Bill Buford’s Stint in Hell’s Kitchen

Bill Buford is sorry, but he’s running late. This, perhaps, isn’t surprising. He’s supposed to be at lunch at a Midtown Manhattan bistro to discuss his new book, Dirt, which is also behind schedule. In it, he chronicles his epic free-fall into French cuisine, and his family’s experience living in Lyon for five years. There, Buford worked in a fancy restaurant’s very strict kitchen. And he was late to work. A lot. It was a problem.
When he does arrive, he’s wearing a very New York ensemble of dark on black on black on dark. His gray hair and beard are cropped short, and he’s in a good mood. He’s coming from Knopf’s offices down the street, where he’s been going over second-pass pages.
It’s not Buford’s choice to be doing edits in the PRH office; he made a lot of changes to first-pass pages. And, maybe, upon further reflection, a section he rewrote shouldn’t have been rewritten after all. Basically he’s serving a kind of editorial detention, and whatever the book looks like now, well, as he says, “It’s much edited since you last saw it.”
Buford’s longtime editor was publishing legend Sonny Mehta, who died at the end of December. They’d known each other since the early 1980s, when Mehta was at Picador in London and Buford was running the literary journal Granta.
“His direction was more indirect,” Buford says. “When I finally finished the draft, which I thought was pretty good, he said, ‘It’s a good book.’ And I said, ‘Well Sonny, I’m going to do my revisions to make it a great book.’ He said, ‘It’s not a great book, it’s a good book.’ It delayed my finishing the book by a year. And then last summer he phoned me. He wasn’t well and he’d lost his voice again. He said, ‘I don’t know what you did, but it’s great.’”
Buford, 65, has a voice that’s somewhere between gravelly and growly, and he speaks in bursts and pauses, often stopping mid-sentence, during which time his upper lip will turn inward and he’ll work it slightly before resuming. He looks a bit gruff, like someone who might show up at your door if you are late paying some money you owe to a very bad dude. And yet, here he is having a bowl of bouillabaisse and leaning forward when he talks to make sure his voice is heard on the recorder in a loud room. Or maybe he just hunches. In any event, he’s a nice guy (seriously, check out his Twitter), quick to smile.
Buford was born in Baton Rouge, La. His dad was in the Air Force, and a posting took the family to Southern California when Buford was five. He later went to UC Berkeley and then to Cambridge. At Cambridge, in 1979, he founded Granta. His last issue was in 1995, and during his time at the magazine, it became the kind of publication you’d find in the hands of very discerning readers who were serious about their literature. He left Granta to take over the fiction editor post at an obscure little periodical called The New Yorker.

By then Buford had published his well-received Among the Thugs, a horrifying and very funny study of English football violence in the 1980s. (A nod to Buford’s literary cred: early in Thugs he writes about attending his first English football match with two unnamed friends; he says they were Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa.)

Buford’s second book, Heat, was a bestseller. In it, he documented his life as a “kitchen slave” at Babbo, one of Mario Batali’s Manhattan restaurants, and his adventures learning the art of Tuscan butchery from a flamboyant eighth-generation Italian butcher.
Batali was a huge piece of the book, which at the time was quite an asset. But the world we live in now is not the same as the one in which Heat was written. Then, Batali was a gregarious chef and popular food TV personality; now he is a #MeToo pariah facing charges of sexual harassment and assault. Even so, in Heat, Batali’s boorishness is on full display.
“It’s in the book,” Buford says after a long pause when Batali is brought up. “I’ve avoided talking about it, but let’s just say it’s all there.”
Dirt is big, 400-something pages, and the longest thing Buford has written. It started out as a pretty simple idea: go to Paris, work in a kitchen for a few months, bang out a book. This idea was jangling around in Buford’s head well before Obama was elected, right after he wrapped up Heat. Basically, do Heat in France.
One problem: the French really didn’t care about Buford or his book. If he wanted to go, which at that point meant taking his family (he and his wife, Jessica Green, a magazine editor turned wine expert, had preschool-age twin boys at the time), there would be beaucoup paperwork to fill out for their residency permits. So they did, and with a little fraudulent help from a well-placed friend, the Lyonnaise chef Daniel Boulud, they were in. Which was another problem: then they were there. And in Lyon, not Paris.
What follows is a mix of memoir, culinary anthropology, and immersion journalism, all told in Buford’s hallmark erudite and ruthlessly self-effacing way. Early life in Lyon was a parade of difficulties and humiliations: contending with the French fetish for bureaucracy; finding an apartment; failing to find a kitchen to work in; finally getting work, only to be bullied by a 19-year-old kitchen psychopath; coming to realize that strangers thought Buford was a local in a city where, he writes, the men are all “ugly fuckers.”
“It was a wild thing we did. Really, a wild thing,” Buford says. “Because we get there, and everything’s going wrong and I can’t get into a kitchen, and I think, ‘Well, what the fuck? Now what?’ Then I got into a kitchen where any reasonable person would say, ‘Why didn’t you get out of there?’ But of course, as a writer, that’s what you want.”
The job Buford landed at the Michelin-starred restaurant La Mère Brazier required 15-plus-hour days in a kitchen where the culture resembled that of a pirate ship. The labor was so demanding and physical that he wound up losing weight working in a place where the recipes measured butter in kilos.
“I liked it a lot,” Buford says. “I think I enjoy physical activity, but I’ve got kind of a desk brain. So, the pleasure of the situation—La Mère Brazier was different because it was so intense—is you can have a reflecting brain while you’re doing a physical activity. It helps that I know that I’m going to be writing about it.”
There are intellectual pursuits in the book as well as the demented rigors of the kitchen. Not to give anything away, but a turning point Buford discovers in the controversial history of interplay among Italian and French food (if you want to piss off the French, tell them French cuisine is actually Italian in origin, as Buford did repeatedly) will have people who care about such things looking at their ragù differently.
The Bufords ended up staying in Lyon for five years. They sold their Manhattan apartment. The twins went native. And when the family moved back to New York, the boys had trouble with English. Buford, meanwhile, has long given up his desk at The New Yorker and is now set to embark on something new. He can’t say yet what it is, but know this: it’s gotten a cold reception.
“My agent doesn’t like it. My wife doesn’t like it,” he says. “But I kind of like it.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

On the Road with Héctor Tobar

On a recent morning at his home in Los Angeles, Héctor Tobar, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and expert chronicler of the Latino experience, sat down with a bowl of oatmeal he’d whipped up for breakfast after dropping his daughter off at school. He wants to talk about the day he encountered the strange, true story of Joe Sanderson, a 20th-century thrill seeker and failed novelist from Urbana, Ill., who is the subject of Tobar’s epic new novel, The Last Great Road Bum, due out in June from MCD.
Sanderson traveled the world in the 1960s and ’70s, then became a guerilla fighter in the Salvadoran Civil War. So what drew Tobar to a man who is a relative unknown? “I want people to think of Joe Sanderson as one of the great American adventurers of his time—as someone who’s as worthy of being remembered as Jack Kerouac,” he says.

