The funny thing in this discussion is that we who are stylists and language writers—and I know that’s a dicey term too—get this questioning from readers and critics that centers around our style and its relation to substance. As in, why do you choose to tell it in the way you are telling it?
I think that’s a good question to ask yourself, actually. One of the things I do when I’m teaching people is I say, “There are a number of questions you have to ask when you are beginning a project: one is what are you writing about and what is the story you are telling; then you have to ask whose story is it; then you have to ask why are you telling it; and then the biggest and most important question is how are you doing it and why are you doing it that way?” The how question is what makes a work of literature work or not work. I mean, with Ulysses there is not much story. Man works around Dublin for a day. His wife is unfaithful to him. He meets a younger writer in the red-light district. I mean, really not very much happens. But the how is what makes it this gigantic work of literature.
We often talk of voice, of authority, which is also a nebulous concept for students, but the Rushdian storyteller voice is something I’ve grown up with and is so comforting to me. I always know it’s you. And I know my storyteller is actually my author. And I feel that with The Golden House, too.
One of the things that was a discovery for me here was the narrator. In the very early stages of working on this book, I had the very boring idea that he should be a writer. [Laughter.] And I started writing it like that and then I thought, “Stop it, this is so awful!” It would be better if he were a tax accountant than a writer. But then I thought, you know, I’ve always been very interested in cinema. I’ve maybe not written about it as much as I’d liked to have. I think actually a lot of my formative education was in the world of the art-house cinema. The moment I could think of him as a young filmmaker, it really opened a huge series of doors for me in the book—first of all, he’s more interesting that way, and second it allows me to use a whole number of cinematic tricks and devices. There are moments when the book slips into a sort of screenplay and it can have a kind of montage effect, collaging different kinds of scenes next to each other. That simple decision to make him not a writer but a young filmmaker allowed me some formal possibilities that otherwise the book wouldn’t have had. Then this thing happened that was even more surprising. I thought at first, even as a filmmaker, he’s been this eye-of-the-camera kind of figure just watching, and the story would be about this crazy family. And the more I got into it, the more I realized, actually it was about him—that actually the book was just as much his story as the story of the Golden family. And so it was something I didn’t set out to do, it started being a sort of bildungsroman, a novel that was about getting wisdom—this young man, through his engagement with these people, in a way learning how to be a man and being attracted to terrible deeds and having to survive his own misdeeds. I thought, “Oh, I didn’t know that—I’m writing a book about him.”
I thought about that choice and thought about Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby and his decision to give us the novel in Nick’s point of view.
Everyone says Gatsby, but I don’t think I even thought of Gatsby except in the most tangential way. Because to me what’s interesting about Gatsby—I mean, many things are interesting about Gatsby—but one thing is that almost everyone in the novel is from the Midwest, and it’s about people from the Midwest coming to the East Coast and being screwed up! [Laughter.] And the survivor, which is Nick, goes home. So it seems to me Fitzgerald is talking about that. I mean, I suppose the obvious Gatsby thing is reinvention, which, after all, is the great subject for the American novel, from Huckleberry Finn. But I think the question of identity has become so central that [in writing] this book [I saw] it in all sorts of forms, you know: what happens to migrants, what happens in gender identity. I mean, the subject of identity has become huge, and in many parts of the world, as you know, it’s become heavily politicized. Like in India, identity and authenticity are now being interpreted by Hindu nationalists as meaning only one particular kind of Indian is an authentic person, and these other people are in some way what V. S. Naipaul might have called “mimic men.” And identity issues can become repressive. And so in another part of my head I felt I needed to get into that because this is what everybody is thinking about.
It’s amazing to read your new book in this time period. Will you find it frustrating, or will you be open to it being now constantly compared to life in Trumplandia?
I mean, yeah, of course, it does go from Obama to Trump. And I kind of guessed right. I mean, I’m sorry to say it. [Laughter.]
When was it written?
