Sir Salman Rushdie has adapted his Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel Midnight’s Children into a screenplay. He tells Tom Seymour about taking the time to become a good writer and not self-publishing...
What were the challenges of adapting your own novel?
I had to start again with the story, from fresh. And we started with images. Director Deepa Mehta [pictured above with Salman] and I wrote down key images that occur through the story and promised ourselves we would weave those images into the screenplay.
Midnight’s Children is a multilayered epic. How did you decide which stories to prioritise and which to jettison?
We had to work out whose story we were telling. Obviously we couldn’t tell everyone’s story, because there’s a cast of thousands in the novel. I wrote the novel, so I had the freedom to do anything I want with it, and I wrote it long ago, so the distance I had from it allowed me to do that.
Did you reinterpret the story from how you understood it when writing in the ’70s?
I did, yes. The tone of the voice is very comic/ironic, and the emotion is underneath. The film is much more emotional and direct, so there’s a slight shift there.
How have you changed as a writer since that time?
I was fantastically determined when I was a young writer and I made it happen. No-one knew who I was then, and I spent five years writing this book without any real expectation that it would even be published. Writers need to be determined in that way. I had greater fluency as a writer but needed greater revision. Now I write much less but it’s more finished.
You recently published an autobiography, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, about living under the Satanic Verses fatwa. Why now?
It started when I revisited my diary journals from that period. Readingback through writing I hadn’t looked at for a decade, I was reading the journals of a younger self going through a very tough thing, but I felt like I was reading about a different person, a separate man, an altered me. I realised that was the mindset with which I should approach my memoirs – writing about myself as if I was a character. [‘Joseph Anton’ was the pseudonym Salman used in hiding.]
Was it difficult to revisit your life at that time?
Of course it was difficult, but it wasn’t as difficult as expressing it earlier. For a long time I just wasn’t ready to write about it. I wanted to wait until I felt in a better place, emotionally, and was able to reflect in tranquillity.
What’s your opinion on self-publishing online?
What I worry about with the internet is the ease with which people can write. That ease of publication means that people are not going through that process of learning, and we all have to do that. It took me a long time to learn to be a writer. So one must find themselves an editor or, failing that, a group of people who will tell you the truth about your writing, and are not afraid to say “This really isn’t good enough”. Someone who is a bullshitter should have no value to you.
What’s your advice to young authors?
Do it the hard way. I think self-publishing is a dangerous route because you don’t know how good or bad you are – you can just put it out there. The old way was tough because you’re endlessly submitting your work to other people’s judgement, and that’s a very valuable learning process. Unless someone can tell you that what you’re writing is no good, then you don’t know how to push it to a point when it can start being good.
Midnight’s Children opens on Boxing Day. Joseph Anton: A Memoir is out now.
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