Tobar has written two other novels, The Tattooed Soldier and The Barbarian Nurseries, and two nonfiction works: Translation Nation, in which the author chronicles his own family history and travels across the United States to gather stories about the Latino experience, and Deep Down Dark, an account of the 2010 mining disaster in Copiapó, Chile. Before he wrote Deep Down Dark, which spent seven weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, he was already thinking about Sanderson, whom he calls “an American Che Guevara,” whom he learned about while working in Mexico.
In 2008, Tobar was working as the Mexico City bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times when a research assistant told him about a war diary written by an American that was sitting in an archive in San Salvador, El Salvador. The diary belonged to Sanderson, who dropped out of college and spent his life traveling the world—Africa, Asia, Europe—in search of adventure and material to write the next great American novel.
Sanderson’s relentless quest for big experiences brought him to El Salvador in 1979, where he joined up with guerillas who opposed the U.S.-backed military junta and became a fighter (code name: Lucas). He died in battle in 1982 at age 39. His diary and other papers, which were found stashed in his backpack, became part of the revolution archive at the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen in San Salvador.
“Joe’s story was begging to be written,” Tobar says. Initially, though, he didn’t know how to approach his subject. It would take years, and multiple stalled nonfiction book proposals, for him to find the answer. In the meantime, he gathered the material he’d later weave into his novel.
Tobar spoke with former rebels who’d fought alongside Sanderson. “I heard stories of Joe winning a shooting contest,” he says, noting that Sanderson was known to be a great marksman, “and of Joe teaching rebels how to swim.” And Tobar tracked down Sanderson’s brother, Steve Sanderson, in the States, who gave him access to letters Sanderson wrote to their mother. Steve also shared his brother’s fiction, which Tobar—who is currently a writing professor at the University of California, Irvine—admits isn’t good.
“I’m a generous grader,” Tobar says, “so I’d probably give him a B−.”
Despite the grade, Tobar, who briefly put aside newspaper work in the 1990s to get his MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine, identified with Sanderson’s dream to write fiction. “I would definitely choose fiction writing over nonfiction if I had to,” he says.
It was the success of Deep Down Dark that motivated Tobar to write Sanderson’s story as a novel. According to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Tobar’s books have been translated into 15 languages and have sold approximately 250,000 copies in North America across all formats, with Deep Down Dark accounting for about half of those sales. But after Deep Down Dark, he hit a crossroads. “I realized if I wrote another book of nonfiction I would never write another novel again,” Tobar says. “There was a voice in my head saying, ‘Nonfiction is all I’m going to be known for.’” So he revisited Sanderson’s story and began to see him as “a man who was trying to live his life like a character in a novel that he never succeeded in writing.”
Tobar got swept up in the idea and wrote the book the real Joe Sanderson couldn’t.

“It’s a novel, but it sits next to Into the Wild and other great nonfiction books,” says Tobar’s editor Sean McDonald of The Last Great Road Bum. “The way it pulls together the strands of Héctor’s writing career is thrilling.”
The son of Guatemalan immigrants, Tobar was born in L.A. in 1963. He spoke Spanish growing up and is firmly entwined with his roots. He’s been married for 26 years and has three kids and what he describes as a “poorly behaved but loyal” dog. He’s friendly and open but says he’s a loner.
“It’s taken me time to overcome a lot of the insecurities that led me to become a writer,” Tobar says. “I was an only child. I was always seeking my father’s approval. I always wanted to be an A student. And so becoming a writer was a way to show the world how special I am.”
Jay Mandel, Tobar’s agent at William Morris Endeavor, calls him “a Swiss Army knife of a writer.” He adds that Tobar is “both deeply American and deeply Central American,” and that this offers him a unique perspective as a storyteller.
Tobar’s powers are on full display in his latest, which uses the treasure trove of letters and diaries Sanderson left behind to create a story of love, war, and art that spans cultures.
Tobar admits he got some weird looks when he started telling people that his latest protagonist is a white guy. “Some people were disappointed that a Latino writer would choose to write a novel from the perspective of a white male,” he says. But he relishes defying expectations. “It’s important to think about working across, and imagining across, ethnic lines. If we as writers of color only think of ourselves as writing inside this channel of, say, Latino history, then we… well, I am depriving myself of a deeper understanding of the full truth of the country in which I live.”
Tobar’s next projects include a survey of Latino life in the Trump age and a trilogy of novels about L.A.
As the conversation winds down and his dog lets out an impatient bark, Tobar tells the story of the time his immigrant father built a fence around the house where Tobar and his family currently live. His father blew out his car engine hauling wood and had bloody hands every day as he hammered away. “But he stubbornly worked at this fence and finished it,” Tobar says. “And it’s beautiful. How he worked on that…That’s the way I write.”
Tobar nods as he reflects on the 11 years—research and all—it took to complete The Last Great Road Bum. “I put everything into that book,” he says. “I fought for every sentence. I left it all on the page.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Julia Alvarez and the Female Book of Job

Julia Alvarez likes to write about sisterhood. She made herself into a household name with two novels about tight kinships: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, published in 1991, about four Dominican sisters adjusting to life in the U.S., and 1994’s In the Time of the Butterflies, about the four Mirabal sisters, who sought to overthrow the former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. While Afterlife, Alvarez’s first work for adults in nearly 15 years, focuses again on four Dominican sisters, it also stretches the definition of family, dramatizing the ways in which the demands of those we hold close sometimes conflict with the demands of the wider world.

Alvarez, 69, says Afterlife is in some ways a product of her age. Put another way, it’s the first novel she’s written as an “elder.”

