There are those whose reputation precedes them, and then there is the legendary film-maker legend John Waters.
Thanks to his transgressive, controversial and outrageous contributions to the world of cinema, Waters has been loved by fans of his groundbreaking work, which is colorfully laced with scenes of graphic violence, taboo sex practices and various forms of crude humor.
In recent years, the esteemed director has moved beyond just film to include non-fiction writing, visual arts, presenting and even acting – and at 76 years old, he’s still putting more on his bow.
Last month, his first novel, Liarmouth — nicknamed “A Feel-Bad Romance” — appeared, which Waters followers will love to hear bears all of its hallmarks. Like all great John Waters stories, Liarmouth begins in Baltimore, Maryland, where the writer was born and continues to spend most of his time. Over the course of the story, there are brushes with tickle fetishists, cosmetic surgery on dogs, talking genitals, and a festive public rimming festival.
“And that’s just the beginning!” Waters laughs as we recount some of his novels… well… novel concepts.
Despite his reputation for shock factor and pushing boundaries, Waters claims he didn’t feel any pressure to live up to his previous work as he began the writing process.
He explains: “I’m just trying to make people laugh. That’s the pressure for me. What could make me laugh at this stage in my life, at this point in my career?
“It’s about the power of words. What can cause a nation of people to read and laugh? And that’s the hardest thing to get right. And that is my goal.”
According to Waters, his more outrageous ideas, like those in Liarmouth, “come naturally” to him during the creative process.
†For me it’s like giving birth,” he says. “It’s like creating people that I can play with in my head, and then I have to try to imagine how they think. And then they have I have to meet people, they have to go through things, fights, and I have the wonderful job of creating more characters.”
“Delightful” is certainly not a word anyone would use to describe Liarmouth’s main character, Marsha Sprinkle.
Despite her disarmingly charming name, Marsha is a very unsympathetic con man with an unfounded superiority complex and a disdainful attitude towards everyone around her. As the story progresses, Marsha betrays everyone close to her and goes on the run, with her family working together to pursue her and exact revenge.
These would-be attackers include her daughter Poppy, a trampolin jumper and leader of a cult group of bouncing obsessed drag queens, and mother Adora, a pet plastic surgeon whose only cosmetic brush is having her belly button flip from an “innie” to an “innie.” an “out”.
“I enjoyed being Marsha, even if I wouldn’t like her in real life,” Waters says of his main character. “I loved reading about her, I loved creating her, and I loved challenging the audience to like her.”
“She finds joy!” he continues, when it is suggested that Marsha could be described as a rather “joyless” character. “Her idea of joy may be unfathomable to others, but she finds great joy in lying and being deceitful and being incredibly imperial for no apparent reason.
“She makes other people unhappy. But I think she’s happy.”
Our other “hero” (a term we use extremely loosely) is Marsha’s one-time right-hand man Daryl, a character who literally thinks with his pants. As part of an arrangement, Marsha allows Daryl to have sex with her one day a year in exchange for him helping her with her plans on the other 364.
‘A talking penis isn’t that outrageous. But a heterosexual person with a penis who becomes homosexual without their approval… That’s a new kind of conflict.”
When she disappears, he embarks on his own personal mission to track her down, having his penis whipped and later broken, only to become aware and speak for himself as his own character in the action. In the end, the garrulous penis comes out as gay, despite Daryl’s own exclusive heterosexuality.
†Let me stop you there,” Waters interrupts as we bring up this part of his novel. ‘A talking penis isn’t that outrageous. But a straight person who has a penis that becomes gay without their approval… Below the equator gay, above the equator straight. That is a new kind of conflict.”
About the climax of the book, he adds: “And the rimming festival, don’t be surprised if that happens in two or three years. We have every different kind of party – we have gay pilot week, we have baby dyke week [both real-life events in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the ending of Liarmouth takes place]† So I think that could really happen.”
Waters doesn’t want to divulge Liarmouth’s final moments, but let’s just say that, in keeping with many of his earlier films, the ending is rather dark in tone.
Still, Waters prefers to focus on the light-hearted side. †Is it gloomy?” he wonders. “Maybe for that moment. But that doesn’t mean she won’t get up again.”
Does this mean he considers himself an optimist, despite the shadows of darkness that run through his body of work?
“Fully,” he emphasizes. “If there’s a third world war and it’s the end of the world, at least we won’t miss anything.”
Despite some minor differences (probably money is one of them), Waters says the difference between writing a novel and writing a movie was surprisingly small.
“In a film you have to show [emotion], where in a novel you can write in great detail about the feel of the characters, and I think that’s the big difference,” he explains. “But going into that room every morning with your notes and sitting down and writing is exactly the same.”
Still, a big change for Waters this time was the inclusion of a sensitivity editor in his creative team (however briefly).
“Those dreaded words, ‘sensitivity editor’,” he jokes. “I can hardly say those words out loud, but we had one.”
“I think I always have been” [politically correct]because I make fun of myself.”
Anyone familiar with Waters’ work would be forgiven for assuming that his sensitivity editors’ notes would be nearly as long as his novel itself. Not so, apparently. In fact, Waters says, she “never called back.”
†I don’t know, maybe she quit the job!” he smiles. “But I think I had a lot of sensitivity editors – the women who work in my office are all of different ages, my editor, my agent, all the people who work at my publishing house. I think if they really didn’t know what they were talking about, we wouldn’t have published the book in the first place.”
While not at the urging of any particular “sensitivity editor,” Waters did make a small change to a part of Liarmouth in light of the climate while writing it.
†[It was] not funny given the political climate’, he recalls. “At one point the couple who got stuck in the tree came [after a bus crash], were an Asian couple. But in the news there was all that anti-Asian violence.
“I don’t want people to think I’m doing something to be deliberately politically incorrect if it’s not funny. But I actually think the book is politically correct. I think I always have been [politically correct]because I make fun of myself.”
And there it is, the idea of ’political correctness’.
Anyone who has spent any time online in recent years is probably sick of reading debates about the so-called “cancellation culture,” but with someone who has broken as many taboos and pushed as many envelopes as John Waters, it’s a concept he probably can talk about it better than most.
So, having just published his first novel—which manages to be shocking and even hilarious, without resorting to cheap jokes at the expense of minorities—what would he say to contemporary creatives who often complain that they “can’t say anything? in the current climate?
“It’s easy to be offensive. It’s very easy. But it’s much harder to surprise.”
“Well, you can’t say that” something, if you do it stupidly,” says Waters. “But the whole point of humor is, ‘what can you say that others might not be able to? How can you get away with it?’.”
†That’s the big difference,” he continues. †It’s easy to be abusive. It’s very easy. But it’s much harder to surprise – and [it] It may be terrible for you, but it also makes you laugh and changes how you judge other people on everything.”
About his own work, Waters says: “Because I’m joking, you laugh with me. I’m not asking you to laugh at anyone. i think you are smiling of the characters about their incredible, insane behavior.”
Our interview with Waters falls around LGBTQ+ Pride month, and as a gay man who has been in the public eye for over 50 years, we end the conversation by asking if he has any advice for the next generation of queer youth.
After the shortest breaks, Waters offers, “Just blow up as many people as you can.”
And with that, it’s comforting to know that even 50 years after his “exercise in bad taste” Female Trouble hit theaters, the defiant and unabashed John Waters will remain outrageous at every turn.
Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance is out now. John Waters will also bring his False Negative show to the London Barbican Center on Friday 10 June.