LONDON (Reuters) - British author Salman Rushdie says writing a new novel saved him from the "wreckage" of his divorce last year from fourth wife Padma Lakshmi.
"The Enchantress of Florence," Rushdie's 10th novel, is a story of 15th and 16th century court intrigue in Florence and the Mughal capital Fatehpur Sikri which marks a return to his trademark magical realism where fact and fantasy intertwine.
"It was a good place to go at a time when my private life was in a state of wreckage, and yes it was, I suppose, a bit of a refuge," Rushdie told Reuters in an interview.
"I think in the end what got me through it was the long familiarity of the necessary discipline of writing a novel."
Rushdie, best known for his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses" which outraged Muslims and forced him into hiding after a death edict was issued by Iran's then supreme religious leader, announced the divorce in 2007, ending a three-year marriage.
"I found that in the end a lifetime's habit of just going to my desk and doing a day's work and not allowing myself not to do it is what got me back on track.
"I was derailed for a while. I was in bad shape and it brought me back to myself."
His tale of two cities centers around real-life characters like the great Mughal emperor Akbar and philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli in Italy and others like the mysterious beauty Qara Koz, who enchants men wherever she goes.
The novel, published by Random House, has divided critics, with the Guardian review saying it was "magnificent" and the Sunday Times calling it "the worst thing he has ever written."
The 60-year-old had originally intended to set the story completely in Europe, but ended up dividing the narrative between two great civilizations that barely knew of each other.
"In the end I wrote a book I didn't expect to write," Rushdie said. "I expected to write a book about difference and instead I found myself writing a book about the similarities."
He argues that the parallels with today are clear: while humans are alike everywhere, they often fail to see it and so speak instead of a clash of cultures and religions.
"Even now if you look at the way in which we are all behaving, we are not that unlike at all. It's just that we see ourselves as each other's other, whereas actually we are much more like each other's mirror image."
In "Enchantress," Akbar epitomizes religious and social tolerance and is a champion of freedom of thought and expression, a position criticized by many at the time.
"Was faith not faith but simple family habit?" Akbar ponders at one point. "Maybe there was no true religion. Yes, he had allowed himself to think this."
Yet despite Akbar's example, and Rushdie's belief that human nature is universal, the author is pessimistic about the future.
"It would be difficult to be optimistic," he said. "There is a profound rupture in our ability to describe the world in the same way and I think when that happens ... it becomes very difficult to agree on anything else."
Rushdie believes there should be little compromise in the debate on freedom of speech, no matter what offence it causes.
"When you get involved with this free speech thing you discover that a lot of what you are defending is stuff you don't like. It's easy to defend work that you don't mind. The defence of free speech begins when people say things you don't like.
"If you are not willing to defend the right of people to say things that you personally find even abhorrent then really you don't believe in free speech, you only agree in people's right to agree with you."