“I don’t mean ‘elder’ in this poky, airbrushed way—the wise abuelita or anything like that,” Alvarez says. She means it in “the way we used to use the term: the elder of a tribe—having a long view behind me, having come through, being at a stage of life where you’re shedding identities, returning to more of a core self. What is that view? What is family here, at this point in life?”

Alvarez was born in New York City but spent much of her childhood in her family’s native Dominican Republic. They moved back to the U.S. and settled in New York when she was 10. (Her father, a doctor, became a persona non grata in the Dominican Republic when it was discovered that he was involved in a plot to overthrow Trujillo, the same ruler the Mirabal sisters organized against.)
After graduating from Middlebury College in 1971 and receiving a master’s degree in creative writing from Syracuse in 1975, Alvarez held instructor and writer-in-residency positions around the country. In 1988 she returned to Middlebury, where she worked as a professor. Later, after the success of her books enabled her to give up tenure, she became a writer in residence there. She retired from the college in 2016.
Alvarez published most of her oeuvre—in addition to novels, she has written poetry collections, nonfiction, and books for children and young adults—during her time in Vermont. She lives in the small town of Weybridge, near Middlebury, with her husband, Bill Eichner, a retired ophthalmologist. She told a PBS interviewer in 2002 that the region’s “silence and simplicity” allows her to focus. Over time, though, as Afterlife makes clear, the area has become less simple.
“When I first got here, I think, there were 5,400 people of Hispanic descent in all of Vermont,” Alvarez says. “That’s like a city block [in New York City]. It’s been astonishing, in the last 15 or 20 years, to watch this infusion of undocumented workers coming to work on all these little dairy farms that are struggling. Like many places that were once very homogenous, it’s starting to change.”
Afterlife captures this change through the story of Antonia Vega, a writer and retired professor of literature who lives in a small town in Vermont and who has recently lost her husband. Her neighbor Roger is a dairy farmer who employs undocumented workers. “He doesn’t relish breaking the law,” Antonia notes. “But sometimes even law-abiding citizens have to defy the authorities in order to survive. Desperate situations call for desperate moves. Not so different, after all, from the undocumented workers he employs.”
After one of Roger’s workers, Mario, seeks Antonia’s help in securing the passage of his girlfriend, Estela, from Colorado—where she landed after crossing the border—Antonia finds herself, at first reluctantly, drawn into their troubles. Meanwhile, one of her three sisters, an unstable but saintly psychologist named Izzy, has gone missing, and Antonia must work with her other siblings to locate her. At several junctures, Mario and Estela compete with Antonia’s sisters for her attention and loyalty, and the conflict between familial and extrafamilial demands—as well as the demands of the self—give rise to probing observations and unresolvable questions.
“What is the minimum one owes another?” Antonia asks. And is it reckless to neglect one’s health and security to rescue others? “The mantra of the First World,” she notes: “First your own oxygen mask, then everyone else’s.”
Eventually, the borders of Antonia’s responsibilities begin to blur. Mario’s and Estela’s burdens are “theirs, and hers is hers,” Alvarez writes. “But Antonia is having trouble keeping everybody separate.”
Alvarez, who in 2013 was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama, began working on Afterlife as a break of sorts from another novel that she’d been struggling with (and that she plans to return to in some form). In comparison to that novel, Afterlife came relatively quickly, she says, and the book has an immediate, propulsive quality that suggests the urgency of inspiration.
“I thought of it as a contemporary female Book of Job,” Alvarez explains, referring to the Old Testament figure whose faith is tested by a series of calamities. “Everything has fallen apart” for Antonia. Alvarez notes that the character is also anxiety ridden about larger issues, including mass shootings and climate change.
Amy Gash, Alvarez’s editor at Algonquin, says Afterlife was written in response to “some losses in Alvarez’s own life, but also the state of our country and the planet, really.” She adds, “From climate change to the way we are treating immigrants, these are all themes that press against the characters in Afterlife. I suspect that Julia turned to fiction to work through some of this—to try to see how things look from other perspectives, and to find hope. This book, to me, is particularly hopeful.”
One of the novel’s animating questions is how to live in, and negotiate, a world in distress. “I didn’t have an answer,” Alvarez says. “I still don’t have an answer. I don’t think that’s what novels do. But they help us travel the landscape and understand it in an integrated way.”
The novel frequently questions the usefulness of literature as a salve for society’s ills. “Even the beauties of language, of words rightly chosen, are riddled with who we are, class and race, and whatever else will keep us—so we think—safe on the narrow path,” Antonia notes. At another point, she wonders if, as a writer, she is “off the hook by writing her poems” or if that’s simply her way of “outsourcing her compassion.”
What sustains us—language, family, identity—may also be what distances us from others, the novel suggests. How, then, do you “honor those things, which have been important to others before you, and to you?” Alvarez asks.
Resistant to easy answers, she can’t say for sure. “The only way it can work,” she contends, and maybe the way literature works best, “is if you keep the question fresh.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Jenny Offill Exerts Herself

