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Sunday, September 25, 2022

John Waters: ‘Trump ruined bad taste – he was the nail in the coffin’ | John Waters

If John Waters had existed in ancient Rome – and he’d be the first to point out that he’s been around for a while now – they would have made him the god of pop culture. The director has a tendency to materialise in zeitgeist-defining moments, like one of those urban legends where it turns out the same spooky guy was in every single family photograph.

When The Simpsons redefined the sitcom in the 1990s, Waters was there, cameoing as Homer’s gay best friend. When comedy prank phenomenon Jackass horrified pearl-clutchers everywhere in the 2000s, Waters was there, appearing as a magician in a skit with Jason “Wee Man” Acuña. When RuPaul’s Drag Race pulled drag culture into the mainstream in the 2010s, it dedicated a whole episode to guest judge John Waters, with skits based on his films Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. And in the 2020s, you could find him in the none-more-hip comedy-drama Search Party, selling children to gay couples, which as he points out is “Pink Flamingos all over again. I’ve come full circle.”

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Even if you have never seen one of Waters’ dozen feature films, you’ve probably sensed his presence. For a director whose early work saw him tagged variously as the Pope of Trash, the Sultan of Sleaze, the Duke of Dirt, the Baron of Bad Taste, the King of Puke and Queer Confucius, he is blessed with a level of influence that belies his outsider status. Perhaps that’s because he’s not confined to the midnight movie circuit: a talented conceptual artist, he’s also an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in France. The Baltimore Museum of Art’s bathrooms are named after the man, for crying out loud.

But speaking to Waters, you would never guess you were encountering someone so revered. As per usual, he is in Baltimore, Maryland, where he has essentially lived for his entire life, enjoying his status as the city’s patron sinner. His manner throughout an hour spent chatting is mild, engaged and perpetually amused. Despite the title of his last nonfiction book, Mr Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, it doesn’t feel as though he is making any great claims to having things all figured out. Perhaps that’s because he’s just done something he’s never done before. Meet John Waters: debut novelist. The novel in question, Liarmouth, is Waters to its core. Anything can and does happen, in an anarchic, zesty burlesque that takes the reader on a tour through subcultures as diverse as a rimming rights group, a plastic surgery outfit for pets, a feral pack of trampoline-addiction advocates and the underground world of baggage carousel suitcase heists. It is available now from all good bookshops.

Waters’ preferred subject matter may be filth, but his manners remain impeccable. I happen to mention that one of my favourite moments in Liarmouth is a line spoken at a funeral: “Even God thought she was a cunt.” Charmingly, in conversation, Waters self-censors what he refers to as “the C-word” when discussing its cultural nuances.

American gothic: John Waters at home in Baltimore.
American gothic: John Waters at home in Baltimore. Photograph: Stephen Voss/The Guardian

“That’s actually the line that most people have said is their favourite line in the whole book. But over there, where you are in the UK, the C-word is mild.” I confirm this enthusiastically, saying that it’s probably one of the UK’s favourite words, especially in Scotland. He chuckles. “Well, here it is almost the worst thing you can say. It’s right around the corner from the N-word. It means very different things in the two different countries. But the C-word can still be funny if it is used in a ridiculous way.”

What is most impressive and rare about Liarmouth is that it feels put together with a loose, punky attitude, but at the same time has clearly been crafted with care and attention. “I worked for years on it,” he says. “I think when I finally turned it in, it was the seventh or eighth draft. I always want it to sound just like I was telling you a story, but to get it to sound like that takes lots of drafts.” So it may be gonzo filth, but it’s finely wrought gonzo filth; filth that puts the anal in artisanal. A couple of incidents are lifted directly from Waters’ life. Readers of his autobiographical “tasteful book about bad taste”, Shock Value, may recall the very young Waters attempting to grift a department store, claiming his sneakers had been chewed up by the escalators.

