In response to the pandemic widely cancelling in person literary and arts festivals, this summer The Believer Festival, Portland Book Festival, Wisconsin Book Festival, and The Loft’s Worldplay have teamed up to put on virtual events. The first in the series was a conversation between Wordplay’s founding director Steph Opitz and Salman Rushdie. They discuss Rushdie’s latest Quichotte, a contemporary homage to Don Quixote, Pinocchio,works by Charles Dickens, and other familiar tales. In Quichotte, the Indian-American protagonist has been driven mad by reality TV, invented a son out of the cosmos, and is on a journey to win the heart of an opioid addicted Oprah-like celebrity. In this conversation, Rushdie talks process, opens up about how political movements impact his work, and asks how rage and art serve in a time of crisis.
THE BELIEVER: Could you give us your elevator pitch for Quichotte?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, what I wanted to do was write some kind of a panoramic novel that went across the country. The two books I’d written immediately before this were, more or less, entirely set in New York City. I remember thinking, even while I was writing the previous book, The Golden House, that I needed to leave town. I needed to get out of the 212 area code.
And then just by chance I was asked to read and write something about Don Quixote. And so I looked to that book, which I hadn’t really read since I was a college student, and it gave me the idea for a version of Don Quixote and his Sancho Panza as being the people who would go across the country for me. Very quickly they became not like the originals. My Sancho has, I think, more in common with Pinocchio than Sancho Panza in that he’s an imaginary child created out of his father’s need for a child who then wants desperately to become real. The thing I liked about the way my character of Quichotte developed is that he’s incredibly optimistic. He’s absurdly optimistic. Even when there’s really no reason for it. And I thought if I can just launch that spirit of optimism across the country at what might not be the most optimistic moment in its history, then the kind of contrast and the tension between those things would be interesting. So basically that’s what he does. It’s a road novel in which these two buffoons travel across America on a quest for love.
BLVR: The character of Quichotte is going crazy from watching TV. Did you go crazy from watching as much Bravo as you have seemed to have watched?
SR: Well, the strange thing is that this has not been my television of choice most of my life [laughs]. Once I had this idea that it’s not just TV, it is in particular reality TV that sort of lampoons. I felt that I have to do my research. I can’t describe what’s in his head unless I know what’s in his head. So I did have to watch substantial quantities of bachelors and bachelorettes and all of that. And now I don’t have to. [Laughter]
BLVR: I’d love for you to talk about the role of the narrator and the story within the story and what the responsibility of the reader is to understanding your role, Salman, outside of this.
SR: Well, it’s kind of a Russian doll of a book in that there is a story—the story with which we’ve just been talking about, the Quichotte story. We discover at the beginning of Chapter Two that that story is being written by an author who is the central figure of the frame story. And, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t planning to do that. When I first thought of the book I thought it would just be the story of Quichotte and his son making this crazy quest across the country and then this other thing showed up about this imaginary author who turns out to be the author of that story line, and isn’t me.
So there’s me as the actual author creating an imaginary author who’s creating the story that you’re reading. I think for a while I just wasn’t certain about it. I didn’t know if I would keep that or not. And then I guess I thought it was interesting that what I’d shown the reader, I hope, is something about the nature of the act of creation. Something about how the circumstances of the ostensible author, his own life, are kind of transmuted into the story that he’s telling. So he, for example, has a difficult relationship with his son. He has a strange relationship with his sister. He is increasingly worried about getting older and thinking- having thoughts about mortality and so on and he gives versions of that to the character whose story he’s telling, but not exactly the same. So, what happens in the Quichotte story is different than what happens in the author’s story. I thought that- that became interesting to me, the way the stories to some extent mirror each other but end up going down different paths. So the creative world doesn’t follow the rules of the real world. And yeah, so in the end I thought that might be interesting and I decided to leave it in.
BLVR: I think there’s so many moments where the characters kind of give a nod to their creator or questioning the creator and it feels almost like a sort of a lesson in how you are processing the creation of the story, that you kind of let us behind the veil.