It’s a Friday afternoon, and Jenny Offill, author of the widely acclaimed 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation, is at her home in the Hudson Valley. She’s speaking via Skype, about to broach the subject of her new novel, Weather (Knopf, Feb.), when her internet goes down. The conversation switches to the telephone, but Offill isn’t flustered. In some ways the interruption seems fitting. Both Dept. of Speculation and Weather, with their fragmented structures, suggest that linearity is suspect, that connection is fragile, and that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our understanding.
Offill’s biography, like her novels, is haphazard. Her parents were boarding school teachers, and throughout her childhood she moved around the country, living in Massachusetts, California, Indiana, and, eventually, North Carolina, where she attended high school and college, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating, she worked a number of odd jobs—waitress, bartender, caterer, cashier, medical transcriber, fact-checker, writer of “things for rich people who have a story to tell,” as she puts it.
She published her first novel, Last Things, in 2000, when she was 30. That book received critical acclaim but failed commercially. In the years that followed, Offill worked as an adjunct writing instructor at various universities and wrote children’s books. Like the writer-narrator of Dept. of Speculation, she struggled for years to produce a second novel.
When she did produce that second novel, it exceeded expectations. “I was hoping other writers would like it,” Offill, 51, says of Dept. of Speculation. “That was just a weird book. I didn’t think a novel that was structured like that would have a big audience.”
For all its unconventionality, Dept. of Speculation is propulsive and absorbing. Critic Elaine Blair, writing in the New York Review of Books, said it can be read “in about two hours.” She’s right. Perhaps this is why it didn’t remain some “weird book,” as Offill assumed it would. To date, Dept. of Speculation has sold about 57,000 print copies in hardcover and paperback, according to NPD BookScan; it has been acquired in 21 territories outside of North America; and it’s been optioned for film.
The novel tells the story of an unnamed woman who once aspired to be an “art monster” but, saddled with family and work commitments (including a gig as a ghostwriter for an egomaniacal “almost astronaut”), has thus far failed to realize her potential. The Wife, as she’s sometimes called, begins to question her devotion to her family when she discovers that her husband has had an affair with a younger woman. Proceeding in a series of frenzied fragments, separated by double paragraph breaks, the novel presents the narrator’s fearsome intellect as well as her changeable demeanor.
In a single brief chapter, the narrator alludes to Einstein, recounts the gruesome death of a Russian cosmonaut, quotes the explorer Frederick Cook, writes an imaginary and self-flagellating Christmas card to loved ones, describes her daughter swimming, and references the Stoics.
Dept. of Speculation’s success may also have been owed, in some small part, to its association with a style of writing, popular in the last decade, known as autofiction. The term has come to stand for a literary approach that does away with the conventions of fiction, such as plot and invented characters, and draws, or appears to draw, on the author’s lived experience.
Offill is often mentioned in the same breath as other practitioners of the form, such as Rachel Cusk and Ben Lerner, but she smarts at the label. “Autofiction has been around for so long,” she says. She also feels it’s gendered, asserting that women who write it are assumed to be pulling from their diaries. “I wouldn’t be a fiction writer if I didn’t believe that you could invent, and conflate, and add to things.” And Weather, while formally similar to Dept. of Speculation, certainly strays from the precepts of autofiction. Its narrator is named, for example, and its preoccupations are less insular.
The book centers on a librarian named Lizzie who is raising a son with her husband and caring for a brother with a history of drug addiction. Over the course of the novel, Lizzie, who begins working for a former mentor who operates a podcast about futurism, becomes increasingly fixated on the climate crisis and the doomsday preparation movement. Her anxieties only accelerate when Donald Trump (who is never named) is elected president.
Jordan Pavlin, Offill’s editor at Knopf, feels that Weather is “more ambitious in its themes” than Dept. of Speculation, and that “one of its most thrilling seductions is the way it uses the anxiety we are all experiencing in relation to the current climate—both literally and figuratively—as a plot engine.”
Offill says that with Weather she was looking to respond to the current moment more directly, to write a book that wasn’t “frozen in amber.” She was inspired to address climate change in part by her conversations with her best friend, novelist Lydia Millet, who has written about environmental issues for the New York Times and who addresses those themes in her fiction. “For years we’ve been talking, and at a certain point I thought, ‘I need to know more about this,’ ” Offill says.
At the same time, Offill worried about the pitfalls of political fiction, which she feels can be boring, didactic, and humorless. “I don’t love the language that’s available to talk about this stuff,” she says. “Do I like to say interconnectedness? No. Do I like to say web of life? Mm, no. If you’re not particularly drawn to earnestness, how do you make yourself be a more engaged person?”
Nonetheless, Offill thinks the central problems of our time—climate change, social justice—can’t be tackled individually. “It’s about getting more people—including people like me, who actually hate all group activities—to sign up for the messiness and frustration and occasional exhilaration of collective action. I’ve been to more marches and more meetings and I’ve written more postcards and called more people than I’ve ever done,” she says. “I don’t like to do any of that stuff.”
Weather, like Dept. of Speculation, is told through frenetic fragments. But where the fragments in Dept. of Speculation were meant to mimic the churning of the narrator’s mind, the fragments here are meant to mimic weather. “People always say, ‘It’s an atmospheric book,’ ” Offill explains. “I wanted to see what it would be like to try to write atmospherically.”
The book, she says, is “meant to swirl” as if its paragraphs were clouds. Its atomized form is intended to congeal into an uneasy whole, mirroring the challenge of political movements, in which individuals must find a way to act in concert.
If Offill arrived at any wisdom by the end of writing Weather, it’s the wisdom captured in a quote the protagonist’s husband posts above his desk: “You are not some disinterested bystander / Exert yourself.” With Weather, Offill hopes to do just that.
This story was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Malcolm Gladwell Talks to Strangers

As Malcolm Gladwell sees it, nearly nothing is as simple as it seems, and just about everything warrants curiosity and caution. Behind even the most mundane human exchange lie intricate systems of psychology, sociology, philosophy, and a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle composed of beguiling historical anecdotes.

Gladwell wants to pique our interest in society and human behavior. And in his new book, Talking to Strangers, the 56-year-old New Yorker writer turns his gaze to how ostensibly innocent conversations between people who don’t know one another can be inherently problematic.

The book was inspired by one particularly lethal conversation between strangers: that between Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman who died in a jail cell, by what was ruled a suicide, and Brian Encinia, the white male police officer who pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change and ultimately arrested her. “The book begins with the question of ‘what happened?’” Gladwell says. “We have the interaction [between Bland and Encinia] on videotape, and we know exactly what they said to each other. It was the most upsetting of all the problematic encounters between police officers and African-Americans at that period, [and I ask], ‘Is this symptomatic of something more deeply problematic in the way strangers talk to each other in our society?’ and go from there.”

One could nip Gladwell’s inquisition in the bud by declaring that the problem is racism, plain and simple, but such an assertion gives Gladwell pause. “I think race is absolutely a crucial factor in their encounter,” Gladwell says, “but at the beginning of the book I say I will not dwell on it, not because it is irrelevant but because I don’t see how it helps us from preventing this in the future. What I want to do is say, ‘Let’s take another approach.’ Let’s ask, ‘Is there something fundamentally wrong with the way human beings deal with the other? And have those problematic ideas become the structure of our society?’ [Sandra Bland] died because of a particular philosophy of American police that has deep roots and is deeply problematic; to understand it just as an encounter between a white man and a black woman is to misunderstand it.”

