Salman Rushdie is one of the literary world’s most recognisable figures and one of its most entertaining characters. So we were thrilled he was able to join us at this year’s London Literature Festival in Royal Festival Hall. Appearing in conversation with author and critic Erica Wagner, he talked about everything from his writing life and his most recent book, to Trump-era America.
Ahead of his appearance we took a look back over the Booker Prize-winning author’s career, from advertising copywriter to Netflix content producer, via some exquisite writing, violence and censorship – and a few cameo appearances on film and television.
The first, a sci-fi/fantasy story called Grimus, was published in 1975, the most recent is The Golden House. This book takes a look at contemporary American society and what Rushdie perceives as the country’s inability to learn from its own history.
In between, his books have covered modern Pakistan (Shame), Muslim Spain (The Moor’s Last Sigh), Lorenzo de’ Medici-era Tuscany (The Enchantress of Florence), global terrorism (Shalimar the Clown), and romance and violence in New York City (Fury) to name just a few of his many concerns.
Rushdie is one of the rare writers to have escaped a life of writing slogans for confectionery and credit cards, for a more literary milieu. But before he made his getaway, Rushdie reportedly coined classic lines like ‘Irresistibubble’ for Aero chocolate, ‘That’ll do nicely’ for American Express, and ‘Naughty but nice’ for a fresh cream cake brand called, well, Fresh Cream Cakes. Brace yourself for a decidedly 1980s clip.
Rushdie wrote Midnight’s Children while he still worked in advertising and it was published in 1981, winning that year’s Booker Prize. The book tells the life of a boy who was born at the exact moment that India gained its independence from Britain and the way his life mirrors the history of his country. It was later named the Booker of Bookers in 1993, an accolade it retained in 2008, when there was another competition between the only three authors to have won two Bookers each, at that time (Peter Carey and J.M Coetzee were also in contention).
Midnight’s Children was adapted into a feature film in 2013, with Rushdie providing the voiceover. Now Netflix has optioned the book for a series, as the streaming entertainment service sets its sights on expanding its Indian subscriber base – Rushdie has said he is ‘absolutely delighted’ with the news.
As one of the most famous novelists in the world, Rushdie has found himself in demand as, of all things, an actor – cast in the role of one Salman Rushdie. You may have seen him pop up in The Larry David Show and W1A, as well as in this unforgettable moment from the 2001 film Bridget Jones’s Diary.
And if you’re something of a superfan, do seek out Helen Hunt’s 2007 film Then She Found Me – Rushdie plays Hunt’s gynaecologist. You’re welcome.
For reasons only fully known by Google, one of the top results when you search for the author is ‘When did Salman Rushdie die?’ The confusion most likely stems from the furore around his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, which was deemed blasphemous by some. In 1989 Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini called on ‘valiant Muslims’ all over the world to kill Rushdie and anyone involved with the book’s publication – as a result, Rushdie was put under police protection and the Iranian government broke diplomatic relations with the UK. In spite of Rushdie’s statement saying he “profoundly regretted the distress the publication has occasioned to the sincere followers of Islam”, the Ayatollah rejected the apology and insisted his fatwa remains in place – in fact he put a bounty on Rushdie’s head.
In view of the threats from Iran, Rushdie duly went into hiding living under the name Joseph Anton, chosen as a nod to his favourite writers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, for almost a decade. Rushdie wrote about the experience of living in hiding in his 2012 memoir of the same name as his alias, Joseph Anton, where he revealed he went from hoping that people would come to accept that his book was not evil to seeing the negative response as an act of terrorism, which must be resisted.
Southbank Centre is the home of literature and spoken word events in the UK, and the venue for London Literature Festival and Poetry International. Throughout the year we host talks, discussions, readings and more featuring bestselling authors, award-winning poets and inspirational writers.