It was written last year. I mean, 99 percent of it was written before the election. I was also aware of the fact that if things had gone another way there may have had to be some reshaping done to it, which sadly I didn’t have to do. There’s also something about an arc that goes from a moment of great optimism to its opposite, which has a kind of shape…it has a good shape. It’s an awful thing to say: that this thing that is very bad for America is very good for the novel. It provides this light-into-darkness trajectory. Which is not the trajectory of the story—I thought that was good because otherwise it could be read as some kind of straightforward allegory, and I didn’t want it to be. I mean, obviously I can’t pretend there isn’t an echo of some Trump stuff in there, but it seems to me to be very much some kind of background, not foreground. It is not like an attempt to write a Trump novel. It doesn’t ignore that it’s happened, but it is not what the book is about.
Who do you think is your ideal reader these days? Do you think about that?
I don’t have an ideal reader, but I actually like who my readers are. Just in terms of who shows up. First of all, I’m happy to say lots of people show up. That’s good! But also they are a little bit of everybody. I mean, any publisher will tell you that without middle-aged white ladies there would be no fiction; there would be no publishing companies. [Laughter.] But I really like that my readership is extremely diverse. And also in terms of age there is a very wide range. There are always a lot of very young people. It’s kind of nice when you’re about to turn seventy to feel that there are people who weren’t born when you started publishing books, who have an interest in what you are doing.
I used to see my students discover you on Twitter all the time.
Yes. Well, I have abandoned Twitter. It was just the moment to stop. I started because somebody said why don’t you try it and you might find it interesting, and I did, and then you acquire all these people—I think it’s at one and a quarter million or something—I mean, it’s quite humbling when you look at Neil Gaiman or Stephen Fry and so on. Okay, so it’s only one and a quarter million. And then you get to the upper echelons like Justin Bieber, and then forget about it. But it was interesting to be able to have a way of talking to a million people directly, and then because of the phenomenon of retweeting you actually are talking to many more. And that was interesting. And then I just suddenly thought, “I don’t want this noise in my head.” Jonathan Franzen has always been sort of a denialist of all this stuff, and I remember he gave some statement somewhere saying writers should know better. And at the time I remember thinking, “Okay, Jonathan, you do that and I’ll do this,” but actually I’m more and more agreeing with him. I haven’t missed it for a nanosecond. I deleted the app.
Do you think you’ll come back?
I don’t know. If you are on a book tour and you’re going to be in San Francisco tomorrow, it’s quite useful to say I’m reading at such-and-such tomorrow, so I might do that. Twitter is a way of reaching a lot of people, but it’s also so bad-mannered. I think the anonymity is what does it. It allows people to be discourteous in a way they’d never be if they were sitting in the same room as you and if you knew their name.
A while ago I had someone tweet at me “Go kill yourself,” and then I met the person and said, “Hi, I am here now; how do you feel?” but of course the response was, quickly, “Oh no I didn’t mean it.”
Oh, yeah, now it’s a figure of speech! [Laughter.] I just think somehow we’re bringing up a generation of rude people because of the ease of it and lack of accountability and lack of consequences. So I just thought, “I don’t like it; I don’t like the tone or voice of it,” so I stopped doing it.
I do appreciate that you are very much engaged with your audience. When I moved here twenty years ago, I’d see you at parties. You’re a writer who’s very much in the world and you haven’t done that thing that writers sometimes do, which I think of as an obsessive glorification of an introversion that might be more misanthropy.
Yeah, I’m not like that. I’m not like that as a person, so why would I be like that as a writer? I mean, I admire writers who can just shut the world out, but I think the great thing about the novel is that it plunges its hands deep into what’s happening. I’m into the idea of trying to know as much about as many parts of the world as possible. Don’t just sit in your own comfort zone. Try and be in rooms that are different no matter what happens in those rooms. Get deep into the matter of life, you know? And you can’t do that in an ivory tower—you have to be in the world. And certainly this city. Who can write about it if you don’t get into it? You can’t just sit in your little apartment and imagine New York. I’ve been here a long time—it’s been almost twenty years now. And the way I’ve written about it has changed in that time. Before I was living here I wrote The Ground Beneath Her Feet, about another New York that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s about when I first discovered New York—I first came here in the early seventies, I must have been twenty-six or so. That’s that other city: CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, dirt, and muggings.
