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John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, And Lives To Write About It

The 68-year-old film director hitchhiked from Baltimore to San Francisco for his book Carsick. He says hitchhiking is "the worst beauty regimen ever." Originally broadcast June 10.


Other segments from the episode on August 29, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 29, 2014: Interview with John Waters; Interview with Carl Hiaasen.


August 29th 2014

Guest: John Waters and Carl Hiaasen


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. As many people hit the road for holiday weekend we're going to hear about the adventures John Waters encountered when he hit the road with his thumb out, hitchhiking cross-country. As a filmmaker Water's has violated many taboos and created some intentionally perverse scenarios, most notably in "Pink Flamingos" about a competition for the title, the filthiest person alive. His movie "Hairspray" was adapted into a family-friendly hit Broadway musical and then into a musical film starring John Travolta. A couple of years ago when Waters was 66 and looking for something to write about, he decided to hitchhike cross-country from his home in Baltimore to his co-op apartment in San Francisco. He chronicles his adventures and frustrations on the road in his book "Car Sick." The first part of the book is fiction in which he imagines best case scenarios, like getting a ride from his favorite porn film star. And some worst case scenarios, like getting picked up by a killer out to find all the cult film director he hates, including John Waters. And he tells some stories which really did happen when he was on the road. A note to parents, this interview has a couple of brief moments that are probably not appropriate for young children. Terry spoke to Waters in June, when his book "Car Sick" on was published.



John Waters, pleasure to have you back on FRESH AIR. So I used to hitchhike all the time in college. I used to pick up hitchhikers all the time. I never see anyone doing it anymore. I wouldn't dream of picking up a hitchhiker now. What made made you think anyone...

JOHN WATERS: Well, I would.

GROSS: You would, yeah?

WATERS: Yeah, but the whole time when I hitchhiked across the country, from when I left Baltimore to San Francisco, I saw one hitchhiker. And I was in the car with somebody else, and I said, don't pick him up. I can't believe I did that. (Laughing) You'd think that would be such bad hitchhiking karma. But when you hitchhike alone, you don't want to share your ride with somebody, believe me. I am not a Communist hitchhiker.


GROSS: So you assumed people would think you were either an older homeless man or that you were John Waters. So, how did it divide up between the people who recognized you and the people who thought you were a pathetic, sad, destitute person?

WATERS: There was a little of both because what happened is people would drive past me and think, was that John Waters? No, why would I be standing there doing that? And they'd come back and pick me up. Other people didn't know and pulled over and tried to give me money or help me and then realized and started laughing and screaming. And many people didn't recognize me, and when I did tell them during a normal conversation in the car, that I was a film director, they just looked at me like I was so deluded as a homeless person that believed he was a cult film director.

So generally I didn't care because it didn't matter to me. I wanted to hear their stories. I was relieved if they really didn't know who I was. But yet I'm a hypocrite because when I get stuck, I would shamelessly use it if I could to try to get a ride.

GROSS: You even cared around a fame kit. (Laughing).

WATERS: I did but that helped with the policemen. It was for if the cops stopped me - and the only time I had one sign that I realized did not work at all. It said, I'm writing a hitchhiking book, because then people thought their own personal life - maybe they don't want to be in a book or anything. But it did work whenever I saw cop. I'd whip out that sign, and they'd drive by and they would never stop me. So it worked for police.

GROSS: So what was in your fame kit to prove that you were really a movie director and not a destitute person?

WATERS: You know, fame ID, which is your Directors Guild of America card, Writers Guild of America card and the most ridiculous, my Academy of Arts - you know, the Oscar voting card, which I really wanted to, like, use that one. What do you mean? You can't put me in jail. I vote in the Oscars every year. But it did work the one only time I ever used it - no, I used it twice. Once I used it for the police who stopped me, and he gave me a ride. The second one, I used it when I was stuck in a rest area, hanging outside of bathrooms, begging people to give me a ride which really made me feel like a pervert.

GROSS: So there's three parts of your book. The first part is fictional stories you imagine that are best-case scenarios of what would happen if someone picked you up. And then you have part two, which is fictional stories of what would happen in the worst-case scenarios. And then you have part three, which is what actually happened.

GROSS: One of the best-case scenarios in your book - one of the imagined best-case scenarios in your book is that you're picked up by your favorite porn star, Johnny Davenport, the star of "Powertool." And he is, or was, a famous porn star in reality who did star in "Powertool," one of the great titles.

WATERS: There's some other good ones, too. But I can't say them, right?

GROSS: Yeah, no, exactly. Why would that be your dream ride?

WATERS: Well, because of what happens to me, you know. I get picked up by a porn star who also is friends with extraterrestrial aliens that take us aboard and has sex with us, and then I meet Connie Francis. So really it's, you know, when you think up the best and the worst, that gives me freedom, you know, I mean, to imagine the best and the worst. Those are extreme words, the best and the worst. And I have read many people that do really believe that they were kidnapped by spacemen and had sex with them. That's what gave me the ideas, and I read a couple of those books just to see. And so I wanted to go to the most pitiful ones that looked like, Zsa Zsa Gabor, you know, "Queen Of Outer Space," and they ate liver. That's the only thing I added. Like space aliens that before they had sex, would have to eat liver dinners.

