Fasten your seatbelts and make sure you know where the oxygen masks are: John Waters’ first novel Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance is a hopscotching, subversive and full-versive, madcap version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Though I don’t want to spoil the plot’s twists and twists and twists—it’s a delicious literary strawberry Twizzler embedded with Pop Rocks—by sharing too much detail, the pleasure of the novel is as much Waters’ verbal acrobatics as the increasingly wacky plot, which includes extreme bouncing enthusiasts on a quest, nearly-immaculate conceptions, appendages that spontaneously talk, and cross-species pets. I found myself laughing out loud in slight and sometimes more than slight—horror, and then laughing more. Shame on me, perhaps, but in a world full of true atrocity—war, bigotry, cruelty and all manners of apocalyptic events that have accumulated as much as the stolen luggage that is one of the plotlines—I didn’t feel too bad about it.
I first experienced Waters’ work when I took my immigrant mom to see Polyester in my junior year of high school. Certain aspects of that distinctive movie were difficult to translate to our native tongue, though the use of Odorama was helpful (would that I had kept those stinky cards!). If you had told me that 40 years later I would have the opportunity to speak with Waters, my heavily-bespectacled eyes, painfully-braced teeth, and just-no-why?!-version of the Farrah Fawcett haircut (it was the 80s, cut me a break) would never have believed it. To say that this is a career high—and the ultimate feel-good experience—is an understatement.
This interview has been edited for clarity, (and to attempt to remove nearly all instances of the interviewer laughing too hard to get it back on track.)
You’ve been immensely successful across a span of literary and of course, visual art forms, though this is your first foray into fiction writing. Let me ask the most obvious question first: what inspired Liarmouth?
I love to tell stories, and different mediums provide me with a variety of ways to express them. In Carsick, the book I wrote about hitchhiking in America, the first two-thirds confused many people if they hadn’t read the introduction where I said I was going to imagine the worst rides I could end up with and then tell you the true rides. So that was fiction, but not really, right?
With a movie, you say everything with the plot, whereas in a novel you can spend pages on the characters’ devious thinking. I find that exciting, but at the end of the day, it’s just another way to tell a story. I have about five choices of how to [do that], and they’re all equally important to me.
“We are gathered here…to judge, condemn, and destroy the reputation of such a horrible human being”
What I’ve always loved about your work is how you both poke fun at human oddities (and some of our venalities), and are still equally generous toward and understanding of your characters.
In this case, the first persona we meet is Marsha Sprinkle, someone who is, if not despicable, then highly unprincipled; though my feelings about her changed as the story progresses. I wonder, do you think we’re all redeemable?
I have to disagree with you, she is despicable, but she’s also highly principled, though her principles aren’t necessarily moral or legal.
As far as redeemable, I’d offer a qualified “yes” because at the end of the book, Marsha hasn’t really changed that much. She has never said she’s sorry. But at the same time, by the end she’s trying to go in a different direction though who knows what that will be, and how long it will last. Basically, she is always confident that she is right, from the beginning. She would be insufferable to know. But I think funny to read about.
And that’s the difference between writing a novel versus other media. On the page you can spend time with a despicable character. It’s fun to see how they think and how they act, and you can be startled and surprised, because it’s not real, and it’s not happening to you. But that’s why I jokingly call it a “feel-bad romance,” because I don’t particularly go for books that always have happy endings. People say, “Oh, I just want to feel good.” I feel good all the time! I don’t need a book to make me feel better, so I like a book that disturbs me, and I always try to disturb you but make you laugh at the same time. And I think that is the humor I’ve always specialized in.
“Time to reinvent an alternative reality. A reinvented truth.”
From a directorial standpoint, I think oftentimes there was this perspective—I really hesitate to use this word because it implies a judgment, and I definitely don’t mean it that way; all your work is at its core, a no-judgment zone—that your movies, at least the early ones, were transgressive. But these days, so much of what we see on the Internet alone makes that fiction look relatively tame.
What you see on social media—which I don’t participate in much if at all—are hideous things that are real. I don’t like to look at real things that are horrible. I like to look at fake things that are horrible because someone thought that up. In the same way, on the news they show real accidents and real people fighting and shooting and hurting. I don’t want to see that. I don’t want to see a snuff movie. But I don’t mind seeing horror movies that are fake, because I know they’re fake. I know it’s fake in a book. Even if it’s a hideous story, I know someone made it up in the movie. But sometimes the news is like a snuff movie and terribly disturbing. When they say “we might want to look away here, as this footage is graphic,” I always think porn is going to come on, but they don’t mean that.
“Dog lovers get quickly addicted to pet plastic surgery and Adora was one of the first to recognize this need. She’s unlicensed, unashamed, and never claimed to be a veterinarian.”
