In 1988, 25-year-old John Mitchinson, then a London bookseller, was the first to interview Salman Rushdie about his new book, The Satanic Verses.
WSalman Rushdie nailed this note to the wall when he wrote “The Psalms of Satan”: “To write a book is to reverse a Faustian contract. To gain immortality , or at least posterity, you lost, or at least ruined your actual everyday life.” The degree of devastation that ensues is almost impossible to foresee, with waves of rejection and anger reverberating to its latest manifestations— The grotesque attack on the Chautauqua Institute on August 12 – I am reminded of being at his door in Islington in July 1988.
I’m a 25 year old bookseller who finds himself working in the publishing department of Waterstone’s, the new rapidly expanding chain of bookstores in the UK. We’ve decided to add author interviews as an enhancement to our seasonal catalog, and the first of seven articles I’ve been selected to write is The Satanic Verses with Salman Rushdie, Scheduled to be published in September. I came with my tape recorder and a proof of a novel. He said I was the first person to formally talk to him about the new book, and he proved to be a warm and enthusiastic interviewee. Strangely, I read not only it, but Midnight’s Child and Dishonored, and it left a very strange impression on him. I pointed out that this was my first interview — I like to think that my rookie enthusiasm reassured him.
Rereading the interview some 34 years later, I was struck by the territory we covered and how he went to great lengths to frame the novel as an attempt to understand rather than condemn religious beliefs. “It would be a very condescending thing to be dismissive of an entire culture, in fact it denies their view of the world’s equal status with yourself.”
We now know that it is this worldview that will be condemned and vilified, sentenced to death, followed by a decade of exile and isolation, and a threat that will apparently never fully fade away. “I suspect there will be problems,” he told me that sunny morning when I asked him what to expect from the book’s popularity in India. Problems came sooner and closer to home than he or anyone else expected.
Booksellers are mostly on the right in the “how best to deal with it” dilemma that comes with it. We at Waterstone’s didn’t face the horrific direct death threats of publishers and translators being attacked, but Collet’s and Dillons in London and Abbey’s in Sydney were incendiary. In January 1989, after a book burning protest in Bradford, WH Smith refused to buy. Waterstone managers were allowed to choose. Most sell it openly; some hide it, but are happy to sell it if asked. When my interview was reprinted in The Bookseller in April 1989, the book was firmly at the top of the UK bestseller list.
In 1990, we smuggled Salman and his son Zafar to Waterstone Books in Hampstead to sign a copy of Harlan and the Sea of Stories. Other live events followed. In 1992 he appeared (unannounced) at the Hay Festival, and in 1995 the Hampstead branch hosted a live reading of The Moor’s Last Sigh, although tickets were only advertised on the morning of the reading, the number of votes Sold out. Gradually, things got better and Salman began appearing regularly at literary parties, festivals and conferences. Until last month, he seemed to have fully recovered into the world of books, not politics, protests and police protection. In 2012, I was deeply moved when, along with many other booksellers, I was invited to the launch of his memoir Joseph Anton and publicly thanked him.
largeLooking back on those early years, what strikes me most is how straightforward it seemed to defend a writer’s right to self-expression. Without the Twitter-heavy negotiations, there is less scope for public shaming and finger-pointing, and less anxiety about causing offense. When Salman won Writer of the Year at the British Book Awards in 1995, I remember the whole room cheering.
He mentions this in Joseph Anton: “I cannot forget that there is an England on my side.” There was and still is. But the discussion of free speech has been undercut by the endless roar of social media and the shocking attempt to link writers’ basic human right not to be killed or violently treated with so-called “cancel culture.” The Satanic Verses is a novel, not an ill-considered tweet.
I reread this book Lately, I’ve been amazed at how much I’ve forgotten: what a good and subtle novel, how funny and generous it is. In the interview, Salman spoke of the book’s attempt to establish an “impure ethic.” “Most of our problems start with people trying to define the world in terms of stark contrasts between good and evil, or racial and ethnic purity,” he added. I suspect that’s what really sparked fear in fundamentalists. Fiction changes us from within, blurring boundaries, allowing ideas to merge and new ideas to grow and flourish.
But the subversive magic of fiction needs you read it. Hadi Matar, the man accused of involvement in the Chautauqua attack, admitted that he only wrote a few pages of the Satanic Verses. Over the years, many others have complained about how difficult, or even difficult, to read Rushdie’s novels are. (Reader, that’s not the case.) That’s why we booksellers are proud. We persisted and made Satanic psalms that people can and still can read.
But the last sentence is Salman: “The way art changes society is never broad – you write a book and the government falls – that will never happen. What matters is that a book has a lot to do with actually reading The way it works and the people it connects with. At that point, it can make an irreversible shift in the way you see things – you’re not who you were before. Something tiny happens to your view of the world. Shift, that shift is always there and never changes. That’s why I write fiction.”
Salman Rushdie is attacked while giving a public lecture at Chautauqua College in Chautauqua, New York, on August 12, 2022.Satan scriptures are Available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.