SR: Well, a little bit. And there’s also one of the things that I got from Cervantes because what happened in the writing of Don Quixote was that what is now Part One of Don Quixote he originally thought was going to be the whole book. He wasn’t planning to write a Part Two. And then somebody else, an anonymous author, wrote a fake Part Two and called it Part Two of Don Quixote and Cervantes was so annoyed that he wrote his own Part Two in order to get rid of the imposter. And in Part Two of Don Quixote both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza become aware that they’re characters in books and actually have very strong opinions about the books they’re characters in and are constantly trashing the fake Don Quixote. “Don’t read that, that’s garbage,” [laughs], “Read this one because it’s good.” So that kind of self-consciousness, characters becoming aware of themselves as characters—strangely, it’s so extraordinarily advanced that Cervantes should have done that in the early 17th century and here we are four hundred years later and still feels original, I mean if you do it right. I wanted a bit of self-consciousness.
BLVR: There was a moment too where you talked about where a character takes more importance than the author originally intended and kind of moves into the center stage. Can you talk about the process and how that’s worked for you?
SR: That’s happened to me very often in books that I’ve written. Both ways. Characters that I thought would be quite central in the event turned out to have less juice in them than I thought and became more marginal. And characters who I thought were secondary just became so vivid to me on the page that they needed more space, they needed more space and time. And well, that’s certainly what happened in this book, with what I was saying of the character of that so-called author. He wasn’t supposed to be there at all and he became very significant indeed. And then of course there is a game being played there between what you think about him and what you think about the person who wrote him, in other words: me. And that’s just something I think for readers to have fun with and enjoy.
BLVR: Well, speaking of fun, it seems like you had a lot of fun writing this book. You feel that sort of, even though it’s dealing with a lot of difficult topics, that it seemed like it was a fun exercise for you.
SR: Yeah. I think that books are a strange kind of fun. They drive you mad and they make you constantly aware of your own inadequacies. But this one was enjoyable because I really wanted it to be funny. And the world it’s describing, it’s quite black comedy. The world it’s describing includes elements of violence and racism and so on. But the tone of the book is comic and once I got that, once I thought, “Okay, I think it’s very important to get the tone of the book, exactly how you’re talking to the reader, not what you’re saying, but in what kind of language you are talking to the reader and do you have your tongue in your cheek or are you being pompous or how are you doing it?”
Once you have that, then it becomes fun, yeah. One of the things that’s been really pleasurable for me, the time since the book came out, is that a lot of readers have said to me that they really have thought that it was the funniest book that I wrote. Starting with my literary agent actually who said that to me a bit before it was finished and that was very encouraging at the time. It was what I needed to hear.
BLVR: As you’ve mentioned and as is made obvious by the title, Cervantes is an inspiration for this book. But there are so many other writers and artists that you pull into this and you talk a bit, or a character talks a bit, at the end about standing on the soldiers of giants and borrowing from other works.
SR: Yeah. Obviously, I mean this book in a way, more than anything I’ve ever written I think, tries to use the entire- the entire world of fiction as a way of trying to understand the present moment. So I mean, yeah, there’s a lot of writers. Cervantes is the most obvious because it’s in the title in the book. But I’m very interested in the way in which Charles Dickens writes, which is his ability to combine very seriously observed, realistically observed background settings for his stories and then these much larger than life characters that he projects against those settings. The characters become more enjoyable because they live in what is clearly and recognizably the real word. That juxtaposition I’ve liked and I’ve wanted to do something like that. There’s a bit of the novel which took me by surprise. There’s a moment in the novel where they arrive in a fictional town in New Jersey where people are turning into mastodons [laughs], which I don’t believe to be happening in New Jersey right at the moment.
BLVR: Probably not [laughs].
SR: But it could [laughs]. And that really came out of a very old memory of mine. When I was a student at Cambridge I acted in a student production of Eugène Ionesco’s play the Rhinoceros which is set in a small town in France in which people are turning into rhinoceroses. And I remember as a kid not understanding the play and I remember saying to the director, “What’s this about?” and he said, “Well, Salman, its about fascism, it’s about how people who are our neighbors can suddenly turn into something monstrous and can suddenly become people we don’t recognize and we can’t talk to them anymore. And yet, a little while before, their children were playing with our children. And it’s about that.”