GROSS: So I imagine you've actually watched a lot of porn films in your time. So...

WATERS: What? Once I was the judge for the porn Oscars, so they sent cases of them.


WATERS: And I heard another judge say, I'm raw from this dude.


WATERS: And the porno Oscars were held at a Howard Johnsons that spun around. So people were, like, sick. You know, you have a bunch of drinks at the porn Oscars, and the party was at a Howard Johnsons in LA that spins. So you kept finding yourself - you had to be like a ballet dancer and make eye contact with one building every time went around so you wouldn't get the whirlies.

GROSS: Wait, So is this the real version of the prize that Dirk Diggler wins in "Boogie Nights"?

WATERS: Well, there is the AVN awards. I get AVN, which is the Adult Video News, which is the trade paper for the porn business, which is great. I mean, they have interviews with people that says, oh, yes, my mother handles all my fan mail. I mean, she does? And she is so happy that I'm in it, and then these titles are so ludicrous you know. So I'm all for that magazine which always gives me ideas and probably did help this chapter.

GROSS: So you mentioned Connie Francis. Connie Francis is in the backseat of one of your rides.

WATERS: Well, this is fictitious.

GROSS: I'm sorry. This is in one of the fictitious chapters. And you're totally fascinated by her life, and you also own some of her records including "Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites." Does she do "My Yiddishe Momme" on it?

WATERS: You know, I haven't listened to it in a while.

GROSS: What do you mean you haven't listened to it in a while?

WATERS: I've been on tour. I didn't bring it with me. I didn't bring a turntable with me for a different city every day. And when I was writing it, you know, I'm not Jewish so I don't know all the songs and everything. That's why I liked it, and she's not Jewish either. In her career, she was one of the first - Brenda Lee did this, too - when they had a hit and they went to every country and phonetically re-sang the songs in that language and became huge hits there. I don't think anybody does that anymore.

GROSS: I didn't know they did that.

WATERS: Yeah, they did that.

GROSS: Let's get to the real thing, what really happened to you, John Waters, while you were hitchhiking cross-country. And you write, (reading) can I really give up the rigid scheduling I'm so used to in my life? Me, the ultimate control freak who plans weeks ahead the day I can irresponsibly eat candy.

And I never thought that you were that much of a schedule - that you actually planned in advance the week you would eat candy.

WATERS: I do. My hangovers are on my schedule three months in advance. I carry four pennies, always, in my pocket so I'll never get more change.

GROSS: Wow. That's actually very smart, but very, very planning ahead. (Laughing).

WATERS: Yeah, I do plan ahead. I think I got that from my father.

GROSS: It's certainly nothing I ever would've imagined from your early movies - that you would've been so kind of orderly and precise in your planning because the movies are just, like, so transgressive. And so, like, if there's a boundary I'm crossing it. I'm defying it.

WATERS: But how could I have made all those movies on no money with my with my friends if I didn't plan? That can't happen magically. It happened because we were kind of obsessed. The same time, everybody said, oh, you must've been on drugs when you made those movies. No, we weren't on drugs when we made them. I was on drugs when I thought them up, and I was on drugs when we showed them. But I was never on drugs when we made them because it was too hard.

GROSS: So, you know, another question you ask yourself is what is the etiquette of hitchhiking? If a car stops, but there's something you don't trust about the driver, do you politely decline the ride? Will you end up insulting the driver if you do that? Did you have to do that at all during your hitchhiking?

WATERS: No, here's the thing. I wrote about that in the prologue but when the real life - when you're out there - as I said, I would've gotten in Ted Bundy - in his Volkswagen with his arm in a sling in the front seat. You'll get in any car, believe me. All your rules, all your things that you imagine go out the window when you've been standing there for 10 years, and those Kansas winds are ripping your weather-beaten face. It is the worst beauty regiment ever to hitchhike. I would go in the motels at night and look in the mirror - and I have in my office a little mirror - a hand mirror that I got from a joke shop, where you pick it up and look at yourself and it screams. Well, that's what every mirror - that's what every mirror did when I hitchhiked across America. It let out a shriek of horror when they saw hitchhiking face - a new thing I want to invent a product for. And no - and I thought, no wonder people aren't picking me up. Because I had a hat that said, scum of the earth, which was a dumb fashion choice to take with me. It's in a weird little exploitation movie I like, but I should not have worn that hat, but pecker would've been worse. That was the other one I had. I thought that really would've been a bad one.

GROSS: (Laughing) Another movie title of yours, yeah.

WATERS: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So one of your rides, you got picked up in Myersville, Maryland by a 20-year-old Republican town councilman. And he drove you to Ohio, and it was a great ride. You call him, in your book, the Corvette kid.

WATERS: He was only going to lunch - to get his lunch at the subway shop when he stopped. And it was pouring rain, and gave me a four-hour ride which was very nice.

GROSS: And then you met up with him again, and he gave you an even longer ride.

WATERS: Yes, he came back. He kept texting me. But I thought he was just kidding me - that he wasn't going to come back. And finally I got a really - I got stuck in Ohio - in Bonner Springs, Kansas. So it took a long while, and I was going to - he kept texting me saying, I'm going to come get you again. I thought he was kidding. So I got a great ride with this Kansas couple, who is coming to the signing of Baltimore, by the way. And they took me really a long way - all the way to Denver. And he wrote and said, what do you mean? I've been driving 48 hours at 80 miles an hour to catch up with you, and he finally did. And then took me to Reno, and then I just gave him the keys to my apartment. I said go stay in my place in San Francisco. And he was great. His parents were horrified because if they Google me, it's not good. If you Google my name, from a parent's viewpoint - that your son is missing with - in a car on the other side of the country, it is not comforting.

