Rushdie explores his own scary, messy life

Novelist Salman Rushdie speaks during a tour of an exhibit of his papers at Emory University in Atlanta on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010. Rushdie, who is in the middle of a five-year stint as a distinguished lecturer at the Atlanta university, has donated his personal papers to Emory's special collections library. The university has created an exhibit from the manuscripts, letters and photographs that will run through September. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) ¬ ¬ Published Caption 2/25/10: Novelist Salman Rushdie says that the 1989 religious edict ordering Muslims to kill him is now more ""a piece of rhetoric than a real threat."" ¬ ¬ Published Caption 6/13/10: Novelist Sir Salman Rushdie speaks during a tour of an exhibit of his papers at Emory University in Atlanta.

LOS ANGELES — Salman Rushdie is a selfless defender of artistic freedom. No, he’s really a party animal with a bombshell perpetually on his arm. Actually, he’s hiding in fear. Isn’t he?

For the last 23 years, he’s been a novelist living the life of a character in a novel. Unfortunately for Rushdie, the book he’s been transported into isn’t a nuanced work of art like, say, “Midnight’s Children,” the epic novel that helped make his reputation as one of the best British writers of his generation.

It’s more like “a bad Rushdie novel,” he told me as we sat in the restaurant of a West Hollywood hotel. “The kind of book I’d write if I weren’t any good.”

In 1989, the Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a fatwa promising eternal life for any believer who assassinated Rushdie as punishment for the perceived blasphemies of his novel “The Satanic Verses.”

His Japanese translator was murdered, and another translator and his Norwegian publisher suffered bloody attacks. Across the Islamic world, protesters were killed at violent, anti-Rushdie demonstrations. Rushdie would spend the next decade in a kind of self-imposed house arrest, protected by an around-the-clock armed police escort, living in assorted farmhouses in the English countryside and London apartments.

Now his clandestine life is a distant memory. When I meet him, he’s in Los Angeles to see television people and is on his way to the Telluride Film Festival. His only protection at the London Hotel comes from an earnest young man in a blazer with a name tag that reads SECURITY.

“People think, ‘How odd it is that he goes out,’” Rushdie said. “Because for a long time they had this image of me as sealed away from life.”

After my interview with him, in the wake of rioting provoked by an anti-Islamic video, an Iranian foundation reportedly announced an increase in its reward for Rushdie’s murder. The news barely phased him.

“I’m not inclined to magnify this ugly bit of headline grabbing by paying it much attention,” he said via his publisher.

Death sentences aside, today Rushdie lives in another kind of bubble: the one where the tabloids turn your life into a kind of running joke. Even the august New York Times recently got into the act, recounting his seemingly nonstop appearances at Manhattan galleries and the various beauties in his orbit. “From Exile to Everywhere,” the headline ran.

This is a strange way for a distinguished man of letters to be living. To be under the microscope not for what you write but for the way you live.

“It makes me out to be some sort of ridiculous party animal,” he said of these stories.

How Rushdie managed to get himself into successive bubbles is the subject of his new memoir, “Joseph Anton” (Random House, 636 pages, $30), a title that comes from the code name he gave himself while under the protection of British police.

“Joseph Anton” is written in the third person. It reads as if Salman Rushdie were writing a novel about a character named Salman Rushdie.

“He had spent his life naming fictional characters,” Rushdie writes in “Joseph Anton,” recounting the moment when Rushdie chooses his code name, derived from the first names of two of his favorite writers, Conrad and Chekhov. “Now by naming himself he had turned himself into a kind of fictional character as well.”

Why did Rushdie write a kind of nonfiction novel about Rushdie? For a decade after his ordeal had ended, he said, “the last thing I wanted to do was go back ... into the emotion and darkness of that time.” But he never doubted he would tap into his experiences one day. “Even when things are at their worst,” he says, “there’s a little voice in your head saying, ‘Good story!’ ”

He said his initial attempts to write the book as a first-person memoir sounded “self-regarding,” “narcissistic” and too much like a journal or a rant.

His time in hiding ended when the Iranian government announced in 1998 that it would no longer seek to carry out the fatwa. Now he lives in New York City.

He’s been married four times, but he takes issue with the stories that make him out to be a Don Juan or a Casanova. Most of the women photographed alongside him with the words “striking” or “beauty” in the caption are just friends, Rushdie said.

“People construct these selves for well-known people,” he said. “And those selves acquire a kind of credibility by repetition.”

None of those stories ever points out, he noted, that he helped start a book festival in New York, PEN World Voices, that’s now in its eighth year. Or that, as director of PEN Center USA, he helped defend writers who were under threat.

For the moment, Rushdie is not ready to embark on another novel. Instead, he’s writing a television pilot for Showtime, a sci-fi drama called “Next People.”

As for “The Satanic Verses,” it’s still in print, in 46 languages, a small victory in an ongoing battle.

“On the one side there’s almost everything I value most: liberty, art, imaginative freedom, tolerance. And on the other side there’s bigotry, intolerance, violence, a kind of religious fascism,” Rushdie said. “The battle chose me, I didn’t choose it.”