- all these writers have had very public concerns as well as rich private concerns, and that's the American literature that I've responded to.

I was very friendly with Raymond Carver, a writer of a completely different kind. His writing, of course, didn't ever take on history or politics, but because it was so profound in its understanding of human nature, it didn't matter. So I think those writers that I've admired have often had that public interest as well as the private interest, but not always. I reread "On the Road" at one point when I was writing this book, and I was really surprised at how well it stood up. And you couldn't be less political than "On The Road," really. It's about being a bum.

I think Kerouac thought of it as being a kind of political act.

I know, he did. But he was wrong. But the book, as a book, and as a kind of attitude, really holds up. I was pleased to see that. I hadn't read it since I was 20. I can see why it would appeal to you if you're 20, but it's interesting that it still appealed to me in my 50s. And Hemingway's not good when he's political. He's better when he's talking about bullfighting and girls. In my case, I think it has to do with the fact that I studied history, not literature. Whatever I'm writing about, or whoever I'm writing about, I keep finding history knocking at the door.

One of the hard parts about writing about what it's like to live now is that you have to write about television. So many fiction writers feel that they can't do that without somehow flattening what they're doing.

There's a passage in "The Satanic Verses" about what television sees and how it sees it. It became very central to that book. I'd already written a draft of this novel before the death of Princess Diana, so when that happened -- when this colossal, partly genuine and partly media event followed it -- I was really shocked. I had just written about this. Then, of course, I had to absorb, or try to absorb, everything that happened in the aftermath of her death and rewrite and revise the book in the light of that.

One of the characters in the book talks about the feedback loop. After Diana's death, there clearly was, for five minutes, a very large, spontaneous outpouring of grief, which took everybody by surprise, including most of the media. Nobody expected it to be that big. But the moment that this, if you like, pure, unmediated phenomenon had been recognized, the weight of media attention hurled at it -- within 48 hours -- created a different phenomenon. Instead of responding in a completely uninstructed way, people were doing what they'd seen on television. The thing had become a quotation of itself. This is the loop. And that loop has now become so tight, because of the speed of mass communications, that it's very difficult to separate an event from the media response to it.

What was the hardest thing about writing about the rock 'n' roll milieu?

One problem is that a lot of the rock 'n' roll world, in fact, is very banal. And a lot of the people in it are also. That's also true about a lot of writing and the book world. And I wanted to take this world and treat it seriously as a vehicle to examine our life and times. So I gave its best-case portrait: Bob Dylan rather than the Monkees -- do you know what I mean? But there's plenty of Monkees around and not very many Dylans. Then there was that problem of not making it so highbrow that it stops being rock 'n' roll, of not elevating it to a plane where it ceases to be itself. So the question is: How much vulgarity? Obviously there had to be a fair, healthy dollop of vulgarity in it; otherwise it wouldn't be rock. That was very difficult, a kind of knife's edge. And also, of course, there was the problem that I was inventing a rock group that didn't exist, and I was saying that it was the biggest thing that ever happened.

Not only that, but it was an Indian rock 'n' roll band!

At first I thought that was the hardest proposition to get anybody to swallow. But in a strange way, the outrageousness of the proposition made it easier to do.

Fortunately, they're in an alternate universe.

The book does fracture and reassemble history in a way not unlike what would happen if you broke a mirror and tried to put it back together again. It's about provisionality, about the way in which the ground beneath your feet is not something you can rely on.

And you make all these alterations, like saying that Kennedy survived Oswald's assassination attempt and the Vietnam War happened anyway, which attacks a certain romance that the American left has about what would have happened if he hadn't been killed.

No, no, it's his war. It's Kennedy's war, Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson got all the flak, but it's Kennedy's war.

You've mentioned Bob Dylan a couple of times. He's obviously very important to you.

Very much so. Dylan is very important to me because I think along with Paul Simon he is probably the greatest songwriter -- OK, other than Lennon and McCartney -- of the last many decades. I remember first hearing early Dylan when I was still at boarding school in England and being astonished. I'd never heard anybody write like that in a song, this fantastically impressionistic but also savage writing, which was completely complemented by his phrasing and his voice. Unlike all the folkies, I loved "Blonde on Blonde" at the time when everybody was turning against Dylan for plugging in. I thought "Blonde on Blonde" was one of the greatest albums I'd ever heard, and I still think so. And "Blood on the Tracks."