GROSS: What comes up?

WATERS: Well, you know, probably, like, battles for Manson family member parole. I just won some big gay award. And "Pink Flamingos," you know, none of it is nice for a parent to say, oh, great. Well, that'll be nice for him for summer. That's a good way to start the summer vacation.

GROSS: So did the young Republican town councilman know your work...

WATERS: He didn't.

GROSS: ...And what was his reaction when you described it?

WATERS: He didn't know my work, and he did Google me on the way and saw at least it was true. I don't know, to this day, if he's ever seen my movies. But we certainly became friends. He stayed longer in San Francisco when we got there, and then he came to my Christmas party this year. I'm still in touch with him. I think it gave him confidence. He looked great. He looked great before, but he was - we were just an odd couple. I mean, his friends were texting him saying, way to go. You're in Reno with a gay man in a motel, you know. That's great for your campaign, right?


WATERS: And he was - we just laughed about it because it was so ridiculous. The whole thing - it was completely innocent. We, on the way, met some swingers who kept trying to hook up with us by texting him, which really - in another hotel the maitre d' came and knocked on his door in the middle of the night. I thought, hey, what about me? It was kind of funny. We just laughed the whole time.

DAVIES: John Waters's new book, is called "Car Sick." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and we're listening to Terry's interview with film maker John Waters. His book about hitchhiking across the country is called "Car Sick."

GROSS: So what makes a good highway exit? You were always searching for good exits.

WATERS: Where they drop you off is - it depends on the time of the day. If it's late in the day, I never wanted to hitchhike at night. So you have to get dropped off at an exit that has a hotel - a motel because there are no hotels. And so halfway through, I realized I had to have a sign at the day that said next motel. But when I did it, I felt like a hooker. So I changed it to next hotel and felt classier, really. But that worked. And then, that's the only time you want a local ride because a local ride's your enemy. I learned that you want a ride past the city, not before it because then you're going to get local rides. You need to - I had the best luck in the middle of the country, in the kind of rest areas that don't have all the fast-food and stuff. They just have vending machines, bathrooms and, like, a park because people walk their dog and everything. When you pull out there it's slow. You're standing right there, they can pull over easily for you. The problem, though, is to be caught there at the end of the day because at night they're scary. I mean, they are pervert hangouts - or people that are robbing the perverts. That's even scarier. I'm not - I'm not afraid of a pervert hangout. I'm afraid of the robbers that come to prey on the perverts. So at night, you don't want to be stuck there. But in the day, they were, in the middle of the country and in the west, the best for me.

GROSS: So you didn't like the roadside motels that you stayed in. And you thought the worst part, in a way, was, like, the lighting and also the breakfast areas were...

WATERS: Well, I - you know, the Days Inn was the best. I can - I stayed in all of them. I would give the Days Inn my vote. No one has ever been able to read a newspaper in the Holiday Inn, the lighting's so bad. But they don't even have newspapers in the middle of the - they didn't even USA Today. I thought they had that everywhere. They had no newspapers. And so I had to have a media blackout, kind of. And those breakfast rooms, I'm telling you these eggs that are, like, have a - really, they're like if you went to a novelty shop and bought fake eggs. They, look, kind of tasted like that. And it just has a TV on with every person staring at the TV and making no eye contact. And I would waltz in with my hitchhiking sign thinking, oh, I'm going to make friends here. That never happened once. If I would approach anybody, they would give me the most filthy look. It really was not friendly in those places. And in one area, the woman said she was going to call the police if I showed my sign again, which I thought was uncalled for.

GROSS: So were you worried about bedbugs? Do you do all the bedbug precautions when you stay at a hotel or a motel?

WATERS: You know, I am always worried about bedbugs. But I have a friend, a very wealthy person, that told me he got the worst bedbugs ever from, like, the most expensive hotel in London. So I believe it's a losing battle. You can't really worry about it.

Although, you know, some of the sheets were so polyester that you could whistle and they came over to you, really.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WATERS: I mean, you know, and the pillows - you could just go, come here, and they would hop up and walk over because they were so slippery and slide-y. And - but, you know, there was one bar I wanted to go to. It was like a disco. It looked like it was out of "Stayin' Alive" meets "Convoy." And it was in one trucker place. And there was just a pitiful disco ball and two lonely truckers sitting there. On a good night, I would've been in there making friends. But I thought, I can't. I can't go in there tonight. I have to go to sleep. You're really tired at the end of the day, believe me, when you've been hitchhiking.

GROSS: One of the rides that you were really luckiest to get was a ride from an indie band - a band you'd never heard of called, Here We Go Magic. And apparently they weren't sure if it was really you or not. And they had a big debate about whether it was you. So they had to, like, spin around after passing you up, just to see if it was really you or not. And so they picked you up. So that must've been great, to be recognized and then to have an indie band driving you around. Did you know their music at all?

