I’ve always tried to do something I haven’t done before, because I have a low boredom threshold,” Salman Rushdie says while seated in the book-lined conference room at the Wylie Agency. “There was certainly a point in my life where I guess I could have written a version of Midnight’s Children every two years and it would have been fine—except I would have wanted to shoot myself!” Instead, in the 38 years since his Booker-winning breakthrough novel was published, the writer has ranged over a variety of styles and subjects, such as the code of honor underpinning Pakistani society in Shame and what he describes as “the Eastern fabulist tradition” in his 2016 novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.
Rushdie takes another journey into unexplored territory in Quichotte, which will be published by Random House in September and was recently long-listed for the Booker. Inspired by Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the novel portrays an elderly traveling salesman “deranged by reality television” who falls in love with the host of a daytime talk show whom he has never met. As Quichotte (the name he takes in letters to his beloved) travels across the country to meet Miss Salma R, a parallel plot concerns the writer who created him; these twin story lines eventually converge in a fantastical ending that tips its hat to some of the science fiction tales Rushdie loved as a boy.
“It comes from the literary tradition of the picaresque novel, combined with a certain kind of modernist playfulness,” Rushdie says. “There’s quite a lot of Joyce in it. This was a scary book for me to write, because I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pull it off. There are these two narrative lines, which echo and mirror and talk to each other. I knew that the thing that would make the book work was if by the end they could merge, and I really wasn’t sure how to do that for a long time. I was quite nervous about it.”
Rushdie adds, “Normally I don’t show anyone a work in progress, but in this case when I had written 50 or 60 pages of the first draft, I actually asked Andrew Wylie [his agent] to read it. I said, ‘Look, this is very weird, but I need to know if it’s good weird or bad weird.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know where you’re going to go with this, because it could go in a lot of directions, but what I can say is that it’s the funniest thing of yours that I’ve read.’ That was comforting, and I’m pleased to see in the early responses that a lot of people have been finding it very funny.”
Rushdie says that he originally intended Quichotte to be “a road novel about this crazy old coot and his imaginary kid sidekick [Rushdie’s riff on Cervantes’s Sancho Panza].” He adds, “This other story just showed up, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to see where it leads.’ I reserved the right to take it out, but it just grew and became more and more important. Somebody said that the book you finish is never the book you began, and it was true with this story line. One of the things I liked about it was that, whereas the Quichotte story line is comic and playful, the author story line is much more emotional.”
“I used to be much more of a planner,” Rushdie says. “When I started out, I would have to have a lot of architecture before I could start putting flesh on it. Now I understand much more clearly the magic that happens on the page: the thing you didn’t expect, the thing you couldn’t have thought of when you were making a plan. When a book is working, the characters take over. I’ve often thought about the process as being more one of listening than of making; you sit there and listen to the people you’ve made up, they tell you what they need, and then you try and give it to them.”
Rushdie also used to be much more defensive about his work, he acknowledges. “I would say, ‘Whose name is on the book? Your name? No. As far as I know, it’s not your name it’s my name, so I get to decide.’ ” Considerably mellowed at age 72, he notes, “I’ve gone from that position to feeling that I’ll take all the help I can get, and I’m lucky that I have one of the great old-school editors.”
The editor in question is Random House publisher and editor-in-chief Susan Kamil. “She’s got the whole world to run,” her appreciative author remarks, “but she made amazing amounts of time for me. One day, she came over to my place and we spent six hours going through Quichotte. I didn’t always agree or do what she suggested, but she’s a very, very good reader and I always listen to what she has to say.”
Rushdie takes pleasure in listening to the many voices that have broadened the horizons of English-language literature in the decades since he came to England from his native India to attend boarding school. He lived in London after receiving an MA from Cambridge University and found himself in the middle of an explosion of expatriate literary energy. “In the 1970s,” he says, “a whole bunch of writers who came from all over the place—Kazuo Ishiguro, Timothy Moe, Ben Okri, Caryl Phillips—suddenly found themselves in the middle of the conversation about English literature.”
Rushdie was part of that conversation; indeed, he says, smiling ruefully, The Satanic Verses was intended as an immigrant novel. “It was my first attempt to write about leaving the East and arriving in the West. When it came out, one critic said—I’m paraphrasing—‘What is all this stuff about Muslims doing in a London novel?’ Now, of course, that question has been answered by history.”
Moving to the U.S. around the turn of the 21st century, Rushdie says he saw the same multicultural energy. “Immigrant literature from all over the world is now becoming American literature. You have all these wonderful Vietnamese writers, Nigerian writers, Chinese writers; the traditional American immigrant literature, which was Jewish, Eastern European, or Italian, is now enormously expanded. Well, that’s me, too; I showed up with other stories in my baggage.”
“Multiply rooted like an old banyan tree,” is how the Indian American author in Quichotte refers to himself. “That’s become the normal thing,” Rushdie adds in conversation. “I think of someone like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, as much American as she is Nigerian but very much rooted in both places. For a writer that is a blessing; it gives you the ability to see the world in more ways. If you look at the last half-century, I think this is the most interesting thing that’s happened in the English-language novel. One of the things that’s nicest about being the old guy in the room is that many of these writers are very complimentary about the value of my work to them. It’s a river, this thing; you get things from the people who came before, and hopefully people take things from you and go on.”