John Waters is a great pick-up: Carsick, porn, gender, truckers and rape by space aliens.
Anyone would be lucky to pick up John Waters. The hitchhiker, revered filmmaker and now best-selling author, is a fascinating raconteur who could keep even the most jaded or clueless driver entertained as the miles wind by. The contents of Carsick, a definite must read, are only a sampling of his fertile mind. I had prepared extensively for this interview, Waters is a personal idol, but it proved unnecessary and futile: with John Waters all one has to do is push play, listen and try not to interrupt unless one wants to be verbally, witheringly but wittily, bitch-slapped.
Drew Rowsome: Congratulations. You're number 16 on the New York Times bestseller list.
John Waters: You know, I was number eight for two weeks in a row a couple of weeks ago. What's the chart in Canada? Maclean's? Is that one?
Probably the definitive Canadian book list would be The Globe & Mail.
I know I was on the Maclean's list in the top 10 and someone told me that was a good one. But any way I'm happy with it, it's doing well.
How does it feel to to be on the same list as Danielle Steel and Jacqueline Susann . . .
I wonder if it's in airports. I haven't been in those kinds of airports recently. That's what I was always hoping for. Maybe we have to wait for the paperback for that. Role Models was on the bestseller lists for a couple weeks but this is much higher. I guess hitchhiking is commercial and it is bizarre when you think that I have, in one of the fictional parts of the book, get raped by a spaceman, have a magic asshole and it does a duet with Connie Francis, and that's on the top 10 list, that's great.
It is a wonderful book, it's a great read . . .
Thank you. When I was young you know, you would have gone to jail for writing this. For real, Lenny Bruce went to jail for saying the word "fuck" on stage. It wasn't that long ago, that was the mid-'60s.
In the book you do go to jail so . . .
It's true. Actually I've been arrested but never like that.
Now that Carsick is a big seller it is inevitably going to be a mini-series or a movie. Who would you cast as you, besides Steve Buscemi?
Oh I would pick Steve Buscemi. Matthew Gray Gubler too if I was younger in the book. He's been dressed as me before and opened for my Filthy World show at UCLA once. He's good. Or maybe a transgendered man because when I went to college campuses I would have John Waters look-a-like contests and lesbians always won. I didn't know how to take that actually.
And trans is the new black so . . .
Well it is and my favourite thing is that secretly all the butch middle-aged women I know, that are intellectuals, actually don't like the transgendered movement but they know they can never say that. They fear butch culture is vanishing. Do any women bind their breasts now? No. What happened to all that culture? You know, wearing a packer, which is a limp dick dildo. I loved them. I didn't know what they were until I saw one in a sex shop last year in Provincetown.
No more bull daggers.
That's what I mean. And I think that some of the ones I know are really smart and they can't say that because they know it's gaily incorrect. But I love that. I love the confusion in the gay community. I love the splinter groups. It's like the left wing in the sixties.
Throughout Carsick you do tackle a few sacred cows on the left and in the gay movement with the Hipster Carnival, the Liberal Horror House and gay shame . . .
Also the one that I think is a really un-homophobic character but he's just kind of clueless as to correct gay speech, and that's the nice truck driver that picks me up. He isn't gay but he takes me to the outlaw truck stop and he has a girlfriend. He says things like, "Oh go back, there's a back section back there," but he doesn't realize, he's lovely and he's a nice guy, but he just doesn't know the politically correct gay speech. I do run across guys in Baltimore like that sometimes, they aren't homophobic, they just don't know how to say it properly. When I was young when you said "queer" it just meant you were a nerd. It's like what "gay" means now in the ghetto.
Did you feel any nervousness attacking those sacred cows?
No, no-one ever calls me out for I say. I'm never mean and they expect me to say that stuff, it's my job. No, I always done that. I've always kind of, whatever the rules are, commented on them. And sometimes in the gay community there's more rules than my parents had. And I do rebel against them. Why do we have to be good all the time? Why did they make RuPaul take the word "she-male" off the show? It's ridiculous.
RuPaul took a lot of flak . . .
