Salman Rushdie Talks New Novel 'Quichotte' and Trump's America: "The Reality Show Has Taken Over D.C."

Salman Rushdie - Getty - H 2019
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The leading British novelist also discussed his "little flirtation with Twitter," his Showtime rejection and his lifelong romance with Hollywood films: "Going to the movies is what educated me as much as anything I got out of the library."

Salman Rushdie's new novel Quichotte is many things. It's a retelling of the Don Quixote fable, situated in this century, set in today's media age. It revolves around an India-born traveling salesman who sets out on a cross-country road trip across America, the modern version of a quest, in hopes of capturing the heart of daytime TV star Salma R., whom he knows only through the screen. It's a devilishly funny satire that — when it isn't a serving as a wry examination of the current political and social landscape — has its moments as a sobering cautionary tale. While there's no Donald Trump in Quichotte — as Rushdie said on Friday's installment of HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, "I didn't want his name in my fucking book" — the author sees the current U.S. president as "a symptom as well as a cause" of the state of American politics and culture, which is the book's focus.

With Quichotte already shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Rushdie's Midnight's Children won the same literary award in 1981; the author is perhaps best known for his 1998 book The Satanic Verses, which incurred the threat of a deadly fatwa on him for a time) and ensconced on The New York Times' best-seller list, Rushdie is currently on a cross-country book tour and called from Chicago in mid-September to discuss the book's view of our times with The Hollywood Reporter.

In the novel, Quichotte lives his life mainly through a television screen. In this media age, are we all Quichotte?

He's a little bit of an exaggeration. I wanted to make him fairly outrageously nutty, which I'm not accusing all of us of being. But we all have to swim in the same sea — in this media environment in which truth and lies blur and have become hard to distinguish. Certainly, when I was doing my due diligence for the book and watching all this reality TV, which he loves, I began to understand that it could drive a person crazy watching all this stuff. I began to feel a little like that myself.

Well, so many people seem to be living their emotional lives now through their relationship with TV characters or shows like The Bachelor.

I wouldn't say he is an everyman figure, but he has something in common with most of us. And he's a lonely man — he's never married or had a child — and the kind of isolation caused by this information age was something I wanted to explore.

And then it's just one step to our current political situation, where the president basically has the values of a reality show.

The reality show has taken over D.C., and we're all stuck with it. And it's bizarre. The monster is not Trump. The monster is this information age we've created where a figure like Trump becomes possible. But Trump's name doesn't occur in the novel and I didn't want it to be there because I was writing about America, not about him. He's not the cause of it, he's an effect. And I wanted to write about "it," rather than one of its byproducts.

In the book you refer to B.G. and A.G. — "before Google" and "after Google," and there's a major plot point that the character is able to escape with her reputation intact, because an incident occurred B.G. But now, in the era of A.G., as you put it in the book, "The mob rules and the smartphone rules the mob."

Yeah, I had a little flirtation with Twitter. Someone suggested I might enjoy it a few years ago so I tried it out and over a million people rushed in my direction and that was gratifying in a way. And for a while I enjoyed it, and then I stopped enjoying the interaction. I don't know if I changed or it changed. Though I have started again, at my publisher's request, to give information about the book tour. I suspect, the moment that it's over, I'll withdraw again. I found out this is a room I really don't want to be in.

In the book, you allude to social media by saying that life has become a series of vanishing photographs posted every day. And then on to the next.

If you're much younger than me, if you're my 22-year-old son's age — his generation — that's how they display their lives, in these moments that vanish.

And do you think that generation has a chance of real community of its own?

His generation thinks Facebook is for old people and they don't really use Twitter. They use these visual media, they use Instagram and Snapchat. And so it seems to me the sort of problems that we all have with social media, which come from the kind of unpleasant trolling aspects — those are in the media which the kids don't seem to be using. So maybe that's just a passing phase; it may be that whatever comes next will not be unpleasant in that way. There may be another change coming.

You also had some very interesting observations about Hollywood, and I was wondering if you had spent much time there.

There was a film made by Deepa Mehta of my novel Midnight's Children, an indie movie, and I was quite heavily involved in fundraising. I wasn't a producer but essentially Deepa, her partner and producer David Hamilton and I made the film together. So, during that time, I did learn a lot about how things go. Even down to the distribution aspects of the film, where I thought we actually didn't do very well.

Then, six or seven years ago, I was asked by Showtime to develop the show with them. And I went quite a long way down the road. I spent a year writing a pilot. And then they didn't go forward. And what I learned — and I still use this experience — is that for 12 months, I would be told that this was the best thing since sliced bread, and it was the most original, brilliant, unusual thing they'd ever seen, they were going to be a thousand percent behind it, etc., etc. So, I got all that for a year, At the end of that, I essentially got a text message saying we've decided not to go with it.

The other aspect of Hollywood in the book revolves around the character of Salma R. and how she really could only really find her ultimate expression through having such a big platform that she didn't need rely on the men who, she says, "knew they would never fuck her and then sought to possess her in other ways."

I wanted to say that, though it's hard for everybody, it's harder for women. And it's harder than that for beautiful women. And it's harder than that for beautiful women who have a brain. And the character led me away from movie stardom to this other kind of celebrity, what daytime television talk shows offer. For her, it seems more possible to achieve what she wants in that way rather than in the movies. I have to say I am maybe a member of the last movie generation. Not just Hollywood, but European and world cinema.
Going to the movies is what educated me as much as anything I got out of the library or bookstore. So, I feel that my work and my way of seeing has been shaped by the movies. So I don't want to just be beastly about them. Cinema has been a very important thing in my life, and that includes Hollywood.

But there is kind of a dark underbelly?

There's a distinction one has to make between film and the film industry. The way in which the industry operates is one thing, which one has to recognize has all kinds of problem areas. Which one might be called Harvey Weinstein. But still film itself is a glorious thing. It's inspirational. And enjoyable. And what would we do without it?

This interview was edited for length and clarity.