I don’t have any strange, occult practices. I just get up, go downstairs, and write. I’ve learned that I need to give it the first energy of the day, so before I read the newspaper, before I open the mail, before I phone anyone, often before I have a shower, I sit in my pajamas at the desk.
From an interview with Jack Livings:
Do you get up in the morning and start writing first thing?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t have any strange, occult practices. I just get up, go downstairs, and write. I’ve learned that I need to give it the first energy of the day, so before I read the newspaper, before I open the mail, before I phone anyone, often before I have a shower, I sit in my pajamas at the desk. I do not let myself get up until I’ve done something that I think qualifies as working. If I go out to dinner with friends, when I come home I go back to the desk before going to bed and read through what I did that day. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is to read through what I did the day before. No matter how well you think you’ve done on a given day, there will always be something that is underimagined, some little thing that you need to add or subtract—and I must say, thank God for laptops, because it makes it a lot easier. This process of critically rereading what I did the day before is a way of getting back inside the skin of the book. But sometimes I know exactly what I want to do and I sit down and start on it. So there’s no rule.
Is there anything in particular that you read to help you along when you’re working?
I read poetry. When you’re writing a novel, it’s so easy to have odd bits of laziness slip in. Poetry is a way of reminding myself to pay attention to language. I’ve been reading a lot of Czeslaw Milosz recently. And then, from over the other side of the fence, I’ve been reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which is wonderful. It’s so well written, with moments of really sloppy writing mixed in, misused words—you know, evidentially instead of evidently. Incredulously instead of incredibly. Clearly the publisher—somebody—thought it’s all part of his Bobness.
From an interview with Alison Beard of HBR (2015):
HBR: How can you tell you’re ready to start a new book?
Rushdie: Usually because an idea is nagging at me. Sometimes you have a person you want to write about, sometimes there’s an event you want to explore. Joseph Heller said that all his novels began with a sentence—one would come to him, and he would know that it contained many more. If an idea sticks around, still interests me, crops up every morning when I wake—that tells me I need to pay attention. And sometimes that can take many years. Before I wrote The Enchantress of Florence, I had been thinking about both the Emperor Akbar and Niccolò Machiavelli for decades. I always thought, “I’m going to get around to writing about them one of these days.” It never occurred to me that they would end up in the same novel. But at some point they started talking to each other, and I realized that was the book.
How do you work? And has it changed over the years?
I’ve always told myself to treat it like a 9-to-5 job. You just go do it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re feeling good that day. I don’t think writers or artists can afford to have a “creative temperament” or to wait for inspiration to descend. You have to simply sit there and make yourself do it. And over the years that’s a discipline I really developed. I can sit down at my desk every day and do my work, never give myself permission not to do it. Once your mind understands that it has no excuses, it’s remarkable how it begins to play along. I’m maybe unusual among writers in that I’m not a recluse. A lot of writers, especially when they’re deeply engaged in writing, retreat from the world. I find that I’m greatly nourished by engaging outside work, being with people I care about, doing things I like to do. That revives and energizes me and allows me to go back to work refreshed the next day. What has changed is that when I started out, I used to get a lot more written in a day than I do now—four pages, five pages. Now I’m doing 400 or 500 words. The difference is that the work used to need a lot of revision. Now I write much less, but it’s closer to a finished piece. I also used to feel the need to have a good sense of the structure of the story before I could begin. As I’ve gotten older—maybe one just gets braver about jumping off a cliff—I find myself more willing to start without planning everything out. Often the story I finish is quite unlike the story I thought I’d begun to write. The writing becomes a process of discovering.