Memoirist, skin thy own cat

Salman Rushdie on the novel’s debt to memoir, memoir’s debt to New Journalism—and why the novel is harder than either.

The foment over Salman Rushdie’s new memoir led me in a roundabout way to interviews with him on YouTube. One of the best is the long talk above, recorded at Emory University, when he was in the midst of writing Joseph Anton—apparently he wrote some of it there—because he drills into memoir’s granular issues. I got the sense in this and other early interviews before the book was finished that Rushdie, this erudite novelist, was very actively educating himself about memoir.

How could he not be? He’d probably paid some attention during his career to the memoir boom, but study is in order when you begin to write a book in a new genre. So study he did, into journalism and memoir. That is, into the poles of nonfiction. And one can watch the process of Rushdie’s self-education happening on YouTube. Some of his insights are surprising, maybe idiosyncratic, and others are rather scholarly.

In one interview he confesses, “I don’t actually understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.” That would be a shockingly untutored admission for anyone in the academic literary world—for anyone who’s been to writing conferences and workshops or read any of the stream of books on memoir that take pains, first, to set it apart from autobiography. Maybe Rushdie’s confusion is reflected in the length of Joseph Anton, a baby whale at 656 pages. More likely, he had a big story to tell, a big reputation, a big publisher, and a big market.

By the time of the Emory interview, Rushdie had done enough research, probably building on his existing knowledge as a literary man, to name with confidence the world’s first memoir—and not Augustine’s Confessions like you might suppose:

Early memoirs by St. Augustine, St. John, and St. Teresa were written as confessions to God, or about their relationship with God, not as what we’d consider memoirs. The Confessions of Rousseau [1782] is the first modern autobiography. He kind of chickened out by not publishing it in his lifetime. But there is an intent there [to tell the truth about his life in the world]. Nobody had ever understood that it was interesting to tell your own story.

What happened to literature with Rousseau’s memoir, Rushdie says, was personal “self awareness.” Novels made use of this newly discovered power:

The most famous novels of the eighteenth century pretended to be memoirs—Tristram Shandy and Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. It was a marketing device of the time. And Dickens had a very biographical view of fiction. He liked to tie up all the loose ends. I don’t know and I don’t care what my characters do after the book ends. But he did care. And he told you about what happened to them—and their dogs.

In his study of the memoir Rushdie learned a dismal truth—maybe he relearned it since it would seem true of the novel as well: “Other people’s work doesn’t help really. You have to find your own solutions to the story you have to tell. It’s useful to see how other people skinned the cat, but you have to skin your own cat.”

At least, in Rushdie’s reckoning, the memoirist faces an easier task than the novelist, who must answer many more questions of presentation: “In the novel you have to answer a what question: What story am I telling? Then you have to answer a who question: Whose story am I telling? Then you have to answer a why question: Why am I telling this story? And finally you have to answer a how question: How do I tell this story? And the ‘how’ question is the most difficult of all.”

Memoirists only have the “how question,” he says. “So it’s a little easier. Three quarters . . . that’s already there.”

He credits Oprah Winfrey and the confessional culture she has created for memoir’s current boom, but links it also, rather surprisingly, to the New Journalism of the late 1960s and 1970s that borrowed back from the novel tools now associated with fiction, such as scene, dialogue, and a involved or intimate point of view. He also reveals that he’s studied the most popular recent literary memoirs:

What you have to do on the page is the same thing you have to do in a novel, which is to make people come to life. Including the person bearing your own name. Because if you can’t make them live on the page, it doesn’t matter that they really lived. The reader doesn’t experience them as living. In that sense it’s completely novelistic. If you look at the best examples of the memoir genre, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the best of them are novelistic in that way. It derives from the earlier form we call New Journalism, where journalism decided to put on some of the clothes of the novel.


Writers like George Plimpton and Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer in his nonfiction, Hunter S. Thompson in his book on the Hell’s Angels, deliberately wrote those books novelistically, with all the techniques of the novel. And it created a new form, one element of which was participation. If George Plimpton was going to write about Mohammed Ali, he was going to get in the ring with Mohammed Ali; if he was going to write about the New York Yankees, he is going to get on the field. The journalist enacts the drama he is writing about. And out of that came the New Journalism, which is really extraordinary.


