Rushed for Rushdie
Tuesday night Salman Rushdie read from his new novel, Shalimar the Clown, at the Berkeley City Club. He was hosted by Cody's Books, and introduced by owner Andy Ross, who said that at Cody's they felt they had a special relationship with Salman, but "perhaps all bookstores do." Salman corrected him--Cody's was special since, "not everyone got firebombed." I hadn't really known about that.
He read a bit of the story at its chronological start in Kashmir (the rich intonation of which stood out from his light, international accent like thick cream marbling coffee), first a bit of the inner mind of the tightrope-walking protagonist. Then, as he called them, he read the steamy bits, which were summarily protested by a wailing baby in the back. A classic Rushdie streak of magic realism came through in the second excerpt he read, set in San Quentin, though I was more charmed by the invocation of moonlight glinting on the dark waters of the San Pablo Bay which I gaze at daily. He is so deeply, thoroughly, adamantly secular--when I first saw him at SAJA last year, he admonished a questioner identifying him as a Muslim with the declaration that her little finger nail was more Muslim than he. But listening to him talk about the writing process--being dragged along by characters, waiting for stories coming to him, being loyal to characters--I thought he seemed to believe much more in a muse than many spiritualists I know.
I asked him if he uses any kind of methodical process to piece together dialogue in the mouths of characters of all races and classes and geographies, and he said there was no method, only madness--a reliance on his ear and instinct that he did not think could be taught. He said he thought craft can be taught, but one must have ear and eye for oneself. He related that when he was reading history at Cambridge, his teacher told him he should not write history until he could hear the subjects talking in his head, sing their slang. If I could have followed up, I would have asked if he had any trouble going around and "feeding his ear," so to speak, with so much notoriety. When one questioner tried to be sly and pointed out that there's some similarity between the name Shalimar and the name Salmaan, Rushdie drily replied, "They both start with S," and then complained about the plethora of autobiographical analyses his writing gets because "you all" know far too much about him. Afterwards, a friend I with wondered if I might be overestimating the difficulty Rushdie would have in wandering the states and drinking in dialect. I had to grant that the crowd at the City Club seemed a bit older.
Oddly, Cody's did not supply vegetarian appetizers, and by the time the reading was over, my friend and I were starved. I could see that the reading was substantially smaller than Gaiman's last week, but it was still huge, and I didn't want to repeat the mistake of waiting around when I could go and return in time. (A Cody's staffer confirmed that Gaiman had indeed been signing until 1:30 in the morning last weekend.) My friend and I ran and grabbed Thai food and ran back and were horrified to see no line, but then there was Rushdie, signing extra copies for Cody's, and just at the end I got mine signed. He thanked me absently, capped his pen, and we all walked out into the quiet night, substantially calmer than last week. So many stories to see and voices to hear, so little time.