In the summer of 2008, I went to see Salman Rushdie read and speak at the Harvard Memorial Church in Cambridge. On that day, Rushdie said something I have always remembered and liked, and, apropos of nothing, I want to record it here.
At the time, I was 21 and had only read one book by Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and had not liked it. I brought along my dad, who had even less Rushdie experience: he told me he had bought The Satanic Verses in the 90s “to see what all the fuss was about” and gave up after the first 30 pages put him to sleep.
Fast forward to 2016: I’ve now read Midnight’s Children (liked it) and Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (loved it).
Rushdie’s new novel, at the time, was The Enchantress of Florence. The book, he said, was about “a lost princess and her beloved, an Italian mercenary who is working as a general of the Ottoman army.” Before he read, he engaged in some charming exposition about the process of writing the book: “Much of the weirder stuff in this book is true, and the kind of ordinary stuff is the stuff that I’ve made up,” he said. “I discovered to my intense delight that the Ottomans were, amongst other things, fighting a war against Dracula. I mean actual Dracula himself, Vlad the Impaler. And the moment I realized that I could have Dracula in my novel, you know, without cheating, I thought that I’d gone to Heaven, really. So the book is full of all this absolutely improbable stuff that is in fact in the historical record. And all the probable stuff is the stuff that I wrote.”
The passage he chose included a tattoo of a tulip on the shaft of the prince’s penis.
Anyway: it was the question and answer period that yielded the comment I’ve always remembered and liked. A young woman asked him the question that comes up at any and every author reading, as a rule: any advice for aspiring writers?
Rushdie said the best writers that he knows almost all began their careers in their twenties and were immediately successful. (This runs counter to the more fashionable take, recently, that great writers don’t need to find success young, and that there’s nothing necessarily impressive about being great at a young age.) “If you don’t have that real thing burning in you that makes it possible to spend twelve years trying to learn to do something, without any guarantee that you’ll ever learn how to do it, um, then, it’s a problem.”
Everyone laughed, though I couldn’t quite see why: clearly his comment was quite serious. And he got more serious from there: “The great writers have always known why they wanted to be a writer. They’ve always known what was burning inside them that had to get said. So, if you don’t have that fire, don’t write.”
Now there was silence. He kept going. Emphasis mine:
“I’m sorry, it’s brutal, but it’s a real truth. There are enough books in the world. None of us in this room could ever read all the great books that there already are to read. If you’re going to add to that mountain, it better feel necessary to you. It better feel like a book that you can’t avoid writing. And then it has a chance of adding something interesting to the mountain.”
Bravo. That commentary may sound somewhat brutal, but I like the spirit of it. It’s always stuck with me, and eight years later, at a time when people are reading less, and there are more non-book distractions than ever before, it still rings true.