Salman Rushdie Goes On His Latest Quest With 'Quichotte'
Internationally best-selling author Salman Rushdie shares the inspiration for his modern adaptation of ‘Don Quixote’ and how good the right narrator can make a writer feel.By Tricia FordSep 19, 2019 1:49 PM
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Tricia Ford: Hello everyone. This is Audible editor Tricia Ford. And I'm here talking with author Salman Rushdie about his new book Quichotte, which was released in early September and is nominated for the Booker, just making the short list this week. So I wanted to congratulate you. Thank you for being with me today.
Salman Rushdie: Thank you and hello.
TF: So Quichotte is a modern adaptation of Don Quixote.
SR: Yeah, that was the starting point anyway. I think the journey that the book goes on is very different, it's not modeled on Cervantes, but it's true that the idea of having a foolish old man on an impossible quest with a somewhat mutinous sidekick obviously has something to do with this great original.
TF: Right, right. So was the idea of the quest what inspired you?
SR: Well, before I knew what the story was, I just had this idea of wanting to write a road novel, of wanting to get out of New York and have a book that traveled across the country and would be sort of episodic and there would be adventures along the way and things like that. That was my first rough idea. And then just by a happy coincidence, I was asked to write something about Cervantes because it was going to be the 400th anniversary, et cetera. So I looked at the book again, at Don Quixote and immediately thought, "Oh, this is helpful." And then my characters, who [are] rather different from Cervantes', popped into my head because Don Quixote is described as the knight of the dolorous countenance. He's kind of sad faced and melancholy.
TF: Right. Right.
SR: Whereas my character is smiley and relentlessly optimistic.
TF: Literally. His name is Smiley.
SR: His name is Smile and he has a charming smile and he has good manners of the old school, but mainly, he's very hopeful about life and very optimistic. And, I thought, to have someone like that, a character filled up full of hope and send him out into an America which may not be at its most optimistic moments...
TF: Right. Right.
SR: That contrast, I thought, would be good.
TF: Right. Right. Now, have you yourself ever gone on a road trip like that?
SR: I've been on road trips in various bits of America, but nothing as extensive as that. I did think about it. I thought maybe I should do the journey that I wanted him to do. Then I thought, no, a lot of the places I've been to anyway and the ones that I haven't been to, I've been to places like them. So there's one or two places which are fictionalized. There's no town in New Jersey called Beringer.
SR: There's no town in Kansas called Beautiful, but there are places like it.
SR: And so I thought, after 20 years of living in and traveling around America, I had enough without having to make a specific trip.
TF: And everyone knows the great American road trip as, not a literary device, but it's very familiar in it.
SR: Exactly. And not just literary, also cinematic. And it's everything from Lolita to Easy Rider. And that's attractive to me. And actually, one of the books that helped me, strangely, was again an old book that happened to have some kind of anniversary, and I picked it up again, which is Robert Pirsig's book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And in which I thought, never mind about the Zen and never mind about the motorcycle maintenance, but in the middle of it, there's this very beautifully told relationship between him and his son going on this motorbike ride across America to try and get closer. And I thought, mine is also a novel about fathers and sons. And there are two father-son relationships in the book that are both very central to it.
SR: And that was a book that helped me think about that.
TF: Yeah. It was a really unique relationship between Sancho and Quichotte. And then that does bring to mind the idea, you're very well known for magical realism. And I noticed in past novels as well, but very much so in Quichotte, a blend of a kind of sci-fi with the magical realism.
SR: Yeah, it takes a lot of literary traditions and does a mash-up of them.
TF: That's a good word.
SR: So yes, there's a quite strong strand of science fiction in it, I think, but also of what you might call fairytale. The way in which Sancho is magicked into being.
SR: It comes out of the language of fable and fairytale. I mean, he even has a Pinocchio-like cricket to advise him.
TF: Yes. With a lovely Italian accent, which I have to say is very well experienced in audio. You get the full effect.
SR: But what I thought is that, the original novel Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi is in Italian, and there's a cricket in it, but it's an Italian cricket. So I thought, sorry, I thought, I'm going to have the original cricket, not the Disney version.
TF: Yes. Yes. And I love that blend because that is so fantastical, but at the same time, believable. And Sancho's transformation, to me, seemed oddly plausible.
SR: Well, like Pinocchio, he wants to be a real live boy. He wants to be what he is, he wants to be a teenager. And he has all the kind of mutinous bad behavior of younger teenagers.
SR: But he wants to be human; he wants to live. And I think it's that that makes, I hope, readers sympathize, live and feel for him, because he has such a yearning to be human and to be in the world.
TF: And he just feeds off of what's around him in a way that, to me, we all should do in our lives.
SR: Yes. One of the things I've liked about the early reception of the book, and the way the early readers of the book are responding to it, is that the Sancho character seems to actually capture people's hearts in a way that I really am happy about, because you never know that. You never know which characters readers are going to most strongly respond to, but I'm happy that it's him.
