Other segments from the episode on June 10, 2014
June 10, 2014
Guest: John Waters
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. John Waters has violated many taboos and created intentionally perverse scenarios in his films, 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, he was looking for an adventure he could write about. The adventure he chose was 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 new book "Carsick." 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 worst-case scenarios, like getting a ride from a killer out to get all the cult film directors he hates, including John Waters. Parents, this interview has a couple of moments that are probably not appropriate for young children.
John Waters, pleasure to have you back on FRESH AIR. What made you think of hitchhiking cross-country as the idea for your book?
JOHN WATERS: I don't know. I don't do dating sites. I don't do Facebook. I don't do any of that. I just thought I wanted to meet some new people, and I wanted to have a midlife crisis that didn't involve buying a sports car or doing ridiculous things. So I came up with something more ridiculous, an adventure.
GROSS: 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 the...
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 assume 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 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 realize 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.
So there's an excerpt of a story from part two, the worst-case scenarios (laughing) that I'd like you to read. And the setup of this chapter is that you get picked up by a member of a group that he calls REACT, and he says it's a trucker-citizen, band radio, emergency channel organization made up of volunteers to assist other motorists in times of disaster. But it's actually this guy who really hates cult directors and wants to kill all of them including you. He hates the "Rocky Horror Picture Show," he hates, Herschell Gordon Lewis, who did "Blood Feast," he hates "El Topo," Todd Solondz, David Cronenberg, Quentin Tarantino, Pedro Almodovar. And he's come to give you your last ride. And I'd like you to do a short reading about this ride.
WATERS: All right, I've never read this one out loud.
GROSS: And I'll say we've edited this for radio.
WATERS: (Reading) Hold it, hold it, I yelled hoping to buy time. We're just writer-directors trying to do our job. I'm sorry if my films offended you. You think eating a dog turd is funny? Randy demands with terrifying hostility. No, no, I was just commenting on censorship laws at the time of Deep Throat, I beg. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Randy sneers before whipping out a pocket knife and stabbing me in the leg. That, he roars looking at the blade still stuck in my flesh, is funny. Ha ha ha. Just repeat after me, I plead. It's only a movie. It's only a movie. It's only a movie. But this old catch-line from an exploitation ad campaign doesn't do the trick. And that birth scene in "Female Trouble," he charges like an obscenity prosecutor, was absolutely disgusting. Before I could even plead my defense, he shoots me in the other leg. I howl in agony. I scream for my life.
We pull into the Las Vegas city limits. Time flies when you're being tortured. I see the ridiculous skyline of the town - a place filled with tourists I have spent my lifetime trying to avoid. Look, Randy, I groaned through spasms of pain, just let me out here. I promise I won't make any trash films again. I'll go make mainstream movies. I swear. It's too late for a career change, Randy snarls with murderous rage as he pulls his truck off the road into an abandoned drive-in movie theater. It's been a long time since any movies were shown here. There's not even a screen anymore, and the concession stand has been burned to the ground. The few remaining poles for the speakers have been stripped clean of working parts.
Randy slams on his brakes with this sickening banality. Get in the back, Randy orders. No, Randy, please, I argue, let's go see "The Avengers," let's go see Hollywood tentpole blockbusters. His answer, a bullet into my right foot. I almost passed out when he grabs me and throws me into the opening he has carved between the truck and the trailer he's pulling. Inside is a cult movie director torture chamber. Josie Cotton's cover version of the theme song from "Who Killed Teddy Bear" is playing on some sort of sound system. Beneath movie posters for "El Topo" is the decaying body of Jodorowsky, whom I thought was still alive until Randy tells me differently and takes credit. I see George Romero's amputated head hanging in a basket surrounded by posters for "Night Of The Living Dead" and all its sequels. Enough, is all Randy offers as an explanation.
Before I can scream, I trip over what appears to be a corpse clawed apart by wild animals. Randy kicks it, and I realize this poor human is still alive. I try to look away, but Randy grabs my head in a choke hold and forces me to gaze upon this nauseating face. Oh, my God. It's Herschell Gordon Lewis, and he chuckles when he sees me. He's still got a sense of humor even as he approaches death. Randy pushes me forward into the bloody pit of horror. I can usually talk my way out of anything, but now I am not so sure. I keep flashing back to the Grim Reaper character in that Ingmar Bergman film, but realized sharing this film-buff memory with Randy Packard would be extremely ill-advised.