Among the core problems that arise when strangers talk is what Gladwell calls our “default to truth.” “We assume someone is telling us the truth unless there’s powerful evidence telling us otherwise,” Gladwell says. “That helps us create a productive society, but it has a weak spot in that it allows us to be deceived by others.”

Another big problem is “the transparency assumption.” “We assume,” Gladwell says, “that people’s feelings are presented reliably on their face and in their body language, which is not true. We are constantly making this mistake. Take the case of Amanda Knox, on which I have a whole chapter. We assumed that just because she was a little bit weird [in her expressions], she was guilty of murder.”

Why do we assign so much value to the way strangers express themselves to us? Because in the land of family, friendships, and other familiars, such expressions are valid indicators.

“If you and I were very good friends, one thing that would happen is we would come to understand each other’s idiosyncrasies,” Gladwell says. “I would know, for instance, that ‘Nicole is someone who, when she’s very happy, gets nervous and her eye twitches’ or, ‘When she is sad, she does not show it on her face.’ We create highly individualized assessments of people’s feelings and expressions, but we can’t do that when we don’t know someone.”

In a sense, we’re taking the same math we use on people we know and applying it to people we don’t know, which naturally leads to a miscalculation. And in worst-case scenarios, that miscalculation could be the death of us. We make this mistake everyday, not just in real life but also with strangers on social media and with celebrities whom we may never meet yet feel we know.

“I just saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and came out of the movie theater feeling like I really knew Brad Pitt,” Gladwell says. “If I sat next to him on a plane, I would jump into conversation with confidence and bravado, feeling that I really knew the guy. I have zero insights into Brad Pitt from his performance, but it’s so easy to believe that I do.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.

John Waters Has Never Been Wrong

Back in Baltimore after the third annual John Waters Camp, where fans live and dress like his characters over a long weekend, the transgressive filmmaker was still processing his new status of respectability. “A lot of people said, ‘My parents told me about your movies,’” he says. “When I was young, their parents called the police when they found them with my movies. So a lot has changed.” His newest book, Mr. Know-It-All, tracks the Prince of Puke’s evolution into insider and offers advice—like harnessing one’s insanity and finding happiness through creative fulfillment—for the misfits and weirdos plagued by crazy ideas.

“I’m being Norman Vincent Peale for the neurotics,” he says, “although I actually don’t think my fans are neurotic. I think when society told them they were crazy, they learned how to triumph above that. Mr. Know-It-All is like all self-help books, but at the same time I might be telling you to go a very different way than you’ve been taught by your parents or what came before.”

Waters, who wrote all of his dozen feature films, published his first book, Shock Value, in 1981. The memoir covered the making of classic midnight movies, like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, and chronicled his childhood in Baltimore, the “hairdo capital of the world,” a line that anticipated his best-known work, Hairspray, which features a “hairbopper” played by Rikki Lake who championed body positivity before it was a thing. His next film, Cry-Baby, spoofed Elvis movies and their fans. While straight men from his generation like Bruce Springsteen cite Elvis as the inspiration to pick up a guitar, Waters writes that it was Elvis who made him realize he was gay. “Is there anything more rock ’n’ roll than whacking off the first time to Elvis Presley?”

Ricki Lake as Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad by Henny Garfunkel

Asked when he started writing, he says, “That’s what I really am, more than anything, a writer. That’s how I could discover forbidden worlds. Life magazine corrupted me because I read about beatniks and Tennessee Williams and drug addicts and homosexuals and everything.” He also learned at an early age that his delight in grotesque material could be contagious—and dangerous. As a 12-year-old at summer camp he wrote a horror story called “Reunion.” “I read it each night around the campfire,” he says. “At the end, there was this hideous gore and people had nightmares. The parents called the camp and called my parents and complained, so right from the beginning it was trouble.” Later, his first published work, “Inside an Unwed Mother’s Home,” written under the pseudonym Jane Wiemo, proved to be an exercise in drag. “It was written for Fact magazine,” he says, “but I made it up!”

Other books include Crackpot, a collection of journalism published in Rolling Stone, and Carsick, which is built around the stunt of hitchhiking across the country. Waters is no stranger to stunts—at screenings for Polyester, audience members received scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards with smells that corresponded to scenes from the film. In Mr. Know-It-All, he explains how the idea emerged from an unsympathetic critic’s warning to readers: “If you ever see Waters’s name on the marquee, walk on the other side of the street and hold your nose.” His response? Fill up scratch-and-sniff cards with smells of flatulence, gasoline, and skunk spray. Somehow, Waters knew that proving his critics right was always the best way to build an audience. He also needed a new business plan after the decline of midnight movie theaters. “People wanted to see [movies] at any time, at their house, with their friends, and smoke their pot that they didn’t have to hide from nosy ushers,” he writes in Mr. Know-It-All. “Better yet, they could jerk off while watching—the real reason home videos became so big.”

When I tell him that I was 13 the first time I saw a John Waters movie on VHS, he says, “God, that might’ve been illegal.” Then I name the film—Serial Mom—and he claimed it’s his best. In the book, he describes the original pitch: “Not the usual John Waters movie about crazy people in a crazy world, but a movie about a normal person in a realistic world doing the craziest thing of all as the audience cheers her on!” Kathleen Turner played the titular homicidal maniac straight, and a suburban rampage became punk rock catharsis, complete with a scene starring the band L7 scorching a Baltimore club as Camel Lips.

John Waters and Kathleen Turner by Greg Gorman

With right-wing provocateurs co-opting the absurd theatrics of the radical leftists who inspired him in the 1970s, Waters hasn’t given up the urge to provoke. In a chapter on the sex clubs of yesteryear, he pitches a business plan: a club for gay people to copulate with the opposite sex and create, he says, a “new sexual minority… Gay heterosexuality.” The name of the club? Flip Flop.

“They flipped out when [I proposed this at the John Waters Camp],” he says. “But they laughed, that’s the whole thing. The main thing I’m trying to do is make you laugh. If I’m taking you into a world that makes you uncomfortable, people are okay if I’m the guide, because I’m not mean. I’m mean about the Catholic Church, but that’s not mean, that’s protection. That’s religious war.”

It’s been 15 years since Waters has released a film, though he’s not bitter toward Hollywood. “I have been paid to write many movies since A Dirty Shame,” he says. “As I said in the book, I don’t really complain about anything, but I do believe that I’ve probably made my last movie. I think I’m just in the wrong business because my movies have shelf lives, like what you want with a book. It’s always in print and always there’s two copies in every bookstore, even 40 years later.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.