WATERS: I didn't. And they're really good, by the way, too. So I certainly got their record and it's really great. And, you know, it was just so nice to be with somebody in show business again, somebody that I didn't have to - you know, we compared stories about touring 'cause I tour all the time, too. And they had been on tour for two years in this van.


WATERS: I know. And in music today, or in anything, if you - Elton John goes every night and tours if he's not working. Bill Maher, the night he doesn't do a show he's touring somewhere. And they all say, when you stop, it's over. You can't blink. So we were trading stories like that. And they were very helpful - so nice. And it was just - I felt - every time I was in a car I'd feel exhilarated until it got to the time when you had to get out. And then this great reality came back to you. That you were out of your mind, and you were actually doing this. It was no a longer book pitch. It was no longer an abstract idea. It was real. And that sound of the oncoming traffic, which still to this day has never left my system underneath all the soundtrack of my life.

GROSS: So since Here We Go Magic picked you up, I thought we could hear a track of one of their songs. This is really catchy. It's called "How Do I Know." This is Here We Go Magic.


LUKE TEMPLE: (Singing) How do I know if I love you? When I sure like your bread. The way that you tucker and straighten your bed. But how do I know if I love you? How do I know if I know you? When you come out clean from the shower. You squeak to the touch, and you smell like a flower. How do I know if I know you?

GROSS: So that's Here We Go Magic, the band that picked up John Waters. That sounded pretty good.

WATERS: And wouldn't you like them to pick you up? They sound great.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, they could pick me up. (Laughing). The next time I don't hitchhike.

WATERS: So this didn't make you want to hitchhike one day? What's hitchhiking like in Philadelphia?

GROSS: I wouldn't know. I never see anybody hitchhiking. I never - my hitchhiking years ended decades ago.

WATERS: Yeah, I know. Most people did. It's true. In Baltimore, if you're hitchhiking, you're a hooker that doesn't have the Internet.


WATERS: It's for the Internet deprived.

GROSS: So listen. So the members of the band Here We Go Magic tweeted that they picked you up. And their tweets went viral. And The New York Times called. And, you know, one of the Baltimore papers called. And your office was doing this, like, we're not commenting. It's like, why wouldn't they - why wouldn't they confirm...

WATERS: I felt so Henry Kissinger.

GROSS: Yeah, why can't they confirm that you were hitchhiking?

WATERS: Because my rule before I started was that I was not going to ever confirm any of it until I got there. And I never did because then it would have been - I'm giving interviews in people's car. That would be so rude, you know? I never once took out my phone and looked at my e-mails or anything in the car because that's rude. Your job is to talk. And your job is to make friends with the people that have given you the hospitality of the little moving house they're in that you get to share. The more you talk, the longer they take you, sometimes. So to me, sitting there and giving interviews would have been incredibly rude to the people that picked me up.

DAVIES: John Waters speaking with Terry Gross. His new book is called "Car Sick" and he'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: Coming up Carl Hiassen, his latest novel, "Bad Monkey" begins with a floating body part discovered in the bay by fishing tourists. The characters include a former detective demoted to roach patrol, inspecting restaurant kitchens and a monkey who was fired from the set of "The Pirates Of The Caribbean." Also more with John Waters.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview with John Waters. Director of the films "Pink Flamingos" and "Hairspray." He's toured the country with his one man show, "This Filthy World" and has written several books, including "Shock Value" and "Role Models." His new "Car Sick" is about ahiking his adventures and frustrations hitchhiking across the country two years ago at the age of 66.

GROSS: So, I know one of the things you were concerned about when you were hitchhiking was not eating or drinking a lot 'cause you didn't want to have to stop for a restroom. And you didn't want to be in a place where there wasn't a restroom. So was it a relief to be about to eat and drink as much as you wanted without having to worry...


GROSS: About the availability of a restroom?

WATERS: The elimination problem was, you know - that's the thing of hitchhiking you don't realize right in the beginning - I did. You can't keep saying, pullover. You know, you've got to pee 20 times. You can't do that to people. They're going to just pull off, you're going come out - and even with the rides that I really trusted, when we would get out of the car and go in to, like, have coffee or something, I always made up some excuse to take my luggage because I always figured I'd go to the bathroom and they'd pull off with it because I used to be a thief when I was young. So I have bad karma that way. So I was always afraid that someone was going to steal my bag - even the Corvette kid, even someone that I really liked and trusted - not at the end of the trip but the very first time we stopped.

GROSS: You used to be a thief when you were a kid? What did you steal and why did you steal it?

WATERS: Oh, sure. Well, but it - when stealing was politically correct. You know, in the (inaudible) days.

GROSS: Oh, when you were liberating things.

WATERS: (Laughing) Yes yes, yes. When we were liberating things. That's the proper word. You're right.


WATERS: Which is so ludicrous when you think back on it.

GROSS: Yes. Agreed. You know, you write, jokingly, in your hitchhiking book that your idea for your next book might be, I retake every drug I ever took in order - hash, pot, LSD, amphetamine, morning glory seeds, glue, heroine, MDA, opium, mushrooms, cocaine. When it got to the heroine, I thought, what was that chapter of your life like? I mean, that's not...

