In an interview with Shuddhashar, William Nygaard explains why, after the fatwa, publishing Rushdie’s book became a sacred and imperative duty

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We received the English version of Satanic Verses in the fall of 1988, even before the demonstrations in Bradford took place. We were surprised that our colleague (Gyldendalske) in Denmark refused the book of such a promising author, and not for controversial reasons. None of us saw the dimension of the objectionable perspective until the fatwa was made public on the 14th of February,



Norwegian publisher William Nygaard came to the attention of the world on 11 October 1993. William’s publishing company, Aschehoug, released Salman Rushdie’s famous novel, “Satanic Verses” in translation.Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution, had issued a fatwa targeting author Salman Rushdie and publisher William Nygaard in light of this. Responding to this fatwa, one or more assailants attacked William’s house in Oslo on 11 October 1993, firing multiple shots before escaping. William survived serious injuries. He later went on to serve as the chairman of the Norwegian Broadcasting Board, and on the board of Vision Theatre, Norwegian Pen and Sami Publishers. It is worth mentioning that he was born on 16 March 1943 in Oslo. He has been awarded the Fritt Ord Award for his efforts for the freedom of speech in 1994, the Torgny Segerstedt Prize in 1998, knighthood under the Order of St. Olav in 1998, and an honorary doctorate by the University of Tromso together with Salman Rushdie, also in 1998. One of the true heroes of the freedom of speech, William has spoken at length about his life, work and experiences in this interview, which will serve as inspiration for future generations.

Shuddhashar: I would like to start by asking you about the time you first became a publisher. Did you only take on the responsibility by virtue of inheriting the job, or had you already started preparing yourself for the role earlier?

Willam Nygaard: You never inherit a job in Norway except when immediate family own their own business. That was not the case in my life. My father, who was a publisher, died early, when I was 9 years old and my admiration for him and his profession inspired me to dream of being a publisher myself. I was free to choose what I wanted so I created my own plan for studies and practice to achieve my goal. But we never really know what will happen, so I decided to get an academic education which would leave me several options later on.

My first academic step was a general education in management with law, literature, technology and a solid base in economic topics at the University of St. Gallen. I trained myself during summer jobs in publishing houses in Oslo and Germany, as well as bookstores in Oslo, Vienna and Dusseldorf. I have always been interested in politics so I was hoping that I, one day as a publisher, could have a say in where our country was heading.

After a couple of positions in management consultancy companies, I got my first executive job in publishing as director in charge of a small educational publishing house (1971).

Then the chief publisher of one of the largest houses in Norway, Aschehoug, Arthur Holmesland, all of a sudden died in the Fall of 1973, and I decided to apply as his successor. Stupefied and honored, I got the job and started on the 1st of April, 1974. I was then 31 years old and felt very motivated and excited, but also “scared to death” being that young. My academic background and work experience proved to be suitable for the job and step by step I succeeded in modernizing the old publishing house. We grew systematically year by year in all fields, educational books, non-fiction, national and international fiction and children´s books. We acquired other publishing companies, built book-clubs and developed a chain of book-stores.


Shuddhashar: Do you feel you have contributed new variations in how to select, publish and market books?

Willam Nygaard: we built up different departments with their independent editorial program and budgets. Every department – Norwegian fiction, translated fiction, children´s books and non-fiction – had their own editor-in-chief reporting to me. Separately – the other half of the company was the educational part – with one department for the elementary level and one for the secondary. Later we also bought an academic publishing house being part of the educational activities.

As the publisher-in-charge I decided that the chief-editors, as well as myself, should propose titles independently for their departments and then in editorial meetings, we made decisions together. The combination of the editorial and economic responsibility created dynamic activity. We developed more secondary editions with different price levels, bindings, branding and editorial profile for different sociological and demographic reading groups – from cheaper hardbacks to regular paperbacks. With surveys, we measured the success and the profile of the series every second year.