I think we've got bigger enemies than RuPaul. Gay people can't be bad? We can't have gay villains? Why do we have to be good? That's so dreary to me. And I am politically correct. Look, I fight for gay marriage even though I haven't got the slightest desire to get married but I fight for it and I attack anyone who votes against it. I vote gay. But at the same time, I question the fact that we're trying to be like straight people. And I mean the whole meaning of the word "straight." not just the sexual meaning. There are straight gay people, I know that, and that just means that their values are very middle of the road and very middle-American and all that and that's fine. Everyone has the right to live how they want to live but not all gay people have to be like that.
White picket fence gays . . .
Well that's fine. It's all changed. It's changed dramatically. When I was in high school it was unbelievable, I remember seeing one magazine and all the the gay radicals wore black suits, white shirts and thin black ties when they marched together. The Mattachine Society. And the woman's magazine was called The Ladder. These were so influential to me when I was really young. They were so radical. I mean it was against the law to do that. They were more radical than the hippies were and I was a gay hippy in the '60s. I remember the first time at the Bobby Seale march or a Black Panther march, wherever we would be at, and people would come out and talk about gay rights and it was so amazing because the left wing guys were so uptight about it. But the girls weren't and then they started Rat magazine and became lesbians. I always liked the right wing women too.
The women are always stronger. Throughout Carsick you run into some amazing women, both in the novellas and the journalistic conclusion. In your films you've cast some astounding actresses and got great performances out of them. Divine, Kathleen Turner . . . Who would you cast as Bernice the book lady?
That's a good one. I wrote that she was like 65 and had a very weak chin. Hmmm. I'd have to think about that. I would do Justin Bieber as The Corvette Kid. I'd have to go through the whole book and think like that. The librarian is a character I think about a lot. It hasn't got that far yet. But it has been talked about. Any time you have a book that is a bestseller there is movie talk.
It would be a wonderful HBO mini-series.
It would be great. Or it would be a show where I'm waiting for the rides and I imagine the good and the bad ones. Yes I think it would really be fun to cast who would be my successful knife-salesman boyfriend. And who would play Ready Whip or the demolition derby driver. That would be fun casting.
And Johnny Davenport.
I think he probably doesn't want to be found. I wonder if Johnny knows about the book? I hope he knows that I really am a fan but I think he might not want to be remembered. A lot of people that get out of that life, they recover from that, they escape that life. I don't know if Johnny felt that way, I have no idea. I just remembered him and thought he'd be a great character to use in fiction.
They don't make porn stars like that any more.
There aren't porn stars any more. You can say there are and you can name a few but I don't think any of them are real stars. Porn is free now, what a terrible thing, there's no guilt tax. You just punch into Google what sex act you'd like and it comes right up for free. To me you have to pay to have a star.
I think the last really big porn star was Jeff Stryker. Jeff was great and I knew him a little. He had an act in Provincetown where at the end he would stand there with a full erection and you could get your picture taken with him. And I always thought, "How does he do that? It's like a ventriloquist and his dummy." Later I heard an interview on the radio and he said he always was straight and they said, "Well how did you get hard?" and he said, "I had that needle you get and you can shoot it in there for impotence and it makes your dick hard for an hour." And he said that he used that and I thought, "Great, that's even better." It was just his work clothes.
It was very nice to finally see some of your sexual, non-taboo or fetish, desires exposed . . .
The demolition derby . . .
Giving a hand job in a demolition derby car, what gay person wouldn't do that? I have been to the demolition derby and I was in a car once, that's when I covered it for NPR. Although I have a straight friend in Baltimore who, after he read the book, said, "I hope you're not trying to give me a hand job whenever you're in the car," which really made me laugh. What gay man wouldn't do that? I mean the other one, I'm just watching him, he's an exhibitionist with his girlfriend who gets a hard-on from robbing banks . . Just because I write something doesn't mean I really want to do that. I mean I don't really want to be chained to a wheel while people throw axes at me blindfolded. But I like the idea of it. I like doing that in a book but in real life I don't think that's going to happen.
You never know.
