It has always intrigued me how the Salman Rushdie affair has flared up over the years from the Bradford book burning in 1989 to the Jaipur Festival in 2012 where the author had to cancel an appearance after local protests. That’s 23 years and still it rumbles on.
At the same festival, four writers read from The Satanic Verses in support of Rushdie – and are facing legal issues because the book is still banned in India – so there’s no chance of this issue disappearing from our media palette anytime soon.
In this period, we have also had countless documentaries (Alan Yentob’s usually involved), many non-fiction books and endless news reports about how it all slots in nicely to the grand clash of civilisations narrative which has been doing great business, particularly in the last decade.
So why no fiction – or films or TV dramas? Almost everything in recent times has been taken on: 9/11 (World Trade Center, United 93 etc…), the Hillsborough disaster (Jimmy McGovern’s drama starring Chris Eccleston), the Iraq war (Son of Babylon, The Trial of Tony Blair etc…) and 7/7 (London River starring Brenda Blethyn). And I’m sure there will be plenty more.
But anything on The Midnight’s Children author? I don’t believe so, although there is a Pakistani film called International Gorillay which, for obvious reasons, didn’t really capture the global imagination.
So I looked around at this desert and thought if no-one’s brave enough to take this on then I’ll have to do it. This was a seismic event in British culture and 24 years on (from the fatwa), it was time to write a novel with the book-burning protest as the centrepoint of the novel, the pivotal incident that propels the narrative forward to explore the wider theme of freedom of speech.
This book, ultimately became In A Rushdie Winter but only after a series of false starts which left me thinking whether it was worth bothering about at all.
I wrote a sketchy opening chapter in 2004, covering just the period between the book being burned (Jan 15) to the fatwa being announced (Feb 14). It was about a group of four men, one of them who becomes radicalised. It was rubbish – and ultimately ditched.
Then I returned to the theme about five years later, this time turning it into a screenplay. For some demented reason, I thought a comedy would work better and finished a script called Fishing For Salman. It was about four Bradford lads travelling to Buckingham Palace to have peace talks with Rushdie. A kind of Looking for Eric, Play it Again, Sam type of mystery/comedy, where you’re not actually sure whether the famous name is actually real. I thought it was quite funny (agents didn’t agree).
So after chucking that screenplay away, I returned again to the novel form in late 2012, determined this time to crack it once and for all. The key, here, was that I had a sudden eureka moment (okay I exaggerate a lot) but the main characters of my novel (two brothers) suddenly came alive and gave me a way in to the extremely challenging and tricky subject matter.
The novel was written quite quickly but it had taken a long time to find the right structure for it – and do justice to the material. Ultimately, it’s about the boundaries of freedom of speech which has become the explosive, provocative issue of our era. From the Danish cartoon controversy to the fallout from Drummer Lee Rigby’s murder, it’s there all the time.
And I don’t see it disappearing anytime soon. So I had to step up and tackle this subject even though I know many people are squeamish about digging up this whole affair once more. Ultimately, I hope I’ve written a decent story because that’s the only way a book comes alive.
The Satanic Verses came alive in a different way – and is still debated.
Fiction is the ideal arena to ask why.