When I wrote Fury, I thought it was a novel of arrival, about coming here. I can’t write the novel in the way Don DeLillo would write New York; that wouldn’t be possible. But there was another kind of New York novel about coming here; most people in this city came from somewhere else, so I thought I’d write about that. And The Golden House—I think because I really have been here a long time—it is just probably the most New York New York novel I’ve ever written.
You not only refer to but you create a mythology of New York City.
Well, you notice almost all the major characters are immigrants. Everybody is from Argentina or India or Burma. And that’s on purpose. I tried to create a kind of New York that feels like it’s mine, that feels like a city for me to write about.
I often think there’s a way New York City embraces those of us who are from other places, perhaps even better than some white people—say, the rural white America the New Yorker Trump tried to appeal to.
I always thought of myself first of all as a kind of big-city writer. I spent almost all my life in Bombay, London, or here. I think if that’s your frame of mind, it’s not so difficult to adjust from one big city to another because you know how it is to live in a big city. But if you’re coming from some small rural community, I think there are journeys that are from the depths of America to the big cities that are maybe more complicated than from another country to here, as long as it’s one metropolis to another. So I know I fit very easily into any kind of big-city environment—I know how it goes. For me the opposite has been difficult, which is to write about outside the city. When I wrote Shalimar the Clown, a lot of which takes places in a Kashmiri village, I really set myself the task of saying, “You have to be able to write about this.” Because certainly in India the reality of the village is very, very important; because of the way the population is distributed, most people still live in villages. Two-thirds of the population lives in villages of less than two hundred people. So one could argue, and people do argue, that the urban reality of India is not typical—and actually the rural reality is the real one. So I made myself enter into that other reality, which doesn’t come naturally to me.
This goes back to your saying earlier what is the real—what is the real experience, what is the authentic person—and I think especially today we have to complicate that question and the narratives.
Well, I think we are just living in a moment when we are being asked to narrow ourselves—you know, when we are asked to frame ourselves more and more narrowly. That’s true of political identity, gender identity, cultural identity. The Museum of Identity in the novel is obviously made up, but I’m amazed that it doesn’t exist.
I almost had to look it up.
And I’m sure it will exist. Two years from now there will be a Museum of Identity. I mean, it’s a comic device to explore all this, but I think one of the great things that the novel has always known is that our identities are very plural. You know, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself.” That idea that we are not unitary selves, that we are very polymorphous. To make characters in a book interesting and alive they have to be like that—if they are only one thing then they are dead. I tried to explore that over the years quite a lot. We all have this capacity to shift ourselves according to our circumstances. All the time. To say you’ve got to choose one of those things, to me, it’s a straitjacket.
I often use the example of pillow talk with people I teach. That voice that very few of us hear, that private self. What then if your mother suddenly calls you in the middle of it? What will your voice sound like then?
Yes, when your selves collide.
Some young people worry that this is a big problem. And I often have to tell them it’s not a problem.
I don’t like to offer a utilitarian view of reading literature, but one of the uses of literature is that it shows you what human beings are really like. And they are not like that. And thank goodness we’re not, because we would be much less interesting if we were. And I don’t like that there is a kind of rhetorical pressure that, I think you’re right, young people feel quite strongly right now. Although I wonder if there’s already a backlash against it. I think we live in a time when the world moves so fast that yesterday’s orthodoxy is today’s unorthodoxy. I worry about the fact that now numbers of young people for what seems to them to be virtuous reasons become prepared to espouse ideas of censorship—that certain things should not be said because they don’t agree with them. And they don’t see what a dangerous choice that is. But again, everyone talks about what’s happening in the academy, and I have to say I have been teaching in the American academy for twenty years now and I have not had a single experience of that sort. Not one person has ever tried to say these things are improper thoughts. But what I’m saying is that I’m not sure there is as much of it as we have been led to believe—it might be more exceptional than we think. Certainly in classes I’ve taught, there has been absolute interest in that way of thinking.