Salman Rushdie is back at his desk, savoring the acclaim for his most recent work and bending to the next—his account of the attack that nearly killed him last summer on a stage in Chautauqua, N.Y.
“If it’s a book, it’s not going to be a particularly long book,” he tells TIME. “Might be a couple hundred pages, so I’m hoping that I could do it in a year or so. But I’m not beating myself up about it. I’m just getting it right.”
Rushdie, who was stabbed more than 10 times, describes his recovery from the Aug. 12, 2022 attack with the kind of measured care that has kept him in the land of the living. “Slowly does it,” he says. A tinted lens hides his right eye, which no longer sees. “The knife went quite deep in. The knife went as far as the optic nerve.” He also lost the use, for a time, of his left hand, but that’s coming back. His longtime therapist has helped with “nightmares, and that sort of thing,” he says.
As the young New Jersey man charged with attacking him, Hadi Matar, awaits trial in Chautauqua County Jail, the author gingerly gauges the limits on his own freedom. Rushdie did virtually no publicity for his widely praised new novel, Victory City. And he had given only one interview before talking to TIME, which today featured him on the 2023 TIME100 list of the most influential people in the world.
“I’m happy to be on the list. It means somebody’s noticing what I do,” he says. “One of the things that I liked about the way in which Victory City has been received—it’s been wonderfully well received, but I didn’t get the sense that the reviews were written out of sympathy. There were serious reviews, which were about the work. And I thought in a way it’s good because that book, coming out when it did, slightly changed the subject, that it’s not only somebody who is the target of an attack, but also there’s a creative artist here. Being included in this eminent list is another way of saying I’m not just somebody who got attacked.”
And yet on the day that Rushdie, 75, spoke with me from his New York City home, it was into the camera of the laptop on which he’s pecking out what will be something of a sequel to Joseph Anton. The acclaimed 2012 memoir was titled for the alias Rushdie used during the 10 years he spent underground after the fundamentalist leader of Iran put a $3 million bounty on his head over a few passages of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. But if Rushdie is less than delighted with how the fatwa has defined much of his life, he’s game enough about acknowledging the surge in public interest when, 34 years later, it nearly ended it.
TIME: Not a pleasantry: how are you?
Salman Rushdie: I’m, you know, I’m getting there. The human body has a remarkable capacity for healing. I wouldn’t say I’m 100% back, but I’m on the way.
Do you have a notion of what recovery will look like?
It’ll look pretty much like this. And that’s to say, the eye is not coming back. The eye is lost. The hand that was badly damaged is recovering quite well with a lot of therapy. And the other wounds are getting better. There’s a lot of therapy that’s needed. Obviously, there was a quite a lot of PTSD. But I’m getting better.
Can I ask about the PTSD therapy, if particular approaches were useful for you?
I have a very good therapist who I’ve had for quite a long time and who knows me very well. You just have to talk through the obvious stuff—nightmares, all that kind of thing—and it’ll take the time it takes. As you can imagine, it’s a very terrible event in a life. And it takes some digesting.
But one of the things I am doing is finding a way to write about what happened. Whatever is published next is very likely to be a text about that. For me, that’s a way of kind of taking charge of it. I’m still working out exactly how it might go. I can’t say a lot about it, except that it’s my intention to do it and I’m working on it.
Read More: Salman Rushdie Is on the 2023 TIME100 List
My experience with reporting is that the closer you are to a violent event, the less coherent it is in the writing.
Mmhmm. True. I was extremely close to it.
Maybe that’s for journalists. A friend of mine did a book about spending a long time with soldiers and was eventually bombed by an IED. And what he wrote about that was extraordinary.
I was a very good friend of Michael Herr, who wrote Dispatches about Vietnam. Of course, he was in the thick of it for a long period of time, and the book is extraordinary by consequence. He came out of it with quite a lot of damage, and it took him a long time to get over, if indeed he ever did. I’m not sure he ever did.
I don’t imagine you’re out in public much now?
Not a lot. I’m just taking very slow steps back into the world. I intend to reclaim my life as fully as I can, but slowly does it.
Could you see yourself getting on a stage again, being in a public setting?
