There's this early scene in John Waters's debut novel, Liarmouth, in which one of the characters has a massive hard-on. He's trying not to orgasm in the arrivals lounge of an airport. And then something unexpected happens: An errant child punches him in the dick. The force of the impact causes him to ejaculate immediately, all over himself, in front of a stunned and disgusted crowd.
The first time I read this scene I gasped out loud, then read it again, and laughed out loud. It's typical Waters: grotesque, shocking, disturbed. He takes you to an uncomfortable place and then pushes you even further in that direction. It's the same filthy, chaotic sense of humour that oozes from all of his films: The sideshow freaks that rob audience members in Multiple Maniacs (1970), Divine eating real dog shit in Pink Flamingos (1972), Beverly Sutphin going on a murderous rampage in Serial Mom (1994) and then cooking dinner for her kids at home.
Waters, now 76, hasn't released a film since A Dirty Shame in 2004, although he's come out with multiple books. Liarmouth is his first piece of written fiction. It follows Marsha Sprinkle, an evil sociopath who lives to scam, lie and steal. Despite her abhorrence, you find yourself siding with her. When she thieves from unsuspecting victims, you pray she doesn't get caught. When she lies for the fun of it, you enjoy the havoc that follows. Marsha's bad, but it feels good to be bad with her.
Waters’ characters might be unsavoury, but the writer himself possesses an easy charm. Over the phone, he speaks in a quick and melodic drawl, frequently answering questions before you've had a chance to finish them and scattering the conversation with anecdotes. Unlike plenty of other cult directors and writers, Waters seems to enjoy speaking with the press. He enjoys speaking, in general. He’s been on countless book tours and, on the 10th of June, will be performing not one but two spoken word monologues at The Barbican.
Here’s everything we spoke about over the phone.
VICE: Hey, John. How's your afternoon?
John Waters: Well, I just came back from eight cities in ten days. I'm looking forward to coming to London. I was there not so long ago, on vacation, with some friends.
I'm looking forward to your London leg. Do you think the British sense of humour differs from the American?
I think the British can laugh at themselves, and then they laugh at each other. I think the British sense of humour is similar to my sense of humour. But the regular sense of American humour is becoming more like mine.
Humour has got darker because the times have had so much tragedy. If you can laugh, that's the first possible way to fix things and get other people to listen. You have to laugh at yourself first. That's what some of the “trigger warning” crowd doesn't do. If you lecture people, sometimes that backfires and makes them go in the other direction.
I just finished your book, it was very funny. Marsha is quite a sociopathic character…
Certainly she is. And she joins many women that I have written about before and who could hang out with her and not feel uncomfortable around her. I think the people who have followed my work forever know that I enjoy writing about characters that would be the villain in anybody else's book, but I'm asking you to root for her. Even though I think she is appalling and does terrible things. But she has reasons, you find out. Although she may have overreacted…
She reminds me a bit of Beverly Sutphin in Serial Mom.
I think she and Beverly Sutphin could hang out. But Serial Mom very much wanted to be a normal mother except for [the murders]. Marsha doesn't want to be a normal anything, but she thinks she is normal, basically, and every other person in the world is insane and does not have the right to make eye contact.
Photo: Greg Gorman
Why do you think people are so drawn to psychopathic, sociopathic and narcissistic characters? “The dark triad”, so to speak?
Hopefully, in my book, it's because I'm using a character like that for humour. She's so terrible, but she thinks she's so right, so you start to root for her because you know that this is a cockeyed world that I've created, that you're in.
Whenever you read a novel by me, or a movie I did, you know that I'm going to take you to a world that you might not feel comfortable in in real life – but it's fiction. So you can get inside peoples' heads and see how crazy people react and that's something I'm always wanting to do. When I see somebody and I think, ‘Oh god, suppose I had been born in that body. Suppose I was that person. What would it be like every day?’
I sometimes wish I was even just a little bit more evil.
I don't because… well, I don't think I have been evil. I don't think I regret anything in life apart from smoking cigarettes, that's the one thing I regret. I think I've been kind to people, pretty much. None of my work is that mean-spirited – I just want to understand people.
Yeah, I don't think your work has ever been mean-spirited.
I'm supportive of unsupportive people.
I love that Marsha's a scammer. Have you ever been on the receiving end of a terrible scam?
One I was at LaGuardia Airport – and I did use this in the book, fictitiously. So I was waiting outside looking for a car and my bag was right behind me. And I turned around and someone was picking up my bag and they were half caught stealing it. I was shocked like, “What are you doing?” It took me a second to realise what had happened. They didn't get away with it.
If you were going to be a criminal, what type of criminal would you be?
I'd be a hacker, probably. A really crazy hacker. I think some of them are probably cute.
Right? But maybe because I imagine them looking like the hackers in that film Hackers.
I'd be like, “Let's go and get Putin's pornography searches.”
Ha! So this book is called Liarmouth. Have you ever told a lie, just for the fun of it?
