John Waters should need no introduction. He burst onto the scene in the 70s and 80s with transgressive and often controversial films starring the Dreamlanders, his colorful group of friends, including the late, legendary Divine (whose infamous excrement-eating scene in Pink Flamingos became something of a magnum opus). He’s been called one of the greatest cult filmmakers of all time, and the Pope of Trash. His classic 1988 film Hairspray, was turned into a Broadway musical, which was turned into 2007’s Hairspray, starring John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer and Zac Efron. He’s penned several books, a memoir, Role Models, and his most recent semi-autobiographical work, Carsick. He tours regularly as a comedian and exhibits artwork at prestigious galleries around the world. Waters set out to carve a serious niche for himself with his self-proclaimed bad taste, and so far, it’s worked out for him. So, one might assume that such a accomplished person, one who owns homes in Baltimore, San Francisco, and New York and summers in Provincetown, would feel free to kick up his heels and enjoy his own personal lands of milk and honey. Instead, he chooses to throw himself helpless unto the side of a U.S. highway, just to see if strangers will rescue him.
In his new book, Carsick, John Waters hitchhikes across America and thankfully lives to tell the tales. Split into three parts, the book starts with two fictional novellas, “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen,” in which John free-form fantasizes. From a marijuana-growing millionaire who decides to fund John’s next film to a sex ride in a demolition derby truck and a brief stint in a traveling freak show, the best-case scenarios play out like some of the funniest moments in John’s films. The worst ones are equally comical, from drunk drivers to a ride with a talkative sports fanatic (heaven forbid!).
The third part, “The Real Thing,” is John’s non-fiction account of his outrageous journey that lasted eight days and about fifteen hitchhiked rides from his front doorstep in Baltimore to San Francisco, with a only a few essential belongings, his trademark pencil-thin moustache, and a cardboard “I-70 WEST” sign in hand. I recently talked with John about his trip, his reliance on the kindness of strangers, and the optimistic experience the whole adventure proved to be.
Carsick will be available in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on June 3, 2014.
JOHN WATERS: Oh, hi, Danny! I didn’t realize it was you doing this interview.
DM: Yep, yeah, it’s me. Are you in Baltimore?
JW: I am in Baltimore, yes. I’m often not but this is my main residence so, yes, I’m glad to be here.
DM: So your tour this summer—are you doing readings?
JW: Well, in some cities it’s that you do a discussion with a signing and a little bit of a reading, and a lot of the bookstores do it offsite now so they can get a little bit more people, so yeah it’s a real book tour. Which, I’m honored, because book tours are not as definite as they used to be. I mean, there’re less book tours than usual. But I’m doing like a lot of good national television—so who knows, who knows if it works?
DM: Where are you going in New York?
JW: One night at Barnes & Nobles in Union Square, and the other night I’m at the Public Library.
DM: Well I read the book, and it made me laugh hysterically.
JW: Well good, that’s the point of the book. Even the hideous parts are supposed to make you laugh.
DM: Yeah, of course, everything from the guy who needs a woman to throw knives at to your fascination with candy—I remember going to the candy store with you…
JW: Right, you see, there’s some truth in even the fiction parts.
DM: One of the things that I noticed that I wanted to ask you was about your sexuality kind of coming through in this even on a personal fantasy level—whether it be like Blossom or Lucas—
JW: Blossom? He’s hardly my personal fantasy.
DM: Well, no, not him!
JW: I was about to say… I hope you don’t think that!
DM: I meant also the sexual horrors—
JW: Blossom is like my nightmare fantasy! The worst sexual person I could think of!
DM: I just wondered because I guess you’ve never really sexualized yourself in anything…
JW: Well, not like this. But I did it for humor. I mean, come on, I had sex in a demolition derby car, I had sex—I’m a voyeur in a bank robbery with a girl that we team up to be voyeurs together—and then I’m fed saltpeter in prison and can’t have sex—so it’s all for comedy. And I think I wrote about it some in Role Models in the Marine chapter. I think I talked about my sexuality to a point, but I’ve never really talked—nobody knows who my boyfriends are, and I will always keep it that way. Because first of all I don’t date people that are famous—or more importantly, I don’t date people who want to be famous. And at the same time, if you don’t keep anything private you have no private life. I see sometimes when I hear some celebrities doing the most personal confessions I think: don’t you have any friends? Or you know, I go to a shrink once in a while—you tell them something—you’ve got to save something for the shrink so it’s worth the money.
DM: And not tweet it.
JW: Yeah. But certainly, I think, Delmont, the guy, the person I fall in love with—the knife salesman—I dated a knife salesman before—but he was unsuccessful which was worse—I dated an unsuccessful knife salesman. I wrote my fantasy was falling in love with a successful knife salesman, that’s the only difference.
DM: The Corvette Kid mentions that he wanted to have Justin Bieber play him if he had the pick. Do you keep in touch with him still?
