After a torrid experience with the Jaipur Literary Festival, Salman Rushdie's appearance at Hay was comfortable. Interviewed by festival founder Peter Florence, the author was cheery, outspoken and engaged in what was a brisk career retrospective of his work up to Haroun and the Sea of Stories (less acclaimed novels, such as The Enchantress of Florence and The Ground Beneath Her Feet were put aside).
The most popular of his novels is without question Midnight's Children, which was voted the 'Booker of Bookers' and is now a film to be released this autumn. Its concept, about children born at the stroke of India's independence, had some roots in the author's birth. "I was born on 19 June 1947, exactly eight weeks to the day of the end of the British Empire," said Rushdie, adding that his father used to joke: "Salman was born and eight weeks later the British ran away."
While Indian writing was a clear influence on Midnight's Children - including the stories of 1001 Nights, which Rushdie pointed out were originally collected in an Indian compendium before they travelled west - its gestation was more born of his British youth. "I was lucky when I was at Cambridge that I overlapped briefly with E.M. Forster," Rushdie told Florence. Though Rushdie adored A Passage to India, he said, "when I started Midnight's Children, in some ways I wrote it against the Forsterian project... India isn't cool, but hot." The novel that he produced was "hot" in a noisy, sensual manner; Rushdie had found his style. "Sometimes you find your voice imitating, and sometimes you find it trying to write unlike people."
The film will apparently deviate in some distinct ways from the novel, most importantly in creating a climactic showdown between its main characters. "If you've done something as big and vulgar as a baby swap, there has to be a moment [in a film] where the babies confront each other," said Rushdie. "If I'd have thought about it, I might have put it in the book."
Having dealt with India in Midnight's Children, for his 1983 follow-up, Shame, Rushdie moved on to tackle Pakistan, which he described as "a tragedy performed by clowns". This was a semi-Shakespearan tragedy worthy of King Lear, especially the seizing of power by Zia-ul-Huq from Bhutto and his former mentor's execution. "Sometimes current affairs history gives you a gift you can't neglect," said Rushdie, adding that Pakistan's increasing importance on the world stage has seen the book rise in people's estimation.
Then came The Satanic Verses, a novel that for Rushdie was the logical continuation of his novels of first India and then Pakistan: "a novel about migration" and the effect of human movements. "What that has done to our cities is very profound," said the author. "It's the end of monoculture". Rushdie proclaimed that the novel, as he said all novels should be, "is an act of radical questioning. That's the book I thought I was writing."
The problem for Rushdie was that for the Ayatollah Khomeini, radical questioning was not acceptable, and a fatwa was issued upon him calling for his death, a legacy that still hangs over his head today, if not practically, then in terms of the view people hold of him and the justifications he must still make for his work. Rushdie was defiant. "There needs to be, in an open society, an arena in which any subject can be discussed… The argument is what freedom is."
"It is the people who love books that make them last, not the people who attack them."
"It wasn't the first time they didn't like what I'd written, it was just the first time they'd tried to kill me," Rushdie said with a smile. "I wasn't writing for the mullahs - I didn't think they were my target audience."
A line was drawn between Rushdie's work before and after The Satanic Verses. "It wasn't easy to get back to writing," he said, so he promised to write a story for his son to get him back into the process - "I was involved in a conflict between speech and silence." This conflict arose in fable-like form in that story for his son, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. "Some of the great literature of the world has used the conventions of the fable," said Rushdie, citing the likes of Kafka's The Metamorphosis and Calvino's The Baron in the Trees. The hitch is that "The fable always leads to a simple moral" - Rushdie's masterstroke was the remove the moral, making the novel one that would work both for a 12-year-old boy and for the man he would become, and read differently for each.
Rushdie clearly still has a hunger for experimentation, with story at its heart. "What readers really want is a world they enjoy inhabiting and a guide they really trust." Playfulness of form can come with this provided it does not confuse the reader or preach, with the ambiguities and flexibilities of the English language offering up a powerful tool. "You can do almost anything in English and it makes sense," said Rushdie. "Like Yoda you can speak. The other gift we have is Shakespeare. He shows that a work doesn't have to be one thing - a comedy, a tragedy, a love story… it can be all of them." There are things Rushdie said he does better now, such as "technical control", but was also realistic about the sprawling nature of his latter novels: "I'm trying to write shorter books but I seem to write long ones," he said. "I've got a lot to say." And, with some joy, he told the audience that as a reader, "I like a big, fat novel."
There was a definite glint in the eye as the author concluded: "When you're young, you have to fake wisdom; when you're old, you have to fake energy."