In the next generation, what happened with the writing of memoir was the use of the novelistic technique in the writing of autobiography. Of course there are problems of truth. For example, verbatim dialogue. It’s very difficult to believe someone writing about their childhood and what their mother said to their father, and it’s in inverted commas as direct speech. I don’t care how good people’s memories are, there’s a sense that a convention is being used: that to represent the conversations that dialogue is being partly if not completely made up. And there’s sort of not a way around that—you sort of have to do it. That’s how it is like a novel. You’re making it up in the service of truth if you’re doing it properly.

Rushdie spoke to how a memoirist enhances his credibility: “You have to be harsher on yourself than anyone else. It’s self-glorifying to begin with to say ‘I’m going to write 500 pages about me.’ You have to be ruthlessly honest about yourself. You have to describe yourself more critically than you do other people.”

I mentioned to a fiction writer that Rushdie has chosen to tell his memoir with an unusual and interesting strategy, in the novelistic and distancing third person, writing about himself a la Norman Mailer in his nonfiction as “he,” and my acquaintance was amused: “That was probably a good move for someone with an ego so big.”

So one lives with the perception one has created. Indeed Rushdie seems to suffer from no lack of confidence. But I have to admire him for surviving mentally and emotionally, let alone physically, for a decade with a sentence of death-by-terrorist on his head. And now he’s revealed that decade in hiding—and apparently much of his life story—in a memoir. His choice might have been different in another time:

The market for fiction has dwindled. In terms of numbers of books being sold, nonfiction is king at this time. Not that it will always be that way. The way people want to see their world described changes. Right now, people seem to need some reassurance that this really happened. At other times, they didn’t want that; they wanted a more imaginative representation. There are times when you want your artists to dream for you; there are other times when you want to be given the facts. In twenty years, nobody might be reading memoirs. The only thing is to live in your time and do the best you can.


Filed under craft, technique, fiction, honesty, journalism, memoir, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, scene, structure

14 responses to “Memoirist, skin thy own cat

  1. Wonderful post, Richard, but as I’m a little short on time right now and can’t watch the two youtube parts of the post (which may not have what I want anyway, I can’t be sure without seeing them), I’m wondering if you could answer a couple of questions. Since I don’t specialize in memoir and autobiography and haven’t (by choice) read a lot of either, what are the differences you see between the two, besides the one you enumerate above (i.e., that memoir creates dialogue and uses other novelistic techniques)? Also, is the recent release of “Joseph Anton” the reason that the fatwa has (also recently) been renewed with an additional something-K dollars on Rushdie’s head? As well, I read “The Satanic Verses” soon after they came out, and I’ve also read the excerpt you referred to in “The New Yorker” from “Joseph Anton.” And I think that the person who remarked that Rushdie has a giant ego doesn’t understand something about the psychological effect it has on a person to be hunted and threatened and intimidated over a long period of time–the witch-hunt mentality often produces the effect on individuals that they become more rather than less assured of their importance, in somewhat the same measure that paranoid schizophrenics do: after all, would people be so preoccupied with them if they weren’t important? That’s the thinking. I don’t know if that is true of Rushdie or not, but it could be. I found the portion from the memoir quite gripping, and can see myself wanting to read all 600 or so pages of it whenever it comes to my library. And I will get around to seeing your clips from youtube when I can, thanks for posting them.

    • Hi Victoria, and thank you for taking the time to comment. The difference between memoir and autobiography is generally said to reside in the literal definition of autobiography: auto = self; bio = life; graph = line. That is, the whole line of a life. Memoirs are based largely or completely on memory, and autobiography implies more research or at least use of records; Emory filed and digitized Rushdie’s extensive, disorderly decade of files and boxes from his fatwa period, and he said that that’s one reason the book is so long: he’d have had to write a shorter version if he was going mostly on memory.

      A difference between the memoir and the novel is that major events in memoir are supposed to have happened, whereas in the novel they might not have. I agree with Rushdie’s allowing of fictional techniques in memoir, including dramatizing encounters from the distant past where there’s no transcript and the memoirist must do the best she can. Use of scene and dialogue and setting is the only way to give readers the experience of one’s life and for the memoirist to feel herself back into the past. This is only common sense, and intelligent readers know that memoir is not journalism, though many fine ones use records and interviews and other forms of immersion other than memory.

      I didn’t know the fatwa was back on, and would assume it’s because of his memoir. No reasonable person or fair reader could think either book was disrespectful of Muslims, but we’re talking about the lunatic fringe here. We’ve just seen how Christianity’s own has incited murder and mayhem.