Oh sure, I'll tell a lie – if I'm backstage after a play and I didn't like it and you know the people. It's called “green room perjury.” Mostly not to hurt peoples' feelings. I have never done it like Marsha does it; as an exercise in evilness. Marsha believes it's a beauty treatment and it gives her power to lie.
I sometimes think that if I wanted to lie, I could do that all the time. And nobody would question it. But it would be exhausting, right?
Well, I always think that now [I couldn't lie] because people recognise me. Could I shoplift now and get away with it? It would be really embarrassing to get caught. I doubt I'm going to do that. But when I was a kid I did shoplift and never got caught. These days, they have the little tags in them. You have to learn how to cut them out. That's a little more complicated.
True. So in the book you manage to make sex sound quite disgusting and extremely unerotic, for the most part.
I've never had an “eargasm”, so I don't know about that particular sex act. But Marsha hates sex. I think at the end when she has sex though… I don't know. I mean, I don't think people are masturbating reading my book… Or maybe they are. [laughs]
Hopefully not to the cat scene [in which someone makes a cat orgasm using the end of a Q-tip].
You know, that scene… It is true. When I lived with David Lochary [the actor] in New York, he had this boyfriend in the early 70s who had this cat. I hated this cat. It was on heat all of the time. And he did that with a Q-tip and it does work.
That is horrible!
I was happy because I could go to sleep. I looked over and saw it and thought, ‘Oh my god, what are you doing?’ He didn't have to explain.
So much of your work dives into the grotesque and the surreal that simmers behind ordinary suburban characters. What is it about those themes that has always interested you?
It's always amazing when someone who really wants to be normal, or thinks they're normal, suddenly has some kind of power or some kind of obsession that makes them stand out and makes them different. I exaggerate that. I think to myself, ‘Suppose they could do all these supernatural things. What are the side effects?’
You always have to pay the piper for any kind of instance of success that you have that challenges and defies nature. It might bring you power, but what are the side effects? Is it sometimes just easier to go back to being normal?
Did you grow up around those kinds of characters?
I grew up in an upper middle class family – my mother thought she was Queen Elizabeth. She was really a fan of England and they went there for their vacations, to the little villages, and watched birds. So I learned all of that “good taste” from my mum, and spent a career defying it. But I'm glad she taught me all of those rules.
I feel like the idea of “bad taste” is a contentious subject these days – maybe more so than when you first started making films. I don't know if you agree with that.
For me, Trump ruined it. After him, there was no good or bad taste, it was just over. But is Liarmouth bad taste? I don't know if it's good or bad taste – it's a novel. But certainly it has questionable descriptions and subject matters. But is that bad taste anymore?
For me, bad taste is peoples' boring moral philosophies where they're lecturing you about your political correctness. To me that is deadening. That's the new bad taste, maybe. It's not exciting. And I think everything's right that they say, they just say it in a way that makes other people go the other way. It doesn't get supporters or helpers. Why is the gay world fighting with each other? We all used to be one big perverted family. Now we're fighting with each other; it's a waste of energy.
So it's the earnestness…
Earnestness is the perfect word. It makes even me reactionary sometimes. Me – a bleeding heart liberal.
I have to say I gasped and laughed out loud during that scene in the book, in the airport, when the kid punches the guy…
Haha, well good. Every time I'm on an aeroplane and I see someone reading a book and they start laughing and then close it and then open it back up again, I think, “That's so great that you can see someone visibly react like that.”
With a book it's hard to do.
I used to read that Jane Bowles’s book Two Serious Ladies (1943) and laugh out loud. I was crying in parts.
Have there been any pieces of art like that recently – that make you laugh in that way?
I think Saturday Night Live makes me laugh, especially when they've one day to write a skit. I admire the writing on it.
Did you find more freedom in writing fiction? Because it could spill straight out of your head and onto the page?
There was more freedom because I didn't have to worry about the ratings or budget. Yes, in some ways there is more freedom.
What are you doing for the rest of the day?
I have six interviews after you. I want people to come to my show, I want people to read the book. It's fine, I get to talk to smart journalists all over the world – it's a high class problem.
So you don't mind doing back-to-back interviews?
I read newspapers every day and participate in the press. I don't understand why people get so mad about the press, or when celebrities get so mad when someone takes their picture. That's the point.
I also think that celebrities who genuinely don't want to be bothered find a way not to be bothered.
I think you can have a life. You have to learn how to negotiate that life, but everyone can have a life. I think Brad Pitt drives around in a beat-up old car and people don't think it's him.
Yeah, true. I guess there's also a difference between the tabloids and the media more generally.
Well the tabloids don't come after me because there's nothing I'm hiding. I asked the editor of The Enquirer once, “Why do you always write about celebrities when they're failing?” and he said, “Because our readers are failing.”
I like to read the tabloids in America because I like to read the journalist's spin on words and the headlines and also… Who is famous enough that people care enough to say bad things about?
You’re not wrong. Thank you so much for chatting.
Thank you very much, Daisy.
John Waters will be performing his all new, stand-up comedy
monologue False Negative at the Barbican on Friday, June 10th. Due to popular demand, a second show on the same night has now been added.