Thursday, June 26, 2008

Salman Rushdie and Me

Elizabeth Zelvin

One of the great pleasures of touring to promote Death Will Get You Sober has been the opportunity for face to face contact with other writers across the country. Fellow Guppies from Sisters in Crime—serious writers committed to achieving publication and quite a few who already have—have come through for me everywhere: driving considerable distances to my signings, buying my books, taking me out for lunch and dinner, driving me to and from book events, and putting me up in their homes.

The other day, sixteen Sisters in Crime from the Sacramento Capitol Crimes chapter turned out in 108 degree heat to give me lunch and hear me talk about Death Will Get You Sober, my work habits as a writer, and my journey to publication and beyond. The old friend who’s been escorting me around Northern California—not a writer, but an avid reader and retired high school English teacher who appears in my Acknowledgments as the first reader of the first draft—had heard my shtik at least twice before. She was fascinated by the difference in content and tone that an audience of fellow writers elicited, even though I told many of the same stories.

“Did you see them nodding their heads?” she asked. Indeed I had. They understood perfectly when I talked about both the craft and the business of becoming a publishable and eventually published writer. What evoked those nods? Among others, these observations:

. That it took years to become willing to “kill my darlings” by editing out treasured passages, because for a long time I was afraid the well would run dry.

. That I was relieved to find that many other writers had characters who, like mine, came to life, talked in their heads, took the story in directions they hadn’t intended, and laid down the law about what they would or would not do or say.

. That a fellow writer illuminated a piece of the process when he told me he found passages that came easily and those he had to grind out word by word appeared to be of exactly the same quality on rereading.

. That it’s probably impossible to avoid all of the potential pitfalls in the quest for an agent, no matter how careful we are.

. That persistence is essential, but we can’t do anything about luck except keep persisting until it comes along.

. That we (in this case, Sisters in Crime; in my case, Mystery Writers of America and online communities including DorothyL, Murder Must Advertise, and Crimespace as well) are incredibly lucky to have each other, because tilting at the windmill of publishing novels in the 21st century would be a nightmare if we had to do it alone.

So what does this have to do with Salman Rushdie? Mr. Rushdie is not a mystery writer, though his new book, The Enchantress of Florence, seems to be a historical fantasy. But he became a hero to most writers in 1989 when he continued to write after being condemned to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini for publishing The Satanic Verses. V.S. Naipaul called the terrorist threat, which has colored Mr. Rushdie’s life for the past twenty years, “an extreme form of literary criticism.” As we say in New York, oy vey!

Anyhow, a few weeks after getting confirmation of a coveted booking at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, I learned that the great bookstore had had to schedule Mr. Rushdie’s appearance for the same date and time as mine. This was the only time slot he had. What did I want to do? they asked apologetically. Cancel? Certainly not. Would I accept another date? Unfortunately, we couldn’t find another slot when the store was available and I was still in the area. So it was Salman Rushdie and me: he in the big event room, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd, and me giving my talk to an audience of eight (a respectable crowd in my debut-novelist’s experience) in the Mystery Nook next door.

“Can I have a photo op with Mr. Rushdie?” I asked. I was half kidding, but shortly before our talks were scheduled to begin, they trotted him over to the next building so I could shake his hand and get someone to snap our picture together. He posed graciously and patiently as the impromptu photographer figured out my camera. I couldn’t think of anything memorable to say, but I was delighted to shake his hand and tell him what an honor it was to meet him. And it was. If Salman Rushdie can write twelve books with a death threat hanging over his head, who am I to quit trying?

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