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Salman Rushdie unleashes the genies in his new novel

In "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights," the genies are out of the bottle and on the loose in New York City. Author Salman Rushdie combines magic and reality, myth and history in his latest novel. Jeffrey Brown interviews the writer about storytelling and how some readers misperceive him.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Next: a novel that combines the magic of genies and the reality of terror in our own time.

    Jeffrey Brown has our story from the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In Salman Rushdie's new novel, the genies, or djinn, are out of the bottle and on the loose in New York, entering through a crack in the world, bringing on a time of what's called the Strangenesses.

    SALMAN RUSHDIE, Author, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: These dark genies have arrived to start attacking the city. And one of them has a tendency to turn into a sea monster, and he just rises up and eats the ferry.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's a world in some ways like our own, reason battling extremism, a thriving, busy city, but one in which great towers can suddenly disappear, a beautiful day on the water, but a police boat keeping watch.

    In the novel, fear is in the air, but so is magic. These are genies, after all.

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    The book of course uses these kind of comic devices, but it's, of course, talking about something serious, which is an attack on the city.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mixing magic and reality, myth and history, it's what Salman Rushdie has been doing in his writing for decades. His new book is titled "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights," which just happens to add up to 1,001. And like the classic "1001 Arabian Nights," Rushdie told me when we met at the Waverly Inn, one of his favorite dinner spots, this novel began as a story about storytelling itself.

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    I grew up falling in love with this kind of story, this kind of amazing, wonder tale of the East, you know, which if you're a child growing up in India is all around you.

    And I think one of the gifts it gave me as a writer was this early knowledge that stories are not true.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Stories are not true?

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    No, they're made up.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In case you had any doubt, right?

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    Yes, you know, that Madame Bovary and a flying carpet, they are both untrue in the same way. Somebody made them up. And once…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Even though we think of one of them as being realistic.

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    You think of one of them as realistic and the other one is not. Actually, they're both fictions.

    So once you get that instinct for the fictiveness, the fictionality of fiction, it kind of sets you free. And all my life, it's — that subject that has recurred to a greater or lesser extent in the various books. And this time, I just thought to let it rip.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Rushdie actually begins the new book with a historical figure, a Muslim philosopher who lived in 12th century Spain. In the West, he's known as Averroes. His Arabic name, though, is Ibn Rushd.

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    My father decided that he was such a admirer of Ibn Rushd's philosophy, thinking that he changed the family name to Rushdie.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Really?

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    Yes. So that's why I'm a Rushdie.

    Of course, that made me very interested in him as a thinker. And then I realized why my father was so interested in him, because he was really an incredibly modernizing voice inside our Islamic culture. And he was a great scholar of Aristotle, for example, and he wanted to introduce into that culture the ideas that reason, science, logic, you know, could be brought in and one didn't have to just believe in blind faith.

    And his books were about that, and they got him into some trouble.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Salman Rushdie, of course, found trouble when his 1989 novel, "The Satanic Verses," was denounced as blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, and Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death.

    There were violent, even deadly protests, and Rushdie spent nearly a decade in hiding before the fatwa was lifted.

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    This conflict about modernizing vs. what we now call fundamentalism, sort of traditionism, literalism, that battle is still going on, you know, and so I thought it's — it would be interesting to frame it in the way in which it started.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So you're setting up a fantastic, sort of magical story of our time, or soon after, but grounding it very much in a historical…

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    Really, it's about — yes, you see, I was a historian by training. That's what I did at university.

    So I have always thought that these two ways of talking, one is the fantastic, the fable, you know, the fairy tale, and the other being history, the scholarly study of what happened, I think they're both amazing ways to understand human nature, you know? And then I thought, what happens if you push them together? What happens if you take the fantastic and the historical and bang them into the same book?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Since coming out of hiding, Rushdie has gotten new attention as a celebrity man about town, including for a marriage and divorce with model and TV host Padma Lakshmi.

    He does seem to regret one particular consequence of his earlier experience.

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    I feel that I got kind of put into the Islam box.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Meaning what?

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    Because of what happened to "The Satanic Verses," because suddenly I was thought of as, oh, that Islam guy or anti-Islam guy or whatever.

    And I have never really thought of myself as a writer about religion. And I think one of the things that happened to me as a result of all that is that I think it did for some people, many people, obscure the kind of writer that I actually am.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Which is what?

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    Well, very often, people who actually pick up a book of mine for the first time are kind of surprised. And I get these letters saying, well, who knew that you were good, you know?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Really?

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    I get a lot of letters — a lot of letters saying, who knew that you were funny?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But, I mean, isn't it odd that you get a lot of attention as a kind of celebrity?

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    Yes, it is odd, because…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's odd to you?

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    It's odd to me because it doesn't happen to a lot of writers.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Right.

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    And what can I do? It gets me tables in restaurants. It gets me Yankees tickets. It's not all bad.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights," in Rushdie's novel, 1,001 nights is the length of the great war involving genies and men. We won't give away the ending, but the writer himself puts it this way.

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    Optimistic, but…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Optimistic, but — that's how you feel?

  • SALMAN RUSHDIE:

    One of the things I know from the study of history is that history surprises you. History is not written. It's not inevitable, you know, that the victory of evil is not certain, you know?

    So, I thought, let me what else — how else could you tell this story? And so, yes, it does have an unexpected ending. But then I thought, I don't want it just to be some kind of Pollyannish happy ever after thing, so I had to screw it up a bit.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Maybe so, but on this day at least, the genies were back in their own world. A great city and its millions of people went on about their business.

    From the Staten Island Ferry, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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