It was a Valentine’s Day gift unimaginable to even the darkest cynic: On Feb. 14, 1989, when Salman Rushdie answered his phone, a reporter from the BBC wanted to know how it felt to be sentenced to death by Iran’s Ayotallah Khomeini. The fatwa, or death sentence, followed the publication of Rushdie’s second novel, "The Satanic Verses," which Muslims viewed as insulting to the prophet Mohammed and his wives. 

What followed was a whirlwind of international publicity that forced Rushdie into hiding and forging a new identity — one that combined the names of two of his favorite authors, Anton Chekhov and Joseph Conrad.

And thus Joseph Anton was born. 

Rushdie's just-released memoir, "Joseph Anton," recounts the author's 9 years in hiding, moving from one safe house to another. He sat down with Emily Rooney to talk about his book.

The journey begins with the phone call

It's very odd. I walked out that day in the clothes I was standing up in, and never went home again. Because the police, once all this blew up, said to me they would rather I didn't go back home because they thought it would be too dangerous, not just for me, but for the street. And the cost of protecting the street would be huge. So suddenly I was plunged into this sort of underground life. With a marriage crumbling, and a 9-year-old son from a previous marriage. And for him to have to handle this. Every time he turned on the TV, there were people screaming for his father to be killed. 

It went on for a long time … and nobody thought it would. Everybody thought that this was such an insane thing. That the head of one country should try and order the murder of the citizen on another country, who is living in his own country. That it had to be stopped, it would be fixed. Everybody thought that diplomats would do their work, there would be a solution found. Well, it took 12 years.

Attempts on his life

Oddly, I think for some people, the fact that they didn't get me, made them think they weren't really trying. But actually there were several attempts. I can think of three or four times when I was told by British Intelligence that they believed there was an assassination squad in the country. And I came to have a great admiration for the British Intelligence. I thought they really knew what they're doing, they have very good ears to the ground. And I think that good intelligence went a long way in protecting me against these attacks. Remember, other people were attacked. My Norwegian publisher William Nygaard was shot three times in the back. My Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was knifed and stabbed, and they both happily survived. But my Japanese translator, professor Hitoshi Igarashi was murdered at his university one night when he was working late. The thing that's important  about all those hits is that the evidence that emerged showed that these were not random acts of violence. These were professional hits. These were hired assassins there to target these people.

Fear for family

Though Rushdie remained unharmed, he lived in constant fear something would happen to his family. He had made a nightly appointment to check in with his son at 7 p.m. One night, Rushdie called his ex-wife Clarissa’s home at the designated time, but there was no answer. Rushdie kept calling with increasing panic

What made it even scarier — I said to the protection officers who were with me, "It's weird, because it's a school night, they should be home. Why are they out so late?" And they said they would get a police car to drive by the house. The police car drove by the house. I was miles away. They were in London; I was in Wales at the time. So they drove by the house and came back with this chilling line saying the front door is open and all the lights are on. Well, if you put that together with nobody's answering the phone … 

It turned out OK. It turned out they had been at some event at school and Clarissa had forgotten to leave a message for me. I said what about the lights and the front door? The police car had looked at the wrong house. So it turned out just to be a dumb mistake, but it was the most horrible couple of hours of my life.

The pseudonym

I hated using it, I hated having to do it. There were two reasons to have a pseudonym. One was, I needed to be able to rent properties and write checks and sign contracts without it being known that it was me. That was the practical reason. But the other reason was that the police, who were protecting me 24 hours a day, needed to be able to train themselves not to use my real name by accident. That if they were running around the block or they were in the supermarket, and someone asked them to pick up some toothpaste or whatever, they would blow my cover. So they said we have to have a name that we can train ourselves to use. So make one up. And in the end I made one up that I could use.

The decision to tell his life story in the third person

I just thought I would write it like a novel. I was going to treat myself like a character. In a way, I fell into it. I fell into a spy novel and it felt novelistic. Assassins. Men with guns sitting in my kitchen, and things like that. It's enjoyable to look back on it now because now it's a good story. At the time, of course, it was horrible to live through. I used to not want to write the story. I finally thought, I'm just going to say everything. Here it all is. It actually feels good to have told it.

Support from the literary community

The large majority of writers, certainly in this country, it was more or less unanimous. I value that very much. American PEN, the writers' organization, had a number of events supporting me. And that was important. In England, I have to say, there was some dissent. There were writers who surprised me, like John le Carre, for example. Or the old-school leftist John Berger, who I would have expected to be sympathetic, or at least understanding. But really the problem went beyond the literary world, if you listen to commentators in the news media, not just Conservative politicians who didn't like me because I wasn’t a Thatcher fan, but also even Labor Party politicians because they had large Islamic constituencies who they wanted to vote for them. They were not sympathetic. And then there was an attempt to shift the blame. There was a quite serious attempt to say this is somebody who is not a nice person, and he did this on purpose to make himself famous and rich. And he doesn't deserve public sympathy. And that worked, to an extent.

A larger perspective

Now, looking back at it, I very much feel what happened to "The Satanic Verses" was a harbinger of much larger attacks to come. I think even in the years after the attack on my book, there were attacks on a lot of people, writers, intellectuals, journalists, across the Muslim world. Many of them were murdered. And the attacks against them were exactly the same as against me. These medieval crimes of heresy, apostasy and blasphemy. I can think of writers in Turkey, and Egypt, the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the back. In Saudi Arabia, Iran, there were writers and people being killed. Then of course, beyond writers. There were much broader front attacks. One of the things I try to say in the book is — I think the 9/11 attacks were the main event. If what happened to me was the prologue, there is a line connecting them. I was already living in New York during 9/11, and in those weeks after, we never talked about anything else.  I remember friends of mine saying to me, "Now we get what happened to you."

Honesty about love, relationships, marriages

I just think if you're going to write an autobiography, nobody forces you. Tell the truth. Because the worst thing you can do in biography is to endlessly justify your own behavior. If the book says, "I was kind of great, I always did the right thing, other people, not so much," that doesn't read well. Nobody is fooled. I think the readers want to know that the writer of the book really understands himself. He really knows who he is and he knows there are moments when he disappointed himself. There were things he would have rather have done better. There were things he would have rather have done sooner. There are things he wished he hadn't done at all. And you have to be open about that.

I think one of the big themes of this book is the way in which love and friendship were the things that helped me to resist this attack. I came to see it really as an opposition between hatred and love. I was the target of all this venomous hatred, but I was defended by this incredibly loyal group of friends.

I came to feel that you had love fighting hate, that the victory was eventually love triumphing over hate.

Joseph Anton

The funny thing is, I always wanted to write a book which had a person’s name as the title. I thought they are such great titles, "David Copperfield," "Huckleberry Finn."

I finally got one of those, and it turned out to be a version of myself.