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Six Things to Know About Salman Rushdie

Lesser known facts about the celebrated author—from his days sweating ad copy to his latest gig as a television screenwriter


When, on February 14, 1989, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, sentencing the writer to death for “insulting” Islam with his novel The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s first reaction, which he recalls in his recently published memoir Joseph Anton, was to run to the window, close his curtains, and lock his front door. The author went into hiding for the following nine years. In the 656-page memoir, written in the third person, Rushdie reveals an enormous amount of detail about how exactly he survived his years in exile. The sheer number of stories compelled us to dig up a few more. Here are a few things we learned about Rushdie’e life, from his early days before becoming a novelist to his latest, yet to be unveiled project.

On Monday, May 6, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, Téa Obreht, and Amitava Kumar come together with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop to honor Salman Rushdie with a lifetime achievement award. For tickets and more information, click here

1. Rushdie was once a champion of fresh cream cakes
In the 1970s, after one of his theater pals in the UK landed a gig writing ad copy for lucrative shampoo commercials and used the money to buy a sports car, Salman Rushdie was compelled to try his hand as a copywriter. In a speech made before the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, he remembers being asked during his first copywriting test to “imagine that you met a Martian who mysteriously spoke English and you had to explain to them in less than 100 words how to make toast.” He failed the test. Later, while working at the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, he coined the slogan for Fresh Cream Cakes: “Naughty, but Nice.” A couple others lines he’s responsible for include “That’ll do nicely” for American Express and “Irresistibubble” for the effervescent candy-bar Aero. Although his stint in advertising came a full decade before he became a full-time author, Rushdie managed to write his Booker Prize-winning novel Midnight’s Children on the job.

A mid-1980s TV ad for Fresh Cream Cakes, whose slogan Rushdie coined in the ’70s

Salman Rushdie inspired by the Wizard of Oz2. He was off to see the wizard at an early age
When Rushdie was 9 or 10 years old, he was inspired to write a short story after watching the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The story he crafted was about a boy in Bombay who climbs up a rainbow and has “fairy tale adventures.” In a 1992 New Yorker piece titled ‘Out of Kansas’ he writes that the song “‘Over the Rainbow’ is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world’s migrants, all those who go in search of the place where ‘the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.’ It is a celebration of Escape, a grand paean to the uprooted self, a hymn—the hymn—to Elsewhere.” He calls The Wizard of Oz his “very first literary influence.”

3. Rushdie jumped at the chance to play himself on the big screen
Well before he struck up a deal with Deepa Mehta to adapt Midnight’s Children to film, Rushdie had made his way onto the big screen a handful of times. He had a brief cameo in 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. His friend Helen Fielding, whose book was adapted into the British rom-com film, offered Rushdie the opportunity to play himself in the movie witnessing an awkward speech at the launch of a book titled Kafka’s Moterbike. He took the offer. A few years later, he played Helen Hunt’s gynecologist in the 2007 film Then She Found Me. Rushdie had been interested in acting for years—he was involved in theater during his college years and then in London on the Fringe before he switched to copywriting.

Spot Rushdie’s cameo performance in Bridget Jones’s Diary, during the book launch for Kafka’s Moterbike.

One of Rushdie's journals from his complete archive at Emory University | credit: Kay Hinton
One of Rushdie’s journals from his complete archive
at Emory University | credit: Kay Hinton

4. His hard drive is now in the cloud
Rushdie’s complete archive is housed at Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, where his private journals, notebooks, photographs, manuscripts, a Mac desktop, three Mac laptops—one of which Rushdie spilled diet coke on—and an external hard drive are all open to view by the public. It’s one of the first interactive “born-digital” archives in the US, in which many of the materials being preserved originated in digital format. After the fatwa, Rushdie began working exclusively on computers, and so everything from virtual Post-it notes to early drafts of novels are only available digitally. Viewers of the archive can even log-in to one of Rushdie’s computers and start editing a manuscript.

Rushdie's books for his children5. He’ll write you a book for your birthday—but only if you’re his son
The stories in Rushdie’s magical realist children’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories were first imagined at the bedside of his eldest son Zafar in the late 1980s, while Rushdie was writing The Satanic Verses. Zafar, then nine, had suggested that his father write stories for children, and so he turned the tales featuring a boy named Haroun, Zafar’s middle name, into a book written for his son upon his 11th birthday, and published soon after the fatwa was declared. Twenty years later, Rushdie’s younger son, Milan, demanded a book. And so for Milan’s 13th birthday, Rushdie followed suit and wrote the sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a novel featuring a boy with Milan’s middle name: Luka and the Fire of Life.

6. Rushdie’s got his eye on writing for the small screen 
Rushdie is now writing scripts for a Showtime sci-fi television series called The Next People. He described it as a kind of “paranoid science-fiction series, people disappearing and being replaced by other people.” When talking about the move to TV scriptwriting, he told reporters, “In the movies the writer is just the servant, the employee… In television, the 60-minute series, The Wire and Mad Men and so on, the writer is the primary creative artist.”