I do know. I would say, "No," to that. Say no to the demolition derby. And I probably would try to escape a bank robber who kidnapped me. I would go to the Hipster Carnival most definitely. I did have a boyfriend who was a knife salesman but he was an unsuccessful one.
Veneer and Delmont, both of them were very sweet relationships.
Veneer was the one I was in jail with? We were trapped with homophobic lunatics. Yes but then there's Blossom who certainly wasn't very sweet and he was not a romance but he was saying that we can have gay villains.
But I was thinking though that this is a sweet side of John Waters.
I think it was certainly, spoiler alert, when I run into one of my stars who everyone thought was dead, that's a very sentimental chapter.
That was very touching. You must miss people like Edith Massey immensely.
Well I do. But I wonder what it would be like if they were still alive. I never got to see Edith grow old, get sick or be in some nursing home. I never got to see any of that bad stuff too. You always wonder what would it be like if people lived. You don't know. That's why I gave Edith kind of an even more happy ending. You know I did all that and it was fun but I wanted to get away from that and have my own life which I think maybe she would have done. And I did have recurring dreams that I ran into her and she was alive. And I was so shocked. That's what led me to write that chapter.
I was also wondering about Gertrude Baniszewski . . .
You know Paula is alive and out and you know I don't want to cause her life any trouble. It does say right in the beginning that it is fiction. But that character I did write about in a very sort of snarky way in Shock Value, so maybe I deserved a little of that punishment. Not quite as bad. But that was a little guilt, yes. But I don't think that's really going to happen. People move on. They do terrible things and then they serve their time and they get out. Decades go by and sometimes people can turn into something else. So I hope Gertrude's family did.
Even farther back, where you were fascinated by the Manson family. Now that things like that happen every day . . .
Nothing happens like that every day. I don't think there's been a case that will top that. No. I think, and I wrote about that in my last book, in Role Models I wrote a lot about Leslie Van Houten, my friend who was one of the so-called Manson girls at the time. Now she's been in jail for 50 years and looks back on it with horror and guilt and remorse. I don't think any case has been as big as that. People today who are 20-years-old could go for Halloween as Charlie Manson and people will get it. They couldn't go as the Lindbergh baby, they couldn't go as Gertrude, they couldn't go as Richard Speck, they couldn't go as Jeffrey Dahmer, but Manson, they'd all know who it was.
Is that the value of celebrity or because of shock or . . .
I'm not saying that that's good. I'm just saying that I think that that crime is still more notorious than any of the other ones. And I feel bad for my friend who can't escape that. She's in her sixties and she's trying, she's in prison teaching people to read, she's got her college degree but someone's going as her at Halloween? To her it brings great sorrow. She's never signed an autograph. She would be horrified, she is horrified even in jail when people ask her about it. She's not proud of what she did. Same way that Patty Hearst never signed an autograph until she was in my movies. Because why would I sign an autograph for being a crime victim?
How would you feel about people going as you for Halloween?
They always do. I'm fine with it because I'm not a criminal. Or at least I get paid for being one. Absolutely fine. I've seen people, my friend Sean dressed as me for Halloween. I've seen lots of people dressed as me for Halloween. They come to my door even, trick or treating. It's happened.
That must be very gratifying on some level.
Oh it's fine. The nicest was when I had a kid come to my door with just his mother. Trick or treating just with his mother which I thought was a bad sign. And he had this insane hair-do he'd given himself. And the mother, you could tell, was embarrassed. And I said, "Your hair looks great." And he said, "See, I told you it did and my father hates it and he won't let me out of the house." And I thought, oh this kid is so great, I do identify with him. And he was so happy that somebody told him his hair looked good. And his mother was I think pissed because now he'd never stop wearing his hair like that. He was just an eight-year-old little fashion radical.
You've done a lot with fashion lately, you . . .
I hosted the fashion Oscars this year, it was fun, it was good. And I wrote about Rei Kawakubo in my last book. I follow it because it's another extreme world that I think is exciting. I especially love to see Women's Wear Daily, which I get every day, how they treat like the day after a national disaster. How they treat it from a fashion viewpoint. And they should. It's a trade paper, that's what they should be doing.