Through the late seventies, eighties, nineties and in the beginning of two thousand we published more illustrated non-fiction series like a Norwegian Cultural History in 8 volumes, World History in 16 volumes, Norwegian History in 12 Volumes, History of Ideas in 6 Volumes, History of Music in 4 volumes and many more like a translated history of art, contemporary history and so forth.

Shuddhashar: What are your fears about the future of printed books?

Willam Nygaard: I don´t fear for the future of printed books. The digital inventions are an additional opportunity for the readers on all platforms. The digital platforms will increase reading as a phenomenon and reach more people, young and old, and the paper book will last.

Shuddhashar: Do you think there are even more advancements in format ahead of us after the e-book?

Willam Nygaard: The e-book as a channel and connected reading-tool will, of course, get better and there will probably be other advancements as well. It seems that the relation between the digital and analog reading have found a balance. In the digital world, it is important that the authors and publishers’ rights are secured, which must be solved nationally and internationally

Shuddhashar: You are a defender of free speech and human rights. How and when did you get involved in this activism?

Willam Nygaard: When you take a job as a publisher of a leading publishing house in Norway, this is part of the job. You can simply not be a publisher in the long run in Norway without understanding that you are part of the guarantee for freedom of expression. Our constitution expects their civil players to play by these rules. Our publishers, as well as the media, are amongst the players.

Shuddhashar: You faced an assassination attempt due to your publication of The Satanic Verses in Norway. Before that, a fatwa had been declared against you. I would like to know and share with our readers about your experiences and thoughts at that time. We hope you feel comfortable in sharing those thoughts.

Willam Nygaard: Salman Rushdie was one of our most important international authors from his very first book, Midnight’s Children. He won the Booker Prize for it. He represented an important new literary voice giving insight to the Eastern world in his brilliant and rich language. Salman Rushdie was and still is important to us, and we were proud to be his publisher in Norway. We were, of course, informed that he was controversial in India, but it was difficult for us to understand why, and even more surprising that his books were even forbidden. He came to Norway when we launched Midnight’s Children, and we became well acquainted. It would have been an extraordinary thing to refuse such an important author in our program even if a book might be more difficult. There is no doubt that Satanic Verses was more demanding for the Norwegian public simply because the book included information that many readers in our country at that time was unfamiliar with.

We received the English version of Satanic Verses in the fall of 1988, even before the demonstrations in Bradford took place. We were surprised that our colleague (Gyldendalske) in Denmark refused the book of such a promising author, and not for controversial reasons. None of us saw the dimension of the objectionable perspective until the fatwa was made public on the 14th of February,

1989. For us, the book was fascinating because the author’s imagination and insight gave us not only a literary experience but also brought us closer to a Muslim world that Western readers at that time were less familiar with. The day of the fatwa I recall well because one large newspaper called me during a meeting and said that I was threatened to death if the book Satanic Verses would be published in Norway. I was asked if we would consider stopping the book. I can quite well remember how the question created a combination of surprise and anger. How could anyone even ask if we would let down our author Salman because of fear? How could anyone believe that our fundamental value of freedom of expression could be undermined when one of the world´s prominent authors wrote a controversial work? My answer came very spontaneously, as an automatic reaction solidly builds on our fundamental values. The book would not be stopped even if death would be threatened. For any Norwegian publisher, freedom of expression is such a basic principle that the answer would have been easy and the same for anyone.

We understood that this was mainly a political move by the Ayatollah even though we could see that aspects of the book could be considered insulting. But in the Western tradition, it was such a great distance between a book being controversial and debated, to a political move like a death threat. The fatwa made the necessity of publishing the book even more important in order to defend our sacred values for democracy and free speech. There were religious voices in Norway that found the insistent decision controversial. They felt we should respect the integrity of the Muslim religious interpretations. But for me as a secular and non-believer, the democratic values were far superior and very important to defend. The translation was rushed, and the publication date secretly, due to security reasons, rushed to mid-April, 1989.