GROSS: And that is from one of fictional sections of John Waters' new book "Carsick" about hitchhiking across America. That's an example of one of the worst-case scenarios he imagines. (Laughter) so...
WATERS: Hopefully it's not the best, right?
GROSS: That's right. How many of the things that Randy does to you in that fictional scene have you done to other people in your films?
WATERS: Oh, in my films? I thought you meant in real life. I was like, Terry.
WATERS: In my films? Well, I have certainly cut off people's heads. I've certainly - yes, I have probably done all of them in my films, but for comedy and in this writing, your death as comedy is sort of fun to do, too. So I've probably done all of them, except the sexual parts that you cut out.
WATERS: And I might have done them, too - in my movies not in real life. That's a chart, Terry. You'd have to make me - I'd have to diagram this chapter for you to tell me what is real life, what's fantasy, what I have done and what I've done in my movies. That's a gray area.
GROSS: That's hysterical. So did you think about the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" when you were hitchhiking because you know...
WATERS: Well, I think.
GROSS: ...Young people in their car pick up a guy who turns out to be an insane killer.
WATERS: Well, I think about the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" every day of my life. (Laughing) And to be honest, the hitchhiker in that with the burnt face is my type. I wanted him to be my boyfriend. So I don't think like everybody else all the time. I would've picked up that hitchhiker, yes. I would've definitely - maybe I would've gone with him to their little dinner party with grandpa.
GROSS: So 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 me 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: 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 what are some of the things you've learned to do and learned not to do as a filmmaker from watching porn films?
WATERS: Well, my early films look terrible. But I didn't know what I was doing. I learned when I was doing. I never went to film school. I didn't know - I didn't learn from porn or anything. I just learned how turn on the camera. That was hard enough. But if you like those films, you said they were primitive. If you hated them, you said they were amateurish. And it is the same word and I gave the line to Cecil B. Demented of the film I wrote where the character says, technique is nothing more than failed style. Which I believe - I believe if you come out of a movie and the first thing you say is, the cinematography was beautiful, it was a bad movie.
GROSS: OK. So you mention 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: My guest is John Waters. His new book is called "Carsick." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Waters, the filmmaker who made the famous films "Pink Flamingos" as well as "Hairspray," which became the basis of the musical "Hairspray," and then the John Travolta remake of "Hairspray." And he's written many books and does one-man shows, and his new book is called "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America." And the premise of this book is that he really hitchhiked across America, but there's also fictional chapters in it about what he imagines might go right and go wrong while he's hitchhiking. 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 at 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 want 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 at 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.
GROSS: John Waters will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Carsick." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John Waters, the director of the films "Pink Flamingos," and "Hairspray." He has toured the country with his one-man show, "This Filthy World," and has written several books including "Shock Value" and "Role Models." His new book, "Carsick," is about his adventures and frustrations hitchhiking across country two years ago, at the age of 66. On the road he learned a lot of things he'd never thought about before. 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. It's a slow - 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 - could they have worse food? I mean, white bread that was so white that - I never saw bread like this before. It was so synthetic. And 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.
GROSS: Oh, well, you can. Come on.
WATERS: I didn't worry about bedbugs there. Although, you know, some of the sheets were so polyester that you could whistle and they came over to you, really.
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 Moor, 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW DO I KNOW")
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.
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. My guest is John Waters, and he directed such films as "Pink Flamingos" and "Hairspray." And he's written many books and has a one-man show. His new book is called "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America." And it's both the fictional and the true version of him hitchhiking across country. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is filmmaker John Waters. His films include "Pink Flamingos" and "Hairspray," and he also has written several books. His new one is called "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America." And it's both the fictional version and the true version of his cross-country trip hitchhiking alone.
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.
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: 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 GarÃ§ons 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: (Laughing) That's good. OK. You've certainly created a lot of looks or helped create a lot of looks in your movies, particularly for "Divine." And there's a documentary about "Divine" that came out just a few months ago that you're interviewed in.
GROSS: Though it seems like an old interview. It seems like it's from a few years ago.