Lead image credit: Larry Dean

Chris Ware Opens Up About ‘Rusty Brown’

To read Chris Ware is to be struck by the joyous forms storytelling can take while being devastated by his characters’ personal tragedies. Ware’s vibrant experiments in layout and design—he often packages his graphic novels with oddities like flipbooks—are anchored by men and women hounded by loneliness, isolation, and a desire to escape their worlds, which are both cruel and mundane.

Such is the case with Rusty Brown, Ware’s latest work, nearly two decades in the making. The graphic novel follows the action-figure-obsessed titular character and his uncomfortable existence in the suburban Midwest, as well as two other characters: Rusty’s father, Woody; and Joanne Cole, a black language teacher.

Though Ware began Rusty Brown nearly two decades ago, it’s still only halfway done; Pantheon published the first part in September. Already acclaimed for his seminal graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan when he started Rusty Brown, Ware has since written and illustrated Acme Novelty Library, Building Stories, his autobiography Monograph, and multiple New Yorker covers.

“I knew [Rusty Brown] was something I’d be working on for a long, embarrassing while—which is part of the ‘idea,’ insofar as there is one,” Ware says. “I know the book is exactly halfway done because it’s about six and a half people, and I’ve done three of them. Pretty straightforward, even if the book itself is a sprawling mess. But again, so is life.”

Emotionally and visually, Ware’s books are often sprawling and messy, but they are never unclear. His panels, small and detailed, are often part of meticulously designed pages, some of which unfold into larger configurations. And yet, there’s a spontaneity to Ware’s work. The narrative complexity of Rusty Brown, for instance, isn’t the product of a rigid outline.

“Like life, though I might have some sort of plan, I’m still essentially figuring it out as I go along,” Ware says. “I write with pictures, not words. And even if I did just sit staring at the wall thinking up a script that I’d later tediously illustrate, I’d still just be figuring it out as I went along, but I wouldn’t be doing it with images, and thus I’d be foregoing the peculiar aesthetic advantage that writing in comics uniquely affords.”

To work through a Chris Ware graphic novel is, in a way, to work through life—its joys, disappointments, exhilarations, and uncertainties. “I’m simply trying to get at that undercurrent of feeling that we call ‘life’ and that we do everything we can as adults to suppress—and don’t really sense except in moments of profound vulnerability and sadness,” Ware says, adding that he used to feel that way constantly as a child but now does only rarely. And he misses it. “I’ve long had the indescribable sense,” he says, “that my childhood and everything that’s ever happened to me is all still somewhere ‘right there’ but just slightly out of reach.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Texas Book Fair.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

After 20 Years, Stephen Chbosky Has Rekindled His Love for Writing Novels

As a little boy, Stephen Chbosky was afraid of many things. There were the deep western Pennsylvania woods surrounding his home in the township of Upper St. Clair. One could easily get lost in those woods, and the boy was sure it was a place where evil lurked. Little Stephen would warily observe the deer that often came close to his house. “I always thought they were very mysterious and frightening,” he says. Then there was his strict Catholic upbringing. It might not have instilled the fear of God in him, but it most certainly instilled a deep and lasting fear of the devil. “When I was a little boy, they scared the living shit out of me with the idea of the devil,” he says. “There is this horrible place and when you sin and you don’t confess, you’re going to burn forever. It became an obsession of mine when I was a teenager. Yes, my early years left quite an impression on me.”

All these deeply ingrained childhood horrors come into play in Chbosky’s new novel, Imaginary Friend. It took him nine years to write the book, and it’s being published 20 years after his first novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a coming-of-age story about a socially awkward teenage boy. Chbosky also wrote the script and directed the film adaptation of the book.

“Most of my professional and artistic life has consisted of making movies and television,” he says. Most notably, he cowrote the screenplay for Beauty and the Beast (2017) and directed Wonder (2017), staring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. Wonder revisits Chbosky’s favorite subject matter: vulnerable boyhood, this time through a boy with facial deformities entering fifth grade after years of home schooling.

Chbosky says he considers himself a hybrid: He’s a novelist whose other half belongs to the movies. “Ironically, it was the movie adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower that made me fall in love with writing novels all over again,” he says. “I do know it’s not going to be another 20 years before I write the next book.”

In Imaginary Friend, Chbosky added an element of horror to the vulnerability of his main character, a young boy named Christopher. “I was excited to use my ability to write about what kids experience and what they’re going through,” he says, “and take it into the horror zone.”

Imaginary Friend’s title has a double meaning: Not only does 7-year-old Christopher hear the voices of imaginary people, but the book also poses the question: “Who can you trust?” Is this voice in your head really your friend? Does this imaginary person truly have your best interest in mind? “The book tells us that the only people who see things that are not there are visionaries and psychopaths,” Chbosky says. “The difference between the two is very slight.”

It doesn’t escape Chbosky that as a novelist he is not just creating an imaginary world but also inhabiting it while writing. He hears the voices of his characters, and they often become more real to him than the people around him. “I started writing the book nine years ago,” he says. “Back then I had no kids. Now when I come home I’m thankful that the voices of my 7-year-old daughter and my 4-year-old son are loud enough to drown out the voices of my characters.”

Imaginary Friend is not just a horror story; it’s also a deeply religious book. To this day, Chbosky considers himself a Catholic and is fascinated by Christian mythology, which he sees as the foundation of our civilization for the last 2,000 years. “There are many allusions in the book to the Old Testament and also a few to the New Testament,” he says. “There are allusions to the tree of knowledge. Sometimes the book is repetitious, because repetition is how we learn the Lord’s Prayer, the rules and the stories of the Bible. I combined that with the horror of the Brothers Grimm, my own childhood fears, and my love for Stephen King.”

The book begins with a cloud that always appears in the same place in the sky. Little Christopher sees a face in that cloud. He can speak to it, and the cloud answers. The cloud leads him into the woods, and he follows without knowing where it will take him. Chbosky says that when he started writing the book, he also followed the cloud without knowing where it would take him. Mostly it took him into his own subconscious, where he faced the question, “How does one deal with fear?” The book, he says, answers: “We can swallow our fear or let our fear swallow us.”

