Salman Rushdie: ‘I’m like a lot of people these days with a fluid identity’

Salman Rushdie. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty
AS HIS NEW NOVEL IS PUBLISHED, THE AUTHOR REFLECTS ON NATIONALITY, HOW POP CULTURE AND SCI-FI INFORM HIS WRITING, AND WHY, SOMETIMES, IT’S THE CRAZY STUFF THAT REVEALS AN ESSENTIAL TRUTH

I’m up on the 23rd floor of a building in midtown Manhattan. It’s the sleek conference room at Salman Rushdie’s agent’s office. I’ve arrived early for the interview and have laid out my voice recorder, a copy of his new novel, Quichotte, and a list of questions. I’ve circled the words “mastodons” and “New York Yankees”.

I’m nervous. I’ve interviewed and talked to many writers, but Rushdie is different. I liked Salman Rushdie before he was Salman Rushdie. I liked Rushdie when I was a 10-year-old kid and I found an interesting new English science-fiction writer in the library whose first novel, Grimus, was a wee bit JG Ballard, a wee bit Angela Carter and a wee bit something entirely sui generis.

Rusdhie is smaller than you’re expecting, with an impish, intelligent smile, and there’s something Tolkienesque about him that you can’t quite put your finger on

Then came Midnight’s Children, the first literary-fiction novel I had read that wasn’t boring as all hell. I’ve been on the ride for every book since. My favourites are probably The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a version of the Beatles story on a parallel Earth with an Indian John Lennon, and, actually, this new one: Quichotte, a comic, very contemporary reimagining of Don Quixote.

Rushdie comes in at exactly 11am; we shake hands, and he sits down opposite. He looks good. He’s 72, but you would have guessed early 60s. He’s wearing a loose-fitting shirt and trousers, ideal for a New York summer. He has a well-trimmed greying goatee and dark, darting observant eyes. He’s smaller than you’re expecting, maybe 5ft 8in. He has an impish, intelligent smile and there’s something elven or Tolkienesque about him that you can’t quite put your finger on.

He looks relaxed and happy.

He says he’s just back from his summer holidays in Rome, where he visited the Protestant Cemetery.

“You said hello to Keats and Shelley?” I ask.

“And Gramsci, who seems to have got in there through his Russian Orthodox wife.”

“Did you, like Oscar Wilde, wail and prostrate yourself fully on the ground before Keats’s grave?”

Rushdie laughs. “No, not quite. That wouldn’t be very English.”

“Ah, so you consider yourself English still?”

“No, actually not really, I’m like a lot of people these days with a fluid identity.” He talks about being not quite American, English or Indian yet somehow all three.

I get the impression that a lot of people tell Rushdie they are big fans but that, after a little interrogation, he discovers that they haven’t actually read his stuff

I offer him congratulations on his Booker longlisting for Quichotte and ask whether awards still matter to him. He says they do, especially as it’s so long since any book of his was recognised by the Booker judges. I tell him I loved the novel, and he nods a little guardedly until I mention specific parts that had me laughing out loud. I get the impression that a lot of people tell Rushdie they are big fans but that, after a little interrogation, he discovers that they haven’t actually read his stuff.

Quichotte is the story of a writer known only as Brother (not Rushdie’s nod to Anna Burns’s Milkman, which he hasn’t quite got around to yet, but a concept he borrowed from EL Doctorow’s Ragtime), an Indian-American who writes spy thrillers and has a troubled relationship with his sister, who lives in London, and his son, who has angrily left home and is working as a quasi-legal hacker somewhere in North America.

Sick and tired of being an ageing midlist thriller writer (ouch), Brother decides to write a new version of the Don Quixote story, about an ageing Indian-American opiate salesman who becomes slightly unhinged by endless motel daytime TV viewing and grows obsessed with an Indian-American talk show queen, Oprah’s heir apparent, the beautiful, sophisticated but troubled Salma R.