JW: I do! Actually in the book, The Corvette Kid stayed three or four extra days in San Francisco. We went out to dinner, we sightseed, we did everything just as a bromance. He came to my Christmas party this year, and he looks great. He’s got a new girlfriend; he looks really, really good. I think the trip gave him great confidence. We’re friends, yes. He was roaring because Publisher’s Weekly called him the hero of the book.
DM: And are you on good terms with The Corvette Kid’s parents now or are they still…?
JW: Well, I—no, I don’t think I am—I mean, I’ve never met The Corvette Kid’s parents, and every time I tried to talk to them he didn’t let me. And then he did some press when it came out, right when the trip happened, in his hometown, and his parents said they told him never to hitchhike again. But I don’t think when he comes to visit me that he tells his parents. I’m not sure they’re my biggest fans, no. And I’m sure that they probably won’t go for the chapter about, you know, Ready Whip. They might frown on that. A terrible thing: my mother died this year, she was ninety years old, she had a great life and everything, but the only good thing now is that she can’t read it because I wouldn’t have allowed her to. She wasn’t allowed to read Role Models either. Or see Pink Flamingos. Why torture them?
DM: One of the quotations that had stuck out for me was, “I’m alive, I think, and so many of my friends are not. I may be nuts to be doing this, but I’m proud of myself. I am having an adventure. I like my life. Even if I have to stand here for the rest of it.”
JW: Yeah, well that’s true, you know, I’m standing there, and you have a long time to think when you’re hitchhiking. And you know I just think of how many of my friends are not here, and so even at my most miserable when I’d be standing there on hour number nine with nobody picking me up, I’d say it’s a lot better than some of my friends that can’t even do this. You know, I’m on an adventure. I thought this up. I’m actually getting paid to do it; I’m gonna’ write a book about it.
DM: I waited until after I read the book to look at a map of the route that you had to have taken and I was feeling the dread that you must have felt for the first quarter of the east side of US.
JW: Well, the worst was it was pouring rain for the first few days! That’s something I never even imagined in the worst parts. I remember when The Corvette Kid picked me up it was pouring rain. And he picked me up because he had seen probably an old homeless person hitchhiking a couple weeks before and didn’t pick him up and felt guilty. So then he picked me up, but then I just started talking—you have to keep talking because they sometimes take you longer.
DM: Keep them happy.
JW: Yeah! But that’s your job as a hitchhiker. Nobody picks a hitchhiker up because they want to not talk.
DM: And people were handing you $20 bills—
JW: It was so sweet. The very first time it happened by the farmer it really shocked me because I didn’t know what he was doing. And then I realized that he totally did not believe I was a filmmaker or writing a book or anything, and I didn’t push it. I told him, and when I saw that he didn’t believe it, I thought well I want to hear his stories anyway. I don’t feel like telling mine, I know mine. So it was very touching to me. And then the one woman wouldn’t leave until I took it. And these were poor people—these weren’t rich people. So the book is very optimistic because the people were good. People that pick up hitchhikers are the best kind of people, really. They’re the kind of people that you can trust, because they’ve all survived something.
DM: And you wrote that you denounce the term “flyover people”?
JW: Oh, I hate that term! It’s so elitist, and in a way it makes you look like an asshole because believe me, these people were kind and smart, and they weren’t stupid, and they all were pretty open-minded even if they were republicans. They just hated freeloaders. That’s the one thing I say that all of them shared.
DM: And a hitchhiker is not a freeloader because?
JW: Well, most of them, I think, had been broke before. I think most of them have had some kind of things that have gone wrong in their life, or maybe they had a drug issue once, or they were arrested once when they were young, or they very much loved their wives, but it was never their first wife. But they seemed to be incredibly open-minded. None of them said to me, “Are you gay?” But I think they probably figured it out, but nobody seemed to be the slightest bit uptight about that. People are just—you don’t always know what they’re going to think. People are complicated but generally in a good way.
DM: I was a little bit surprised that you had never been to a Walmart or a McDonald’s or anything like that.
JW: Oh, I’ve been in a McDonald’s in my life certainly, but I haven’t been in one in twenty years. And I had to go in one. And Walmart I’d never been, and my sister always gives me so much shit about that, calling me such a snob, and after I went in one, I’d never go in one again either. But I was glad I did go in one to just see how huge they are. And this was one with all soldiers so it was an erotic Walmart. I’m not against them; it’s just that I’m just a single person. So you go to Walmart if you’ve got a brood, right? I don’t buy anything in bulk. I buy one leaf and weigh it and eat it. A single leaf of arugula.
DM: You kind of were a mentor to The Corvette Kid to some degree but more so even to the kids that are reading this book…
JW: You’ve got to go on adventures. A lot of people said to me about this book, “Weren’t you ever scared?” But never going out is scary. Because if you just stop, if you give up being curious about what young people are doing and whatever is the next thing—just because you did it doesn’t mean it was better then. I don’t think it was better then. I think the kids that are shutting down foreign governments on their computers in their parents’ bedrooms are having just as much fun as we did at riots. So it’s just a different way to do it. But I think I’m always curious about people’s behavior. But that’s what keeps me going every day. I don’t understand watching reality television. I want to live reality television. People that are artists and in the arts and everything, sometimes they’re a little affected—but regular people seem to be much crazier to me. And at the same time they think they’re completely the most levelheaded person in the world, and that fascinates me. So the people that picked me up hitchhiking were levelheaded, I think. And I guess many of them would have been the salt of the earth, but they were really the pepper of the earth because they all had a sense of humor.
