It’s been awhile, I know. But here’s a goodie: Salman Rusdie’s writing process. The Paris Review recently made all of its author interviews available online (when I first read this, I think I literally salivated). Here’s an excerpt from their interview with Rusdie; read the full piece here.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk about your procedure when you sit down at the desk?

RUSHDIE

If you read the press you might get the impression that all I ever do is go to parties. Actually, what I do for hours, every day of my life, is sit in a room by myself. When I stop for the day I always try to have some notion of where I want to pick up. If I’ve done that, then it’s a little easier to start because I know the first sentence or phrase. At least I know where in my head to go and look for it. Early on, it’s very slow and there are a lot of false starts. I’ll write a paragraph, and then the next day I’ll think, Nah, I don’t like that at all, or, I don’t know where it belongs, but it doesn’t belong here. Quite often it will take me months to get underway. When I was younger, I would write with a lot more ease than I do now, but what I wrote would require a great deal more rewriting. Now I write much more slowly and I revise a lot as I go. I find that when I’ve got a bit done, it seems to require less revision than it used to. So it’s changed. I’m just looking for something that gives me a little rush, and if I can get that, get a few hundred words down, then that’s got me through the day.

INTERVIEWER

Do you get up in the morning and start writing first thing?

RUSHDIE

Yes, absolutely. I don’t have any strange, occult practices. I just get up, go downstairs, and write. I’ve learned that I need to give it the first energy of the day, so before I read the newspaper, before I open the mail, before I phone anyone, often before I have a shower, I sit in my pajamas at the desk. I do not let myself get up until I’ve done something that I think qualifies as working. If I go out to dinner with friends, when I come home I go back to the desk before going to bed and read through what I did that day. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is to read through what I did the day before. No matter how well you think you’ve done on a given day, there will always be something that is underimagined, some little thing that you need to add or subtract—and I must say, thank God for laptops, because it makes it a lot easier. This process of critically rereading what I did the day before is a way of getting back inside the skin of the book. But sometimes I know exactly what I want to do and I sit down and start on it. So there’s no rule.

INTERVIEWER

Is there anything in particular that you read to help you along when you’re working?

RUSHDIE

I read poetry. When you’re writing a novel, it’s so easy to have odd bits of laziness slip in. Poetry is a way of reminding myself to pay attention to language. I’ve been reading a lot of Czeslaw Milosz recently. And then, from over the other side of the fence, I’ve been reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which is wonderful. It’s so well written, with moments of really sloppy writing mixed in, misused words—you know, evidentially instead of evidently. Incredulously instead of incredibly. Clearly the publisher—somebody—thought it’s all part of his Bobness.

INTERVIEWER

Evidentially.

RUSHDIE

I like the Randall Jarrell line: “A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” I think that’s true. If you’re going to write a hundred, a hundred and fifty thousand, two hundred thousand words, perfection is a fantasy. If you’re Shakespeare and you’re writing sixteen lines, you can create a perfect thing. I suspect though that if Shakespeare had written a novel, there would be imperfections. There are imperfections in his plays—there are boring bits, if one’s allowed to say this. If you’re reading for the love of reading, you look for what it gives you, not for what it doesn’t give you. If there’s enough there, a misstep is easy to forgive. That also happens in literary criticism. There are critics who approach work on the basis of what they can get from it, and others who approach in terms of what they can find wrong with it. Frankly, you can find something wrong with any book you pick up, I don’t care how great it is is. There’s a wonderful riff in Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, in the chapter called “Emma Bovary’s Eyes,” when he points out that her eyes change color four or five times in the book.

INTERVIEWER

In Shalimar the Clown, why did you name your main character Max Ophuls? After the film director?

RUSHDIE

I just liked the name. The interesting thing about the Franco-German border near Strasbourg is the way in which history has continually moved it, so that the city has been German sometimes, and French sometimes, and I wanted Max to have a name that is both French and German, because I wanted the history of Strasbourg to be in the name.

INTERVIEWER

But why not make up a name?

RUSHDIE

I don’t know. Names stick. I just kept thinking of him like that, and in the end I forgot about the film director.

INTERVIEWER

Can you read fiction while you’re working on a novel?

RUSHDIE

Not much. At least, not much contemporary fiction. I read less contemporary fiction than I used to and more of the classics. It seems they’ve hung around for a reason. When I wrote Fury, for instance, I read Balzac, in particular Eugénie Grandet. If you look at the opening of Eugénie Grandet, it uses a technique like a slow cinematic zoom. It starts with a very wide focus—here is this town, these are its buildings, this is its economic situation—and gradually it focuses in on this neighborhood, and inside the neighborhood on this rather grand house, and inside this house a room, and inside this room, a woman sitting on a chair. By the time you find out her name, she’s already imprisoned in her class and her social situation and her community and her city. By the time her own story begins to unfold, you realize it’s going to smash into all these things. She is like a bird in this cage. I thought, That’s good. That’s such a clear way of doing it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you go to the movies a lot?

RUSHDIE

A lot, yes. Much of my thinking about writing was shaped by a youth spent watching the extraordinary outburst of world cinema in the sixties and seventies. I think I learned as much from Buñuel and Bergman and Godard and Fellini as I learned from books. It’s hard now to explain what it feels like when the week’s new movie is Fellini’s 8 1/2, when the week after that it’s the new Godard movie, and the week after that it’s the new Bergman, then it’s the new Satyajit Ray movie, then Kurosawa. Those filmmakers were consciously building oeuvres that had a coherence, and in which themes were explored until they were exhausted. There was a serious artistic project going on. Now, whether it’s films or books, we’ve become a much lazier culture. Filmmakers get bought out just like that. You make one interesting film and off you go into moneyland. The idea of building a body of work that has intellectual and artistic coherence is gone. Nobody’s interested.