TF: Now, one other thing,and this kind of goes back to Quichotte, the main character that's being written about in your book within a book, his TV addiction. I couldn't help but wonder if you're a fan of reality TV.
SR: No. [Laughter] I'm seriously not. I mean, I have my own TV addictions. I probably watch a lot of the late-night comedy shows and I watch much too much baseball and quite a lot of Law & Order: SVU.
TF: That's a good one.
SR: Yes. But reality, not so much. I mean, I had to do my homework in order to be able to create his character...
TF: I was going to say you knew an awful lot about The Bachelor.
SR: Well, as I say, I had to do my due diligence. I had to get into it. And of course, when you're doing it to write about it, there's an enjoyable part of that. But now I've done it. I don't really need to do it anymore, because the thing that the book is trying to say--not just about reality television, but about the world in which the book is set--is that we've reached a moment in which we are kind of confused about reality. That people disagree on what it is. Some people deny climate change. Anything that one of us believes, another one of us will disbelieve. We're in this moment of a very disputed reality, and the thing I felt about reality television is that it calls itself reality, but in fact, it's very manipulated. It's very artificial.
SR: It messes around; it edits the timeline into new orders, so that something that happened later is re-edited to have happened before another thing. And producers tell contestants when to have a fight. And so, in fact, it's a very curated reality. And what I thought is, there are so many things in which the boundaries between truth and fiction, truth and lies, is kind of blurred. I think it's becoming harder for a lot of people to have a clear sense of what the difference between those things is.
SR: And that's the serious point, but beneath all the comedy.
TF: And the other serious point that is also certainly a current issue is the opioid crisis.
TF: And [speaking of] your treatment of that--I have to say that Salma R. was one of my favorite characters.
SR: Oh, good.
TF: And her experience...
SR: Yes, well, she's has had a difficult family background, involving abuse and so on. I mean, she's super famous. She's a very, very successful daytime talk show host--as the book says, she's like Oprah 2.0--but she has these demons, and as a result, she has quite a severe bipolar problem. Then she has to have treatment for that, including electroconvulsive therapy, ECT. And as a sort of side effect of her up-and-down psychology, she begins to overindulge in opioids--in Vicodin, Percocet, things like that. And well, I think anyone who's spent any amount of time in the entertainment industry knows that that's what it's like, in some cases anyway.
SR: In general, I'm interested in what Indian Americans get up to. So I try and find out. And I discovered this story, which we can talk about now because he's gone to jail, of an Indian American gentleman who was a pharmaceutical entrepreneur who was bribing doctors to prescribe opioids, as they say, off-label, for things they're not supposed to be for, and therefore, was contributing to this crisis. And eventually, he got arrested; he's been sent to jail. But I've been following his story for several years, and he only just went to jail a few months ago. And out of that came my rather different character of Dr. Smile, who has a pharmaceutical business and has this very powerful version of Fentanyl. Fentanyl is the most powerful opioid. Fentanyl is the opioid that almost certainly killed Prince.
SR: And he has a spray version of it, which he persuades doctors--persuades with money-- to prescribe to people who are not the people... It's only intended for people with terminal cancer, to relieve pain.
SR: But, of course, it gets used in recreational and dangerous ways. So I wanted that to be in there. There's one other reason, which is personal, which is that my youngest sister died 12 years ago, and it's pretty clear that opioid addiction was the direct cause of it. I mean, that's 12 years ago, but when something as important as that happens in a life, then it becomes personal.
TF: Oh, sure.
SR: And so, I've been quietly learning about this ever since.
TF: And it's a growing issue, obviously, but it's not a new issue.
SR: No, but it's odd how, just now, suddenly it's in the news, and there are these judgements against Johnson & Johnson and the makers of OxyContin and so on. But for a long time, it was a kind of invisible crisis. It was out there and strangely, when you get out of the big cities, it's much worse.
SR: When you get into small-town Virginia or Midwest in Kansas and Oklahoma, it's really bad there. So again, if I'm talking about two characters who are traveling across Middle America, that would be a thing that they encountered everywhere. You know what I mean? So it was impossible to not include it, if you like, because it was so much a central reality for a lot of communities across the country.
TF: Right. Right. Now, do you think there's a solution discussed in the book at all?
SR: Well, the solution is to pay attention to it. I think right now, it's a start, these enormous penalties levied on big pharma. I mean, that's a start. But, see, the thing that alarmed me was not just that there are people manufacturing dangerous things and unscrupulous about how they get out into the world, but how relatively easy it was to corrupt bits of the medical profession. For sums of money, which were kind of modest sums of money, not life-changing sums of money--$20,000, $30,000. I mean, perfectly nice sums of money, but it doesn't buy you a house in the South of France.
SR: And yet for money of that level, quite large numbers of doctors were willing to play along and start prescribing these drugs to people who didn't need them. And to me, that was as shocking as the activities of big pharma. So I think one needs to look at that.
TF: Right. Right. And that is interesting. And people are looking and, I think, having a comic way of looking at it but still very serious--Salma is a very sad but still lovable character.