That’s the big question. And “I don’t know” is the answer. Not anytime soon. One of the problems of what happened at Chautauqua is that there was no security at all. It wouldn’t have required much in order to prevent what happened, but that there was none at all made possible what happened. [A deputy and a state trooper were somewhere at Rushdie’s talk, but witnesses said Matar reached the stage unchallenged. During the attack he was tackled by the moderator, Henry Reese, who was cut above his right eye. The trooper handcuffed the suspect. The Chautauqua Institution did not respond to a message requesting comment.]
If you’re a novelist, you don’t meet your audience that often. You sit in a room for a few years, and then every so often you come out of your room and meet your readers. I’ve always really enjoyed that moment of meeting people who care about your work. It would be a loss to never do it again. But we have to really think seriously about how.
I have to ask you about Iran. You must be following events there.
I went to Iran when I graduated from Cambridge, which was 1968, so it was a long time before the current administration. I really liked it. I thought it was a beautiful country, and I liked the people who I thought were very sophisticated and cultured and welcoming.
Now, I’m a little sick of the subject, because, frankly, my only connection with Iran is that they tried to kill me. I wish it weren’t true. I mean, yes, I’ve been following events. I don’t have a whole lot to say about it, except obvious things. I admire the young women of Iran and the men who are supporting them. But that’s about it.
It occurs to me that you may well outlive the Islamic Republic.
Well, that’d be nice.
I used to work in Israel, where former Prime Minister Ehud Barak once answered a question about terror by observing that Islam was a relatively young religion, “and there’s a great deal of energy there.”
The truth is, because of what happened around The Satanic Verses, people often associate me with religion and with writing about it. But actually, it’s more or less the opposite of what I am as a writer. I’m, myself, not a religious person; it’s never really been a major subject of my work with the exception of the passages in The Satanic Verses. One of the biggest damages that the attack on The Satanic Verses did was it misled people about the kind of writer that was being talked about. One of the things that people who read The Satanic Verses—which very few of its attackers did—notice, first of all, is that it’s funny. The number of letters I’ve had which go, “Who knew it was funny?” And the answer is, people who read it knew was funny.
They made people think of me as being in some way involved in arcane, theological battles. I’ve had to fight back to clear away those misapprehensions about my work. By now it’s OK, because that was my my fifth published book, and Victory City, which just came out, is my 21st. Three quarters of my life as a writer has happened since those days.
Are you promoting Victory City? And how are you going about it?
Not really. Because of what happened, what would have normally been quite an extensive book tour became nothing. I did one interview with with the New Yorker. And the book seems to be doing very well, so maybe it didn’t need me.
In your portrait for that New Yorker story, you look like an avatar for free expression.
I have this old-fashioned view that I’m mainly a novelist. I’ve done my share of fighting for free expression. For example, I’m very proud of my association with PEN America and the work we’ve done together. One of my things of greatest pride is to have co-founded the PEN World Voices Festival, which in its origin really was a way of introducing American readers to the rest of the world, to make the literary experience of Americans less parochial, perhaps. And it’s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.
You’re back at work. Take me through your day.
Well, if I wasn’t talking to you, I’d be probably trying to do a bit of writing. I’ve never been an early morning person, so I tend to work something like an office day. Maybe the exception is that I always, always, at night before going to bed, read what I wrote that day. For two reasons: one is to have it in my head the next morning, and the other is to see if there’s things that need fixing after a few hours of being away from it. You know Hemingway had this thing he used to say: you should always write one sentence less than you know, so that in the morning, you know what the first sentence is. Because once you have the first sentence it’s much easier to write the second sentence.
One thing to love about Victory City is that, as a fictional account of an invented empire, it exists in counterpoint to the attack.
It was finished before the attack.
Yes, but it’s a work about imagination.
Yes. I was really, really fortunate that I had just finished work on it. I mean literally a week or so before the attack, I had finished correcting the galleys. So there was actually nothing further to do except publish it. And I know that if I’d been at another stage, if I’d been in the middle of it, it would have been very hard to finish it. Because actually, for quite a long time after the attack, writing was something which I couldn’t do. Just wasn’t available to me.
You were trying, or …?
I would try, but there was just nothing there. And in the end I didn’t try. That seems to be coming back. Like the rest of me.
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