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Sybil And Salman

The announcement that Salman Rushdie would give the Westport Library’s Malloy Lecture in the Arts in October sent many Westporters scurrying to claim (free) tickets.

It led a few to the “Comments” section of “06880,” where they turned the literary coup into a denunciation of the Iran nuclear weapons deal. (NOTE: Please don’t do that here again.)

For Sybil Steinberg, it jogged a memory of one of the most interesting moments in her long career.

Sybil Steinberg

Steinberg — who moved to Westport in 1960 — has spent much of her professional life as a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly. She writes reviews and conducts interviews. (As a volunteer side gig, she produces the very popular “Sybil’s List” of intriguing new books for the Westport Library.)

In 1994 — 5 years after Ayatollah Khomeini called for Rushdie’s assassination for blaspheming Islam in his book The Satanic Verses, and in the midst of several related killings — Steinberg received a call from the author’s publisher.

Could she fly to London to interview Rushdie about East, West, his new collection of short stories?

And could she be there within 24 hours?

Yes. And yes.

Steinberg spent the red-eye flight reading everything she could by and about the controversial writer. She was taken to a hotel near Harrods, then directed to a cab with tinted windows.

She had no idea where she was going. It turned out to be Random House’s London office, where Steinberg was met by 2 security guards. They patted her down, examined her tape recorder, and marched her to Rushdie’s editor’s office.

The author came in, flanked by security. For the next 2 hours, they talked.

“He was delightful,” Steinberg recalls. “He had a great sense of humor. And he’d just finished his next novel that morning, so he was in an ebullient mood.”

Salman Rushdie/© Beowulf Sheehan

He said he was determined not to be beaten by the fatwa. He was bitter about the writers who had denounced him, and pleased with his defenders. He praised American booksellers who kept Satanic Verses on their shelves, despite threats (and occasional vandalism).

Publishers Weekly ran Steinberg’s interview across 3 pages. It was the most they’ve ever given for such a story — and they haven’t done it since.

Twenty-four hours later, Steinberg was back in Westport.

She’d been apprehensive before the interview, she recalls. She had not known what to expect. But Rushdie was “so open, articulate and warm,” her concerns vanished.

She hopes that when he’s in Westport, Rushdie will talk about his life in 3 cultures: India, Britain and now the US.

“I’ll be there, in the front row,” Steinberg promises. “He’s a very nice man, and a very important writer.”

(Admission to Salman Rushdie’s talk — set for Staples High School on October 22 — is free. However, tickets are required. Click here to register.)

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