DM: And you had said that one of your rules was that you could stay at their house if they had invited you, but I don’t think that happened, did it?
JW: Oh wait—yes, you know who did ask me to stay with them is Jupiter and Kitty. The couple—she was the anthrax soldier and he was kind of a little Charlie Manson lookalike. They invited me to stay with them. And I would have. would like to go back and stay with them actually! And she just had a baby and named it after me.
DM: Oh, really? Amazing.
JW: Mmmhmm, I just got a letter. They were great. They were really sweet because they pulled over to give me money and then recognized me and started screaming and were fans, and they just couldn’t believe it, and then they took me really a far way. They were only going one exit—they were at their house! But they took me, and then I made them take some gas money because they really went out of their way to take me some place. They were great. Very cute, very stylish. They looked hipper than anybody in New York.
DM: What state was that in?
JW: Kansas. In the middle of Kansas—like after Topeka or right before Topeka. They had been shopping in Wichita and dished the fashions there. And he said one of my favorite lines in the book—he said “You know what they say about Kansas? Come on vacation, leave on probation.” I think that should be a bumper sticker.
DM: The whole $19.99 tote bag thing that had your cardboard sign image on it!
JW: That was shocking! It was like two days later—I was still hitchhiking when I saw that for sale online! I was like, my god, they didn’t waste much time marketing that!They didn’t even send me one.
DM: So they PhotoShopped it from a Twitpic from the Kansas couple?
JW: I don’t know if it was from the Kansas couple or Here We Go Magic. I can’t remember, but, yeah, they took it and then they were smart enough, they did it over in not my handwriting so I couldn’t really—if I was going to—do anything about it. I couldn’t do anything. They appropriated it and called it a hitchhiking bag with the “I-70 WEST” thing on it. I was just amazed at the speed of that. I was still standing on the corner!
DM: And you kept getting Google alerts.
JW: Well, yeah, but it didn’t affect me. I was just standing on some exit. I didn’t even know where I was so certainly even if people read that, they didn’t know where I was. So it really didn’t help me get a ride unless—well, it did, but way later when I was stuck in that one rest area and I showed it on my BlackBerry to somebody that didn’t really believe me to prove that I was me and that sort of convinced him to give me a ride. But that was really mortifying when I was in that one rest area where there were no cars and anytime anybody pulled in to go to the bathroom I’d run up and stand outside for when they’d come out. I felt like such a bathroom pervert.
DM: So, what’s next?
JW: What’s next is the book tour and then my Christmas tour and then an art show. And then another big project that’s coming up that’s not announced yet that I can’t talk about. So, yeah, I’m booked for a year. I just continue to find ways to tell my stories.
DM: Your Plan A, B, C, D and—
JW: H—for hitchhiking.
DM: Is the upcoming art show going to be in New York?
JW: The next one is in January at Marianne Boesky’s Gallery in New York. And in June in Sprüth Magers Gallery in London.
DM: One of the characters, “Basket,” from one of the chapters when you were in a truck stop kind of reminded me of someone you’d pick up at The Corner Pocket in New Orleans.
JW: Oh, yeah, I forgot that character’s name. I mean, I have this trucker friend that has all sorts of hideous stories. He goes to truck stops like that. They really do still have them. They’re illegal, and they’re in the South, and they’re not on the interstate. But I went once to a bar in Rome that was a gay bar—no, it was a big disco—but then I saw people going back behind this curtain in this one room, and then I went behind to look and there were so many—everyone was having sex. So, I think that gave me that idea. I just did the geography different.
DM: If HBO approached you and gave you carte blanche to make a Behind the Candelabra-style biopic, who would you choose as the subject?
JW: Oh, I think maybe Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the most hated woman in America, who I wrote about in Role Models. She got prayer taken out of the public schools in the 60s. And Roseanne should play her.
DM: Once you said, in reference to Woody Allen’s Interiors, that Woody Allen should always direct serious films and never star in his own productions. Would you ever consider doing a serious film?
JW: No, but I love Woody Allen’s serious films and I was in a Woody Allen movie. I was in Sweet and Lowdown. I’m a big fan of Woody’s. He has the best career of any American director. And I wish he would do September II. Or The Son of Interiors—in 3-D!
DM: Blue Jasmine was serious, but I did chuckle a few times.
JW: Well, I think comedy can be serious. But those were his Bergman-esque movies. And I’m a big fan of Bergman. But I don’t think I’ll ever do one of those types of movies.
DM: And might you one day star in one of your own films?
JW: No… I played in Hairspray—I was the evil psychiatrist for a minute. And if they ever make a movie out of Carsick I guess I could.