Salman Rushdie was tired. He peered at the crowd with hooded eyes as he stepped up to the podium, his body language screaming “fuck the Q&A.” This was the last stop on his reading tour for Luka and the Fire of Life, he admitted to a bit of fatigue.
Ah, but his voice! Rich and reassuring, with a drummer’s knack for varying tempo to change the mood. He is every inch a storyteller, a veteran professor working an old lesson plan on a fresh class of students. He read mostly from memory, stopping to look at the book almost as if to keep him on-task; it was like he was tempted to riff off the words on the page like good bands improvise off old songs, new notes and progressions unique to the moment or venue, a singular treat for the audience.
If someone out there has the goods (perhaps footage of Rushdie solemnly reciting the penitential prayer of St. Augustine), I’d suggest you blackmail him into performing at one of The Moth’s storytelling events. You won’t be disappointed.
It’s difficult to imagine an author I’d prefer sit across from during a long train ride through some stimulating European landscape. His warm-up talk was filled with anecdotes about fellow authors and intellectuals, stories whose heroes weren’t inevitably Rushdie himself.
Rushdie spoke of the genesis of the children’s book, years ago, when a book publisher begged him to try writing for a younger audience. Rushdie demurred, but the man persisted. Apparently, this same gentleman had hounded Erich Kastner, the German philosopher, so much so that finally Kastner (supposedly furious from the man’s unflagging requests), pounded out a story over “a week or so,” and handed it to the publisher, saying, “Here’s your damn children’s book!”
“That book.” Mr. Rushdie paused for delicious effect. “Was called Emil and the Detectives.” (Murmurs of recognition and great approval.)
Yet the book publisher wasn’t Mr. Rushdie’s ultimate inspiration for the story; that honor belongs to his son. Up at the podium, Mr. Rushdie worried his spectacles and rubbed his beard as he talked about a time when he was working on The Satanic Verses and his son was young enough to be tucked in. The child had wanted to connect with his father. “Daddy,” Mr. Rushdie said, imitating the youngster’s voice. “Why don’t you ever write a book I can read?”
This is a man who loves his son. His shoulders maybe relaxed a little and his eyes maybe softened a bit as he talked about his need to finish a project before moving on to the next — was there remorse for making his child wait? In the end, however, his son helped critique the story.
Rushdie was worried that the story’s antagonist, Nobodaddy, a kind of phantasm whose sole aim was to “negate” the protagonist’s father, was too scary. The author brought the story to his son, who told him quite the opposite.
“I learned two things that day,” said Mr. Rushdie. “One, that I had the license to go further with that character; and two, that my son had maybe more of a dark side that I could encourage.”
In a bit of a shock, Mr. Rushdie repeated almost word for word what Glenn Kurtz had spoken about in terms of improving as a novelist: that as he’s progressed, he realized he hasn’t gotten better at writing books, but that he’d learned only how to write that book. Apparently, this is a writing maxim. So much more the fool, I.
Maybe I was foolish to wish for an insult from Mr. Rushdie; he did not leave me a brilliant remonstration. I was given false hope from the author’s handler from the publishing company, a cute girl wrapped in a white scarf, who recognized Insulted by Authors from this summer when Allegra Goodman shot down my request.
She recognized me! She remembered my plight! She saw me squirm as Mrs. Goodman slapped me down! She’ll help me get an insult from Mr. Rushdie!
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. She smiled at me as I stepped up to the signing table, and then stared at a place somewhere between my right shoulder and outer space. I wasn’t going to get an assist on this insult.
Mr. Rushdie eagerly began signing. I started to talk and his entire body seemed to sigh. Nevertheless, I began my spiel. I dove in with a standard, “Hi my name is Bill and boy I have a website called Insultedbyauthors andifitwouldn’tbetoomuch…”
I couldn’t make out what Mr. Rushdie said in response, though I think it was something to the effect of, “well why would you want to bring more insults on yourself?” The long and short of it was a simple personalization and signature, and the Pantheon of Authors I’d Most Like to Insult Me remains unchanged.
My heart was broken.
Despite the lack of insult, it was an absolute joy to hear Mr. Rushdie read. I’m convinced I caught Mr. Rushdie running on fumes, dead tired from his tour. I refuse to believe that he wouldn’t drop a legendary insult — it’s inconceivable. The guy trolls religious Fundies with a joy that rivals his intellectual brother, Chris Hitchens.
Perhaps it’s a blind belief that Mr. Rushdie would himself sneer at, but my faith remains strong: Mr. Rushdie *is* the Sultan of Insults.