Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel, The Golden House (read the review here), marks his return to realism. Currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University, Rushdie answered questions from Scroll.in about his new novel and his writing. Excerpts from the email interview:
How did this story come to you?
The characters came on stage one by one. I had Nero from the beginning, though I learned much more about him as things progressed. Then the three sons, then the women. The key discovery was the character of the narrator, René. At first, I thought he would be a marginal character, simply the I-am-a-camera seeing eye of the book, through whom the stories of the Goldens would be told; but as he grew closer to the Golden family, a moment came when he crossed a line and became a participant in their story, not just an observer of it; as flawed and morally compromised as any of them. “Oh,” I thought, “in a way, the book is about him.” I began to see it as a kind of bildungsroman, a novel about the getting of wisdom. A young man becomes involved with a complicated family, and through his involvement he learns much about how, and how not, to be a man.
In a 2005 interview to The Paris Review, you mentioned that you had exhausted your resources for the time being after finishing Shalimar the Clown. Your novels are epic in scope and subject matter. The latest one is no exception. How do you recover from a book and move on to the next thing? You published Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights in 2015, and just two years later here’s this enormous project. Can you talk a little bit about how you transitioned from that one to this one?
I almost always feel exhausted at the end of a novel. The act of creation demands everything one has, and leaves one feeling emptied out. I can never tell how quickly the tank is going to fill up again. This time, to my immense surprise, the idea for The Golden House took shape almost immediately after I stopped work on the previous novel. (The last time this happened to me was when Shame showed up literally weeks after I finished work on Midnight’s Children.) And then the book proceeded with great force, taking hold of me and insisting on being written with great urgency. It was exciting and a little alarming.
Obviously, you have an interest in scriptwriting. You wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Midnight’s Children. The Golden House uses movie references, the blending of script and novel, the role of the auteur…What led you to use this conceit of the filmmaker telling (and filming) the story?
Film has been my other lifelong obsession and I’m happy I finally managed to bring so much of that interest into focus in a novel. When I first thought about René, I imagined, very tediously indeed, that he might be a writer. Then very quickly I understood that that was a terrible idea. It would be better for him to be anything but a writer. An accountant would be better…then I had a light-bulb moment and understood that he was a filmmaker, and at that moment many possibilities, narrative, formal, technical, opened up for me. It was an aspect of writing The Golden House that the film nerd in me greatly enjoyed.
You are one of the great magical realist authors of our age if not of all time. Why did you choose to turn from magical realism to realism in this project?
The story dictates the form. In this case it would have been a distraction to introduce any note of fabulism. It isn’t what the material wanted. I think of the novelist as a composer considering the orchestra. Sometimes he writes for the piano, sometimes for the strings, or the horns. So many possibilities exist, and he will choose the ones that correspond to the music in his head. On this occasion, this was the music in my head. I wanted to make a book that was at once socially panoramic and psychologically intense. (You mentioned Shalimar the Clown earlier. That, too, was a story which demanded this kind of writing. Except for the moment of “flying,” it’s a realist work.)
The Gardens are a fascinating setting in this novel, and also serve as an important character in the book. In your dedication, you mention some time spent there. Can you explain what led you to the Gardens and why you wanted to set a story there?
The Gardens struck me as a sort of theatre, a stage upon which the characters could perform. An enclosed world within a world, the world of the interior life surrounded by but separated from the loud enveloping clamour of the age. Also, I thought of Hitchcock’s Rear Window: lives observed by other lives, everyone watching everyone else.
I think all your work is political at some level, but this novel feels especially urgent and relevant at this particular moment in America. You must have begun the novel before the 45th president was elected or before anyone guessed he would be elected. And, by the time you ended the book, the world had changed. How did the political events impact your plot as you were writing it? Did you consciously find yourself changing things in the narrative? I’m curious about your process here because the disillusionment that many people may have felt, and that your characters feel, really comes alive on the page. And it’s difficult to read this book now without being deeply aware of the reality surrounding us.
There’s something excitingly dangerous about writing right up against the present moment. I did the same kind of thing in Fury, and before that in Midnight’s Children, when I was writing about the Emergency while the Emergency was still in force. You just have to allow yourself to be absorbed by the moment and allow it to speak through you. Most of this book was written before the November 8th election and I knew that if things had gone another way I would need to do some reshaping (I had to do some anyway). Just as Midnight’s Children bears the marks of the time in which it was written, so also The Golden House bears the marks of this shocking moment.