Did you see The New York Times article about people who are marrying fictional characters? After reading that, I thought, well, any of these scenarios that John has dreamt up for this book could really happen one day.
We’re only about two summers away from some of these events—which I clearly take very far in the book—happening in Provincetown. But pet face lifts? Believe me, they are around the corner.
“It’s been a journey. Lord, it’s been a journey.”
How long did it take you to write Liarmouth? Do you work on other creative projects at the same time? What’s your writing and research process?
It took me about three years to write this book from the initial idea to turning it in to my editor. I write every morning Monday to Friday from about 8-11 am. I started with an outline and the characters I initially pitched to my publisher, but it changed a lot over those years.
The hardest thing is the first draft: you just keep going and then when it’s over you read it and think “I’m going to kill myself; who wrote this?” Then you begin to rewrite again and again and it gets better and better. You really have hone it, taking out anything that doesn’t work. Each sentence has to have a punch and be funny, and of course character names are especially important to me.
With respect to Liarmouth, I’m in airports a lot, obviously, but I also went to them by myself when I wasn’t flying, and walked around just to make sure that everything I suggested [in the book] could happen. When you set up a crazy universe, you still have to make rules in that universe that have to be followed, even if they’re completely insane and unrealistic.
As far as other projects, I never write a movie while I’m writing a book. I always have to have a major project I’m working on and I’m still writing a lot of little things that I have to do for other projects, but I won’t start the next big one until after the book tour.
“Serial lying is almost a transcendental high, Marsha realizes as she empties the frightened lady’s change purse.”
Lying is a big part of this book and is one of Marsha’s prime directives, as well as her “magical bliss”. In characterizing her this way, beyond how funny it is, you’re also offering a societal commentary about our habitually duplicitous times.
You do have to lie in real life to not hurt people’s feelings. But Marsha lies for anarchy, for power, and because she thinks it makes her prettier. It’s a beauty treatment for her. Instead of putting on perfume she tells a lie and feels good because people believe it. She practices lies as exercise just to see if she can get away with it, and sometimes when there’s absolutely no reason to do so, just to feel the afterglow of lying.
Marsha takes it to a different level of course; at the airport, sometimes she switches bags, just for more anarchy. You know, take a bag off one baggage claim area and put it in another one, so the person never finds it again. She is your enemy in an airport and after you read this book, you will want to watch your bags a little closer.
The TSA needs to make Liarmouth mandatory reading, John. Hell, the airlines should hand it out free to everyone who flies. It’s a PSA for airport caution and safety.
“We are outlaw trampoline radicals on the run…And we need a ride.”
Community is important in your work, especially in your motion pictures, which often feature the same actors. Even in Liarmouth, you’re examining how we all want connection; there are so many lonely people who want to feel safe, and recognized. That’s where I think your lower-case “p” politics always shines: because you write about the human condition (hilariously) and as well as those in narrow societal niches, and the benefit and the danger of that kind of insularity.
I think that communities are amazing to watch, especially to see their strengths and also how they can become humor-impaired. Yet at the same time, I don’t judge people because you don’t know what has happened to them to get them to where they are. I think all my work is about how nobody (well mostly nobody!) is born evil. Even Marsha Sprinkle! She had a reason to be that angry and insane. I mean, it’s a ridiculous reason but it was a reason, and it informs the character’s motivations. Once characters find real freedom, I’m also interested in the consequences and limitations of that. I do make fun of how serious everybody is about every single thing, though I always think you have to make fun of yourself first, and then you can make fun of others. That sense is somewhat missing these days, supplanted by self-righteousness.
“Sometimes righteousness numbs all pain.”
I read that you have over 8,000 books in your library. I assume your reading is quite eclectic. Do you find yourself reading across subjects when you’re creating a new piece, whether it’s a movie or a book?
I knew you’d ask me that so I made a point of noting what’s on my table right now. Currently, I’m reading my editor Jonathan Galassi’s new book called School Days. I’m reading Stories I Might Regret Telling You, which is Martha Wainwright’s memoir. Also, Riding with Evil, which is about how the FBI infiltrated the Pagan Motorcycle Gang, a number of whom I knew in Baltimore. Also Elena Ferrante’s In The Margins and Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Pink Trance Notebooks. So I mix it up all the time, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, but I am always in the middle of several books.
Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance
By John Waters
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published May 3, 2022
Mandana Chaffa is founder and editor-in-chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters and a finalist for the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’s Best Magazine/Debut; and an editor-at-large at Chicago Review of Books. She serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, where she is VP of the Barrios Book in Translation Prize, and is president of the board of The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.