“Yes! I did do that. But I have never stolen a suitcase off a baggage carousel. The stealing the suitcase thing is easier than ever now, because they don’t check, anywhere in the world, they don’t check the baggage claims, but the ripping your tennis shoes on the escalator thing would be harder, because the tennis shoes are so different now and nobody would believe you, they would just throw you out. That’s the only scam in the book I ever actually did.”

His claims of suitcase-theft innocence do lose a bit of credibility at this point, because immediately after he tells me this, I remember that there’s also a bit in the novel about shoplifting clothes that strongly resembles another scam from his autobiography. He backtracks charmingly.

“Oh, I did do that. I forgot that one. Yep, I did that, too. You go in the store and you put the store clothes right on top of what you’re wearing and say: ‘Is the manager here? I’d like to apply for a job.’ And then you sit there and fill out a form with fake names. And they never think you’re stealing when you do that.”

Shoplifting capers aside, most of the book is far more removed from reality. One of the storylines involves not just a talking penis called Richard but the spiritual growth of said organ, as he comes out as gay and becomes a feminist. I am not sure I’ve ever read anything quite like it before.

“There have been talking penises before in other fiction, I’m sure,” Waters says. “But there has never, as far as I know, been something with a gay penis below the waist but the man [Daryl] above it was straight. That’s not bisexual, that’s a new battle, when you can’t control your own organ. The sexual politics are very confused. And the talking is just the beginning of the troubles, because then he doesn’t like Daryl’s treatment of women. So he becomes a gay feminist and gives Daryl a rude little lesson, a taste of his own medicine.”

John Waters with the cast of his 1972 film Pink Flamingos.
John Waters with the cast of his 1972 film Pink Flamingos. Photograph: Dreamland Prods/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

As ever with Waters, this subject matter is the kind of thing designed to give a censor a headache. So is it nice to write a novel and not have to submit it to the Motion Picture Association (MPA)? “It is. But what took their place was the scary thing of a sensitivity editor, I don’t know if you have them in the publishing houses of the UK? We sent it to one and she never called back and wouldn’t take the phone call.”

Sensitivity editors (who, as the name suggests, are employed to advise on areas of a book that may cause offence), doubtless have a function in some areas of publishing, but that place is a long way from Waters’ work. It would be like sensitivity-editing a Hieronymus Bosch painting. What on earth could you say? “We’re not too sure about the depiction of violence against women here in the deepest pits of hell, Mr Bosch.”

Luckily, Waters has a team who get his humour, but will challenge him. “I have my editor, Jonathan Galassi, who edits all my books, and he said: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll stick up for everything.’ I also have three great women that are really good copy editors that worked with me. They would say: ‘Well, today you kind of can’t say that,’ and you would think: ‘Yeah, you know, you’re actually right.’ If you make it more politically correct, sometimes it makes the same point but it may actually be funnier.”

And they really just never ever heard back from the sensitivity editor? “This person just quit, I don’t know what happened! I didn’t push it. We tried. But are sensitivity editors the new MPA? In a way, yes. The MPA, though, is more conservative. It used to be dumb, old, white men. And, in my case in Baltimore, a dumb, old, white woman who had a fourth-grade education, who was a censor, and she would say: ‘Don’t tell me about sex, I was married to an Italian.’”

Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance: A Novel by John Waters

While there are surely tone-deaf novels out there that could use a sensitivity edit, we are probably talking about books that are aiming for, you know, sensitivity. A portrait of life as it is lived. Waters couldn’t care less about life as it is lived.

“A lot of stuff that happens is pretty hideous, and pretty unimaginable. But that’s what makes me feel good because I read a book to go into another world or enter someone else’s universe. Even if I’m horrified by it, I love that.” He becomes more passionate as he explains the core tenet of Liarmouth, and all his work: “I don’t buy fiction to make myself ‘feel good’ or go to the movies to ‘feel good’. People who say: ‘Oh, I go to the movies to feel good’… Well, I always move away from that person.”

