For the last decade, Salman Rushdie has lived with a price on his head. In 1989, the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence, or fatwa, against Rushdie, claiming that the Indian-born, Muslim-raised author blasphemed Islam in his phantasmagorial novel, The Satanic Verses . Rushdie – whose other acclaimed books include Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh – now takes on a different sacred history, the story of rock & roll, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet (Henry Holt and Co.). It is a sprawling fable, an apocalyptic, late-twentieth-century adaptation of the mythical Greek love story of Orpheus and Eurydice, liberally spiced with allusions to real-life superstars such as John Lennon and Madonna. Echoing Rushdie's blur of fact and fiction, U2 – who brought the writer onstage, in a gesture of solidarity against the fatwa, during a London concert in 1993 – have recorded a new song, "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," using lyrics written by Rushdie for the book. Speaking by phone from an undisclosed location in London, Rushdie, 51, says gleefully, "That something that was designed to exist only on the page should burst into the real world – I like that enormously."
I always thought serious novelists considered rock & roll to be a frivolous subject. Conversely, rockers may think you have as much business writing about pop music as David Bowie does staging exhibitions of his paintings.
What inspired you to create your rock-star characters, Ormus and Vina?
The Rhythm Center – the Bombay record shop where Ormus and Vina meet over Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" – was a real store where you first heard that record. Did you have a similar epiphany? laughs ]. The extraordinary thing about rock & roll in India in the Fifties was that this music didn't seem foreign. It happened everywhere to young people in the same way at the same time. In the novel, I have this conceit of Ormus saying he's getting the music first [channeled spiritually through a dead twin brother], to suggest the strength by which we felt it was our music.
You went to England in 1961 to go to school. What were your impressions, as an immigrant teenager, of Swinging London?
Like you should be wearing saffron robes.
How did U2 get you onstage? The Jaguar Smile . He read the book, we met and got on. They invited me to that show without suggesting anything about going onstage. It was a last-minute idea.
What did you think of U2's tour security, compared with your own security arrangements?
I always felt I had the problems of rock & roll without the music or the groupies [ laughs ]. But these people whom we make into contemporary icons – they face this great deformation of ordinary life. I think that ordinary life is a need , almost as important as food or drink. To have the dailiness of life destroyed is an incredible deprivation.
Have you developed an armor of suspicion?
Any special tips?
How did your lyrics for the book become a U2 song?
Have you heard the music?
This is not your first attempt at songwriting. As an ad copywriter in the 1970s, you wrote a jingle for the Burnley Building Society.
What were some of your better jingles? Pause ] I'm not telling you [ laughs ].
As a free-speech icon, how do you feel about the debate over misogyny and violence in rap?
I'll give you an example. There was a movie made in Pakistan [ International Guerrillas ], in the years just after the fatwa, which portrayed me as a murderer, a sadist, a drunkard, a person wearing an unfortunate range of safari suits [ laughs ]. It was about me being pursued and assassinated by the forces of fundamentalism.
When it came to England, it was denied a certificate; the British Board of Film Classification saw that it was obviously defamatory. I didn't want to be defended in a free-speech fight by an act of censorship. I wrote to the BBFC, saying I was waiving my rights to legal recourse and would they please give the film a certificate.
The film got the certificate, and the producers booked a large cinema in Bradford, which has the largest Muslim population [in Britain] and, indeed, was where they burned The Satanic Verses . Well, nobody went. Because nobody wanted to see a rotten movie.
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