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Author Salman Rushdie On Surviving Attack and The Value of Every Day of Life

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Salman Rushdie is a writer, a storyteller. So when you ask him to tell the story of the day in 2022 when he was attacked and nearly killed by a young man with a knife, Rushdie paints a vivid picture.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: I saw this man rise out of the audience.

KELLY: You're at the lectern at this point.

RUSHDIE: The...

KELLY: You stepped on the stage?

RUSHDIE: No, we were sitting in chairs on the stage with a little table between us. And this man got up out of the audience and came towards the stage. There's a few steps up. And then he started sprinting. He sprinted up the steps and came at me, and I immediately thought, oh, it's actually happening.

KELLY: What Salman Rushdie is referring to is the fatwa, a response to his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses." Iran's supreme leader issued a ruling the following year ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. He lived in hiding for a while, police protection 24 hours a day. But around the turn of the century, Rushdie says, the Iranians, quote, "called off the dogs."

RUSHDIE: And ever since then, there really hasn't been much risk. I came...

KELLY: Can you talk about your life?

RUSHDIE: I came to live in New York early in the year 2000, and I've been here ever since. And I've done hundreds of public events, you know, talks, readings, lectures, discussions, without there ever being the faintest murmur of a problem. And so I had really come to feel that, OK, this is ancient history.

KELLY: But on that day, your first thought was, OK, it's you. You're here.

RUSHDIE: Right here.

KELLY: Finally.

RUSHDIE: Here you are. After - it felt like it - I say in the book something to the effect that it felt like he was a time traveler, somebody emerging out of the past.

KELLY: Rushdie writes about the attack in his memoir, out this week, titled "Knife." When he came to talk with me about it in our New York bureau the other day, he wore glasses that obscured his right eye, which was blinded in the stabbing.

RUSHDIE: I thought he hit me. I didn't - I never saw the knife. I didn't realize that there was a weapon in his hand until I saw all the blood coming up.

KELLY: How many times did he stab you?

RUSHDIE: I've been trying to work it out. I think it's at least 12. It might be 13 or 14. I keep trying to count them, and I lose count.

KELLY: You describe lying on the floor. You're in a huge pool of your own blood. And that your overwhelming emotion - it wasn't fear. It wasn't pain. It was extreme loneliness.

RUSHDIE: Yeah, because - 'cause I thought, I'm - you know, I'm - here I am in the middle of, I mean, upstate New York, almost in Canada, very far from everyone I love, dying, as I thought. I thought I was dying, dying in the company of strangers, and that felt...

KELLY: On a stage (laughter).

RUSHDIE: On a stage.

KELLY: Right.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah.

RUSHDIE: It felt - that felt worse than the dying. And I mean, I'm lucky that I got away with it. I think I'm very lucky that I got away with it. I mean, I was lucky, for a start, that there was this trauma hospital just across the state line in Pennsylvania that, in a helicopter, was quite close. I mean, I was lucky that it was a sunny day. If it had been rainy and stormy, the helicopter would not have been able to fly, and then I'd be dead.

KELLY: There's something so odd about hearing you describe anything about that day as lucky, but yes.

RUSHDIE: Yeah, I mean that - the - one of the surgeons who had operated on me said - he said, you know, first, you were very unlucky, and then you were very lucky. And I said, well, what's the lucky part? And he said, the lucky part is that the man who attacked you had no idea how to kill a man with a knife. And it's true. I mean, if you look at the injuries, they were - basically, he was flailing around, just putting the knife everywhere he could think of. I mean, he came very close to killing me, but he didn't.

KELLY: You never use his name...

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Either now or in the book. You call him The A, for - what? - the attacker? The assassin?

RUSHDIE: The attacker, the assailant, the adversary, and ruder words that begin with A.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Leave that to people's imaginations.

RUSHDIE: I think most people could imagine it.

KELLY: You recount in the book - and I'll leave it to people to read the long two steps forward, one step back of your recovery. You're sitting before me now.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: April 2024. How are you?

RUSHDIE: I'm not so bad. Thank you. I mean, there are things that are not going to get better. Like, I mean, my right eye is not coming back.

KELLY: It was the worst of your wounds...

RUSHDIE: That was - yeah, which is...

KELLY: ...Which is saying something.

RUSHDIE: Because the wound - because the knife went - I mean, went all the way to the optic nerve. And if you damage the optic nerve, there's nothing to be done. And the left hand, I mean, is better in the sense that I've got a lot of movement back.

KELLY: Yeah, you're opening and...

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Closing your fingers.

RUSHDIE: Yeah, I can do that. But there's still, like, almost no feeling in my middle two fingers yet.

KELLY: So you're alive.

RUSHDIE: I'm alive. This is...

KELLY: Your wounds were such that, as you have already suggested, you maybe shouldn't be.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: How does that have you thinking - I mean, it's a miracle in a way. And you're someone who has.

RUSHDIE: Never believed in miracles.

KELLY: Exactly. Where does that leave you?

RUSHDIE: Except my books believe in them. My books are full of them. So maybe my books allowed the miracles to cross over from fiction into fact.

KELLY: Has it changed your thinking at all in terms of faith, God? Is there a higher power out there that made sure I would get through this?

RUSHDIE: No, ma'am. I mean, one of the things that is interesting about what - about that near-death experience is that there was nothing supernatural about it - no choirs of angels, no tunnel of light, nothing like that. It was just somebody's physically lying on the ground, bleeding to death. So I thought, well, that suggests to me that maybe I'm not wrong. What it does do, getting that close to death and then coming back from it, is it gives you an immensely increased sense of the value of every day of life.

KELLY: Yeah. I can imagine.

RUSHDIE: That's just immensely - just you wake up in the morning, and you think, still here.

KELLY: Go back to your writing again because, as people who have read your fiction will know well, all kinds of magical things do happen in your writing. Your characters do things that do not align in any way with reality or science. Why do you let yourself do things in writing that you don't allow yourself to believe in in life?

RUSHDIE: Well, because I think that realism as a literary form is not a sufficient way to describe the craziness of the world. The world is insane, as we see every day on the news. And realism is a wonderful form, but it doesn't allow you to accept that the world is now not realistic. The world is surreal, and surrealism seems, to me, to be closer to the real. That's what I think I'm doing.

KELLY: Is this you using what you do best, using language, as your own knife, in a way?

RUSHDIE: Yes. Exactly. That's right. The book is called "Knife" not only because it's about a knife, but because it is a knife. It's - you know, I got myself into a knife fight, somehow. I'd like to have a knife of my own.

(SOUNDBITE OF K.C. BROWN'S "SHADOWS AND SUNLIGHT")

KELLY: Salman Rushdie, talking with us about his new memoir, "Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder." Tomorrow, I ask him about finding great love later in life.

(SOUNDBITE OF K.C. BROWN'S "SHADOWS AND SUNLIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.