Truckers appear throughout Carsick and it reminded me of JT Leroy except . . .
Except I said it was fiction and she didn't. To me truckers are part of it, I never felt gayer than when I climbed up that truck, climbed up the steps of an 80,000 pound truck. But the driver could not have been nicer, cooler, and totally great. And another trucker I could sleep in the back one time. And in the fictional part the trucker just watches over me while I sleep. I do know some truckers in real life. One I know is really crazy and he told me about some of the truckstops, that's a little of where those ideas came from. Really they don't have those kinds of truckstops on route 70, they have them on the off-roads, the outlaw truckstops. But they're probably few and far between these days. I've never actually been to one.
You didn't actually research the gloryholes and the Gas-and-Go-Go?
No, what was the Gas-and-Go-Go I forget?
The truckstop with . . .
Oh yes. Were there gloryholes in there? There was a backroom. That was based on a place I was in outside of Milan. This was 30 years ago. Someone told me there was this insane sex club that I should go to and I went there. It was like 30 miles outside the city and it just looked like this big disco but then there's all these people going in the back. You walk into this backroom and everybody is nude, fucking and having sex. I thought, oh my god, so that's kind of where that idea came from. A little bit of truth.
Why don't we have clubs like that?
Oh we used to have clubs like that. Certainly in the '60s there were clubs like that. In the early '70s in New York there was The Toilet, The Mine Shaft, Hellfire, all those clubs.
And were you a participant?
Sure! Well they wouldn't let me in The Mine Shaft because I didn't look butch enough. I didn't have on leather and stuff. I want to open a sex club today, and I say this in my comedy show, where kids, I want boys with confused dicks and girls with vagabond vaginas. Where gay kids have to act out their hetero fears. Like twinks performing cunnilingus on girls and baby butches getting tea-bagged by football players. I want to call it "Flip-Flop." I think it's very 2015, a new kind of sex club.
What did happen to The Corvette Kid?
He's fine. I still see him. He didn't run for office again and he has a new girlfriend, who I met. He brought her to my Christmas party. He looks great, he has his own apartment, he doesn't live with his parents anymore. He's doing fine.
Will the success of Carsick help with getting financing for future films?
No. It helps with my career of writing books. We could sell this book to the movies but in terms of getting my movies made, no. This book was a success in sales and so was the last one, my last movie was not.
That's a shame because . . .
That's A Dirty Shame, that's the name of the movie.
The thing I remember the most was how astounding Tracey Ullman was in A Dirty Shame.
She was great, she's astounding, a great comedian and she went for it. I think she was shocked later when it got the NC-17 rating because we were just laughing the whole time we were making it. We never thought anybody was going to be upset by it. I'm still shocked that they were.
It was so innocent.
It was innocent. It was a movie about sex addiction for children. That was the commercial problem with it.
Were you surprised to find that the mid-west straight majority actually turned out to be such sweet people?
I guess, I live in Baltimore so I'm around those people more than you probably realize. A lot of my friends are not in show biz, they have what you would call a normal life. But I was pleasantly surprised, I think that people who pick up hitchhikers are a different breed. They've usually survived something, they're usually non-judgemental and they're trying to help people. I was really not surprised, I believe in the basic good of people and this trip really reinforced that belief.
But then towards the end you didn't pick up a hitchhiker . . .
No I didn't. I didn't say . . . Yes, I can say I can be selfish. I only saw one and I had a good ride so I said, "Keep going." I think I was with The Corvette Kid and he didn't want to pick him up.
Would you recommend picking up hitchhikers?
I have picked up hitchhikers. Sure. Everywhere I go, I tell people take a hitchhiking trip, forget Grindr, that's how you can cruise. Hitchhiking used to be cruising when I was young.
That puts a whole different subtext on the entire book.
Well, no. I say that in the beginning. In the beginning I tell how when perverts pick you up, you say "yes" or "no" depending.
Carsick is available at Glad Day Bookshop, 598 Yonge St.