Editor’s note: In this week’s edition of Frontier Reads, Booksmart Tulsa founder Jeff Martin recounts his day with author Salman Rushdie. Rushdie, best known for his book “The Satanic Verses,” spoke at All Souls Unitarian Church on Monday as part of Banned Books Week.
Rushdie’s latest novel is “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.”
Booksmart Tulsa kindly allowed The Frontier to record Rushdie’s visit. Video excerpts of his appearance are included in Martin’s story.
I can imagine many things. And several of my outlandish childhood dreams have actually come to pass. But I never thought I’d be alone in an Italian restaurant sharing meatballs and bruschetta with Sir Salman Rushdie.
About a year ago I was approached by some colleagues about doing something special for Banned Books Week 2015. Ideas were tossed around. Dream scenarios were discussed. One question lingered in the air like smoke in a bar: Could we get Salman Rushdie to Tulsa? Without drifting into the unglamorous minutia that goes into making the ask and sorting the logistics, we somehow got to “yes.”
Picking up Rushdie at Tulsa International Airport, I didn’t know what to say. Meeting idols can be tricky. He’s a well-documented Bob Dylan fan. I had some playing low in the car. Heading to the hotel, I casually mentioned that Tulsa is home to the Woody Guthrie Center, which, as it happens, just opened a new show on the Folk Revival.
Rushdie wanted to go. They were closed. I told him I’d work on it. I called WGC Director Deana McCloud. She made it happen. He later told me that Dylan is the one celebrity he had the chance to meet and turned down. He was afraid it might “ruin the legend.”
Over six years and well beyond 200 book events, I’ve never spent much time worrying about the security of a venue. So it’s quite an understatement to say I was nervous when I found myself, five days prior to the Rushdie event, sitting in a room surrounded by members of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
This past Monday, more than 700 people packed into All Souls Unitarian Church to see Rushdie’s first appearance in Oklahoma. The original plan was for someone else to interview him on stage. Those plans fell through and the responsibility fell on me.
My only goal, other than not looking like a fool, was to give the audience an enjoyable and unforgettable experience. More to the point, I wanted them to laugh. A lot. This might sound difficult when talking to a person who is publicly (and one could argue mainly) known for geopolitical and religious reasons, neither a topic known for easily tickling the funny bone. But here’s the thing: Salman Rushdie is a funny guy.
I’m still basking in a bit of the afterglow, but I’m fairly certain I’ll always look back on that night as something magical. It happens once and a while. More often than not, something goes wrong to varying degrees. Such is the nature of a live event. But there have been those moments, those days that carve themselves into the Mount Rushmore of memories, when everything goes exactly as planned. And beyond.
The people came with high expectations, they left with total satisfaction. The officers and agents, sprinkled anonymously throughout the crowd, had a quiet and easy night. Sir Rushdie himself, admittedly exhausted from a long tour, showed no public signs of fatigue, in fact looking more energized with each interaction.
Back to the meatballs.
After the final book was signed, the final platitudes uttered, Sir Rushdie needed a glass of wine and “maybe something to eat.” After 10 p.m. on a Monday night in Tulsa, the high-end culinary choices are few. And the Waffle House didn’t seem feasible.
One of the officers assigned to us mentioned Mondo’s on Brookside. “Aren’t they closed?” I asked. “Give me a minute,” he responded, putting the phone to his ear with a knowing smirk. “We’re in.”
The remainder of the evening will easily go down as one of my most treasured memories. Various dishes covered the table. Wine flowed. We talked about everything under the sun. In this post-Kardashian age of confessionals and over-sharing, I’d rather keep the specifics to myself. It just doesn’t seem as special and intimate with every detail known.
My friends always give me a hard time for not having more signed books. Given what I do and who I have the honor to meet, one might imagine a pretty stellar collection. The honest truth is that I often forget to ask, distracted by the tasks at hand and the energy of the moment. I’m sorry to say I did it again.
I don’t own any books signed by Salman Rushdie. But I remember the garlic on his breath when he said goodbye.