Your narrator, René, mentions The Great Gatsby a few times, and it’s hard not to think about that book while reading this one. The 1920s in America, the 2010s in America: some might say it’s an interesting pairing. Would you say there are parallels between the themes of the two books, and/or between the lives of the characters?
The reinvention of the self, the failure of great money to help human beings with their deepest needs, the desire to capture a moment in the history of a country. Maybe something of that nature. But Nero isn’t Gatsby, the Gardens aren’t the Eggs, and René isn’t Nick, even if he sometimes thinks he might be.
The theme of gender identity – and transitioning – is quite prominent in this book. Of the various “issues” I would say this is the one that jumps out. What made you want to tell this story at this time?
I was just paying attention to what was in the air. And as the character of D Golden unfolded I became more and more deeply engaged. This part of the book probably required more thought, work, and delicacy than anything else. I wanted to do it right.
René says in one of his many meta moments that he delved into deep research for his film on the Golden family, on details such as their Roman names. Having read your books and heard your lectures I would say you’re a polymath. You contain multitudes, and, as René says, knowledge is beauty. I have often wondered: Do you mostly draw on all this knowledge you possess when writing a novel, or do you do a lot of specific, deliberate research? Could you give some examples from The Golden House of something you did not know that much about and set about to research?
Well, I do know something about the Romans and the Greeks, and that helped me, although I had to check and double check everything, and re-read Suetonius, and Apuleius, and think about the cursed house of Atreus a good deal. And once in Rome I was taken into the ruined and mostly buried palace of the emperor Nero, the domus aurea or golden house, and stood in what had once been a grand circular dining room with a rotating floor, and imagined the great artists of the Renaissance, Michelangelo and the rest, lowering themselves down here on ropes to take inspiration from the murals. All that was in the back of my mind. I also did a good deal of research into the exploding subject of gender and yes, I learned an immense amount, from new vocabulary to new thinking.
Is there a character you felt particularly drawn to, or are there aspects of your life or experiences that consciously found their way into this book?
One character I became very fond of is perhaps the least “good” person in the book, the Russian woman, Vasilisa, who ensnares first Nero and then René. I’ve been interested, as I hear the responses of the book’s first few readers, to learn that many of them fell for her, too.
The artist in the story denounces political correctness at one point, saying that to sanitise language is to kill it. You have been a consistent advocate of free speech with no censorship whatever. Is it fair to say that this latest book seems to reflect your political or religious views more unambiguously than the others?
The book speaks through its characters. I don’t think it’s right to say that it’s unambiguous. I don’t believe in agit-prop fiction. I like to create a world for readers to inhabit and make their own decisions about what they find there.
The story of the Golden family begins in Bombay and ends in New York. The city you first lived in and the one you now live in. You speak so affectionately about New York, it’s obvious there’s a deep bond there. How do you feel about Bombay when you write about it?
I have deep feelings for a certain kind of Bombay but I also know that Mumbai isn’t that place any more. I’m still extremely interested in it and yes, there’s a continuing bond. Three cities have shaped me and I carry all three with me wherever I go and whatever I write.
Any time I read an interview with you or an article about you, or even a review of one your books, it mentions an event that you are apparently “best known for.” Does it exasperate you after all this time? Or are you used to it? Or, is it all the more relevant in the times we live in?
I just don’t really talk about “it” any more. I’ve worked hard to put “it” behind me, even if the world still thinks about “it.” I wrote a book of over 600 pages about “it” and now I’m done. If people are interested, it’s all in Joseph Anton.
The book is about fathers and sons. What do your sons think of your novels? I don’t mean Haroun and Luka which you’ve said in the past were sort of written for them but the rest. Have they read this one?
They haven’t read this one but they say they will. In general, Haroun and Luka apart, they haven’t been my most avid readers. Children need their parents to be parents and are less concerned with what their parents do for a living.
I’m grateful for this interview. Thank You. I imagine people ask you the same questions a lot. If you were interviewing Salman Rushdie for the first time, what is one question you would ask him?
“How much would you give to be excused from doing interviews ever again?” And the answer would be, “A lot.”
Just one final question. Your life would be such a great movie. If René wanted to make a film about your life, what request would you make of him?
“Make it funny.”
Oindrila Mukherjee tweets here.