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A lot of material from this John Waters interview couldn't be published

Filmmaker and author John Waters at his home in Baltimore. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his landmark film, <em>Pink Flamingos, </em>and he's releasing his first novel, <em>Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance</em>.
Jared Soares for NPR
Filmmaker and author John Waters at his home in Baltimore. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his landmark film, Pink Flamingos, and he's releasing his first novel, Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance.

You tell people you're going to John Waters' house in Baltimore to interview him and suddenly people are falling over themselves to be like, "Oh, you gotta tell me what his house is like."

Sure, if you know his work, it's reasonable to assume the man's got all sorts of homages to grotesque and filthy ideas around his house. Which he does... in the sense that his house (or at least his living room) was packed with books. Art books, history books, novels, all crammed into shelves or precariously stacked on top of any flat surface. The man behind the phrase, "If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't f– 'em," will truly never find himself at the wrong end of that situation.

/ Macmillan

That said, wrongness is Waters' specialty. It's there in all of his work, from his early short movies touching on the KKK and the JFK assassination, to the 50-year-old, landmark film Pink Flamingos, to his latest project – his first novel, Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance.

The book is based on an idea that's been knocking around his head for a bit. At first, he thought it would be a movie, but he's done movies before. He's written books, too, but they were works of memoir or journalism.

"I just wanted to try something I hadn't done," Waters said. "Same reason I took LSD when I was 70. The same reason I hitchhiked across America when I was 66. Why not try to write your first novel in your mid-70s? I want to keep trying new things. Dare yourself."

Reading Liarmouth, at times, feels like entering a delirium (which is to say, it feels similar to watching a John Waters movie). One character will do something outrageous and another will one-up them and again and again until people are jumping up and down on trampolines, trying to murder each other, having sex with strangers and barking like dogs.

At the center of it all is Marsha Sprinkle, a woman who makes her living stealing suitcases from the airport. Marsha is uptight – anal, one might say. She hates bodily functions of all sorts – from bathroom stuff to bedroom stuff. Her partner, Darryl, has an unusual salary: he can have sex with Marsha once a year, "and this is that day, but she aint' paying him" said Waters.

Marsha and Darryl live in empty, foreclosed McMansions in Baltimore, unadorned with any art, so Marsha doesn't feel outshone. It's all fairly chaste, until an incident happens and Marsha goes on the run, meeting up with characters like Poppy, her trampoline-addicted daughter; Richard, Darryl's talking penis; Adora, Marsha's pet-loving mother; and a varied cast of relatively innocent bystanders who have their lives affected in terrible ways. It's...very John Waters.

The very idea of a "sensitivity reader" makes Waters groan. But he sent his book to one anyway.

The Waters-ness of it all remains un-diluted, if you, for some reason, happened to be worried that culture war debates over impropriety have gotten to the self-proclaimed "filth elder." But while he does bristle at terms like "trigger warning" or "sensitivity reader," he's not completely closed to the idea. In fact, he said he sent Liarmouth to one.

<em>Pink Flamingos </em>movie poster.
/ LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images
Pink Flamingos movie poster.

Imagine it! John Waters! Sending his first novel to a sensitivity reader! But whether that shows growth, or that Waters is selling out, or whether the whole thing is simply part of a carnival-barker-esque marketing routine, we'll never really know. He says the sensitivity reader never called him back.

Which isn't to say Waters is immune or indifferent to the social mores of today. There's an art and grace to tastelessness that requires a certain amount of sensitivity. For example, two of the innocent bystanders whom Marsha and the crew leave in their wake in Liarmouth were originally an Asian couple. But then, during the edit process, anti-Asian violence in America was in the news. So he changed the couple to an Italian-American one. "You cannot ignore that," he said, about being attuned to what he called people's "touchiness" about race. So instead he embraced it, to the point of ridiculousness, making sure everyone was included in the book. "Marsha even says, her victims are so diverse" he said.

There's a glee to Waters' writing. You can imagine him grinning as he pushes certain buttons, daring the audience to come along for the ride. That ethos has been present in all his work, but especially in his career-defining, 1972 movie Pink Flamingos. The movie stars the late drag queen Divine as she tries to prove herself to be the filthiest woman alive. Her main competition is a couple who live in a relatively tony Baltimore house, where they keep women chained up in the basement.

The movie is perhaps most famous for the scene where Divine eats dog poo, but don't let that moment overshadow some of the other wild things that happen – genitalia gets mutilated, chickens get involved in people sex (and then eaten afterward), and incest is a reward for a job well done. "It still works," Waters said, even 50 years later. "It is still alarming, and confusing in a way, and frightening almost. But joyous, I think, in the long run."

Waters continues to challenge himself with new creative endeavors. "Why not try to write your first novel in your mid-70s?, " he said. "I want to keep trying new things. <em>Dare yourself</em>."
/ Jared Soares for NPR
Jared Soares for NPR
Waters continues to challenge himself with new creative endeavors. "Why not try to write your first novel in your mid-70s?, " he said. "I want to keep trying new things. Dare yourself."

That feeling of joy is perhaps what's led much of his work to become cult hits (or even popular hits; he wrote and directed the movie Hairspray, which became a beloved Broadway musical).

So maybe it's not a surprise that Pink Flamingos has become a fixture in American cinema. In June, the Criterion Collection will celebrate the film's anniversary with a re-release and all the bells and whistles that usually entails, including an appreciation essay by film critic Howard Hampton. In an interview, he said Pink Flamingos had a lot to say about our current moment, particularly in the way the film balanced its edginess with compassion.

"John Waters' secret throughout his career is that there's not a mean spiritedness in his movies," said Hampton. "He embraces his characters. He loves their dementia. He delights in it, revels in it. But at the end of the day, there is a great feeling for these people."

At this point, Waters is used to Pink Flamingos getting praise from non-weirdos. Last year, the Library of Congress entered Pink Flamingos into the National Film Registry – alongside movies like The Long Goodbye, Wall-E, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings. It is the way things go – the counter-culture becomes just the culture. And Waters isn't bothered by it. In fact, he thinks it's a good thing. "It gives all young people faith that you can think up the most outrageous thing. I haven't changed," he said. "It's just the acceptance of me has changed and the people in power in the room where it happens are all crazy people now, from my generation, that lasted."

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.