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A man of letters savors the high life

Salman Rushdie enjoys his celebrity

It's always easier to promote a book when you can leave the house, something Salman Rushdie couldn't do comfortably for nine years after Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini put a bounty on the Indian-born author's head. (Khomeini considered Rushdie's novel ''The Satanic Verses" blasphemous against Islam.) However, since the death sentence was lifted in 1998, Rushdie's become quite the man about town, partying with celebrity pals like Kylie Minogue and Bono, waging high-profile First Amendment fights on behalf of other writers, and, last year, marrying the much younger Padma Lakshmi, an Indian actress, model, and cook. Tonight at Tufts, Rushdie reads from his latest book, ''Shalimar the Clown." We reached him at a hotel in Seattle, where he was registered under his own name.

Q. You sound tired. Do you like traveling around on book tours?

A. I do. It's always very pleasurable to meet your readers.

Q. It took you four years to write this book. How can I get my editor to give me that kind of time?

A. I had the good fortune to have a successful book. Maybe you should try that. After the success of my book ''Midnight's Children," they cut me some slack.

Q. Is there a limit to that slack?

A. I haven't found it so far. [Laughter]

Q. You don't talk a lot about the fatwa, but it must come up at these readings.

A. It is a question, but it was so long ago. These days, the audiences that show up are self-selected, so it tends to be a literary conversation. Really, I'm just another author on book tour.

Q.''Shalimar the Clown" is a love story.

A. And a hate story.

Q. Yes, it touches on terrorism. What's the artist's role in the war on terror?

A. I guess to increase comprehension and understanding of people whose realities are very different than one's own. One of the great pleasures of reading is to read books from elsewhere. For example, I used to be quite affected by Russian literature. I hardly spent any time there, but I felt like I had because I read so many Russian writers.

Q.You're one of the very few novelists who make writing seem glamorous.

A. It's only because of my wife. [Laughter] But really, like any writer I spend most of my day hammering away in my room. What spare time I have, I devote it to American PEN and the things it does. And, yes, sometimes I go to parties.

Q. Are you comfortable being viewed as a celebrity?

A. My view is if I have this extra bit of fame, the best thing I can do is use it. Look, if I write letters, people read them. If PEN gets involved in something, and I sign it, it makes a difference.

Q. Tell me about walking onstage with U2 at Wembley Stadium.

A. The U2 thing was a very long time ago. It was four years after the fatwa, and the band rather nobly wanted to show their support, so they asked me to come out.

Q. And you rather bravely agreed.

A. I don't know how brave it was. I don't think there are a lot of Muslim extremists at a U2 concert. [Laughter]

Q. What was it like being onstage in front of 80,000 people?

A. Astonishing. Not like your average book reading.

Q. >What's with Bono? Isn't there a bit of a cult of personality with that guy?

A. He's essentially trying to do the same thing I've been talking about, using his super-fame to do something useful in the world. He's also one of the smartest people I've ever met. He gets into the room because he's Bono, but then he knocks them out because he's a Bill Clinton-style policy wonk.

Q. At the same time, you've also been quite critical of the ''celebrity culture" in the West.

A. I actually think people quite enjoy the tawdry and insubstantial. That's part of the pleasure that the West gives to the world. The issue is the enormous imbalance of power and wealth. In this period of unique American hegemony, America's attracting all of the world's negativity.

Q. I can't wait for the world to be negative to someone else.

A. Me, too.

Q. You live mostly in New York these days?

A. Yes. All of my life I wanted to live in New York. I work really well there. The city is so possessed of a work ethic that if you're not working you feel like a [expletive]. [Laughter]

Q. It seems like you've become a different character than the guy who was in hiding all those years.

A. I don't quite see that. During those years, I was the same person, but I was facing all this stuff that was very difficult. One of the things I discovered at the end of the period of protection was how quickly one returns to normal. That's not to say there aren't scars -- I'm sure there are -- but the desire for ordinary life is overwhelming.

Q. Say, do you have an iPod?

A. I do not have an iPod. My wife has an iPod, and that's all the iPods we need. She says that my music is so old-fashioned and out of date that I should be ashamed of myself. She wants to give me all of her music so I can seem groovy.

Q. ''Groovy"? You really are old-fashioned and out of date.

A. I suppose I am. [Laughter]

Q. You know your wife is very beautiful.

A. She's ridiculously beautiful.

Q. Why is she with . . . What's the explanation?

A. Maybe I'm cuter than you think. [Laughter]

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