FEATURE STORY by Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES-- Salman Rushdie speaks as well as he writes. Appearing recently at the Skirball Cultural Center for a Writers Bloc presentation, Rushdie charmed and dazzled the sold-out audience with his wit, irreverence and wisdom.

Responding for two hours to questions posed by British journalist Sue Ellicott, Rushdie discussed a variety of subjects: 9/11 and its impact on humanity, his feelings about New York, literature and the craft of writing, his disillusionment with Britain and the British press, growing up in Bombay, his love of movies, theater and acting, and his fears and hopes for the future.

"We're in a dark time," he said at one point, referring not only to post- 9/11 but to the hawklike stance of the Bush regime. "We have to argue against them, puncture balloons." Then he added in a characteristic quip, "We have to vote--early and often."

He cracked equally wise when Ellicott quoted Lynne Cheney on how her reading habits have been affected by 9/11. "She said she couldn't read any fiction now, only non-fiction."

"Then she should stop reading her husband's speeches," Rushdie suggested.

As for his own current reading choices, he confided that he has turned to the classics for solace and guidance, works like The Iliad, "the good stuff." At the same time, he believes that because of 9/11, we "need a new picture of the world," if only because "all the things we thought were true, turned out not to be." 9/11, he added, "was a new fictional moment."

It will be a long time, though, before 9/11 works its way into the fiction he and his contemporaries are writing. "Tolstoy didn't write War and Peace until 55 years after the Napoleonic War," he pointed out. While journalists can react quickly to a catastrophe like 9/11, novelists need time to digest the experience and process it through their sensibilities and art.

Though he has loved movies all his life and has been strongly influenced by them, especially in the way he constructs a narrative and uses closeups, flashbacks and smash cuts to move it along, he is still most moved by bold, daring fiction, fiction that "goes for broke." Citing Gunther Grass' The Tin Drum as a prime example, he called it "a colossal novel, one that broke all the rules."

Admitting he tried to emulate it in Midnight's Children, a book which put him on the literary map, Rushdie emphasized that he has found his own voice now, his own point of view. "I like to take sad material and write it as farce, if only because it then becomes something else." He also has made fury a component of his writing style: "fury in the sense of passion."

In Nov. & Dec. 2002, Writers Bloc will present Scott Turow with David E. Kelley, and Peter Jennings with Harry Shearer. For details call (310) 335-0917 or visit writersblocpresents.com