Rushdie on... his women, Bono and the Ayatollah
With the film of 'Midnight's Children' in cinemas, Declan Cashin meets the celebrity author
'Are you talking about me hiding out in Bono's guest house?" asks Salman Rushdie, barely suppressing a groan.
I've mentioned to him a long-standing rumour that the U2 frontman was one of the people who provided a safe haven for Rushdie during his decade living under the fatwa calling for his death issued by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 in response to his book The Satanic Verses.
"I visited him a couple of times and spent weekends there, and this somehow turned into that I'd lived there for five years," Rushdie explains. "No, that didn't happen. Yes, we're friends and have collaborated together [on the U2 song, 'The Ground Beneath Her Feet'] but that's it."
He pauses to chuckle. "I think we should finally kill that story," he adds.
We've met on a quiet Sunday morning in London's Covent Garden Hotel to discuss the movie adaptation of Rushdie's 1982 Booker Prize-winning novel Midnight's Children, for which he wrote the screenplay and provides voiceover narration throughout.
It's a sprawling epic that follows the destinies of a pair of boys, who are linked though mysterious telepathic powers, born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 – the precise moment that India gained independence from Britain.
Whatever you do, don't compare it to Slumdog Millionaire. "I'm not a big admirer of that film," he states. "It's just not my kind of thing. But one thing that Slumdog Millionaire did do was that it showed, particularly in America, that you could have a film that doesn't have Western stars in it and quite a lot of it isn't even in English – and it doesn't matter. People will go if it's a good movie."
The movie was filmed in Sri Lanka, but Rushdie never got to visit the set. His old foe Iran expressed its concern to the Sri Lankan ambassador in Tehran that a movie based on a Rushdie book was being filmed in the country, shutting down production for three days.
"This weird Iranian intervention seems so mysterious as this isn't even the book they were objecting to," he says.
"But I thought the last thing I want is to bring trouble to the shoot, and to avoid that I should stay away."
Between adapting the book and penning his recent memoir Joseph Anton, Rushdie has spent the past few years revisiting seminal moments from his life.
The Iranian fatwa was relaxed in 1999, but that decade "on the run" involved 24-hour protection under what was essentially house arrest.
Looking back on the last 65 years of his life, does Rushdie have any regrets?
"Well, I wish it hadn't happened – all of that – because it would have given me 10 better years than I had," he replies. "But I think in the end you can't regret your life. Your life is what you have, and the reason I'm here now is because of everything that happened. So, no, I don't."
He adds that everything he went through hasn't made him overtly conscious of watching what he says either.
"I'm very bad at being careful," he says, smiling. "I shoot my mouth off all the time. I think self-censorship is a kind of death. If people are going to ask you a question you have to say what you think. That's always been my view."
Rushdie says he feels safe today. "It's been a long time now – more than 10 years since the fatwa was lifted," he says. "I don't think of myself as an anxious person."
Rare among authors, Rushdie has almost a movie star level of stardom.
What's his relationship to fame and celebrity?
"I think, unfortunately, in our time celebrity has become a word that is so debased that it now seems to belong to people like Kim Kardashian," he says. "I guess all fame means to me is that I get tables in restaurants."
It also means an increased level of attention on his private life.
Rushdie has been married four times, most recently to model and actress Padma Lakshmi, whom he divorced in 2007. Since then he has been loosely linked to a variety of women, including Indian model Riya Sen.
"That only really started when I was going out with and married to Padma," he says.
"I think it's just because she's so beautiful that people wanted to put her picture in the paper.
"Since then people want to find out who I'm going out with now. But it seems stupid to me."
He pauses as a small grin spreads over his face. "Actually I'm quite good at keeping under the radar, so there are all these rumours, but in fact people I have actually gone out with very often are not in the papers at all."
Midnight's Children is out now