Rushdie: Digital archive at Emory 'allowed me to write' memoir

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | March 14, 2012

Salman Rushdie discusses creativity and digital scholarship with Erika Farr.

When Salman Rushdie granted Emory University his archive — records that capture 40 years of his literary life — he wasn't just opening the door to public examination of a writer and his process.

Organizing his life's writings — which range from scribbled notes and faded faxes to computer files — also made it possible for the celebrated author to tackle in-depth research for a new book, an autobiographical memoir due out later this year.

Emory's archives "actually allowed me to write the memoir," says Rushdie, speaking during a March 2 discussion at Woodruff Library on how digital scholarship has impacted his craft, part of a series of programs scheduled during his recent visit as University Distinguished Professor.

"People had been asking me (to write it) for a very long time, but I just didn't feel ready," he says of the long-awaited book, "Joseph Anton: A Memoir," which is scheduled for release by Random House in September.

The memoir has already piqued interest in the publishing world. It is anticipated that Rushdie will reflect at length upon little-discussed years of seclusion after his novel "Satanic Verses" sparked death threats from Islamist extremists in 1989 — a threat that wasn't lifted until 1998.

When President James Wagner invited Rushdie to entrust his archive with Emory eight years ago, the author said that decades of writing had been hastily stuffed into "cardboard boxes in the attic," vulnerable to fire and water damage, as well as the ravages of time.

Simply put, it was "a complete mess," Rushdie admits. "There was no organization — 100 boxes of everything and I didn't even know what was there."

Working with Emory's Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL) to catalogue his writings became an exercise that created a valuable resource when Rushdie began work on his memoir, which he describes as "a long book, over 600 pages."

As a researcher dedicated to preserving fact, Rushdie knows firsthand that relying upon memory alone has its dangers, making original documentation essential.

Through the digital archive, the author was able to consult a master index within a searchable database — "my life with barcodes," he jokes —to confirm details that might otherwise have been lost.

Writing in the digital age

For writers, the digital age has brought once arduous research — particularly recovery of obscure historical facts and original documents or translations of ancient texts, which inform many of Rushdie's books — only a few mouse clicks away, saving months of work.

And as someone who once relied upon a typewriter and notebooks, writing on a computer has allowed him "endless improvements" and revisions, says Rushdie, who now reviews drafts of his work "five or six times more than a typed page."

When asked if he thought working with others to organize his archive had changed Rushdie's view of his "evolution as a writer," he explains, "My instinct is not to look backward."

 "Memory is a way of telling you what's important to you," he says. "Yes, this archive is nostalgic for me, and in the specific case of the memoir I was going back to try to create, it was essential. Had it not been done here, I would not have been able to do it."

Erika Farr, coordinator of digital archives in MARBL, who led the discussion, asked Rushdie how it felt to "bravely give us all the machines you had, as well as your paper archive."

"It does feel a bit like undressing in public," he admits. "The biggest conversation we had was with privacy."

Some of Rushdie's most personal material, including the private conversations of family and friends, has been embargoed for later release. The archive reflects his writings through 2005.

 "I've got seven more years that you don't know about," Rushdie says with a smile, adding, "I think it will end up here. I think it would be ridiculous for it to go anywhere else."

Material continues to be harvested from his computers. Time during his recent visit was devoted to working with library archivists to review additional content that will soon be included in the Emory archive, Farr says.

One reason Rushdie's computers are preserved in their entirety reflects his years of writing in seclusion "during periods of high security," he acknowledges.

"They ended up in closets. The number of machines in my possession was a direct consequence of those years of caution," Rushdie says. "I didn't want anyone to know about my movements and places of residence."

The creation of Rushdie's archive at Emory has resulted in unique research opportunities — student and faculty scholars from around the world have already explored it.  And it has also helped advance the science of archiving born-digital materials, Farr acknowledges.

"As a university, we're among a group of early explorers," she says. "On access, we are innovative, doing things few people are doing, really exploring sustainable and innovative ways of taking in this kind of material."