Salman Rushdie is a lion of literature and criticism whose tireless work on and off the page has shed light on our most fundamental beliefs and the horrors of injustice and persecution. And still, the New York City transplant writes with so much energy, wit, and play that it’s almost impossible not to dance to his sentences. His latest novel, Quichotte, is just out in paperback.
INTERVIEW: Where are you and how long have you been isolating?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: At home in Manhattan. I got the Thing early, in mid-March, but was fortunate not to have it in its most dangerous form. I’ve been well since the end of March and quarantining since then.
INTERVIEW: What has this pandemic confirmed or reinforced about your view of society?
RUSHDIE: It has reinforced my understanding of the best parts of human nature, and the worst. The best is the selfless courage of so many on the front lines, and the brilliance of scientists trying to find the cure. The worst is the degeneration of parts of society into an aggressive, hostile, ignorant, bigoted rabble. I’ve always believed that both these elements exist. The pandemic shines a bright light both on nobility and on ugliness, the will to overcome adversity and a sort of Lord of the Flies barbarism.
INTERVIEW: What has this pandemic altered about your view of society?
RUSHDIE: It has made me see, more clearly than ever, how fragile civilization is, and how what we believed to be solid can melt into air in an instant.
INTERVIEW: What is the worst-case scenario for the future?
RUSHDIE: I asked a doctor friend recently, “What if there’s no immunity and no vaccine?” He said, cheerfully, “Then we’re all going to die.”
INTERVIEW: What good can come out of this lockdown? Are there any reasons to hope?
RUSHDIE: I’m not sure why this question is being asked so often. Did our ancestors ask themselves what good would come out of the Black Death? Why this need to believe that there’s always a positive side to a global calamity? The best that can come out of this is that we learn that we have the strength and resolve, as individuals and as communities, to survive it. Beyond that, the voices asking for the emergence of a kinder, gentler, less greedy, more ecologically wise, more inclusive society are, I think, indulging in Utopian thinking. The ’Rona is not a comet trailing socialism in its tail. The creators and beneficiaries of the world’s power structures will not easily alter or relinquish what benefits them. But, yes, we can struggle toward that better world, and who knows? Our children may see it. As to hope, there’s always reason to hope. The human race is a species that displays immense resilience and ingenuity when it is threatened. I expect that those qualities will see us through.
INTERVIEW: How will world governments be remembered for their responses to the pandemic?
RUSHDIE: Some of the Europeans (Germany) have been doing their best. The governments of the three countries I care about most—the U.S., the U.K., and India—will be remembered as profoundly inadequate to the task. That’s as politely as I can express it.
INTERVIEW: What has been your daily routine during this time?
RUSHDIE: Much of my writing routine is the same as it was. Get up, have coffee, go to desk, pretend to work. Occasionally (suitably masked and gloved) go out for a walk. What’s missing is other people. What’s missing is fun.
INTERVIEW: Describe the current state of your hair?
RUSHDIE: Immaculate. I’m fortunate to be locked down with an artist not only of language and image but also of haircutting.
INTERVIEW: On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your level of panic about the current state of the world?
RUSHDIE: Not panicking. Mostly sad. On the sad scale, it’s up there, around 8.
INTERVIEW: What is your ultimate novel, film, and album for self-isolation?
RUSHDIE: Novel: One Hundred Years of Solitude. (Sorry. Bad joke.) Film: I can’t choose one, but I’ve been giving myself a refresher course in the art-house movies of earlier times, and have fallen in love with the French New Wave all over again. Album: Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.
INTERVIEW: Who would be your nightmare person to spend a month of lockdown with?
RUSHDIE: Prince Andrew.
INTERVIEW: What thinker have you taken comfort in of late and why?
RUSHDIE: James Baldwin. Not comfort exactly, but it feels good to see the necessary rage about racism in America so well expressed.
INTERVIEW: If 2020 were a song, which song would it be?
RUSHDIE: “Yesterday” by The Beatles.
INTERVIEW: Where did we go wrong? Like, what was the exact moment?
RUSHDIE: If you mean America, then it was on Tuesday November 8th, 2016.
INTERVIEW: Which (admittedly totally unqualified) celebrity would you trust with the planet’s future?
RUSHDIE: Bob Dylan.
INTERVIEW: If you could stop time at one particular moment in your life, which moment would it be?
RUSHDIE: At my age one does not fantasize about stopping time. One fantasizes about it not stopping.
INTERVIEW: State vs federal? Who should have the power to control the movements and reopening of economies for its people?
RUSHDIE: Somebody, I forget whom, wrote recently that the trouble with different states following different strategies is that it’s like telling swimmers that it’s okay to piss in this corner of the pool, but not over there in that one. There are governors (Cuomo) who have risen to the occasion, others who have not. Unfortunately, we have a narcissistic golfer instead of a president. If we had a real one, that’s where leadership should come from.
INTERVIEW: Is this circumstance a win for technology and the virtual world or for the value of real human contact?
RUSHDIE: I think we are all missing being together without fear. A lot of people are feeling Zoomed out.
INTERVIEW: What prevents you from giving up hope in the human race?
RUSHDIE: It contains too many people I love, am fond of, like, and admire for me to give up hope in it.
INTERVIEW: Who should be the next president of the United States?
RUSHDIE: Of the choices available, Joe Biden, obviously. That’s a no-brainer. This November, America needs to take out its garbage.