John Waters, Filth Elder

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In the summer of 2014, film director John Waters published his New York Times–bestselling book, Carsick, in which he chronicled his cross-country hitchhiking trip, setting out from his home in Baltimore, Maryland, and traveling one ride at a time to his co-op apartment in San Francisco. It is a rollicking tale—at times even a touching one. He divides the book into three sections: his fantasy of what he hoped the adventure would be like, his fantasy of what he feared it would be, and what actually transpired.

Waters and I are friends, having hung out together often in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he also has a home and where I summered for many years.

I met with him at his fourth home, a tasteful apartment in New York’s West Village where we were surrounded by his keen-eyed collection of art and photography by, among others, Nan Goldin, Mike Kelley, Richard Tuttle, Larry Clark, and George Stoll.

KEVIN SESSUMS: You’ve always kind of reminded me of Candide, John.

JOHN WATERS: Well, I’ve never been called that before.

KS: I think that’s the quality that comes out about you in this new book of yours. There is an innocence about you—warped as it might be—that imbues everything you do.

JW: When I was standing on the road by myself praying that somebody was going to pick me up, all the privilege that you get from any kind of show-biz persona was gone. That’s true. But I’ve never lived a life expecting that, I hope. Many of my friends are not famous or living in that world. That’s why I love living in Baltimore more than ever because I’m not always around all that.

KS: But you do like being famous. That comes through in the book as well.

JW: Oh, sure. What I hate, though, is when people treat you unkindly, then realize you’re famous, and then they act nice. That’s the only time I fight back.

KS: You claim to be a “Filth Elder.”

JW: I made that term up as a joke.

KS: It does have a slight Mormon-like sound to it. And yet it is as if you are slowly coming out of the closet in this book.

JW: Slowly?

KS: Not as a gay man but as a fastidious one. You have a connoisseur’s appreciation for filth, but personally you are more punctilious than punk.

JW: Yeah. I’m very organized. People think I have Cadillac fins and leopard-skin furniture in my homes. That’s not me.

KS: Looking around this apartment, it could easily be a little old lady’s.

JW: All the places I live look like this. I don’t think I have a little old lady’s taste in art, though.

KS: Okay, you’re a little old lady with a love of modern art, then. You’re Peggy Guggenheim.

JW: There is order in my life. There very much is order. I don’t live the life of my characters, even though I can appreciate them.

KS: In your book, the two imagined sections of your book—the dystopian version of your cross-country hitchhiking trip and the utopian version—end, respectively, with your being murdered and your falling in love. Which tells more about a person—the fantasy about one’s own murder or the one about falling in love?

JW: Probably about falling in love. If you write your own murder, you really don’t think that’s going to happen. And to be honest, the falling-in-love one did have some truth to it. I did have a boyfriend who was a knife salesman like the one I imagined falling in love with in the book, but my real-life boyfriend was an unsuccessful one. I wanted him to be successful. And I did not meet him in a men’s room. None of that part was true. But I did walk down the street once in Provincetown, and somebody walked past me and said, “Oh, John Waters, hi. Can I come live with you?” And I said, “Yeah.” It wasn’t sexual. He was a squatter in town. He was great. I’m still friends with him.

KS: In the book you have all these fantasies about outlaw types and hot hoodlums, but the one kid you truly bond with on the trip, who is not a fantasy character, is a preppy Republican. Again, the reality of your life is not the image your fans might have of you.

JW: Yeah. We had a bromance—without any sexual connotations. His parents are probably going to be upset about the real part of the book. Just wait till they read the fantasy parts. I think maybe he was freaked out too when he finally read them.

KS: Another aspect of the book that might surprise your acolytes is how you truly fell in love with America. It’s an oddly patriotic look at this country from your singular point of view.

JW: But I’ve always been in love with America. That’s why I don’t live in New York all the time or live in LA. I always joke I’m at home in the high life or the low life. But middle America is what I fled my whole life. It’s different now. I think it’s better. At least, the people who pick up hitchhikers strike me as so. They are open minded. They more easily forgive. They want to believe that you can do things and succeed. Politically, they are probably both Republicans and Democrats.

