In 1988, 25-year-old John Mitchinson, then a London bookseller, was the first person to interview Salman Rushdie about his new book The Satanic Verses.
OWhile writing The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie had this note pinned to his wall: “To write a book is to make a Faustian contract in reverse. To gain immortality, or at least posterity, you lose, or at least ruin, your current daily life. The degree of ruin that was to follow was hardly foreseeable, and as the waves of revulsion and outrage ripple through its latest manifestation – the grotesque attack at the Chautauqua Institution on August 12 – I remember arriving on his doorstep in Islington in July 1988.
I was a 25-year-old bookseller who had found himself working for the publishing department of Waterstone’s, the new and growing British bookstore chain. We had decided to add author interviews to enhance our seasonal catalog and the first of seven I had been co-opted to write was with Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, due out in September. I arrived with my tape recorder and a proof of the novel. I was, he says, the first person to officially tell him about the new book, and he proved to be a warm and enthusiastic conversationalist. He was strangely impressed that I had not only read it, but also read Midnight’s Children and Shame. I pointed out that this was my very first interview – I like to think my rookie enthusiasm put him at ease.
Re-reading the interview some 34 years later, I’m struck by how far we’ve come and how much he has gone to great lengths to present the novel as an attempt to understand rather than condemn religious belief. “To reject it would be a very condescending thing to do to an entire culture, indeed, it denies their worldview equal status to yours.”
We now know it is precisely this worldview that would be condemned and reviled, handing it a death sentence followed by a decade of exile and isolation and a threat that apparently will never fully recede. . “I suspect there will be problems,” he told me that sunny morning, when I asked him what his expectations were for the book’s reception in India. Trouble came sooner and closer to home than he, or anyone else, expected.
Booksellers have mostly found themselves on the right side of the line in the ensuing “how best to respond” dilemma. At Waterstone we have not faced the terrifying immediacy of death threats with which editors and translators have been bombarded, but Collet’s and Dillons in London and Abbey’s in Sydney have all been burned down. WH Smith refused to store the book after the book burning protest in Bradford in January 1989. Waterstone officials were given the choice. Most sold it openly; some hid it but were happy to sell it if asked. By the time my interview was reprinted in The Bookseller in April 1989, the book was firmly anchored at the top of UK bestseller lists.
In 1990 we smuggled Salman to Waterstone’s in Hampstead with his son Zafar, to sign copies of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. More live events followed. In 1992 it appeared (unannounced) at the Hay Festival and in 1995 the Hampstead branch held a live reading of The Moor’s Last Sigh, a sold-out sale even though tickets were only advertised in the morning reading. Gradually, the situation improved, and Salman began to appear regularly at literary evenings, festivals and conferences. Until last month, it looked like he had been fully rehabilitated into the world of books rather than politics, protest and police protection. I was touched when, along with many other booksellers, I was invited and publicly thanked at the launch of his memoir, Joseph Anton in 2012.
LLooking back on those early years, what strikes me most is how simple it seemed to defend a writer’s right to self-expression. There was no Twitter piling to negotiate, less room for public shame and blame, and far less anxiety about offending. When Salman won author of the year at the British Book Awards in 1995, I remember the whole room cheering.
He mentions it in Joseph Anton: “I must not forget that there is an England which is on my side. There was and still is. But discussions of free speech have found themselves belittled by endless social media outrage and blatant attempts to align a writer’s basic human right not to be killed or violently with the so-called ” cancellation culture. The Satanic Verses was a novel, not a thoughtless tweet.
I reread the book recently and I was amazed at everything I had forgotten: what a good and subtle, funny and generous novel. In the interview, Salman talked about the book trying to establish an “ethics of impurity.” He added: “Most of our problems start when people try to define the world in terms of stark opposition between good and evil, or in terms of racial and national purity.” I suspect that’s what really stoked the fear of fundamentalists. Novels change us from within, blur boundaries, allow ideas to fertilize and new ones to develop and flourish.
But the subversive magic of fiction compels you to Lily this. Hadi Matar, the man accused of the Chautauqua attack, confessed that he only managed a few pages of The Satanic Verses. Over the years, many other people have complained about how difficult, even illegible, Rushdie’s fiction is. (Reader, it really isn’t.) That’s why we booksellers can feel a certain pride. We held on and made Satanic Verses something people could and still can read.
But the last word goes to Salman: “The way art changes society is never on a large scale – you write a book and governments fall – it never happens. What matters is how a book affects the people who actually read it and connect with it. That’s when he can make an irreversible change in the way you see things – you’re not the same person you were before. There has been a small shift in your perception of the world that stays and never recedes. That’s why I write fiction.
Salman Rushdie was attacked on August 12, 2022 as he prepared to give a public lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York. satanic verses are available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.