      • Thanks for your careful and conscientious answer, Richard. I agree that a witch-hunt can start from any point of view, any religion, any political slant. And I also agree that it’s in a way the role of fair-minded people everywhere to try to speak up in favor of moderation.

  2. Thank you for distilling this material about things Mr. Rushdie has been saying; I found it very interesting. I’m curious about the conversation between you and your friend, about the use of the third person in the memoir. I’m puzzled how that decision relate to “big ego” rather than effect. What did he mean?

    • Hi Dora. I interpreted his comment to be a crack about Rushdie’s supposed big ego, meaning either than like Mailer he egotistically wrote in the third person or that doing so might have helped him get distance from his ego. I don’t know if that writer’s view of Rushdie is widespread in the literary world or his own impression.

      • Thank you, Richard. Since you’re familiar with these works, may I ask a further question? Does it read egotistically to you, the third person, I mean? I recently did a short memoir-ish type piece in the third person; there was something I liked about doing it that way though I’m not sure I can articulate what felt better than the “I” voice. So I’m curious about the effect you find it creates on the reader.

  3. Dora, I love third person in nonfiction, think it offers possibilities, and think it will grow in popularity. It gives the writer distance on the self and draws the distinction more plainly for readers between the writer “then” and the writer “now,” thus enriching the reading experience. Mailer kind of gave it a bad name, made it seem egotistical, but I don’t think it necessarily is so and not more than first person. The only drawback I can see is that editors and publishers may be still somewhat reluctant to follow a memoirist there, since it seems perhaps more fictional.

  4. Thanks; this is helpful!

  5. I hope to watch the YouTube video at some point! Thanks for pointing out some of the highlights. I’m not sure I agree with his contention that memoirists only have to answer the “how” question. I think memoirists also have to answer all of the other questions that novelists have to answer. It is challenging to do justice to real-life people and stories because you don’t have the flexibility to embellish or fabricate.

  6. As always, I enjoyed your selection of detail from a long and complex interview. I noticed that Rushdie said nothing about the aging of the population in his analysis of why we live in a memoir boom time. (Something a lot of others have noticed)

    I have to confess I never thought of the connection between Oprah and the memoir boom before. We know she’s had a huge influence on book sales in general. I never thought about how many of her “picks” were memoirs. And how her show in general is “confessional.” Duh. I felt the same way about his drawing a line between the new journalism and memoir. You have to look at more than two genres, the novel and the memoir, to see the larger cultural milieu.

    In addition to Oprah and the new journalism, there’s also been a lot of confessional poetry and a strong impulse to add the personal voice in academic papers and books in certain fields, especially in the social sciences.

    I really liked the quote you picked out: “Right now, people seem to need some reassurance that this really happened. At other times, they didn’t want that; they wanted a more imaginative representation. There are times when you want your artists to dream for you; there are other times when you want to be given the facts. In twenty years, nobody might be reading memoirs. The only thing is to live in your time and do the best you can.”

    Ironically, while this era craves truth, or at least the semblance of truth, more than ever, politicians are battering truth in ways I would have thought impossible a decade ago. We have all the tools of “proof,” (audio, video, print), but politicians keep repeating lies that serve their current needs as though they are living in Alice and Wonderland. I wonder what Rushdie would say about that.

  7. Dora, you might want to read the quintessential third-person approach in The Education of Henry Adams.

  8. I found it so interesting that Rushdie ties the renaissance of memoir to the emergence of the New Journalism. I never would have connected those dots but it makes a lot of sense. Instead of reporting, what “NJ” did was to use the novelist’s literary techniques to create a sense of scene, of character, of story. It inverted the journalism triangle and followed the narrative trajectory of fiction. Then came immersion journalism and the writer themselves became part of the story. I always thought poets were the ones who made memoir what it is today (I see the poet’s “I” in memoir so strongly — emotional truth, metaphor and reflection). It’s becoming clear to me that we writers of personal narrative draw on a lot of influences. And we need it. Even though what we are writing about is “true,” we have a lot of heavy lifting to do. We still have to make it believable. Like Rushdie says: “What you have to do on the page is the same thing you have to do in a novel, which is to make people come to life. Including the person bearing your own name. Because if you can’t make them live on the page, it doesn’t matter that they really lived.” Try doing that when you’re both the writer and the subject. It’s a tricky business, as Rushdie has found out.

  9. Have I mentioned lately how smart you are?