INTERVIEWER

What did you learn from watching these movies?

RUSHDIE

Some technical things—for instance, from the New Wave’s freedom of technique, a freeing up the language. The classic form of film montage is long shot, medium shot, close-up, medium shot, long shot, medium shot, close-up, medium shot, long shot—like a kind of dance. In two steps, out two steps, in two steps, out two steps. It can be unbelievably tedious. If you look at the films of the fifties being cut like that, it’s sort of like editing by numbers. So Godard’s heavy use of the jump cut made you jump. To go from the wide scene—bang—into the face of Belmondo or Anna Karina. One of the reasons why, in the films of Godard, a character will sometimes address the camera directly—

INTERVIEWER

—is because they didn’t have the money to film the full scene.

RUSHDIE

That’s right. But I liked that idea, the breaking of the frame, the fact that many of these films were funny and serious at the same time. In Alphaville, which is a very dark film, there’s this wonderful scene where Lemmy Caution, the down-at-the-heels private eye, arrives at the flophouse where he discovers that all the superheroes are dead. “Et Batman?” “Il est mort.” “Superman?” “Mort.” “Flash Gordon?” “Mort.” It’s hilarious. And I love Buñuel’s use of surrealism, which doesn’t stop the films from feeling real. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, people sit around a table on toilet seats but go quietly to a little room in order to eat. And I like both Bergmans—the mystical Bergman of The Seventh Seal and the close-up, psychological Bergman. And Kurosawa taking us into a completely closed culture, the world of the samurai. I don’t think like the samurai thought, yet you’ve gotta love Toshiro Mifune scratching himself—you’re immediately on his side. It’s one of the things you want a work of art to do, to take you into a world you haven’t been in, and to make it part of your world. That great period of filmmaking has a lot to teach novelists. I always thought I got my education in the cinema.

INTERVIEWER

Were you consciously taking this in and applying it?

RUSHDIE

No, I just loved going to the movies. I was having a better time in the movies than in the library. Nowadays I find that people who like my books tend to say that they’re very visual, while people who don’t like my books tend to say that they’re too visual. If you’re a writer, people like you for exactly the things that other people dislike you for. Your strengths are your weaknesses. Sometimes the same sentences are held up as examples of how badly I write and how well I write. People who like my writing say they like the female characters. The people who don’t like my books say, Well, of course, he can’t write about women.

INTERVIEWER

You were talking about how your generation of British writers was loaded with talent. What is it like for you here in New York?

RUSHDIE

In America there is a younger generation with real ambition. But there was a moment when American literature got a little unadventurous. Raymond Carver was a very ambitious writer, and his books are incredibly original because they push the boundaries of how to say things, how to suggest things, but I think that a lot of the school of Carver became an excuse for saying banal things in banal ways. As if that was all you had to do—have two people sitting down across the table with a bottle of whiskey talking to each other in clichés. Now I think there are, once again, attempts to do startling things. Some of them work and some of them don’t. But I like to see that spirit again. Oddly, in England in the seventies and eighties, we resisted being called a generation. Most of us didn’t know each other. We didn’t see that we had a project. It wasn’t like the surrealists, who had a manifesto. We didn’t discuss our writing with each other. I was having enough trouble finding my way; I didn’t want ten other opinions. I thought I had to find my own way.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write letters?

RUSHDIE

I’m notorious for being a bad letter writer. It’s my wife’s biggest complaint about me. Would I please write her some letters. What’s the point of being married to a writer if you don’t have any love letters? So, I have to do it. But, no, I have no great literary correspondence. I have some things, though. In 1984, the first time I went to Australia, I began to read Patrick White. I traveled a little bit with Bruce Chatwin on some of the trips that led to The Songlines, and I was struck, moved, by the Australian desert. Then I read White’s book, Voss, and was really taken with it. It was one of the few times in my life that I wrote a fan letter. White wrote back, saying, Dear Mr. Rushdie, Voss is a novel I have come to hate. He said, I could send you some of my books that I still have some feeling for, but one does not wish to burden people with books they do not wish to read. And I thought, Fuck you, too. You know, I’ve written this really warm letter and I get back this crabby old thing. When I went to Australia again, I never made any attempt to contact him. Then he died, and his biographer, David Marr, wrote to me. White threw everything away, but in the top drawer of his desk there was this very small bunch of letters, most of which were from his bank manager, and three or four nonbusiness letters, of which mine was one. And I thought, How stupid can you be? I’d completely misunderstood his letter. I’d read his self-deprecation as grumpiness.

INTERVIEWER

How do you decide when to ship a novel off?

RUSHDIE

Embarrassment is a good test. When you feel you wouldn’t be embarrassed by people reading what’s on the page, then you can let people read it. But with Shalimar I did something I’ve never done before: I showed it to a few people—my agent, my wife, and my friend, the writer Pauline Melville. I also showed it to my editors, Dan Franklin at Cape and Dan Menaker here at Random House. I showed them the first hundred and fifty pages, then I showed it to them again at about three hundred and fifty, four hundred pages. I don’t know why I did that. I just thought, I never do this, so I’m going to do it. I’m getting to the point where I think, I don’t have to do things just because I’ve always done them. I liked that I was able to show people along the way and have their enthusiasm. Whether that means I needed more reassurance, or whether it means I was more confident, I really don’t know. I think it’s somehow both at once.

Advertisements