Ultimately, Imaginary Friend celebrates the best of human qualities: love, devotion, and goodness. “The ultimate point of the book is the importance of the truth,” Chbosky says. “Telling the truth, seeing the truth, speaking the truth, and knowing the truth in your heart can deliver every single one of those characters. And the truth is love. All characters in the book have some version of that. Not embracing the truth is what keeps them in chains.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Olga Tokarczuk Takes on the Detective Novel

In 2007, Olga Tokarczuk had just published her novel Flights in Poland, where it would go on to be a bestseller and win the 2008 Nike Award, the country’s most prestigious literary prize; a decade later, it would win the Man Booker International Prize in an English translation by Jennifer Croft. But after she finished writing Flights, Tokarczuk was uncomfortable. She had developed a fear of flying—the novel features restless narratives that wander across multiple countries—and started longing to stay in one place. But that wasn’t the only problem.
“I really had started to run out of money to live on,” Tokarczuk tells me from her home in Poland. “When we talk about books, we rarely talk about the economic side of writing, especially of writing literary works, and that, at base, it’s a pretty costly enterprise.”
At the time, Tokarczuk was already several years into what would become The Books of Jacob, a 900-page polyphonic novel about controversial 18th-century religious leader Jacob Frank (which would net Tokarczuk her second Nike in 2015; it will be published in English in 2020, translated by Croft). It was her most ambitious book to date and she needed money to continue researching, so she came up with a logical solution, for a writer: Write another book.
“I decided to write a crime novel,” she says. “That genre was at the height of its popularity in Poland, so I thought it might earn me a bit of cash to go on with my work on The Books of Jacob. I shut myself away for a few months and devoted myself entirely to Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I was slightly concerned that breaking the continuity of one book in favor of another might not be a good idea, but it worked.”
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, will be published in the U.S. this month, 10 years after its original Polish publication. It’s a mystical detective novel—the title comes from a William Blake line—that follows Janina Duszejko, a woman in her 60s who lives alone in hamlet tucked in the wilderness of Poland’s Kłodzko Valley, in the southwest region of Lower Silesia, near the Czech border. From the story’s opening, the reader senses the genre conventions: Janina is woken up in the night by the knocks of her neighbor, whom she calls Oddball, who reports that their neighbor Big Foot (another of Janina’s names) is dead in his house. Not long after, the body of the local police commandant turns up in the snow. Janina notices a smattering of animal prints around the commandant’s body, leading her to posit to the local authorities—all men—that the animals are taking revenge on people because of the area’s barely-enforced hunting rules. Soon, another body is found. And then another.
But with Tokarczuk behind the murder mystery, the whodunit is a sort of Trojan horse, a container for her to explore, with characteristic complexity and rigor, a whole host of deeper concerns, including animal rights, morality, fate, and how one life fits into the world around it. For her, simply finding out the identity of the murderer would be boring.
“I’ve never been a great fan of crime fiction,” Tokarczuk says. “I read Agatha Christie in my youth, but that’s all. I’ve often felt that in the process of pursuing the perpetrator of a crime and trying to arrange the facts into a logical sequence, the complex, less obvious psychological motives get lost, the social context doesn’t get described in an incisive way, and no atmosphere is created.”
Both as a reader and writer, Tokarczuk brings a set of lofty expectations to a novel, which she regards as the highest literary form. “I expect novels, including crime fiction, to be multifaceted and to work on many planes,” she says. “A novel should tell a story, be a pleasure to read, and at the same time it should be thought-provoking, even a bit instructive. I still believe in the social function of literature, that literature can change things, it can have an influence on reality, or even generate it. I fully realized that many years ago, the first time a publisher sent me a sales report, and I read with pride and disbelief that tens of thousands of people had bought one of my books. It made me aware that what I say matters.”

Tokarczuk expects a novel “to force an intellectual and mental confrontation. That means sometimes it has to hurt, sometimes it has to be rough and uncomfortable.” She adds, “I like black humor, too.”