I thought, “Oh that’s kind of, that’s very clever.” And I felt a little bit that we—and not only in America, but we live in a moment in which something like that is happening—that the rifts in society are getting to be so deep that we begin to see others as monstrous and alien and people that we can’t communicate with anymore. So this old play by Ionesco which was written kind of after World War II as a way of responding to that kind of fascist period, suddenly it seemed to me something to say about this moment. So Ionesco is in there. And the thing about optimism I was saying about Quichotte—well, one of the other great road novels is Voltaire’s novel Candide, in which again there’s a kind of holy fool propelled across a Europe that’s going through a terrible time. And the subtitle of Candide is “optimism.” The title is Candide, or Optimism and he has that quality of childlike optimism in the face of horror. So Voltaire is in there, too. I mean, there’s a whole bunch of people.
BLVR: There’s a lot I want to ask, but I’ll start with just saying there’s a moment in the book where you say that humans have a preference for fiction over fact and I wonder what your feeling is about them—if it allows you to sort of tackle some more nuanced or intense topics through fiction because you feel the readers will be more receptive?
SR: Just to disagree with myself, I think one of the interesting things that’s happened in books, in the world of books in the last, say fifty years, is the rise of this narrative nonfiction. Which people have used the techniques of fiction to tell true stories. Those books are very popular and very powerful in many ways and I actually teach a course at New York University in narrative nonfiction for that reason—to look at this borderline between facts and imagination. And I think my book somewhat exists just on the other side of that borderline, on the fiction side of that borderline. And one of the things I think is just that human beings have a very deep need for story.
When children are born, the first thing they want is to feel safe and loved and have a roof over their heads and food and so on but very soon after that the request comes to “tell me a story,” and stories become the way in which we learn and understand the world. And I think if you go on to be a reader then that goes on being something that you want and that you feel you get from stories in a way that you don’t get it from anywhere else. People are always prophesying the death of the novel. Almost since the birth of the novel people started prophesying the death of the novel and yet it obstinately persists. And I think the reason is that people get from fiction a pleasure and a stimulation that they don’t get quite in that way from anything else. I’m a big movie freak, I may be the last generation of movie freaks because now everybody watches things on their computer, but as a young person trying to be a writer I was as influenced by movies as by literature. But movies are out there on a screen in front of you and they tell you how to look at them. The magic of reading is that they’re inside your head and you, everything that you are, interacts with everything that the book has and together you make the book. And that kind of intimacy of strangers is what makes reading such a joy.
BLVR: It feels like the context of the book is evergreen, and in reading it, it feels like you’re talking about or nudging at COVID and the protests that are going on.
SR: Trump’s name is not in there, that’s quite deliberate.
SR: We hear that name often enough. You don’t want to hear him on my pages. But the things that he tries to get at I think are kind of always with us. We live in a moment of huge and justified protest against American racism and against the way in which this country or parts of this country have historically treated and continue to treat Black people predominantly. And so, given that this journey across America goes through all sorts of Americas, it seemed it would be chickening out to not face the fact that these Brown men, this Brown man and his imaginary Brown son, were going to come across some hostility because of that. I didn’t want it to be the only thing the book was about but I also didn’t want to pretend that it wasn’t so. And so it is so.
There’s I think three occasions in the book where they encounter racial prejudice and sometimes it’s just language and sometimes it’s more physically dangerous, but I wanted it to be there. Because here we are. And the kind of divided society that the book talks about wasn’t invented yesterday. That division has been deepening in, as I say not only in America, but if you look at the three countries that I have written about and cared about in my life: India, England, and for the last twenty years, America, you can see that in all of them. You can see that deepening gulf, differing kinds of gulfs, but that broken society is true of all three of those places and the book wants to recognize that too. It does try and recognize that this is not some kind of exclusively American issue. It’s broader than that.
BLVR: In the piece that you wrote, I think it was two weeks ago in the Washington Post, about that you’ve seen dictators rise and fall—
SR: Well, look, if Donald Trump can be president then anything can happen [laughs]. I mean, I think on that terrible day in 2016 I think even he wasn’t expecting it. If you look at his face, the tapes of that night, it’s a face of a man in shock. “What, I’ve really got to do this job now?” But I do think that we live in a moment in which the world can be transformed in an instant. You talking about the Coronavirus epidemic, the pandemic, that’s an example of it. Here we are in June. In January none of us would have believed that our lives were going to be turned on their heads and yet I guess the middle of March onwards that’s what happened. In the blink of an eye.
