Sybil Steinberg spent many years as a senior editor at Publishers Weekly. In 1995, the prestigious trade magazine for the book industry flew the longtime Westporter to London.
Salman Rushdie was in hiding; the Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa calling for his execution. Last week, the author was stabbed repeatedly, during a talk in upstate New York.
Steinberg recalls her interview with Rushdie, 27 years ago:
At the time I was editor of the book review section, for which PW is renowned. Pantheon was about to publish his first collection of stories, titled “East, West.” They wanted to assure the US publishing industry that Rushdie was still writing, and at the top of his form.
Security was tight. A cab with shades drawn picked me up at my hotel, and drove me to the Random House offices in London.
I entered through a side door. Two security people examined me, and my tape recorder and notebook. I had to assure them that I hadn’t told anyone abut my mission.
They led me to a private office, and locked me in. About 10 minutes later, there was a clatter in the hallway. Rushdie arrived, accompanied by his own security team.
Rushdie’s serious expression had led many to misread his personality. He proved to be a delightful interviewee: genial, forthcoming, and a great raconteur.
Because Rushdie was of great interest to the publishing industry, PW gave me 3 pages for the interview — a privilege never granted before or since.
The headline read: “Six years into the fatwa, the resourceful writer discusses his new book and his determination ‘not to be beaten.'”
Here’s an excerpt: “While he doesn’t deny that the death sentence cast a cloak of terror over his existence, Rushdie is eager to plead the this audience not read his life into his work.”
There’s a bitter irony that Salman Rushdie was attacked as he was about to address the audience at Chautauqua about America’s role as a safe haven for authors.
Sybil Steinberg retired from Publishers Weekly in 2001, but continued as a contributing editor until last year. When PW celebrated its 150th anniversary this past April, she was honored as an editor who was “a significant force in the industry.” She continues to offer regular recommended reading lists, through the Westport Library.
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