Shuddhashar: Could you kindly share with us what you did in the time after you survived the assassination attempt? How long did it take you to return to your normal life?

Willam Nygaard: The attack happened outside my home on a rainy day, the 11th of October, 1993.

After three weeks of treatment in the hospital, I was brought secretly to a recovery institution outside Oslo. Here I remained isolated for health and security reasons, and I stayed there for four months. A little weak and tired, I got myself back to work once it was determined I could resume my responsibilities and the job I valued. My goal was to get back to normal life as soon as possible even if the life after the attack became very different with bodyguards 24-hours a day.

Shuddhashar: Your attackers were arrested by the police. Did they face justice for their crimes? Were they given any form of punishment? And were you satisfied with the relevant judicial processes?

Willam Nygaard: The attackers were never found nor arrested. No-one is accused of the attack even if we know of people still living in Norway that certainly have been involved. It is peculiar, but the police have never been able to prove their involvement. Possibly because of my own confusion about what had happened, the hitmen got precious extra time to hide in the Iranian Embassy or flee the country. The police work in the case has been a scandal and the follow-up work irresponsible. The case and the failure in solving the crime have, besides the media involvement for a long period, been described in two books written by the journalist and author Odd Isungset as well as a couple of critical Television programs.

Shuddhashar: We would like to hear about your own writing. What do you write, and are you still writing? How many works of yours have you published?

Willam Nygaard: I am simply a publisher and not an author. I have debated and written a lot of journalistic works and speeches, and I have published two books, both about freedom of expression, authors, literature and the publishing profession.

Shuddhashar:  Forgive the assumption, but you must love reading books too. What genres and topics appeal to you the most? If your list of favorite writers is not too long, it would be kind of you to share it with our readers.

Willam Nygaard: Reading is, of course, important to me – starting when I was 6 years old. It has been a mix of reading the books I liked before the publishing career started, and the professional reading as a publisher that took most of my capacity. As a publisher you are reading all the genres, of course, that is part of the program of the house. For me personally, it was a very interesting goal being able to step by step to build and stimulate the quality of Norwegian literature as a whole. Since I worked in a big publishing house and was on the board of the Norwegian Publishing Association, this was possible. Today literature in Norway is really of world-class caliber, and the rights are sold in great numbers everywhere. There are sparkling names like Jostein Gaarder, who with his success Sofie´s World, sold ca 50 million books all over the world, Jo Nesbø, the crime writer, and Karl Ove Knausgaard. Likewise, we have Linn Ullmann, Per Petterson, Ketil Bjørnstad, Maya Lunde, the non-fiction Åsne Seierstad and many more.

After my publishing career, I have become a full-time activist as the president of the freedom of expression organization; Norwegian PEN. My reading mirrors my activities and is concentrated on two fields – literature dealing with human rights and the freedom of expression situation in the world and in my own country and as before – Norwegian and international modern fiction.

Shuddhashar:  Do politics have any impact on your personal and professional lives? If so, what kind of impact?

Willam Nygaard: I have never worked with an official party affiliation since my profession as a publisher demands independence and professional neutrality. But it has been important to me to choose political topics and titles when I have felt that certain problems needed to be highlighted in the Norwegian society. It is difficult to be a successful, well-rounded publisher without having a burning and intense interest in your society and all its human and political aspects.

Shuddhashar: What political change do you expect to see but is yet to be fulfilled? What do you think about the prospects and the future of a united Europe?