BLVR: I wonder if you have anything you want to say about the protests that are going on right now and how art might be a balm or a tool in that?
SR: Well, first of all, I have to express my admiration for the protests. I think it’s quite extraordinary what has erupted across the country and I’m glad that after an initial moment the protests have become so orderly. They haven’t stopped being huge, but they stopped being something that could be characterized as rioting. I think that was in danger of changing the narrative and undoing the work of the protesters, which is important.
You mentioned the article I wrote about Trump, and that was an article that was written—I have to say out of pure rage. I watched the television images of mounted soldiers and tear gas bombs being released on American citizens by American military. I thought, that’s just hideous. I have seen dictatorships in other countries and this is how dictators behave. This is not how democratic presidents behave. That was a moment in which I felt that democracy in this country was in real danger and the piece came out of that. And I think the anger being expressed across the country right now comes out of that. It comes out of this sense that if you’re a certain kind of person, say of the wrong kind of skin, then in many ways this is not a free country. You’re a person in constant danger of being shot dead—while sleeping in your bed at home, you could be shot dead. While dozing off at a Wendy’s in the drive-thru lane.
I thought in the early days of the pandemic, that that was very likely to be a kind of a tipping point of some kind and would oblige us all to do some serious rethinking of how we have lived and how we should live. And now it seems that this protest- that this may in fact be the tipping point- that there’s kind of no going back from this, there’s only going forward. And it’s extraordinary to see everybody jumping on board and sometimes I believe that to be sincere and sometimes not so sincere but there’s a real shift and what is extraordinary and inspiring is the fact that these protests have inspired protests around the world. Where people are using this as a springboard to talk about the inequities of their own societies and the prejudices of their own societies and what needs to change there. This has been more than just an American inspiration, it’s a global inspiration. More power to them.
I think there’s a lot of writers now in America, including me, just trying to think how as artists we respond to this. The op-ed I wrote in the newspaper seems to me to be the immediate way of how to respond to this because literature, fiction, books—they’re slow, they take a long time. And they are not the best way to respond to a political game-changing moment. But obviously you have to think about what is the implication of this for the books you will write in the future. I think there’s a lot of us working that out and I think that in the years to come we will see the answers to those questions in different ways from different writers.
BLVR: I want to move toward the audience questions here. Serena asks if you found it difficult to write since the beginning of the world’s lockdown.
SR: It’s so strange, I’ve had more than one person saying to me this must be a great time to be a novelist—I mean, there’s so much time. You’re home and there’s nothing to do, it must be a great—and I think, over a hundred-thousand people have died [in the U.S.]. It doesn’t feel like that great a time. I have found it quite hard to- I mean I was actually, when the pandemic started, I was actually more than a hundred pages into something that I was trying to write and it just suddenly seemed to me to be completely stupid in the light of the world we are now living in, and I just put it away. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to it, maybe, maybe not. And since then it’s been difficult. Now I’m just again beginning to think I may have the beginning of something. But, we’ll see. I think it’s a hard time to be a writer because what’s happening seems to be in a way more important than that. You were mentioning about listening and learning and it may be a time for that.
BLVR: This question is from Anjan: “Has the post internet world added any new thinking tools or toys to the mythologist toolkit?”
SR: The thing about the internet is that it’s a tool. It’s just a tool. It’s neither a good thing or a bad thing, it’s neither moral nor immoral. The question is how it’s used. You can use a knife to cut your dinner and you can use a knife to stab somebody, so the knife is morally neutral. And I think the best of the internet has been colossally valuable in allowing us to talk to each other instantly, globally, in allowing us to have a reach into the world’s knowledge which was previously very hard to access unless you went to libraries and dug into them. You can now go into libraries online. It’s been politically useful in various times. In the so-called Arab Spring the internet was enormously important as a way of organizing. And then there’s the other side which is the kind of less pleasant side of the internet, which is mean-spirited and kind of bitchy and nasty and makes you not want to be in that room. And some of that has to do with anonymity, the fact that everybody’s behind some kind of handle. Like my Quichotte writing his imaginary—he’s writing his anonymous letters being this pseudonym he’s invented for himself. Quichotte, it’s not his name.
