NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR News, I'm Noah Adams. Salman Rushie's days of living in hiding are long over. Almost two decades ago, the novelist faced a fatwa calling for his execution after publishing "The Satanic Verses." He even went underground for nearly a decade. These days, Rushdie is no less prominent, but he lives and publishes openly. In Britain, some critics say his latest book should be a frontrunner for the Man Booker Prize. "The Enchantress of Florence," it's called. It's a tangled historical novel that spans generations of Mughal Indian emperors and Florentine aristocracy, with quite a bit of intrigue in between. The book is being released today in the US, and recently, my co-host Robert Siegel spoke with Rushdie about the blurring of imagination and reality in "The Enchantress of Florence."

ROBERT SIEGEL: So at some level, obviously, all of the characters in a novel are figments of the novelist's imagination.

Mr. SALMAN RUSHDIE (Author): That's true.

SIEGEL: But in this novel, there are characters who are figments of other characters' imagination, which is an intriguing idea. Where did this come from?

Mr. RUSHDIE: Well, in part, I suppose, it comes out of the old "Pygmalion" idea of men who invent women to fall in love with who then escape them. And the other thing is that in the case of the Emperor Akbar, who is the character of the novel who invents the queen for himself, it came out of the odd fact that in India today, if you ask people who was the queen of the great Emperor Akbar, they will all say Jodha Bai, Jodha. Everybody believes that to be true. And the fact is, that if you look at the historical records, she didn't exist. So this curious legend of this Hindu queen who he fell in love with and, to show his tolerance, he did not ask her to convert to Islam and indeed continued to observe her religious practices alongside his own, it's a happy legend for India, because you can see that it's a myth of inclusion and tolerance.

SIEGEL: Did the Emperor Akbar believe that she existed? Or do we know?

Mr. RUSHDIE: Well, we don't know, because she's not in the historical record at all. But the idea that I had was that if she doesn't exist now but everybody thinks she did, then maybe she didn't exist then but everybody thought she did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSHDIE: And that gave me the impetus to make her up in that way.

SIEGEL: So in that sense, in a novel in which there are a great many historical figures and then some whom you've made up, the queen, actually, is a hybrid. She is both a character who's been made up, but actually a real fictional figment.

Mr. RUSHDIE: Yeah. You know, I, my training was as a historian, after all. That's what I studied at college. And so I'm quite serious about the history, because I actually wanted the history, both the Indian history and Renaissance Italian history and, indeed, all the stuff in between to be, you know, to be like they might have been. I wanted them to fit the historical record. But then, of course, you can't help making stuff up, because no matter how well people are known in history, if you're a novelist, you still have to perform the imaginative act of entering their heads and working out how they would think and feel, you know? And that, of course, is the - that's the pleasure of it.

SIEGEL: There is a line uttered in the novel and then repeated: The curse of the human race is not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.

Mr. RUSHDIE: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Discuss.

Mr. RUSHDIE: Well, that was kind of the great discovery I made in writing the book. You know, when I - my first idea of this book was to take these two worlds - the world of Mughal India, the world of Renaissance Europe - both civilizations at a kind of pinnacle, but which historically really didn't have much contact at this period, this middle of 16th century. And I thought let me see if I can find a story that pushes them together, these two very different worlds, and see what happens. And what happened was that the more I learned about them, the more I began to find mirrorings and echoes and ways in which they were extremely similar to each other. So having started out to write a novel about difference, I ended up writing a novel about similarity. And that's, I think, where that line came from.

SIEGEL: What was it that started you off on this story?

Mr. RUSHDIE: Well, the clue that I found - and I abandoned one or two story lines as not convincing. And then I found this true incident in the early career of the first Mughal emperor, Babur, where he was besieged in Samarkand and had to surrender his beautiful sister to his rival warlord as the price of his own survival.

SIEGEL: This is Wormwood, the rival...

Mr. RUSHDIE: This is Wormwood, Lord Wormwood - yes, Shaybani Khan.

SIEGEL: That's a great name, that.

Mr. RUSHDIE: It is, and it is a real name, too. It is a great thing about history is the stuff that's there is better than you can make up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSHDIE: I mean, an Uzbek warlord called Lord Wormwood is just too good to be true, really. Anyway, but that bit of the story is true, and it gave me the idea of how a noblewoman, you know, a woman of royal birth, could begin to be bounced across the world as a kind of spoil of war.

SIEGEL: So you couldn't make this stuff up, is what...

Mr. RUSHDIE: No, I think all the stuff that people will think of as magic realism, you know, is actually in the historical record.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSHDIE: And vice versa - all the stuff that people will assume is real is stuff that I've made up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I wanted to ask you about - and now for something completely different.

Mr. RUSHDIE: Yeah.

SIEGEL: I just wanted to ask you this, because the first time that I spoke with you was when I had to go through a - not all-that-mysterious intermediary, but I had to get a signal from a guy at a hotel lobby and go off to another hotel and find you because you were under protective custody.

Mr. RUSHDIE: I know. I'm sorry about all that.

SIEGEL: No, no, no. I don't hold it against you. (Laughing) But I think you were the only occupant in a hotel in suburban Virginia.

Mr. RUSHDIE: Somewhere. I remember that. Yes.

SIEGEL: Yeah, yeah - with lots of British security around you.

Mr. RUSHDIE: No, no. Americans.

SIEGEL: Oh, American security had taken up the job. And I'm curious, now that the experience of having lived under that fatwa is well behind you...

Mr. RUSHDIE: Yeah, about nine, 10 years, almost, now.

SIEGEL: What's the residue of it? How much has your life changed for having been...

Mr. RUSHDIE: Well, I mean, my daily life is really more or less back to the, you know, to the normal daily life of a writer. I think the main problem is that it's given people who've never read my books, I think, sometimes a false idea of the kind of writer I am. I think because, you know, the threat against me was arcane and theological and unfunny, there's an assumption that I must be arcane and theological and unfunny, and I think it puts people off. When I go around the country lecturing at colleges and so on, every single time I do it, somebody comes up to me and says who knew that you would be funny?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSHDIE: You know...

SIEGEL: Some people who've read some of your books might've known that.

Mr. RUSHDIE: Well, that would be an answer. But I think people have this expectation of a very dark, serious, you know, kind of burdened person.

SIEGEL: You've been permanently colored grey by the...

Mr. RUSHDIE: Yeah, I'm just trying to get burst back into Technicolor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: But do you think that in the years since, do you think you've written things that you would not have written, or that you have not written things that you would have written because of that experience?

Mr. RUSHDIE: Well, I certainly, I don't think the second part is true. But I think, clearly, there are things that I had to become much more aware of - radical Islam, the free speech issue, the resurgence of religion as a power in the world, the growing disturbance of the relationship between the East and the West, which actually, in most of my early writing, I tried to celebrate. And, you know, a growing disturbance about the idea of mass migration, although speaking as a product of mass migration, I had also always tried to celebrate its enriching qualities. So there was all that darkening. But, you know, I think that was a thing that was happening to all of us anyway. And it's very hard to know whether what specifically happened to me led to that subject coming into my work, or whether it's just that - what we were all thinking about.

SIEGEL: Well, Salman Rushdie, thank you very much for talking with us once again. It's always good.

Mr. RUSHDIE: Thank you. Enjoyed it.

ADAMS: My colleague, Robert Siegel, talking with Salman Rushdie. His new novel is called "The Enchantress of Florence." You can read an excerpt from that book at npr.org.

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