We start gabbing about Cervantes. Rushdie mentions how boring he found Don Quixote until a few years back, when he read the new translation by Edith Grossman. I tell him I found Quixote pretty hard to take until I got to Part Two, which was written nearly a decade after Part One and is filled with Cervantes’s complaints about people ripping him off, “and it’s in Part Two that Cervantes and Quixote and Sancho Panza all start interacting with each other in ways I assumed only happened in postmodern fiction”, I add.

Rushdie nods enthusiastically. That’s the bit he loved in Don Quixote too, and it gives “the lie to the idea that the French postmodernists invented that way of telling stories. All the so-called tropes of postmodernism are right there in the very beginning of one of our greatest novels.”

His father changed the family name to Rushdie as a tribute to the philosopher Averroes Ibn Rushd. He was from Cordoba, as was Cervantes’s family. Did Rushdie himself ever do a Cervantes or Cordoba pilgrimage?”

“Not really, but I’d very much like to visit Cervantes’s grave at some point,” he says.

I did just that earlier this year, when I was in Madrid for a football match, I tell him. Visiting the tomb is tricky. It isn’t open to tourists. You have to take Mass at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, and after the Mass is over you can mill around the chapel a bit and say hello to Cervantes, who is buried in the wall.”

Rushdie sounds intrigued and asks what the Mass entails.

Quichotte is a funny book, maybe Rushdie’s funniest. He has always had a penchant for puns, literary allusions and the like, but the bit with the mastodons had me in stitches

It’s just a normal morning Mass, I say. The one strange bit is when the priest gives the eucharist to the cloistered nuns. They’re partitioned away from prying eyes; each one comes to a little hole in the partition, you see a tongue stick out, the priest places the eucharist on the tongue, it withdraws into the blackness and another tongue takes its place.

Rushdie is chuckling at the surreal image, and it gives me an opportunity to talk about the comedy running through Quichotte. It’s a funny book, maybe Rushdie’s funniest. He has always had a penchant for puns, literary allusions and the like, but, I tell him, the bit with the mastodons had me in stitches. (The salesman arrives in New Jersey and is alarmed to find many people metamorphosing into mastodons.)

“Oh, I borrowed a lot of that from Eugène Ionesco. I was in the play Rhinoceros at Cambridge.”

Was he a good actor?

Rushdie shrugs modestly. “I was okay, I think.”

There’s an Angela Carter vibe to that section too. I interviewed Marlon James a few months ago, and he said that it was Rushdie who turned him on to Carter.

Inimitable genius: Angela Carter. Photograph: Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty
Inimitable genius: Angela Carter. Photograph: Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

His eyes light up, and for the next 10 minutes we talk enthusiastically about Carter’s inimitable genius. He knew her personally, of course, and he tells me several lovely anecdotes, including a funny story about the time she was a judge for the Booker prize and gave him the cold shoulder during the entire process, only to call him on the morning before the shortlist was due to be announced to tell him: “The good news, Salman, is that you’re going to be on the shortlist. The bad news is that you’re not going to win.”

We find ourselves chatting about Carter’s book The Passion of New Eve, and I tell him that I found it so much more interesting than Gore Vidal’s contemporaneous Myra Breckenridge, which dealt with some of the same themes.

“Have you ever seen the movie of Myra Breckenridge?” Rushdie asks.

I haven’t, but I heard it was terrible.

“It’s execrable. However, Mae West is in it, and she insisted on writing her own lines, and that stuff is brilliant.”

Rushdie, from memory, quotes all of Mae West’s dialogue from it, doing a bloody good impression of West’s unique vocal style. It’s so funny I am practically on the floor.

“Gore Vidal’s reputation as a novelist seems to have declined over the last few years,” I suggest. 

“I don’t think it was ever very high to begin with,” Rushdie says. “His essays are where his talents really shone.”  

Pop culture is a big part of Quichotte, and Rushdie unpacks for me his surprising knowledge of The Bachelor and daytime soaps. Quichotte is also littered with references to marquee television, and we discuss Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Game of Thrones.

Unlike most of the rest of the world, Rushdie was not surprised and disappointed by the ending to Game of Thrones, as he thought it was wildly overrated.  He tells me he went on a writers’ retreat in Idaho with the Game of Thrones guys but slipped away to see the house where Hemingway shot himself.