WATERS: Oh, I just did it a couple times. Now, I hated it 'cause I didn't like sitting around nodding and puking - ain't my idea of a good night, believe me. But the only one of all those ones you just described I would be scared to take again is morning glory seeds. You had to boil them for hours to get the poison off, and then eat like 10 packs of them, then you vomited, and then I hallucinated. I was a canary, which isn't what you want to do when you're high. So it's not something I would do. And nowadays they took it - you can't do it. It doesn't work anymore. But for a while, we were hanging out in hardware stores looking for those morning glory seeds - so embarrassing, so low rent - lower than glue.


GROSS: OK. Now, you're not really going to write this book, right? Where you retake every drug.

WATERS: No, I don't think I am. I joked about it. No, I'm not going to read that book. Well, I don't think I am. No.

GROSS: OK. So a nightmare scenario that happens in your hitchhiking book - and this is in the fictional part. You take a cigarette in a moment of stress, and you immediately become a chain smoker. Do you still - I know you gave up smoking years ago. How many years?

WATERS: I'll tell you how many 'cause I carry this card in my wallet - 4,174 days ago.

GROSS: Wow, so you really do have a card. I thought that might have been a joke. You mention that in the book.

WATERS: No, it's true.

GROSS: In the fictional part...

WATERS: Because I don't want to smoke again.

GROSS: Yeah.

WATERS: I don't want to smoke again. Although, you know, I love the king Kool. When I smoked them, oh - I see that - thank God they've changed the pack now, I realized, because when I used to see that color green anywhere, I would, like, run to light up. But no, I don't think about it anymore. And I don't smoke and I'm - thank God. I'd be arrested if I still smoked 'cause I'm the one who would be changing the battery in the airplane - you know, in the lavatory to take out the smoke detector. I would've been those people they warn you against. So yes, that is the worst thing. Actually, dying is about the same to me as smoking cigarettes again, if I did, because it was so hard to stop. And to do it again, oh, my whole body would rebel. I think - yeah, I really don't want to do that again.

GROSS: Do you have dreams about smoking?

WATERS: Not anymore. I used to.

GROSS: You've lost a lot of friends, I'm sure, you know, between drugs and AIDS and various other ways of death - probably some suicide.

WATERS: Yeah. All the things that hit the creative community. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah, right. So how does it feel to you to be hitting, you know - to be nearing 70, to be hitting a new decade in your life thinking of how many people you know who never nearly got that far?

WATERS: Well, I think I say that in the book. At one point, I'm standing there and I think, you know, I'm alive and so many of my friends are not. I'm here. I'm doing this project. I'm alive. I'm - so I am incredibly thankful for my life.

I said in this book that all my fantasies of what I wanted to happen in my career came true years ago. This is gravy. This is all better than I ever imagined it would happen. I've always been understood. I'm not, like, somebody that thinks I'm going to die and nobody got my work. I've had ups and downs in my career that have never been extreme. But I've always worked and all my stuff is still out there. All the books I wrote are still in print. You know, the movies are available. They're on TV. Who could have ever imagined that those movies would be on television?

So things have been good. So I think - you know, I'm an adult. God knows, my mom died this year. My father died a couple years ago, so - and - but they had great lives. It wasn't a tragedy. They lived to be 90. They had their mind right up to the very end.

So I have had a very, very lucky life. But at the same time, I love my work. And that's a cliché, but it's really true. I jump out of bed every day to go to work. And it's not like I wake up and groan and think, oh, I have to go to the office. No, the office is the room next to me that I have to go in and think up something weird. That's my job.

GROSS: Yeah. So you've become the person when - where when reporters write about you, they write about who you are wearing.


GROSS: Something I never would have imagined would become the case. But you seem to have this thing for plaid - plaid jackets...

WATERS: Well, I like...

GROSS: How did plaid become your thing?

WATERS: Well, I like the plaid - that jacket you might be referring to is a great Comme des Garçons suit that, from the front, it's everything your mother told you not to wear. It's a plaid jacket with plaid pants that, completely, are a different plaid. But if you turn around to the back, it matches in the back. So I like that. It's kind of - it's kind of who cares what I think when I enter the room? I only care what you think about when I leave.

GROSS: That's good, OK. John Waters it's so great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

WATERS: Thank you very much, Terry, for having me.

DAVIES: John Waters speaking with Terry Gross. Waters's book about hitchhiking across the country is called "Car Sick." Next week on September 5, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will kick off a ten day retrospective of his films. Coming up, Funny stuff from Florida. We speak with writer Carl Hiaasen. This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Carl Hiaasen is a native of Florida and a longtime columnist for the Miami Herald and humor writer who's become a go-to guest for TV journalists when something big happens in the sunshine state. He's some combination of cultural ambassador, social critic and voice of doom railing against greedy developers, corrupt politicians and outsiders who come to plunder the state's natural riches. Hiassen's written a series of mystery novels set in Florida and some children's books. His novel, "Strip Tease," was made into a film starring Demi Moore. And his 1986 book, "Tourist Season," was described as the first book about sex, murder and corruption on the professional bass fishing circuit. I spoke to Carl Hiaasen last year about his latest novel, "Bad Monkey,"- a typically funny and offbeat murder mystery involving some great Florida characters in outlandish situations. It's now out in paperback. And Hiaasen's published a new collection of his columns called "Dance Of The Reptiles."


