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Salman Rushdie tells of the violent attack that nearly killed him in memoir 'Knife'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Salman Rushdie's new memoir, there is a clear villain. It's a young man wielding a knife who leapt from the audience and stabbed and almost killed Rushdie on a stage in upstate New York in August of 2022. There is also a clear hero to the story - Rushdie's wife, Eliza.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: You know, it's a very interesting thing to find love late in life, and I wasn't expecting it. In fact, I was actively not expecting it.

KELLY: Rushdie was already in his 70s when he married for a fifth time in 2021. When he stopped by our studios in New York the other day to talk about his new book, "Knife," he spoke of being so entranced, so distracted the night he met Rachel Eliza Griffiths that he managed to walk into a glass door.

RUSHDIE: Roof terrace, sliding glass out onto the terrace. And I said, let's go out and look at the view - nice summer evening.

KELLY: Romantic.

RUSHDIE: And so she went out ahead of me and - through the sliding door that was open. And I was so distracted that I didn't notice that the other half of the sliding door was shut. And so I walked - wham - into it and fell down. And my glasses cut my nose, and so there's blood coming down my nose. And it was very dramatic. And I was lying there thinking, do not pass out.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Hold yourself together.

RUSHDIE: Yeah, which I didn't. And then, you know, later on, when this appalling attack happened, it seemed like that meeting with Eliza had been like a comic prefiguring of this, which also involved falling down, glasses cutting your nose.

KELLY: The prefiguring he's talking about - the foreshadowing - is of the violent attack that nearly killed him 20 months ago. He was stabbed at least a dozen times. Rushdie says he keeps trying to count and loses track. On the program yesterday, we heard how he's doing. Basically, he was left blind in one eye, left with almost no feeling in two fingers on his left hand. But ask Rushdie the most upsetting thing about the attack - that it has turned him once again into somebody he has tried very hard not to be. You write in "Knife" about how, for the 33-plus years since Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa calling for your death that you have fought against being defined as the guy with the fatwa on him. And then you've come to realize no matter what you do, no matter how glorious a book you have ever written or ever will write, this is what you'll be known for, and now, additionally, as the guy who got knifed.

RUSHDIE: Yeah. I know. It's - this is the big damage to my work as a writer, you know?

KELLY: Is it? 'Cause it seems like you're making lemonade out of lemons here.

RUSHDIE: Well, I'm trying to do that. But, you know, I spent most of my - 50 years of my life trying to be a novelist. And what this whole episode from 1989 until now has done is, in a way, to turn people's attention away from my novels. And, you know, some of them are quite good. And I would like people to have a look at them. And that frustrates me, that for many people, this subject is so - because it's a big news subject, you know? It's so prominent in people's minds that what my books are like is somewhere further to the back of their interest.

KELLY: Although it's also possible that a whole new generation picked up "The Satanic Verses"...

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Because of this.

RUSHDIE: Yeah. That's possible.

KELLY: Not that one would have wished that was the way they came to it.

RUSHDIE: I always tell people not to read that book first because it has too much baggage around it, you know? I say read something else. Read the most recent novel, "Victory City." Read "Midnight's Children," back at the other end of my life. Read "Haroun And The Sea Of Stories," which I wrote for my young son. I mean, I think, you know, when you've got 22 books sitting on a bookshelf, there's a lot of ways into a writer's life.

KELLY: Do you feel safe now?

RUSHDIE: Well, I feel safe, partly because, yes, I feel safe and partly because we've been sensible. We've taken steps to make things safer. You know, I mean, it's probably not a good idea to talk about security on the prime-time media, but...

KELLY: We don't need to get into the details...

RUSHDIE: No.

KELLY: ...Of your...

RUSHDIE: But...

KELLY: ...Whatever measures you may be taking, but...

RUSHDIE: ...There's a thing that has become significant again in a way that it hadn't been. So yeah, we're taking care.

KELLY: Chapter 8 in this book is titled "Closure?" with a question mark. And I want you to tell me about going back 13 months later to the exact place where you attacked.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: Why do that to yourself?

RUSHDIE: Well, because it just became, for me, a kind of - I don't want to say obsession, but it became it became very important for me, I thought, to tell myself that I was standing up in the place where I fell down. I just thought it was - it would mean a lot to me. I mean, Eliza wasn't delighted about it.

KELLY: She came with you, your wife?

RUSHDIE: Yeah. She said, you're not going by yourself. But I was absolutely determined to do it. And when I was standing on the stage - and I shouldn't tell you 'cause it spoils the end of the book. But when I was standing on the stage, I had this physical sense of somebody lifting a weight from my shoulders. I felt like somebody came and lifted a burden off me. And I said to Eliza - I said, you know, I don't know why, but actually, I feel lighter. And that's more than I had hoped that it would do. But that's what it did.

KELLY: I love, too - you just told me you wanted to stand where you had fallen down.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: You also talked about how alone you felt in the moment of the stabbing, and to go back and not be alone.

RUSHDIE: Not be alone was very important.

KELLY: Yeah.

RUSHDIE: 'Cause Eliza had never been there, you know? So she didn't know what it looked like. So she'd had to imagine it. So for her to see it for real, that was difficult for her also. For both of us, I think it was an important moment.

KELLY: Well, I will bring us to a close by noting yours is not a laugh-out-loud funny book on many levels, but I did laugh out loud as you're describing that scene of going back, standing where you had fallen down on that stage. And it seemed that one of the things that annoyed you most about being knifed and nearly murdered was that the dude ruined your suit.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah.

RUSHDIE: Yes. I had a nice Ralph Lauren suit.

KELLY: You write, I stood where I had almost been killed wearing - I have to tell you - my new Ralph Lauren suit.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: And you felt whole.

RUSHDIE: That was one of the things I did for myself to feel good.

KELLY: The new suit worked.

RUSHDIE: The new suit worked. Yeah. I even got a discount.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: What? Because the tailor was like, oh, God, we need to get you a good new suit?

RUSHDIE: Because they said, you know, give you a discount.

KELLY: You should look sharp for this moment?

RUSHDIE: No. I didn't tell them I was going to wear it to go back there. They just put it up, being nice to me.

KELLY: Glad.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: So a happy ending, in its way. It's a lot to go through for your Ralph Lauren suit.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Well, thank you.

RUSHDIE: Thank you.

KELLY: This was fun.

RUSHDIE: This was indeed.

KELLY: The writer Salman Rushdie in our New York bureau talking about his new memoir, "Knife." To watch a 30-minute video of this conversation, you can visit NPR's YouTube channel, youtube.com/npr.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESMERALDA TORRES' "DWELL IN POSSIBILITY") 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.

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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.