KS: I was also touched by how complimentary you were about how the men you met truly love their wives.

JW: I was touched by that too. The first thing they always told me was how smart their wives were. They didn’t say, “You should see my wife. She’s a hot babe.” They said, “You should meet my wife. She’s so smart.”

KS: Maybe that’s a hint that the middle-American electorate is ready for a woman as president.

JW: Well, I’m always for Hillary, but mainly because I want Bill as First Lady because that will so piss everybody off.

KS: Let’s talk about your own family a bit. You dedicate this new book to your sisters and your brother.

JW: My brother died recently. I told my sisters I was dedicating it to them but warned them that there was some stuff in it that could appall them. But they seemed fine with it. They are used to pretty much anything from me by now. Both of my sisters are six feet tall. One lives in Alexandria, Virginia. One’s married with two children and works at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. She’s in the art world. My other sister has been twice widowed and is younger than I am. She lives in the middle of deep Bible country in Virginia. She and her husband ran a community newspaper. She does hospice work now. She’s probably straighter than I am. She’d be the first to say that. But I get along with both of them fine. My brother, before his death, took over my father’s fire-prevention business, and now his daughter runs it. They’ve all been in my movies in bit parts. My brother used to come down, take the money home, and hide it so we wouldn’t get robbed when we showed the films in churches and stuff. He was also the hitchhiker that Divine doesn’t pick up and almost runs over in Pink Flamingos.

KS: And your mother also died recently.

JW: Yes. The day before her ninetieth birthday. She was so prepared. I went to say good-bye. I knew she was about to die. I was doing a tour of Germany but came back home. I didn’t tell anybody. My sisters and I had planned to have the funeral on a certain date, which was five days after I came back. But if they had to wait two weeks for me to get home, they’d wait, if I couldn’t make it back in time. My mother would understand, they told me. But my mother died right on schedule.

KS: So she was orderly too.

JW: Oh my God, yes.

KS: So are you more your mother’s son or your father’s?

JW: I’m both. I used to always say to my father that we have the same kind of independent businesses. He just sold fire extinguishers and fire-prevention equipment, and I sell surprise. At the end, when my father died, my sister found in his safe deposit box all the notes of my paying back the money he had loaned me to make my early movies. He backed those movies, but he never even saw them. He would have been horrified by them. But he kept all that, which is very touching to me. I’m a Junior. He was the first John Waters.

KS: They were both Anglophiles.

JW: My mother really was.

KS: She was Canadian?

JW: Yes. But they’d go on vacation to little English villages, wear sensible shoes, and watch birds in the UK. They really were like that. We’d always give her royal memorabilia as gifts. She collected all that stuff. We’d call her the Queen of Lutherville, which was the suburb of Baltimore where I grew up.

KS: And you’re now the Queen of Provincetown.

JW: I can think of a few others who deserve that designation. I’m the town crier.

KS: Your mother was also the first female lector at her Catholic Church.

JW: We had her funeral in that church, which, to this day, fills me with rage when I look at it. I thought, I have to go in there again? My mother had asked me to be the only speaker. My sister called me and said that this church wanted to approve my eulogy. I said, “You have got to be kidding. Do you want to make me insane?” My sister then told them it would not be a good idea to ask that of me. Then they let me know that I should never say the word “I” in it. I thought, They’ve got fucking editors working here now? So when I started out the eulogy, “I” was the first word that I said, of course. Now I never have to go back in there. One of the priests in that church had been arrested totally nude in a peep show while jerking off. My mother was mortified about that. I watched the reports on the news about it with her. On the news they had a picture of the peep-show place that showed a sign above the popcorn stand that said, “No Masturbation.” The woman working there pointed that out, that they did have a sign there telling patrons not to do that. My mother turned to me and said, “They have a sign there for that?” This was Father Butt Plug from her church—or whatever his name was—who was in there doing it. So I don’t want to hear what I can say and what I can’t say in that church. It just filled me with rage all over again.

