Salman Rushdie on Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
Happy birthday to Salman Rushdie, one of the world's most famous and provocative writers, who turns 72 on June 19, 2019. He's written 13 novels — his latest a modern-day political thriller called The Golden House — with a 14th, Quichotte, on the way this fall.
In 2015, Rushdie spoke with Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel about the book Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, a retelling of the ancient fable The Arabian Nights: Tales from A Thousand and One Nights. In addition to his writing, Rushdie has become an emblem and proponent of human rights and freedom of expression.
On loving The Arabian Nights from a young age
"These were the stories I grew up with. The book is not a children's book, it's a very adult book. It's certainly not written in language that children would read. I first heard these stories from my parents as bedtime stories, and then you grow up and you read them as picture books and comic books, and you eventually graduate to real books. I grew up surrounded by fantastic tales and that made that kind of writing feel normal."
Why he loves folk tales
"I am interested in folk tales and myth because they compress meaning. They contain an enormous amount of meaning in a very short space. You can unpack them, and all sorts of stuff comes out. For example, I wrote a novel in part inspired by the myth of Orpheus. If you take the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, you can tell the whole story in 150 words or less. Yet, it has incredible resonant power when you start looking at it. It contains this great fable about love, art and death.
"And, if you look at it optimistically, you can say that it means that love through the agency of art is able to pass beyond gates of death. Or, you can look at it pessimistically, and say that death, in spite of the power of art, destroys love. And all of it is true. The great thing about myth is that there is no one meaning. You can turn it round and round and round and find many things in them. It's always fascinating because this is the imaginative storehouse of the human race."
On imagining the future
"When we look back 1,000 years, what we have is a mixture of history and legend and half-truth and outright make-believe. You have this mixture of history and myth. I looked 1,000 years in the future, so that when somebody 1,000 years in the future would look back on us now with half-remembered facts and legends that entered the historical record, they will have this half-real, half-not-real flavour.
"One of the things I wanted to do was to not write the obvious dystopic fantasy. So I thought, what else could I imagine? If we are still around 1,000 years from now, what might we be like? Who might we become? So I suggested an optimistic future, but it's not perfect. Or in the classic language of the fairy tale, be careful what you wish for."
Salman Rushdie's comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Music to close this interview: "Capriccio" composed and performed by Brad Mehldau. From the album Highway Rider.