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John Waters
John WatersPhotography Greg Gorman

John Waters thinks his new book would have got him the death penalty

The Prince of Puke talks to Dazed about his first novel Liarmouth, his new one-man show False Negative, and whether or not it’s still possible to be truly transgressive

Does anyone need less of an introduction than John Waters? The filmmaker, writer, artist, purveyor of bad taste and Pope of Trash has been defiling popular culture for over 50 years. The auteur behind such “celluloid atrocities” as Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977), Waters’ subversion of middle-American ideals through his cast and crew of delinquents, outcasts and drag queens have resulted in some of the most shocking and seminal films of underground cinema.

While he made his last film in 2004, Waters has never stopped working as a raconteur and writer. In June, he is performing his new one-man show False Negative to a sold-out crowd in the Barbican. Earlier this month, he released his first novel – Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance – a novel that defies neat synopsising as much as his films do. Let’s just say it’s about a suitcase thief named Marsha Sprinkle and a cast of characters that includes a cult of trampolining fanatics, a competitive tickler, a man with a talking penis and hundreds and hundreds of ass-eating enthusiasts.

I chatted with John over his landline to discuss his show, his book, and whether or not it’s still possible to be truly transgressive.

So, how has life been for you recently?

John Waters: Well, I’ve been on a book tour and then I was on the spoken word tour, I’ve been in about ten cities in the last two weeks and then the Calvin Klein campaign I just did came out, so I’ve been busy!

I’m presuming you’re excited to come to the UK to present False Negative. What can we expect from the show?

John Waters: Well, hopefully, you can expect to be startled a little bit and talk about how this filthy world has completely changed in the last two years. How it’s never going back and now we have to look at movies, sex, TV, fashion, anger, protest, everything, how it’s so completely different now. Hopefully, I’m still trying to make you laugh – the same thing I’ve been doing for over 50 years.

“The censors, if any were to go after me (and they haven’t though) they would be liberal censors, not dumb old white men – they gave up on me a long time ago” – John Waters

So it’s very much a reflection of our time through a John Waters lens.

John Waters: Well, it’s about how we’re surviving. Is it self-help? Maybe… for crazy people. I feel bad for young people though, they can’t be dirty, they can’t go out and have sex, what do they do? Is there a bottom booster chaser? What’s the new kink? I don’t know.

But I did miss being in touch with my fans, being in touch with my audience, because that’s very, very important. On this book tour, in America at least, it has been younger than I’ve ever had in my whole life. Kids that weren’t even born when I made my last movie!

Do you have any idea as to why you’ve managed to have this relevance for several generations?

John Waters: Because I’m not a separatist and I’m not mean. I don’t think one minority is better than another, I always thought we were one big happy family. I think I make fun of our own rules that we’ve set for ourselves that are sometimes just as ludicrous as the ones that we rebelled from with our parents.

Your first novel, Liarmouth, has just been published. Where did the idea for it come from? Was it always going to be a novel?

John Waters: Well, at one point it was going to be a movie but the only thing that was the same was that she was a suitcase thief. I never really got that far with it. But there was this folder that was lurking there and I knew the characters in there I wanted to use, so I just started thinking about it again as a novel because I had never written one. And it wasn’t that difficult to write it, you just have to go in there every day and do it.

You’ve spoken a lot about your influences as a filmmaker in the past, who are your influences as a novelist?

John Waters: Jane Bowles and Denton Welch are my two favourites. Certainly, I grew up with Tennessee Williams, are you kidding? And Jean Genet and Marguerite Duras, William Burroughs, all the ones that caused trouble when they were young. And Terry Southern I think sometimes who made dirty books but they were funny. Oh, and Peyton Place, “the world’s dirtiest book”. Liarmouth, if we were talking about the 1950s, I would get the death penalty for writing it.

“That’s why I say ‘gay’ is not enough anymore, it’s a good start but it’s not enough, isn’t progress saying there are bad gay movies?” – John Waters

Have you read any books recently that you’d really recommend?

John Waters: I really like Lydia Davis’ books, her fiction is great and her books on translating and about journalism and writing are really, really good too. I’m trying to think of the last really great novel that I read that really… [Laughs] Y’know I read all of [Knausgård’s] My Struggle straight through.

Oh wow, you’re one of the few who can claim that.

John Waters: Oh I don’t know, especially as a gay man, because I thought now this is a heterosexual book, but I think they deserve to be heard too.

You’ve been in the business for over 50 years now, do you look at society today and think you would be able to be as transgressive now as you were back then?

John Waters: Sure! There’s even more rules today, especially in the world of the arts, so I think most definitely it is. I think it’s young people’s duty to think of a way to surprise, not even just me, but the generation just before them that thinks they’re cool. They’re the ones they have to make nervous. 

To me we make fun of ourselves first and I still do. That is lacking today. And the censors, if any were to go after me (and they haven’t though) they would be liberal censors, not dumb old white men – they gave up on me a long time ago.

Yeah that’s what I’ve always loved about your body of work is that you have this band of outcasts and minorities but you were never afraid to say: these people can be assholes too.

John Waters: Exactly! That’s why I say ‘gay’ is not enough anymore, it’s a good start but it’s not enough, isn’t progress saying there are bad gay movies?

John Waters will be performing his new one-man show False Negative at London’s Barbican Hall on June 10. His novel Liarmouth is out now.