DAVIES: Carl Hiaasen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I thought we would begin with having you read us a bit from "Bad Monkey." This is a - this is the opening of Chapter 4, a description of the main character, Andrew Yancy. Do you want to just set this up for us?

CARL HIAASEN: Yeah, Yancy was a detective with the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, which is the Florida Keys, and he, due to some misbehavior, he got busted down to what's called the roach patrol, which is basically he's now inspecting the kitchens of various restaurants for vermin. And so it's somewhat not a lateral career move, and he's coping with it the best he can, and that's just how we start.

(Reading) Yancy received his first bribe offer at a tin-roofed seafood joint on Stock Island called Stoney's Crab Palace, where he had documented 17 serious health violations, including mouse droppings, rat droppings, chicken droppings, a tick nursery, open vats of decomposing shrimp, lobsters dating back to the first Bush presidency and, on a tray of baked oysters, a soggy condom. The owner's name was Brennan. He was slicing plantains when Yancy delivered the feared verdict - I've got to shut you down. A hundred bucks says you won't. Jesus, is that blood on your knife? OK, 200 bucks, said Brennan. Why aren't you wearing gloves, Yancy asked. Brennan continued slicing. Nilsson never gave me no trouble. He ate here all the time. And he died of hepatitis. He ate for free. That was our deal. Six years, never once did he step foot in my kitchen. Nilsson was a good man. Nilsson was a lazy (beep) whistle, Yancy said. I'm writing you up.

DAVIES: (Laughing) And that is our guest Carl Hiaasen reading from his new novel, "Bad Monkey." You know, you've written so much about Florida. In some respects, you're kind of a cultural representative of the state, almost, I suppose. It's a big place, with a lot of different regions. And, you know, Key West is different from Miami. Do you want to talk just a little bit - talk a little bit about Key West and it's, you know, what cultural vibe?

CARL HIAASEN: Well, I mean, Key West, I've always had a fond spot in my heart for Key West. It's very different from Miami. It's very different from the Panhandle, way different from Central Florida. It's been a pirate outpost since the 1800s. It was an area that, at the turn of the century - I mean, the 19th century turning to the 20th century - it was the wealthiest city per capita in the United States because of the treasure salvaging business. It existed on sort of the plunder of ships that went aground on the reefs in Key West. And so it's always attracted, if you go back to, you know, Hemingway, you go back, you know, I mean, it's attracted characters and outlaws and brigands from the early days. And it still does, to some extent. Certainly it was huge in the drug smuggling trade in the '70s and '80s, and it's always sort of had laws of its own.

And it's just a very, very colorful and diverse place to write about.

DAVIES: Right, and for folks that don't know the geography, I mean, it is among the Florida Keys, this little string of islands that extend out from the bottom of Florida, it's the very last one.

HIAASEN: Yeah, and it has the famous southernmost point in the United States, a little strip of beach with some sort of marker there that you can go get your picture taken. And it's - you know, and now, of course, they have cruise ships coming in, and that plays a bit of a part in "Bad Monkey.

DAVIES: Right, and the murder plot begins with the very first paragraph of the book, which, with your permission, I'll just read it.


DAVIES: (Reading) On the hottest day of July, trolling in dead calm waters near Key West, a tourist named James Mayberry reeled up a human arm. His wife flew to the bow of the boat and tossed her breakfast burritos.

In that lovely passage, we get a Carl Hiaasen kind of classic, I suppose, a grisly image of a crime and also a good laugh. Where did the severed arm come from?

HIAASEN: Well, there's even a line in the novel that refers to - for years, South Florida was sort of the severed body parts capital of North America. I mean, this was back, you know, in the drug wars and in the days before that, the mob wars. I mean, we were one of the early vacation spots for the - all of the five crime families from New York. So we have plenty of experience with severed body parts, and they turn up all the time.

And they go into the morgue, and they're catalogued. And in this case, it was just, you know, a day of fishing that - and initially the thought is that this was a boating accident, and somebody had drowned, and the shark had taken the rest of the body - which is normally what, you know, what you would guess in this situation. It doesn't turn out that way, but that's initially what everybody thinks, that somebody sunk their boat, and, you know, a shark moved in and took advantage of it. But of course that isn't the way it is in this story.

DAVIES: Right, and one of the things that you describe is that there's a lot of, you know, charter fishing out there, and this happens on a charter fishing boat. And I wonder if this is true, that some of these companies have a way of scamming some gullible sports fishermen into thinking he's caught a sailfish. Does this really happen?

HIAASEN: Well, this happened once, and the Herald - the Miami Herald wrote about it. And in fact, we sent a fake guy out on the boat to pretend he was fishing, and we had another boat watching it happen. And this was years ago, but it's an absolutely true story. They - it was called the sailfish - the dead sailfish scam. And what it was is they would load up the boat with sort of an unlikely - I mean, usually very, very gullible tourists.

