On September 22nd, seven other grad students and I were ushered into Portsmouth's Music Hall Loft, where ten chairs surrounded a table for Salman Rushdie's Master Class – a private lecture coordinated by Tom Payne and the MFA Program at the University of New Hampshire. Prior to Rushdie's arrival, many of the students were moving around the table and one another, hesitant to sit in the chair on either side of him. We were all nervous. To us, Salman Rushdie is the big-time, one of the people in the literary community closest to a rock star or royalty status.
With his reputation in mind, it was almost a reflex that had the majority of us moving to stand as he entered. But Rushdie dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand. Aside from his popularity and status, he was very humble about his work, especially about his beginnings as a young writer. Discussing his first novel, Grimus, he conceded that the novel only had one or two fans, and the bulk of his thirteen years writing it resulted in more bad writing than good. About ten minutes into the discussion, I scanned the room: my peers were all very attentive, but their shoulders were relaxed. The script of questions I had prepared left my head to make room for a more genuine conversation about censorship, persevering against the struggle of an early writing career, story outlining, and what makes a writer a writer. His primary writing advice to our aspiring group was founded on a matter of love: write what you want; do what you're best at doing.
To hear this advice coming from somebody as gifted as Rushdie was one of the most affirming things for me. Having traveled thousands of miles from home to pursue an MFA, I still had a lot of uncertainty regarding my writing, its quality, and whether I would really be able to complete a thesis. But to have the opportunity to meet and receive advice from somebody I admired was more than I could have ever asked for – especially so early into my experience in the MFA program.
It was an extraordinary relief to know that, despite his success, as well as a career peppered by political controversies, he was very approachable. Following the lecture, we attended the public reading at Portsmouth Music Hall, where he not only discussed his new book: Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights, but his friendship with Christopher Hitchens, the women in his life who influenced his characters, and most delightful of all, his near-cameo appearance with Lou Reed and Julian Schnabel in Will Ferrell's “Talladega Nights.”
After the reading, I had an idea. During the VIP meeting, where Rushdie was autographing copies of his books, I hung back with my cellphone in hand. When the crowd dispersed, I approached him for a selfie. To many people's surprise, he agreed!
“Will you do duck lips?” I asked.
With a surprising amount of emphasis, he answered, “No!”