Patti Smith’s long, slender fingers trembled just thinking about being a writer during the presidency of Donald Trump. “I don’t know how people are even able to contain themselves and contain their rage,” Smith said, “I always felt, even if I didn’t agree with whomever was our president, I felt that I could still walk tall wherever I want. I still was myself. But there’s something about this current administration where I feel tainted as a human being.”
On Monday night (Dec. 4) at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan, Smith and Salman Rushdie commiserated about Trump and otherwise compared notes on everything from the writing process to their favorite painters. They were guests at the annual “Chairman’s Evening” hosted by the MacDowell artist colony and were interviewed by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and MacDowell chairman Michael Chabon. MacDowell has a long history of bringing artists together and previous Chairman’s Evening pairings have included Martin Scorsese with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stephen Sondheim with Paul Simon.
Rushdie and Smith share liberal politics, a love for Manhattan and a willingness to try different art forms. Smith is a poet and rock musician who won a National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids. Rushdie is author of the acclaimed novel Midnight’s Children and one of the rare literary figures who shares a songwriting credit with a major rock band. Rushdie collaborated with U2 on “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” the title lifted from Rushdie’s rock ‘n’ roll novel of the same name. At the Whitney, he joked about being approached by other rock stars who wanted to work with him on music, including a drunken Alex James of the band Blur.
“I’ve got this idea,” Rushdie recalled James slurring, “I’ll write the words, you write the music.”
“That didn’t happen,” Rushdie added.
Smith and Rushdie do have very different approaches to writing. Rushdie, who has been touring in support of his novel The Golden House, said he doesn’t write on the road and hasn’t figured out his next book. Smith responded that she loves writing away from home, especially at a neighborhood café, and has multiple projects going. “It’s like a horse race, whichever one hits the finish line, which often isn’t the one I’m being paid for,” she said.
Audience members grumbled when Rushdie contended that women tend to prefer writing at home, in familiar surroundings.
“Oh, you haven’t seen my house,” Smith said.
Both said that current events have made it harder for them to focus, but also more determined. Rushdie said the artist’s role was to “create beauty” and to “move beyond” Trump, at least in the writing process, because he’s “not interesting enough.” Smith said she saw her job as keeping “an eye on everything,” in case “we have to do something drastic” politically, and otherwise maintain a well-rounded existence.
“And I can’t let this guy (Trump), and what they’re doing, keep me from my inalienable right to do my work, to have some kind of joy in life,” she said.