Tokarczuk’s three previous works translated into English—House of Day, House of Night (2003), Primeval and Other Times(2010), and Flights (2018)—employ a “constellation” style: they’re structured in far-ranging fragments that hopscotch between different times, places, and perspectives. House of Day and Primeval are mosaics of small Polish communities composed of clusters of stories about their residents; Flights nimbly searches out and plucks stories from all over the map, including that of Flemish anatomist Philip Verheyen’s discovery of the Achilles tendon in the 17th century—from dissecting his own leg.
“The novel allows us to step outside the boundaries of our own self, and to spend time in someone else’s skin—and then we find that the world isn’t black and white after all,” Tokarczuk says. “Literature broadens our awareness, and in a way it’s the guarantor of a healthy psyche.”
Throughout her novels, she demonstrates a command of switching focus from the granular and the individual to the cosmic and the momentous. One astounding passage that represents her style, concerns, and skill is the fragment about Peter Dieter from House of Day, House of Night.
The seven-page fragment is about a German man who travels to Lower Silesia, the region of Poland that Tokarczuk’s work consistently explores and where she now lives, to revisit the place where he grew up. Peter was one of the hundreds of thousands of Germans who lived in the region but were evacuated after World War II, when it became part of Poland. At that point, Polish citizens were given the property of the evacuated Germans. The unsettled Peter hopes that seeing where he came from will bring clarity to his life. Yet when he gets there, he can’t even recognize his own village, which has shrunk and drastically changed in appearance. He walks on alone to a mountain panorama, and feels a moment of peace looking at the view “that he had carried inside him all this time.” But as he climbs on, still higher, he finds himself completely out of breath. He wonders what it would be like to die in this moment (“For some reason this idea seemed funny”), starts to eat a piece of chocolate, and dies. His body ends up lying with one foot in the Czech Republic and one foot in Poland. The Czech border guards find Peter first, horrified at the chocolate stream dribbling out of his mouth. One begins to use his radio to report the body, but it’s dusk and they want to go home and eat dinner, so they pull him onto the Polish side of the border, then leave. Half an hour later, the Polish border guards find Peter. They drag him onto the Czech side and leave. And as Peter’s soul departs forever, the last image he sees is of a wooden nativity scene from his youth: among the wooden cows and wooden dogs, “two pairs of little wooden soldiers carry Peter Dieter’s wooden body from one side to the other for all eternity.”
The fragment contains some of Tokarczuk’s broader throughlines—near-mythic inevitability, borders, responsibility, the churn of history—but it does so through the detailed, precise view of a single life. The resulting effect of this dizzying shuttling between a super low-to-the-ground view and a wider one is that it feels like the perspective of a Tokarczuk novel, limited as all are and in spite of the impossibility of the task, is nonetheless trying to gather everything, to account for as much as it can. Her books never lose sight of the individual within the whole, and the reader is always aware of the swirl of factors—geographic, biological, spiritual, historical—that have added up to bring her characters their fates.
For Tokarczuk’s American readers, Drive Your Plow takes a new—and possibly more accessible—narrative route: it does away with the constellation style. Janina’s limited, first-person perspective squeezes maximum tension out of its murder mystery; readers know only what the idiosyncratic Janina chooses to tell us (and that’s often trying to decipher her abstruse astrological calculations). But Drive Your Plow, like Tokarczuk’s other books, features wide-lens observations. Janina shares her views on, among many others, local flora (flowers in a garden “are neat and tidy, standing straight and slender, as if they’d been to the gym”), the body (that “our cerebellum has not been correctly connected to our brain,” meaning we lack full knowledge of our own anatomy and what’s troubling it, rendering the body “a troublesome piece of luggage”), the apoptosis of the world (“Reality has grown old and gone senile”), and the stars (“Finally, transformed into tiny quivering photons, each of our deeds will set off into Outer Space, where the planets will keep watching it like a film until the end of the world”). The wrinkle of getting these observations through Janina’s eyes is a large part of what makes Drive Your Plow so compelling.
Tokarczuk says that the right voice for the story is always the most important thing for her when constructing a book. “From the start I knew the story had to be told in the first person, and I spent a long time trying to piece together various features of the narrator,” she says. “She needed to be an elderly woman, she had to be eccentric, both irritating and sympathetic at once. A little bit freaky. The whole thing turns on the reader identifying with her and liking her in spite of initial resistance.”
In discussing the origin of Janina’s voice, Tokarczuk says, “I was once at a party where I saw a woman from the flower-child generation, who was dressed quite oddly and who kept asking everyone about their birthday and their ascendant, and then coming up with her astrological conclusions. I could see that people found it irritating, and they were trying to avoid her company, or to ignore her. There was something touching yet at the same time annoying about her. It occurred to me that nobody wants to listen to old women, and that with age women become invisible, which has its good as well as its bad sides. So in the book I decided to tell my story in the voice of one of these women—well-educated, slightly weird, sensitive, and single.”
Lloyd-Jones says that in translating Drive Your Plow, Janina’s voice was key for her, as well. “The reader has to stick with her for 250 pages, in a sense becoming complicit with her,” Lloyd-Jones says. “I worked with an audiobook as well as a printed copy to help me to listen to Duszejko’s strange way of using language. When I’d finished, I went back over the entire translation, fine-tuning and in fact reining her in a bit, making sure the balance between irritating and likeable was still there, but in a form that worked in English.”

Tokarczuk says that she wrote Drive Your Plow in a fugue state, in part because she knew exactly where the story would go. It wasn’t difficult to write, at least compared to a book like Flights, which she didn’t fully know the direction of at the outset (she adds that writing the screenplay for Drive Your Plow, which was adapted into a film in 2017, was much more difficult). “I find writing in the first person to be the easiest literary form. Beginners or inexperienced writers often use this form because they can’t yet handle a more demanding third-person narrative, which requires much greater control over the world you’re describing. A first-person narrative requires you to identify with the narrator for a certain time and to a certain degree, and then it just takes off on its own.” She continues: “I wrote this book without effort, pretty much chronologically. Duszejko’s story carried me along, and more or less wrote itself. While I was writing the last few chapters I did some crying—I don’t know whether it was the tension I’d had to keep up for several months, or sadness over my heroine’s fate.”
As an internationally renowned writer, Tokarczuk isn’t afraid to be outspoken about the situation in her country, using her visibility to bring attention to difficult, urgent issues. She’s challenged both Poland’s own historical narrative of itself as an “open, tolerant country” (which she received death threats for, even needing bodyguards for a time) and its tense current political environment, with the ruling conservative, nationalist Law and Justice party promoting racist and homophobic views, such as when the party’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński spoke about Muslim refugees carrying “parasites and protozoa.” Party officials have recently pushed to declare entire provinces “LGBT-ideology free”; a Law and Justice campaign ad depicted an umbrella with the party logo blocking a family from rainbow-colored rain.
In January, Tokarczuk wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about Paweł Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdańsk, who was stabbed to death on stage during a live broadcast of a charity event that millions of viewers were watching, stating that the violence was a clear consequence of the rampant hate speech that has proliferated throughout the country. Tokarczuk says, “In today’s Poland it’s impossible for a writer to just write quietly in isolation from what’s going on around them, and as a result, willingly or not, literature is becoming more and more committed.”
What’s happening in Poland is inextricably tied to the Tokarczuk’s wide-lens narrative scopes. “In extreme shorthand, in modern times our world has come apart, and we’ve started seeing everything separately: the body, the soul, nature, science, people, and animals,” she says. “This has allowed us to make lots of discoveries, and in many cases it has brought about an improvement in people’s lives. But now this fragmentary, smashed-up world is starting to be a threat to itself. I wonder if we can make it whole again, and how that could be done. I think understanding the wholeness of the world as a system of communicating vessels, or a network, will give us an entirely new kind of responsibility. Literature, philosophy, and art are sure to play a major part in that.”
Tokarczuk, who has stated that her “romantic notion of helping people” led her to studying psychology at the University of Warsaw over 30 years ago, continues, and will continue, to look outward. She says that novels “exercise and develop our empathy,” and that she’s continually fascinated by literature’s ability to make the local become global. “When we read superbly written books by Annie Proulx or Richard Flanagan we’re able to transfer ourselves to Canada or Tasmania. If I have managed to cause Janina Duszejko, living somewhere in Central Europe, in Lower Silesia, in a tiny village, to occupy someone’s thoughts far away, I think I’ve achieved my literary aim. In a future book I’m going to go back to that idea.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on

Salman Rushdie’s ‘Quichotte’ Took its Author to Uncharted Territory

“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.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on