Vina has a kind of stature that was hard for women in rock to have at the time.

Yeah, it's true -- that's slightly anachronistic. Vina's career would not be unusual in the generation of Madonna but is quite unusual in her own generation.

The closest parallel I could come up with was Grace Slick.

Yes, yes. I, like everyone else, was in love with Grace Slick.

Vina is a true diva. Aurora, in "The Moor's Last Sigh," was another. Where do you think all of your divas come from?

I grew up in a very female environment. I have no brothers. In my family there's an enormous number of women and relatively few men. And they're all very noisy and kind of operatic, and if you want to get heard you have to shout loud. I discovered at a later point that, particularly in the West, there was this image of Indian women as demure and silent. Well, not in my family. I mean, there's not a single woman in my family who ever accepted an arranged marriage or agreed that she shouldn't work, let alone that she should do terrible things like wear a veil. So it's easier for me, actually, to write a character like that than to write a very demure one.

Vina also insists on pursuing her sexuality on her own terms.

Well, that's pushed much further than anybody I knew. I was thinking about this question of love, about how it's not the same thing as trust. When we think about love, we actually wrap it round with sweeter things -- you know, happiness, trust, endurance, all these things. It's supposed to last forever, it's supposed to make you happy and you're supposed to be able to rely on it. Well, supposing none of that's true? Supposing it makes you miserable, it doesn't necessarily last and you can't trust it? What is it then?

Is that still love?

Is that still love? I think the answer is yes. I think actually the raw thing, the emotion itself, the passion isn't connected to trust, and it certainly isn't connected to happiness. And it doesn't necessarily have to endure, either. Like everybody else, I've had relationships in which I was passionately in love but was completely miserable all the time and didn't trust the person I was in love with one inch.

It depends on how you define love.

I understand it as a depth of emotional and sensual connection that isn't anything else. The only thing it can be is love.

Like Sherlock Holmes, you eliminate all the other possibilities and that's all you have left.

Exactly. When you do have it you know what it is. As Vina says, getting married isn't the point; it doesn't prove anything. Love is the thing where you have to wake up every day and see if you still are in love. It's a temporary contract that, if you're lucky, you can get endlessly renewed. But it's a short-term contract. It arrives arbitrarily, and it can also depart arbitrarily.

About your new, more public life ...

It's not new, it's just been getting better slowly. It isn't quite back to normal. If we'd been having this conversation when "The Moor's Last Sigh" came out, there'd have been a lot more security precautions. Now it's a relatively ordinary encounter. So that's progress. I'm very grateful to a lot of people -- including the American public -- for the kind of support that I got. That really helped. And now what I want to say to people is: Let me get back to normal.

Ten years is a long time.

It's a long time. And I've got stuff to do. Plus, as I say, the situation is not as it was 10 years ago, and people shouldn't think that it is.

Does the fatwa's being officially called off really help that?

Yeah, because the truth is that in 10 years the only people trying to kill me were the Iranian government.

You don't worry about smaller fanatical groups?

People worry about that on my behalf a lot more than I do. In the 10 years, the evidence has been only of the Iranian government's making efforts, and now it's not. Of course, because Iran is a divided and crazy place, there are obviously groups in Iran that don't necessarily listen to what the government has to say. But it's not the same as when it was the Iranian government itself.

Which had put a price on your head.

Well, actually, they didn't have any money.

But theoretically anybody who was credulous enough to go and kill someone because the Iranian government told them to might be dumb enough to believe they had the money.

They'd have had great trouble collecting.

Are you able to go back to India?

Yeah -- I mean, I've got a visa now. For 10 years they wouldn't give me a visa, but now I have one.

Because of the fatwa's being lifted?

They never give reasons. They just say no. But for 10 years they wouldn't give me a visa, and now they have. I haven't been back, because they only gave it to me about a week before this whole book business started.

I would imagine the prospect of going back to Bombay would be a powerful thing for you.

I hope so. I don't know. Bombay's different now.

You don't seem to have a longing to go back.

It's changed; it has changed. People used to ask me, "What would you do if this thing was lifted?" And I used to say I'd get on the first plane to India. But I guess I don't say that now.

That's sad. And Bombay has been something like the North Star of your work.

Up to now. But it's done. I think I really have said what I had to say about that city, and I don't want to repeat myself. I don't want to go on and on writing about that world. I think I've done it.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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