SR: Yeah. [As I was] writing the book, she was the character I felt the most emotional connection with, because she is this sort of double thing. On the one hand, on the surface, she's fabulous and also powerful, a woman of great influence.
SR: And willing to use that influence for good causes and so on; so on the surface, she's that. And underneath it, there's all this pain and insecurity and trouble. And it's that doubleness of her character that I think really attracted me to write about and, well, I hope that other people will feel her in that way as well.
TF: I think she came across as a very authentic character, really. Really.
SR: Good. I mean, there are parts of this work which are very playful and funny and fabulous that we've talked about, a bit of it. But I think underneath it, it's quite a serious book. It's about serious things happening in our society right now.
TF: Yes, it is. I'm here to talk about the audio and your narrator is Vikas Adam. This is the third book of yours that he's narrated, and he's an in-house favorite. A personal favorite of mine. And when I started listening, the first time there was a female character, I think it was Salma or it might've been Quichotte's mother, earlier on...
SR: Earlier on, yes.
TF: I thought for sure that this was a second narrator. That it must be multicast narration, but it was Vikas.
SR: I know. He's really quite something. He was suggested to me as the voice, as you say, a couple of books ago. And I was given a selection of two or three people to listen to, but the moment I heard him, I thought, "This guy is great and it has to be him." And now he's done such a terrific job on several books.
TF: And I think he's perfectly suited with the array of characters you have here, from the women to ... He's the perfect Sancho too.
SR: That's what I like, that it's not just a reading--he can actually inhabit the characters. And I think it's quite a tricky thing to read the audio version of a book, because it's not exactly acting but it's also not exactly just reading it out. There's a place somewhere in between performance and reading that the reader has to find, and I think he's very, very skillful at that.
TF: Yeah, I agree. It is that perfect line in between. It's not over the top.
SR: Yeah. You don't want too much acting, otherwise it's sort of intrusive.
SR: And you don't want too little, otherwise it's dull. So it's that question of hitting the right note, and I think he's terrific at it.
TF: Did listening to his performance change your perspective of any of your own characters at all?
SR: No, but I was just glad to see the characters drawn out so beautifully. I like to think that I'm not a bad reader of my own work, but sometimes it's actually very exciting to hear it in another person's voice, especially if they're so good at drawing out character and drawing out comedy and also making the moving bits feel moving, and so on. There are two or three people--and Vikas is one of them--who I enormously admire for their skill at doing this.
TF: And that brings me to another question, again a little bit audio specific, but you do talk a lot about the tradition of fairytales and mythology. Where do you think that tradition of spoken word comes into play in the future of storytelling?
SR: I think spoken word is just making a huge comeback. That's what's happening. I suppose the creation, and now the enormous popularity, of the podcast form has really trained or retrained a generation of people to listen to long-form spoken word, which a previous generation had become unaccustomed to.
SR: And so suddenly, audiobooks and so on are having a real renaissance. And I like it. One of the things from my earliest times, if you grow up in India as I did, spoken word is still very powerful. There are oral storytellers who travel around performing stories to really quite substantial, large audiences, particularly in South India. And in the early days of my writing, I admired the techniques of these oral storytellers and I, in a way, tried to learn from them and use some of those techniques in books like Midnight's Children. And so I've always been very interested in the oral tradition and how you tell a story if you're in a room with the person you're telling the story to.
TF: Right. It is quite different.
SR: It is very different.
TF: And listening to an audiobook is a pretty intimate experience. It's generally you, the narrator and the words.
SR: Yes. Exactly. And I'm really pleased to see the resurgence of this form, because I think it's a really interesting way to tell and receive stories. It's actually the oldest way.
SR: I mean it's older than the printed book.
TF: That's true. That's true.
SR: And also, I think it's one of the first things that happens to us in life, let's say when we are born and at once, a child first needs to know that it's safe and fed and loved, et cetera. But after that, what most children want is a story. Tell me a story. It's one of the first things we say and want. And so that need for a story, and we all get stories first in the form of oral stories from our parents or from older family members. And so we all learn about fiction and about story as an oral form. The written form comes later. And then very often, historically, people have lost contact with the oral form, so the fact that that contract's being renewed, I think, is very enjoyable.
TF: And listening to Quichotte in long-form audio was a great experience. I must admit: I did also read parts.
SR: You did both things.
TF: Did both.
SR: Okay, good.
TF: But I always appreciate a good performance of something that's a little bit more literary, more serious.
SR: Yes. Well, I think Vikas is terrific at bringing my stuff to life. He is a very good ambassador for me to have.
TF: Yes, he is. So I want to thank you for talking to me today. Quichotte is newly released, available at Audible, narrated by Vikas Adam. And I did want to congratulate you on your short list for the Booker, announced this week.
SR: Thank you. Thank you.
TF: Best of luck there. You're already a winner, though, just for being nominated. A multiple Booker winner. You even won before, with Midnight's Children, another personal favorite of mine. But thank you so much for talking to me today.