And a mate would provide a distraction, say he'd see something on the other side of the boat. Hey, look over there, there's a school of dolphin, or there's whatever. And while he was doing that, another mate would reach into the icebox and pull out a sailfish that had been caught long ago, hook him on the line, let him loose in the back, you know, just kind of release it into the back of the boat and then shout - Fish on, fish on. And these - somebody would run back and reel in this limp, dead remains of a sailfish, which of course never jumps the way the sailfish are supposed to. But they were able to recycle this a fair number of times if you had a dumb enough customer. And what - the reason they did it was because they got a commission on the taxidermy. They would send the dimensions in to a taxidermy shop, and at the end of the day the guy was so thrilled to have caught a sailfish, he'd write a check, and the boat would pocket part of the check. So that was the scam, and it went on for a while until we wrote about it and took some pictures for the Herald. But it was one of the more brazen and ingenious scams I think I've ever heard about. I mean, it's a great deal of trouble to go to for a $7,500 fish deposit. But at the time, it was just classic South Florida. I mean, it was perfect. And it also said a lot about the quality of tourists we had at the time.


DAVIES: Come and show me a good time. I don't care whether it's real or not.

HIAASEN: No, they don't care, just reel in a dead fish.

DAVIES: There's a part of the story that takes place in the Bahamas.


DAVIES: And there's a woman known as the Dragon Queen. Do you want to describe her and tell us where she came from?

HIAASEN: Well, I'll describe her as far as I can. I spent a lot of time over in the Bahamas, and I like it quite a bit over there. I do a lot of fishing over there. But I heard this tale repeated on several visits about a women who was sort of a black widow figure who had had - at least three of her boyfriends had died under mysterious circumstances after breaking up with her. A fourth had fled to Cuba. And she was a practitioner of voodoo, and the whole island was terrified of her. And I made some efforts to sort of see her house or at least where she lived. I didn't really want to make her acquaintance or take her out for dinner or anything, but I just thought it would be - but I couldn't find anyone who would take me, even, into the neighborhood. They said they would drop me off and let me walk, and I, being the chicken at heart that I am, I didn't do it. But I did, I did sort of - I was inspired by the story of this person who is still very much alive. So I just sort of shamelessly stole the stories that I'd heard and weaved it into this character who plays a part, along with the bad monkey, of course.

Now, the monkey I didn't - I didn't have any particular inspiration for the monkey, but I did know that the Johnny Depp pirate movies were all filmed near this area that I was writing about. And they had a number of monkeys that they used. You know, they have the main monkey. They have a stand-in monkey. They have a stunt monkey. You know, I knew all that. So I just kind of took that idea and ran with it. But I - and my vision of the monkey was of a show business monkey that just crashed and burned and went bad, sort of the, you know, sort of a Lindsay Lohan of monkeys.


HIAASEN: And that he got fired from the set of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie and found his way to this island.

DAVIES: Well, right. And you might as well just tell us a little bit more about this particular monkey, who goes by the name of Mr. Driggs, right?

HIAASEN: Driggs. Driggs is his name, and, you know, he's sort of got a sad story, but he makes his own problems, as most monkeys do. But here's what - you know, in every movie it seems you go to now, and TV sitcoms and everywhere you look, there's sort of a gratuitous monkey - you know, "The Hangover" series. And I wanted a monkey with a back-story. I wanted a monkey who was a complete character, who had a literary role in the book. So I just sort of imagined a history for this monkey who was, you know, who was managed, had managers in L.A. and got into the set in the Exuma Islands to do this movie, and then he does a couple of very bad things on the set of the movie and he gets himself fired, and he ends up on this island.

DAVIES: Right. And the monkey wears diapers, we should mention.

HIAASEN: Well, yeah. And if you've ever owned a monkey, you know that's pretty important. They're not big on hygiene.



HIAASEN: I had a monkey briefly myself. I can state that hygiene is not a top priority for the monkey kingdom.

DAVIES: Well, did you enjoy the monkey? How did it work out?

HIAASEN: It worked out badly, Dave.


HIAASEN: It worked out very badly. I was about - literally, this is a true story. I was about - I got him, maybe 11 or 12 years old, and it was - and I looked in the back of one of these outdoor magazines, and it said pet monkey. $16.95, 16 dollars and 95 cents. I didn't tell my mother. I'd worked around the house. I got the money together, me and my little sister, and I sent off for this monkey without really telling her I was doing it.

So one day, the UPS truck pulls up, or some delivery truck, and this crate comes off, and there's this incredibly pissed-off monkey. And I took one look at him, I knew - and I knew. And she looked - my mom looked at me and said, oh, I can't wait for your father to see this. And so I was afraid - no one really would go anywhere near the crate, that was the monkey's state of mind when he got there. My little brother, who was about 4 years old, said to me, hey, can I pet the monkey? And being a bigger brother, I said, absolutely. Go ahead. Pet the monkey. And it just bit the hell out of my - I mean, it just gnawed, chawed on him for a long time. And so the monkey lasted about 48 hours, and then I don't know where it went.

DAVIES: Sad story, another sad story in South Florida.

HIAASEN: It was a sad story, but in those days - the good news is you can't order them by mail anymore, so...


DAVIES: OK, OK. The name of the book is "Bad Monkey." It's written by our guest, Carl Hiaasen. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Carl Hiaasen. He is a columnist for the Miami Herald and writer. His latest novel is called "Bad Monkey." One more character from the book I'd like to hear you describe: Evan Shook.

HIAASEN: Oh, yeah.

DAVIES: Our protagonist, Andrew Yancy, lives, what, near the water, and he had this nice view of the sunset until this character Evan Shook comes in. Tell us about him.