Now we all have pseudonyms. We’re all hiding behind pseudonyms writing letters to each other. And sometimes that gives some of us permission to behave in a way that you would not behave if somebody knew your name and you were standing in the room next to them. And so it’s license to bad behavior sometimes and I worry about that. But as I say a lot of it is unbelievably useful.
BLVR: You would hope people wouldn’t behave that way in the same room but maybe…
SR: You think that they might. [Laughter]
BLVR: This question is from Scott: “Can you speak a bit about your Humanist belief system and how it informs your work? How important is it for society to evolve in a secular direction? What is the role of literature and art in displacing religion in fulfilling the human need for inspiration and meaning?”
SR: My, is that all? [Laughter]. Well, let me just say that we could have a whole evening on that question. But I’ll say one thing, one of the things I like about some of the old mythologies is the way in which they suggest there is a point at which human beings outgrow the divine. In Norse mythology there’s this thing called the “Twilight of the Gods” which is actually a great battle between the gods and their enemies, at the end of which both the gods and their enemies are dead and what’s left is just us by ourselves. We have to do the best we can without gods.
Roberto Calasso wrote a book called The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony which was an event that was supposed to be the last time that the gods ever came down from Olympus and joined in with the human beings at this marriage feast. After that they went up the mountain and they had nothing to do with us anymore. There’s this idea that you have the gods for a while but at a certain point you have to stand on your own feet. You have to. It’s sort of in a way like kids growing up in a family where eventually you leave home. And you have to make your own life in your own way. I like that idea.
BLVR: This comes from the amazing Rachel Rokicki: “Can you speak to the character of the Doctor in the novel and the opioid thread?”
SR: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well look, one of the things I tend to do is to try and keep my finger on the pulse of what Indian-Americans are getting up to. I mean, both good and bad, and I came across a true story, which I fictionalized, about a real-life doctor who was in the pharmaceutical business and whose company invented an opioid which was very powerful and intended only for terminal cancer patients. But because he was kind of a crook, he managed to bribe numbers of doctors to prescribe this to people who were not dying of cancer and created addictions and became a billionaire and has now gone to jail. So, that’s the story out of which I created a character of a bent doctor involved in the Opioid Crisis.
And, again, it’s partly to do with the fact that the part of- the central part of the novel, which goes across the central part of America, is going through the areas where the opioid addiction is at its worst. And so again it seemed- it seemed natural to include it and unnatural to exclude it because we’re talking about colossal amount of deaths caused by this pandemic. But the Opioid Crisis has been causing something like 70,000 deaths a year in this country alone for several years now, so it’s like this other pandemic which obviously gets less attention because it’s not catching, but it’s a colossal event in American life. And I felt that, in a way it comes out of- we have this- we were talking about the internet earlier- we have, we live in this world where in theory we have so many ways of connecting with each other. Now, we have so many platforms, so many ways of talking to each other and yet, paradoxically, it may be that some of us are getting lonelier- that there is a sense of isolation, separation, and that drug addiction is a kind of refuge for people who are isolated and broken in that way. So I thought that it’s just- yes it’s a- it’s if you like a news story, but it’s also a story which goes somewhere close to the heart of what’s happening in the country. So I wanted to- so that’s why that story’s in there.
My Quichotte, he works for the Doctor. He’s a pharmaceutical salesman, well, an ex-one. And the woman he loves, his TV star, is actually an addict. So by a kind of dark paradox, the thing that brings them together actually is addiction. And yeah. So, I just wanted it to be there because I think it actually is something which isn’t talked about I think as much as it should be.
BLVR: We’ve talked about this little bit but I think that this goes into is a little more specifically and obviously people are using you, Salman, as a sage here. So, for this question: “Much of your work plays with and questions the thin, if existent, line between fact and fiction. How do you think people form their beliefs? In other words, how do we decide what is true? Is there a particular system or means by which we go about forming our beliefs?”
SR: Yeah, well again, how long have you got? [Laughter]. But I do think, and it’s one of the things I think the book really- it’s really near to center of what the book deals with- is that we live in a time in which there’s been a real assault on the idea of truth. And that which has lead to a kind of break down in many cases of people’s ability as the questioner says, they break down the ability to distinguish lies from truth. That’s for any society a matter of enormous danger because that’s one of the points at which a dictator can emerge and say, “Believe me because I am the truth.” When you don’t believe what you’re being told, when you think what you’re being told is a lie, you’re in a very vulnerable situation if you can’t distinguish.
