Students from UNH’s Creative Writing MFA program had the exciting opportunity to meet with acclaimed author Salman Rushdie on Tuesday, September 22 at The Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth. Rushdie has written 12 novels, his most recent being Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Days, which was just published this month. Incorporating elements of magical realism with historical fiction, Rushdie’s works have garnered him much acclaim, including the prestigious Booker Prize for his 1981 novel Midnight’s Children.
Eight graduate students who are either in their first or second year of UNH’s two-year MFA in Writing program, joined by professor Thomas Payne, gathered around a table for an intimate discussion with Rushdie.
“The UNH MFA program in fiction gives writers two years away from the world to study the craft of writing, to work with other developing writers and our widely published and award-winning faculty, [and] to learn from visiting writers from Salman Rushdie,” said writing professor Thomas Payne. “It is kind of like a technology incubator for new ideas, except our product line is novels. We are pretty famous for how hard our students and faculty work to develop their work.”
During the roundtable, Salman Rushdie discussed various aspects of writing with the students, from how to go about selecting an excerpt to be published to finding the value of improvisation in writing.
Rushdie’s candid discussion of his early career was particularly helpful to the young writers, according to professor Tom Payne. “Rushdie not only talked about his own new novel, but shared his trials and tribulations as a young author starting out–which is important for the MFA writers to hear, as they are about to write their first collections of stories, or first novels, and try and step onto the literary stage.”
One student inquired as to how much editing went into the writing of his new novel, to which Rushdie responded, “There’s a lot of filing down and softening, that’s for sure.”
Rushdie spent around three years writing his newest book, and admitted that about half of that time was spent trying to find the story itself. “It’s the most improvisational book I’ve written, I think,” Rushdie said, speaking to the importance of improvising in writing rather than planning.
Rushdie’s humility and wry wit were present throughout his discussion with students. Of the thirteen years between his leaving university and publishing his first novel, Rushdie said, “I wrote mountains of garbage and, mercifully, most of it never saw the light of day.”
When one student mentioned that his friend is a fan of Rushdie’s first novel, Grimus, which was largely ignored by critics, Rushdie joked, “Yeah, there are 1 or 2 [fans].”
Rushdie offered several insightful pieces of advice to the students. While musing about the writing process, Rushdie asserted, “All you learn from writing a book is how to write that book.”
One student questioned what Rushdie has to say about writing about controversial topics. His highly controversial 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, offended many Muslims, to the point that Rushdie even received death threats from the spiritual leader of Iran at the time.
“Everything that’s worth saying is going to get on somebody’s nerves,” said Rushdie. “I say, ‘So what?'”
One of Rushdie’s most poignant points was his encouragement to the writers to write what they want to. Rushdie spoke from his own experience of writing books with fantastical elements in an era where realism is favored. “It’s very clear to me that I’ve written a very unfashionable book,” Rushdie said. “And I’m quite pleased with that.”
His advice to the graduate students was to follow their strengths. “Writers should do what they’re best at doing,” Rushdie said. “They should go where their talent dictates. None of us can do everything.”
One of the final questions of the evening was when writing professor Tom Payne asked Rushdie what is it that makes a writer. Rushdie responded, “Well part of it is just not being able to not be a writer. And then it’s just some very odd take on the world, some unexpected angle. Those are the things — the ear and the eye and the need.”
The experience proved extremely valuable to the UNH graduate writing students. “Last night was one of the coolest nights for UNH MFA students in fiction,” said professor Tom Payne. “A sit-down talk with one of this century’s most important–and controversial– authors? Amazing! The MFA students were blown away–I mean, what writer wouldn’t be?”