HIAASEN: We've all had this. Maybe not, but many of us in Florida have had this experience. Andrew Yancy is, on his policeman's salary, now his roach inspector's salary, has got a modest little place on a beautiful island called Big Pine Key. It's actually a fairly big island in that chain of the Keys on the way to Key West. And he - all he lives for is his sunset every day. You just sit on the deck, and you watch the sun go down over the Gulf of Mexico, and tranquility ensues. And this guy buys this lot next to him and decides to build a spec house. He has no intention of living there himself, Evan Shook doesn't, but his idea is to build a gigantic house and sell it for a lot of money and finance his future separation from his wife. And so the house starts going up, and of course it's much larger, taller than the code, the building code in the Keys allows. This is no impediment to anyone resourceful enough in the Keys to face that problem, because there's lots of buildings that are bigger when they're built than they were on paper. And so Yancy just fumes, and it just, it keeps - the house keeps getting bigger. His sunset keeps getting smaller, and he embarks on sort of a subtle commando campaign to discourage Evan Shook from fulfilling his dream.

DAVIES: Yeah, there's some very funny stuff there. But again, there's a theme here, which is folks in Florida make money as they choose to, and, you know, regulation is, eh, kind of spotty.

HIAASEN: Yeah, well, in the Keys it's always been a little - it's been a little loose. But the point is that everybody there is there because they love the natural beauty of the place. And it may be just a little sliver of beauty. It may just be this view or that view, but then someone comes along who has no natural love for the Keys or for, you know, anything except making dough, and he just throws up this monstrosity of a structure. You know, and while most of us would just fantasize about sabotage, Yancy puts it into motion.

DAVIES: Right. Some very - in some very clever ways. You grew up in the Fort Lauderdale area. Is that right?

HIAASEN: Yes, Dave. I was - I grew up in a suburb of Lauderdale out west called Plantation.

DAVIES: Right. What was your childhood like, in particular, you know, your relationship to the outdoor world of South Florida?

HIAASEN: Well, I mean, I was lucky enough to grow up before there was - were any, at least in our neighborhood, any strip malls or any development at all. And so every day, I'd get home from school and get on my bike, and I'd just ride really a mile or two out and be right on the edge of the Everglades. And it was the best childhood imaginable. You could, you know, fish and camp and do whatever you - you just were in the middle of nowhere in no time at all, and that's what I - that's what I remember. I mean, there were no skate parks. I mean, there was nothing. But it was great. It was just an incredible childhood and probably one that exists in other parts of the country, and maybe even still in other parts of Florida, but certainly not there anymore. It's all concrete now.

DAVIES: So, you know, your journalistic career covers a period in which Florida has been - I don't want to use the term invaded, but, you know, it is a state that is, you know, certainly at times of year, so full of tourists and retirees. Have you sort of - have you reconciled yourself to outsiders and their role in the state?

HIAASEN: Well, I mean, you use the word invaded, I think is too mild. I use the word trampled, stampeded is what I usually use. Yeah. I mean, the population since I was born in 1953, the population has more than quintupled in the state. And that - and try to imagine any place absorbing that kind of population change and the transformation that you would watch if you lived here. I mean, it's traumatic. And have I reconciled? Sure, I have no illusions about - I mean, I've been writing for 40 years trying to scare people out of this place, and I haven't done a very good job of it.


HIAASEN: I get letters from people all the time saying I love your books. Please don't hate me, but I'm moving to Florida, anyway.

DAVIES: You know, the other thing that I've always thought about Florida is that it must be so frustrating that when it's beautiful outside, the place can be overrun with people that you wish weren't there.


DAVIES: I mean, when I went to Del Ray Beach to visit my in-laws years ago, you couldn't get into the parking lot at the grocery store because there were all of these people.

HIAASEN: Oh, my gosh.

DAVIES: And then in the summer, when the population shrinks, it's, well, dreadfully hot, I would think. It's kind of a dilemma, isn't it?

HIAASEN: It is. It is hot, but, I mean, you know, you grow - I grew up in that heat. I don't mind the heat at all. But you're right, there is this dichotomy, and you do - it's beautiful. When you travel a little bit, like I do, and you're up north in the cold and the rain and the sleet, you understand why people can't wait to get on a plane to come to Florida. I mean, I get it. Everybody understands it. But it's true. I know Del Ray, I know the parking lot experience. I know the grocery store - I had a friend of mine who used to manage one of those big grocery stores, Publix. And he would come - he had the greatest stories about fistfights and brawls over the pickles. And the slip-and-falls were classic. They had to - this was back in the day, and they had to put up video cameras because they had old people that would come in on a regular basis and fall down on purpose and sue the store. And they knew who they were. So they started videotaping them as soon as they came in, because they knew they were just looking for a place to pretend to fall, do a flop, you know, do a LeBron right there, you know, right in the front entrance of the store. And it was just classic Florida. Who else does this? You know, where you - you know, let's go to the grocery store and stage a lawsuit. Oh, great. Now, how about that? And then we can pick up dinner while we're there.


DAVIES: Well, Carl Hiaasen, it's been fun to have you again. Thanks so much.

HIAASEN: Thanks, Dave. Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Carl Hiaasen has a new collection of his columns called "Dance Of The Reptiles." His book, "Bad Monkey," is out in paper-back.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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