I mean, I don’t want to overclaim for literature because there are things books can do and there are things books can’t do. Books can’t solve the problems of the world. Books, very occasionally, have a direct impact on public events. I think Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an example of a book that did. Mostly, books don’t work like that, but what I think does happen in reading a book is that the writer and the reader make a kind of contract with each other about how the world is, and when you read a book that absorbs you and that speaks to you it tells you something about how you should see the world and the book’s view of the world, a little bit, becomes part of your view of the world. My view about fiction is that it’s all about the truth. It can have flying carpets in it but it’s still about the truth. The deep truths about human nature: how we are, what we do to each other, why we do these things, how can we understand ourselves? That’s what literature has always been about and that’s why it survives, because we all ask ourselves these questions every day and that’s the way I think in which—in which literature, fiction, can help to give us back a sense of the truth because it’s a sense that we have from reading books that we love. As I say, beyond that, there’s a whole area where- which is for politics that is not for literature. There are things that books cannot do. They cannot solve the problems, but they can define them. They can ask the questions about problems that need to be asked.
BLVR: This question is from Ramona: “Do you see parallels between the current systemic racism, discrimination, and prejudice in current India and the United States?”
SR: Yeah, I mean there are differences. What’s happening in India has as much to do with religious sectarianism as racial hatred. So what’s happening there is that the Hindu nationalist governing body, governing party, is using the pandemic as a way of blaming Muslims, basically. So it’s deepening a kind of communal divide rather than a racial divide. In the Brexit England, one of the main thrusts of the Brexiteers was to create a distrust of immigrants and to feel that- to make people feel that immigrants in England were somehow damaging the fabric of society and if only they could be gotten rid of then the country would be better off. So that kind of anti-foreigner prejudice was whiffed up by that campaign, which succeeded, and it’s still there. It’s still there. And so I say that these three countries that I’ve spent my life, variations of this problem are in all three. There’s nothing in the UK or India which is like the United States’ experiences of slavery and what came afterwards. So that’s something particular to this country, although the British were involved in the Slave Trade and they often try and make you forget that, but they were. But its place at the center of the history of this country is unlike what happened in those other countries. These other countries have their versions of politically whiffed up hatred, which is poisoning the body politic.
BLVR: You reference the Twilight Zone episode “The Invaders.” Was this a sort of antidote to all the saccharine reality TV references?
SR: I’m glad you mention that because one of the things that really helped me in this book to solve some of the problems of the book was the fact that when I was much younger I used to kind of be an addict of science fiction. I read an enormous amount of science fiction and watched some of it on TV. And there are particularly two stories that stuck in my mind, stories I literally probably hadn’t thought about since I was in my teens which at certain points in this book cropped up in my head and solved problems in the story line. One of them was a story that was on American- dramatized on American television, it was originally a short story called “Pictures Don’t Lie” by a writer called Katherine MacLean. I think it was an episode of something- I don’t know if it was the Twilight Zone- of something. And the other was a story by Arthur C. Clarke called “The Nine Billion Names of God.” And the way I’ve used elements of those stories in the book is very very different to the way in which the original stories were. But science fiction certainly gave me a wave developing the story line in this book because the last act in the book is kind of about the end of the world and the end of the world has always been a very popular theme for science-fiction writers.
I always remember that when Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the earth is blown up on page one [laughs] and actually it started off as a radio series and on radio you can blow up the world very cheaply and so that whole saga began with the end of the world, he finally works up towards it.
I think what most end of the world stories are actually not really about the end of the world but the end of a world. What I felt when I was writing this book was that many of the things about the world, the world I’d grown up in and lived in, were changing or were being changed or broken to such a degree that I felt maybe the world that I had grown up in and lived in was coming to an end and I wasn’t exactly sure what world would come after it.
I think since then this double crisis that we’ve all faced, and are facing, I think must put questions like that in all our heads. What is the world going to be like after this? Will it be better or worse? I tend to want to be an optimist so I would like to hope that things will be better after this, that we might learn some lessons. But we can be a very stupid species and sometimes we don’t learn the lessons.