Willam Nygaard: The situation of humanity, democracy, and freedom of expression is again under pressure in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, the memory of the human tragedy of the Second World War and the Holocaust seem to be fading when new generations come to power. The threat to democracy by the new right-wing movements is evident in many of the old Soviet Union states. The refugee crisis after wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya, has created similar conflicts and fear in many European countries with religious fundamentalism and terrorism as a result. We have hopefully seen the end of the Daesh /IS confusion and enormous tragedy that followed, but religious terrorism is not over. Turkey under its president Erdogan is developing in a direction of religious and lawless tyranny with internal as well as external conflicts. Their Kurdish problem is accelerating and it is seemingly being solved by bombs instead of negotiations. The EU project is weakened because of Brexit and the extreme right-wing developments in the eastern European countries. The recent elections in Holland, France, and Germany might have turned this tide, but it is too soon to tell.

Shuddhashar: You were a student of Economics and also served as the head of a successful business organisation. What are your thoughts on the developments in global economics? The balance between the economy and the environment, and the impact of technological advancement on the reduction of the workforce; we would like to know your thoughts on these issues.

Willam Nygaard: Climate change will influence global economics enormously. We have merely seen the beginning. New energy sources and modern energy will step-by-step change communication, investment, and employment in all kinds of production. On the other hand, robots and artificial intelligence will create a less industrial workforce. We have many challenges facing us in the future, one of them being health and human well-being. This is becoming more and more important.

Shuddhashar: The way that extremism, especially religious extremism, is getting a firm grip on this world, and the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria is emerging – where do you think the future of the world is headed? What do you think is behind these tragic circumstances? Do you think the global superpowers have played a role in this?

Willam Nygaard: The question is already answered.

Shuddhashar: You have long been involved in working with refugee writers. Have any incidents in this line of work especially touched or shocked you?

Willam Nygaard: For me, it has been an inspiration being able to work with refugee writers through ICORN and PEN. The stories of the writers are often tragic and shocking. Their possibility to go on as writers in their new country is, however, often limited because of the language barrier. But I impressed by their optimistic view and their way of integration.

Shuddhashar: Refugee writers struggle to regain their former creativity when they arrive at a new destination under new, often strenuous, circumstances. What are your observations and suggestions on this matter?

Willam Nygaard: The main obstacle for the refugee writer to establish themselves in their host countries is the lack of knowledge of that native language, politics, and culture. If they are able to go on writing for their home market, they are in a lucky position. Norwegian PEN is trying to stimulate their integration in the direction of their profession. As an “entry card” to a writing profession in their new country, anthologies are published, workshops organized and support for translations into the host country language would be a great help.

Shuddhashar: Humans continuously live their dreams. Age is no matter in this case. You must dream too. What are your dreams about? Are they about you and your surroundings?

Willam Nygaard: Personally I was pretty much able to live my publisher dream for almost 40 years. A lot of goals were accomplished, among them probably the most important: to strengthen literature in Norway through common efforts and through a political framework for writing, reading, and publishing (the fix price agreements, supports for authors and so forth). Today, reading capacity in the population is under pressure. My dream of today would be to engage the politics of the cultural and educational ministers of the country in cooperation with The Authors and Publishers Associations to create a program stimulating readers and reading to be an important element for people of all ages, regardless of genres. Extending literacy, reading and writing is in my opinion, the best guarantee to strengthen humanity, democracy, and freedom of expression in our society – as well as economic welfare.

Shuddhashar: How many times have you fallen in love? Writers usually state this fact of their lives boldly. Whether publishers are quite as bold or not, I do not know. If you like, you could share some of your tales with our readers!

Willam Nygaard: I am not an artist or entertainer, so my privacy is not part of my profession and to be shared publicly. But I can confess that I have two wonderful kids and five grandkids. Being in love is healthy and it stimulates my activism…

Shuddhashar: As you know, at this moment, many different writers, artists, musicians, publishers, and other creative minds are making do with the mere distractions of life. We would like to highlight a brief statement from you as an adviser to the free speech and refugee artist process.

Willam Nygaard: Follow your passion even if you live under limited and restricted circumstances. If you feel that independence and democracy, freedom of expression and humanity are the natural basis of being a human being, be responsible and fight for it with all your might.

Your fight is always important regardless of it being on a small or large scale.



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