WATERS: Well, that actually was - you know, the film came out a year ago. It was filmed a year before, so it is a couple years old.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
WATERS: Really, Van Smith, who was the designer of makeup and costumes for all my movies, really, really deserves the credit for all that because he thought - he did every one of my movies. And he thought up Tobias' complete look. I mean, I gave him guidance. I said do something weird with the hairline. We both liked Jayne Mansfield, and we both like that kind of extreme fifties look. So - but Van really did do Divine's complete look.
And Divine never walked around dressed like that in real life ever - except when he was working. So people don't realize that. They think that that character was real which it was not at all. And when Divine started getting great reviews for the films was when he did the opposite - against type for that role - and played, like, an alcoholic mother or loving mother or something. And that's when he got his best reviews.
GROSS: So in the documentary about Divine, one of the people interviewed is his high school girlfriend, who, you know, had no idea that he was gay. And, you know, I don't know how much of an idea Divine had at that point that he was gay. But I was wondering, when you and Divine met, you were still in high school?
GROSS: So did you each know that you were gay and that the other was gay? And was that something you could actually talk to each other about?
WATERS: Yes. By that point when I met Divine - he didn't go out of his house until he was 16. But he had met David Lochary and other gay man and was going downtown and participating. Yes, definitely, we knew then. And that was part of the world we were in. But we also had all our suburban, heterosexual friends who joined us. And that's why it was such a mixed crowd that we hung around with - beatniks. We hung with, you know, drag queens. We hung around with fraternity boys that were on acid. But we all kind of hung around together, and that's what led to the acting troupe that I work with, Dreamland. Just like every kid today makes their first movie on their cell phone with their friends. Mine were just a little more mixed than usual.
GROSS: Did you say Divine didn't leave the house until he was 16?
WATERS: No. He really was a nerd. He was, like - he was an overweight, feminine kid in school that really - I mean, not to leave his house. He went out with his mother, you know, but he didn't have a social life. He didn't - he was the opposite of wild or anything. You know, he had never taken drugs or gone drinking or anything like that. He basically stayed home until he went out. And once he went out, he went out with a great vengeance. And I think that all that anger he had from being bullied - he was really bullied - beyond you could even imagine. By the teachers as much as the kids - for doing nothing.
GROSS: So in the documentary about Divine, I think you describe a show that you did with him where you dressed as a pimp and Divine would - I'm not sure what Divine was wearing, but you'd come out - you'd both come out and throw dead mackerels into the audience? That just sounds so horrible.
WATERS: Well, this was our - no - and I didn't dress like a pimp. I dressed like that every day. I looked like a hippie pimp, you know? I had, like, hair that looked like bacon. And I wore, like, you know, old thrift shop shirts that had padded guitars on it and purple pointy shoes. So I looked like a pimp. And Divine came out looking scary. And we would throw dead mackerels in the audience.
And then I would introduce the most beautiful woman in the world. And we always had somebody in each city that we hired. And I had a stolen police uniform. And the cop would come on stage and pretend to arrest us. And Divine would strangle the cop, the hippie audience would cheer and the movie would start. That was our vaudeville act, and we toured with that. We had a great time doing that.
GROSS: But about the dead mackerels - throwing them into the audience?
WATERS: We just threw them. I think that was probably from Russ Myers "Vixen." At the time, he had a scene where Erica Gavin caresses a fish. So we just through mackerels.
That was our only star demand, our rider on our contract was in the dressing room, two dead mackerel's. And now you couldn't do that. It would wreck people's outfits. But then, the hippies would throw it back. And then Divine would rip a phonebook in half, too, which was, like, a thing musclemen did at the time.
And I think that was parodied also in a film I made, "Female Trouble." It was kind of a version of that act that we did later. But it started from vaudeville because Divine and I used to go to the Gaiety Burlesque in Baltimore and watch - this is at the end of the real vaudeville circuit where they'd have a nudist camp movie and a baggy pants comedian. And that was a huge influence on me which turned into my spoken word show that I do all of the world called "This Filthy World Of The John Waters Christmas Show." That is exactly a result from going to the Gaiety Burlesque in Baltimore and seeing Irma The Body and Kim De Milo and all those great strippers.