Does his work, with all its feel-bad twists and turns, ever surprise Waters himself? “That’s my job, thinking up fucked-up things. That’s what I do for a living. So that doesn’t surprise me. What surprises me is when I can make myself laugh out loud. Well, then I know it really is a good joke, because that’s very hard to do.” He chuckles again.

The Waters chuckle, by the way, is a thing of beauty. It’s tempting to editorialise and say he has a filthy laugh but, actually, it’s more impish than that. He’s a puckish figure, capable of finding humour in some of the worst aspects of humanity – this is, after all, a guy who in his youth followed the Manson Family trials with the avid devotion of a BTS stan. He does have red lines, though. “The things I’m shocked about are always stupid things, like this idiot racist who just killed people [in Buffalo, New York, last month]. I mean, that’s shocking to me, but not in a good way.”

Maybe this is a function of the dark timeline we all appear to be inhabiting, which creeps into conversation about even the most uplifting topics. We get on to discussing the Waters tribute episode of the US version of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which featured a truly glorious Edith Massey impression by drag queen Ginger Minj, channelling the Egg Lady from Pink Flamingos. (Waters and Minj stayed in touch, with Minj hosting a recent book-tour Q&A.) The episode culminated in an “ugliest dress” runway challenge and I ask whether that kind of challenge would even be possible now, at a moment when fashion’s elite seem to be bringing back some of the ugliest looks ever to grace a millennium-era runway. It’s not an especially serious question, but Waters surprises me with a serious answer.

John Waters with his friend Joan Rivers in 2007.
John Waters with his friend Joan Rivers in 2007. Photograph: Patrick McMullan/Getty

“Trump ruined it,” he says. “As soon as Trump was president, it just ended the humour of it. He was the nail in the coffin. He’s the first person that had accidental bad taste that wasn’t funny. Usually, accidental bad taste is what camp originally meant. But today people try too hard. And I think that never works. Because true camp is innocent, it doesn’t do things on purpose. It takes itself very seriously.”

If that’s the case, then Waters himself cannot be described as camp, as much as he is an eternal queer icon, because he absolutely refuses to take things too seriously. Is he worried about offending people? “Well, I think Liarmouth is weird but I don’t think it’s offensive in political correctness ways, and if it is, I’m making a joke about it. I am parodying everything. I think I’m parodying writing a novel in the first place, by even calling it a ‘feel-bad romance’, something that no one would put on their book.”

So he’s not nervous? “Are you kidding? Of course I’m nervous!” he shrieks. I remember then that, although I am talking to Waters, I’m also talking to a publishing debutante. How delicious to carve out a career for 60-odd years, and then turn round and write your first novel. There aren’t many artists still breaking new ground in their 70s. Perhaps that is why he’s constantly winning new fans, who flock to events such as his current live show, False Negative. “They’re younger than they’ve ever been, which is greatly, greatly encouraging. And lots of them cry and say: ‘You’ve really saved my life. You made me feel so much better.’ Which takes me aback, to be honest. I’m flattered. But my fans are the best, they’re smart, they’re polite.”

His newest fans may be young, but as someone who has been working for more than 50 years, Waters is a man who has had to experience the deaths of far too many friends and collaborators, from the tragically young – David Lochary and Divine, both stars of his earlier work – to greats such as Joan Rivers. He pays a brief, and very Waters-ish tribute to Rivers in Liarmouth, in the form of a dog that has had so much plastic surgery it looks like her. They were friends for years. Rivers invited Waters and Divine on to her talkshow when they were just starting out. They appeared on the home-shopping network together, unsuccessfully hawking DVDs of Waters’ film Desperate Living. So I ask him about her, wondering if this will be the moment that prompts some melancholy reflection. He laughs that inimitable Waters laugh again. “That bitch beat me at the Grammys! We were both nominated, for our audiobooks, but she died that year and won.”

It’s the Waters philosophy in a nutshell: life goes on, and death is deflected with a punchline. Long may the Sultan of Sleaze reign.

Liarmouth is out now. John Waters’ show False Negative is at the Barbican Hall, London, 10 June.

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