KS: Has your career been a reaction to the Catholic Church?

JW: Sure! I remember when we had to stand up and do the “Pledge of the Legion of Decency” against the church’s condemned movies, and I heard the nuns say the title She Shoulda Said No! That inspired me for the rest of my life. It’s still my favorite title. “Shoulda.” I love that word!

KS: You mother was also a volunteer at the local library.

JW: She was. Yes. And the only real job I ever had was in bookshops. I ran the Provincetown Bookshop for years. I worked at Doubleday at one point. I collect “uncollectable” books. My favorite bookshop in all of America is KAYO Books in San Francisco on Post Street. It’s amazingly curated.

KS: You live on Nob Hill in San Francisco. People would expect you to live in the Tenderloin. But no, you’re a Nob Hill guy.

JW: I gave an interview to the Nob Hill Gazette and told them I thought someone should make a porn movie and call it Knob Hill. There’s a porn cinema in Nob Hill that’s been there forever. It’s still got “You Can Touch Our Junk” up on its marquee. San Francisco is where I had my first success outside of Baltimore, way before New York. I lived there for a while when I was young. It’s less gay in a weird way now than it used to be. You don’t have to have a “ghetto” like you once had to have, which is part of it. Below Market Street used to be all gay bars. Now it’s all fancy restaurants. That’s fine. I’m all for change. Nothing stays the same. I love San Francisco. It’s the town where every night I go out to dinner, and it’s not tax deductible. That means I’m not working. To me, the greatest night to me to have is one that I don’t have to deduct it from my taxes. I love it there. It is the most beautiful city. It’s European in a way. It’s kind of like a little village. It’s small, really. I take the bus everywhere. I don’t want a car there. Where are you going to park it?

KS: What I love about your new book, John, and what I love about you, is that you are the kind of writer and the kind of friend who can drop in references to Jane Bowles and TMZ in your manuscript as well as your conversation.

JW: And I never feel the need to explain anything. I feel like everybody’s smart. And if they’re not, then they can look it up. In my comedy act, I might be the only person who has Michel Houellebecq jokes.

KS: You also have real people in your book’s imagined parts, people like Connie Francis. Did you have to get her permission to use her in those fantasy sequences?

JW: No. It says at the beginning that parts of it are fictionalized. It’s parody. I mean, at one point I talk about having a magic asshole. Who’s going to believe I have a magic asshole?

KS: I always heard in Provincetown that you did. That’s what the Wiccans whispered about you.

JW: No. I don’t.

KS: Have you ever wished you had a vagina?

JW: Wished what!?

KS: I finally shocked John Waters.

JW: Oh! You’re talking about that truck driver in the book who told me that if I had a vagina that truckers would have been more likely to pick me up as a hitchhiker. I get it. But no, I never wished I had a vagina.

KS: But isn’t a vagina finally just a magic asshole?

JW: I’m so not going there. I never wished I had a magic asshole. I was writing humor.

KS: There’s a grain of truth in everything.

JW: To a point. I guess I’d rather have a magic asshole than a vagina. I never thought of it before, but since you asked. I already have an asshole, so I’m used to knowing what it is. If it was magical, it would only improve it. I don’t know what it’s like to have a vagina, and it’s too late in my life to adjust to that. Certainly. I don’t have a transgender bone in my body.

KS: You’ve just spent your fiftieth summer in Provincetown. It is its own kind of Mayberry. You’ve gone from being Opie to Andy to now Aunt Bee in certain ways— albeit one without a vagina. I guess it’s a bit like a bohemian Bedford Falls in a way as well. You say in the book your idea of hell would be to watch the film It’s a Wonderful Life for eternity.

JW: Well, there are films I hate worse than It’s a Wonderful Life.

KS: If in hell the film broke, what film would they put on to replace It’s a Wonderful Life?

JW: Forrest Gump. God wasn’t a film buff.

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