“A tiny little space, it was. Hardly room to swing a shotgun about,” Rushdie says.

I ask about his coming tour and wonder if he’s going to write on all the long flights he’ll be taking. He shakes his head and tells me that he has trained himself to sleep on planes. Yoda-like, he tries to teach me the Rushdie Plane Snooze Method, which I will attempt on my next long haul, although I’m not so sure it will work in the middle seat behind the ubiquitous screaming baby.

Ursula Le Guin, whom Salman Rushdie says wrote one of the few kind reviews of Grimus. Photograph: Dan Tuffs/Getty
Ursula Le Guin, whom Salman Rushdie says wrote one of the few kind reviews of Grimus. Photograph: Dan Tuffs/Getty

A big thread running through Quichotte is the Arthur C Clarke story The Nine Billion Names of God, and we do a good nerdy 10 minutes on our favourite science-fiction authors. For Rushdie it’s Ursula Le Guin, who, he says, also wrote one of the few kind reviews of Grimus. “I remember that review,” I respond. It was on the cover of the paperback edition. She said it was “a rocket of a book”.

“A firework of a book,” Rushdie corrects with affection.

There’s also a big chunk of Tolkien in Quichotte, which a lonely Brother reads in boarding school as a form of escape. “Autobiographical?” I wonder.

Rushdie nods. “I loved Tolkien and Le Guin and every kind of science fiction when I was at Rugby. It was the cliched escape from the present.”

“You were bullied?”  

 “To be a foreigner was not unforgiveable. But to be a foreigner who was not particularly good at games but was also somewhat intelligent. . .” he says, and his voice trails off.

When I look at the clock we’re already well past my allotted hour.

I like complete and utter quiet on a fairly uncluttered desk. I start midmorning, and when I close the door the family knows not to disturb me unless the apartment is on fire

“A final question. What is your writing process? When do you write, what’s your desk like, is there music playing? Your mate Marlon told me he writes with the window open on the ground floor of his office with people walking by and music playing and sometimes the TV or radio on.”

Rushdie seems slightly scandalised by this. “No. No music for me. I like complete and utter quiet on a fairly uncluttered desk. I start midmorning, and when I close the door the family knows not to disturb me unless the apartment is on fire. Not the smoke alarm going; I want proof of an actual fire, with flames and everything.”

I thank Rushdie for his time.

“I didn’t get to two-thirds of these questions,” I say, showing him my cheat sheet.

He peers at the piece of paper. “What’s that one about the New York Yankees?” he asks.

“I noticed that there were a lot of baseball references in the novel and quite a few references to the Yankees. . .”

Rushdie sits back down, and for the next quarter of an hour we’re off to the races talking baseball.

“The rotation is going to get destroyed in the postseason,” I suggest.

“I was amazed that Cashman didn’t get anyone at the trade deadline, but I would have been sorry to see any of those young players go. Gio Urshela has been a revelation this year. Will Andujar even make the team when he comes back from the IL?” he says.

Rushdie’s knowledge of baseball lore is deep. He loves the zero-sum statistical aspect of the sport, which is so similar to cricket. And he rejects utterly the notion that the Mets are the more blue-collar of New York’s teams. “That’s completely false. The New York Times did an analysis of this a few years ago. The Yankees have a larger blue-collar fan base. The Yankees draw from Harlem, the Bronx, Washington Heights and northern New Jersey.”

He regularly goes to games with Don DeLillo and Paul Auster.

I suppose he sits in a box.

“No! Absolutely not! We’re going tonight to the Cleveland game. We sit down the third-base line.”

We’re still talking baseball as we head down the hall towards the elevators. “None of this is going to make the piece,” I tell him. “All this baseball stuff? My editor will think I’ve gone crazy.”

Rushdie smiles.

”Well, you could tell him or her that, like Quixote, sometimes it’s the crazy stuff that reveals an essential truth,” he says as we depart.

Quichotte, by Salman Rushdie, is published by Jonathan Cape