Words of Wisdom: Life Lessons with Salman Rushdie

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Magic realism is a literary genre in which narrative is shot through with surreal, dreamlike, seemingly impossible moments.

FILE PHOTO: The writer Salman Rushdie interviewed during Heartland Festival in Kvaerndrup, Denmark June 2, 2018. Carsten Bundgaard/Ritzau Scanpix/via REUTERS

If famed author Salman Rushdie is a dean of the genre, perhaps it is not surprising that his life exhibits so many similar traits.

To wit, the struggling young writer penned the classic “Midnight’s Children,” which would go on not only to win the prestigious Booker Prize, but the “Booker of Bookers,” which pit previous champions against each other.

Then came the fatwa against him in the aftermath of “The Satanic Verses,” a death sentence from some Islamic authorities, which threw him into daily danger and consumed years of his life.

The longtime U.S. resident is now enjoying a new high, with his new book “Quichotte” short-listed for another Booker Prize. As part of Reuters Life Lessons series, we sat down with the 72-year-old author to discuss his life on and off the page.

Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Q: As a young writer starting out, what was the money situation like?

A: I was broke most of the time. In those days in the UK, you could get a part-time job at an ad agency and work two or three days a week. “Midnight’s Children” took five years to write, and I paid the bills by working at Ogilvy & Mather.

Q: What was it like to go from scraping by, to being a smash?

A: It was completely unexpected. I wasn’t even sure who would publish it. When it did come out, even then I didn’t expect it to become a global bestseller. That changed my life, and I was so grateful. It gave me the ability to sit at home and work, which for a writer is almost a miracle.

Q: Did you make any money mistakes, once you became a success?

A: I’ve always been quite sensible about money. I didn’t buy any fast cars, for instance – I bought an ordinary Citroen. Even if I had the money, I never wanted a Lamborghini. I don’t have extravagant tastes, and I never have had.

Q: With the fatwa, what did you learn about enduring in an impossible situation?

A: Until you’re placed in a position like that, of extreme pressure, you don’t really know how you are going to react. It’s impossible to know in advance. What I learned about myself is that I was able to endure, and fight back, and come out on the other end, and not be crazy. That was a surprise to me. Everyone has a resilience that you might not suspect yourself of having.

Q: Some of your philanthropic money has been devoted to school lunches in South Africa – why is that?

A: A friend of mine started a charity called The Lunchbox Fund, which gives a healthy midday meal to schoolkids in the poorest areas of South Africa. Truancy rates in the townships had been very high. If you tell students they are going to have a big lunch, then they stay in class and get an education. It’s an impressively simple idea.

Q: What life lessons do you try to pass on to your own children?

A: Kindness and hard work. Fortunately for me, both of my sons are very kind and are working hard at things they love. Neither of them followed in my footsteps, though. They are carving out lives for themselves that are anything but literary.

My oldest son has a public relations and event management firm, and my younger son is completing a diploma in music production and sound engineering. That’s where they are passionate.

Q: Since we are in unique times, both in the U.S. and the UK, any lessons to be learned from these strange political moments?

A: With Brexit, I’ve always been strongly against it. I would love to feel that this juggernaut heading off the edge of a cliff can still be stopped. Maybe it can’t be, but I live in hope.

As for Trump, I feel the way for the country to regain its real self is to defeat him. I dread to think what would happen if he were re-elected. Next November will be a real turning point in the U.S. People will have to decide what kind of country they want to live in.

Editing by Lauren Young and Dan Grebler; Follow us @ReutersMoney or here

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