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 clichÃ©, 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: John Waters, it's so great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
WATERS: Thank you very much, Terry, for having me.
GROSS: John Waters' new book about hitchhiking cross-country is called "Carsick." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel about a bookstore owner by Tom Rachman, who also wrote "The Imperfectionists." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. For Tom Rachman's debut novel "The Imperfectionists," set in English-language newspaper in Rome, he drew on his professional background as a correspondent for the Associated Press and the International Herald Tribune. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Rachman's latest novel "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers" owes more to the tradition of vagabond adventure tales than it does to the world of journalism. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Any novel that opens on a young American woman running a bookshop, located in a small town nestled in the Welsh countryside, promises a glimpse into a life lived far from the madding crowd. That's the quaint plot line Tom Rachman's new novel "The Rise And Fall Of Great Powers" tells uninterruptedly for the length of one brief chapter. Thereafter, Rachman returns only occasionally to the World's End bookshop and its shelves sporting idiosyncratic labels like "Artists Who Were Unpleasant To Their Spouses," "History, The Dull Bits" and "Books You Pretend To Have Read But Haven't." Most of the rest of this nervous novel follows that young bookstore proprietor, whose name is Tooly Zylberberg, as she hops backward in time and place. Bangkok in the 1980's. New York City in the 1990's. Italy, Ireland and New York again in the present. Tooly turns out to have a complicated back story. When an unsettling Facebook friend request pops up on Tooly's bookshop computer, it's testament to the fact that these days, even in a town deep in remotest Wales, the past and its burdens are only a mouse click away. Rachman's bestselling debut novel "The Imperfectionists" was set in an Italian newspaper office, overpopulated with memorable characters and digressive plot lines. Here, the focus is on one character, Tooly, and yet, since her story is disclosed in bits and pieces, there's a less is more feel about this novel. Prompted by that Facebook message, Tooly returns to New York, and tries to stitch together a coherent narrative about her odd childhood. One of her earliest memories is of flying to Bangkok with a man named Paul, who may be her father, though daily morning handshakes are their only form of affection. Paul works on upgrading the technology in American embassies, so the pair moves around a lot. A glamorous jet-setter of a woman, who may be her mother, spirits Tooly away when she's around 10. From there on in, school is abandoned and Tooly finds herself raised by a strange cast of characters and tutored by an elderly Russian gentleman named Humphrey, who assigns her erratic readings in the Greek myths, John Stuart Mill, Groucho Marx, World War II and David Niven. Such is Tooly's life, until she breaks with her sketchy guardians and sets out on her own at age 21. Rachman clearly has Dickins in mind as inspiration for this sprawling tale of an orphan cast out onto the world and belatedly investigating the mystery of her origins. Tooly cherishes her battered copy of "Dombey And Son" and Dickensian names and minor characters, like Priddles, the sadistic schoolmaster, regularly pop up. The worldview here, however, is far from Dickensian. Tooly's possibilities contract rather than expand as she discovers more about her identity. For instance, though Humphrey, the kindly Russian intellectual, embodies a Wilkins Micawber-like optimism about life, it's the news that arrives via Facebook, that he's near death in a dive hotel in Brooklyn that propels Tooly out of her cozy Welsh cocoon in the first place. Even the love of reading, which Humphrey instilled in Tooly, comes in for some reductive reassessment. Looking around at the volumes of great books moldering in her shop, Tooly feels depressed about the enduring power of literature. We are told, Tooly considered bookselling to be a terminal vocation. More discouraging to her was that the heavyweights on these shelves held such puny sway. No matter their ideas and worth, they lived as did the elderly, in a world with little patience to hear them out. "The Rise And Fall Of Great Powers" is itself a strange book that demands some patience on the part of a reader, particularly the patience to allow yourself to be mystified for long stretches. Its pleasures are almost architectural. If you stick with it, you may come to admire, as I did, the precision of its observations, as well as its intricate form and the way it stray plot pieces eventually snap into place. But don't expect a wedding, or an unalloyed happy ending at the end of this tale. That kind of literary consolation, Rachman implies, belongs to a bygone age of Victorian three-decker novels and charming country bookshops.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Rise And Fall Of Great Powers" by Tom Rachman.
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