Last Friday I learned on Twitter that Salman Rushdie was about to speak at Emory about the donation of his personal papers to the university archives. And due to the energetic livetweeting of Roger Whitson (@rogerwhitson) and Brian Croxall (@briancroxall) I was able to see that Mr. Rushdie had some very interesting things to say about his archives. Well, as promised the video is now posted on YouTube, and it’s worth a watch: Salman Rushdie Discusses Creativity and Digital Scholarship with Erika Farr. Here’s the description from YouTube:
University Distinguished Professor Salman Rushdie and Erika Farr, digital archives coordinator in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) discuss how computers and other technology affect Rushdie’s writing and creative process. This builds on previous conversations and addresses new developments such as Rushdie’s acquisition of an iPhone and the ways in which mobile computing has an impact on his work. In addition, given Rushdie’s work on his memoir and his use of his paper and digital archives in MARBL, the discussion turns to the ways in which archival science and archival access changes the way he uses his own archives.
It’s about an hour long, and as I was watching it I took some notes on the parts of the discussion that might be of interest to archivists. I did my best to make my quotations accurate but it’s possible there may be some minor errors and of course I am only attempting to quickly summarize or characterize a much more complicated dialogue. If you have time, watch the video. If you don’t, here are some of my personal highlights:
Rushdie on what he learned from donating his material to Emory: “the electronic material was harder to deal with than the paper . . . it was the opposite of what you would expect.” Farr asked how he used technology to assist him with his writing. He said the biggest change came when he got access to academic Internet resources through Emory. That was a big change, as public sources like Wikipedia are not always reliable. He used the example that Wikipedia says he is an only child when he actually has three sisters (“it doesn’t matter how often you go change it, someone always goes and changes it back!”). He also cited the example of online translations of rare books and other sources which he used for historical research.
On having donated his personal archives to Emory: “it feels very weird” and, said laughingly, “at the time that I did it, I didn’t fully understand what I was doing.” He talks about the strange sensation of donating his materials while he’s still active, compares it to “undressing in public.” (He was embarrassed by his doodles being used in an exhibition, for example.) But it wasn’t that bad because they had had extensive discussions about privacy in his records, and one of his chief concerns was the privacy of others, not his own. They went through the paper and electronic material and created a “kind of embargoed body of material” with various restrictions. After the materials had been reviewed and restricted in this way, he feels much better about having his materials publicly available.
He had “literally never thought about” donating his papers until someone suggested it to him. Rushdie was visiting Emory to give a series of lectures, and the president of the university planted the seed by asking what his plans were for his personal papers. “Somebody asked, it was as simple as that. No one had ever asked before.” People at other institutions were a little put out that he had selected Emory, but as he said, no one else had asked. One motivation for making the donation was to ensure the safety of his papers (both paper and electronic), which could easily be destroyed by fire or water damage. “This stuff is just sitting there, you know, it may as well be somewhere where it’s safe.”
“And also it was in a complete mess.” Someone once told him, back in the ’70s, that he should save all his papers instead of just throwing away his old drafts, etc. They told him to save all that stuff “and one day it’ll pay off your mortgage and that’s more or less exactly what happened.” He also discussed the “arrangement” of the papers–he kept a cardboard box next to his desk and he would throw stuff in there until the box was full and then he’d get a new one. He had no idea what was in those old boxes, and when he started to look through them he found things he didn’t know were there.
Having his papers at Emory corresponded with Rushdie preparing to write his memoirs. He thinks making this donation and having his papers processed actually made him write his memoirs. “Because if it hadn’t been for you guys I’d have had to sort it out. And truthfully I would just simply never have done it.” He describes looking through the finding aid or index to his paper archives, carefully listed with accompanying barcodes, and being able to request copies of specific items, and thinking that yes, now he could write that book.
He discussed how his training as a history student differs from the experience of researching his own records for his own memoir. The difference is that he also has his memory. His notes acted more as a trigger to his own memory.
Questions from the audience:
Question about whether the electronic materials are so fragile and difficult that, in fact, they should not be used for preserved in electronic form. Farr gave a very good answer which I will not try to summarize here.
Rushdie then brought up the problems with old fax paper. The text is now almost invisible. And the electronic faxes on his computer had corrupted files. So the faxes were problematic in both formats. This led to a discussion about how quickly fax machines faded into obsolescence.
A friend convinced him to join Twitter just when he was finishing up with two big projects. He got an enormous number of followers very quickly. But he thinks you have to have a strategy for using Twitter. It shouldn’t be for trivia. It’s a vehicle for talking about things you’re interested in. He only has over 200,000 followers and most of them are anonymous. He looked at where his followers are geographically–most in New York, London, and India. “It’s interesting up to a point.” He thinks he will be on Twitter less as he gets involved with a new big project. But it has been fun and he doesn’t think he will give it up totally.
Question about how working with his archives has changed him as a writer. He says that he normally doesn’t look backward or think about the past. Doing this gave him snapshots of an earlier self. Sometimes you agree with that younger self, sometimes you don’t. The biggest influence was that it showed him how much we change. Again, it’s interesting up to a point, but after that he doesn’t care. He doesn’t need to study this material. He’s in the business of making stuff. You don’t want to be too burdened by your past. Sometimes it’s useful to forget.
In the writing of the memoir, did the archives challenge or correct his memory? Yes, they certainly did. Memory is fallible, and sometimes even when memory is confronted with its wrongness by the archives, it still wants to insist that it’s right. Vivid memories can be quite wrong.
A question was asked about what types of users he had imagined using his digital archives. He had a general fear of tabloid journalists, rummaging around looking for scandal. And he obviously didn’t want to help them in that process. Other than that, he had no idea who would want to use them. He kind of had to block out thoughts about who would want to use them, just as when you write a book you can’t really think about people reading it. It’s important to have a sense of private space. Also the collection only goes up to 2005, and he doesn’t know when he’s going to make another deposit. So he still has a sense of private space in his current papers.
Question about how did the period of his life when he in hiding affect his record keeping. One of the reasons he still has all these old computers is that they didn’t get rid of them because of the security threat. They didn’t want anyone to get any information off them. And in fact security is still a concern. One of the issues that came up in processing the archive is a concern not to compromise security, primarily not to give away the methods that were used to protect him. Not giving away the tricks of the trade. Rushdie then describes how to get away if someone is following you. (Sounds just like the movies!)