False Negative: John Waters Interviewed

Ahead of the polymath's new book and grand return to the Barbican, award-winning music producer Ian Brennan sits down for a conversation with John Waters

I first worked with John Waters when I brought him to San Francisco’s Castro Theater in 2001 to do a charity show with the late Tammy Faye Bakker.

Over the years since, I’ve produced hundreds of shows for John around the world at festivals like Bonnaroo and paired him with special guests such as Jonathan Richman, rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson, and Peaches. We’ve also done two spoken-word EPs together, one on Jack White’s Third Man Records, the other for Sub Pop.

The Quietus: This is the fourth occasion we are bringing your live show to London since 2008. The last time, in 2014 sold out, as did the time before. In more than 20 years of working together, I’ve found that you are often as funny in the car riding from the airport and just riffing about current events. But even though you could do a whole show that way, you insist on not improvising since you are such a writer. You just rewrote your entire live show. You said you had no choice but to rewrite the show completely after George Floyd’s murder and post-COVID lockdowns. What’s changed?

John Waters: I always do add jokes up to the minute before a performance if something big happens in the news that day. But I don’t ad-lib it onstage. The show is written and memorised. I am overly prepared because people pay good money to see a show that is worked on. But everything in the world has changed now – fashion, humour, sex.

Even sex?

Completely. The government said that kissing is the most unsafe thing. Kissing is to COVID what butt-fucking was to AIDS.The government actually recommended oral sex, because they said that it is safer than kissing.

I know you’re a big fan of London. What are some of the reasons why?

It’s so alive. Every day seems like the day after WWII ended. I always think that some sailor is going to grab me and kiss me. It’s exciting. I love the cab drivers there. The people are friendly. All my books and films have done well there. I just feel at home. I even take my vacations there. Any town that has that many newspapers still running is a town I like.

You’re known as a film director and personality, yet after more than 20 years of taking you to places like Coachella and The Fillmore, many people still can’t wrap their heads around the fact that you do stand-up comedy. And how well you do it.

I’ve been doing it for 50 years. It just wasn’t called stand-up in the beginning. It was called “introducing the film.” I never really play in comedy clubs, though. I usually play in theatres, art centres or universities, or big halls.

Except The Comedy Store in Hollywood, the place that helped launch Sam Kinson, Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman, et al. We’ve done that club many times.

You can taste the cocaine in the dressing room! You can just feel it. It can never wash clean, the amount of coke that’s been done backstage there.

Another thing I’ve run into regularly is that due to the wildness of your material – especially the early stuff – people often assume that you are a wild man. They don’t realise how disciplined you are. You write every Monday-Friday from 8am to 12pm.

I have to write something every day. And then in the afternoon, I sell it. People often say, “How can you be so disciplined?”It’s easy. Otherwise, I would have to go work for somebody else! Instead, I can walk in the other room in my underpants and say I’m at work. Rather than having someone telling me what to do, as a writer you just have to tell your characters what to do.

Every day at 7:59 I don’t feel like doing it. But at 8:01, I’m writing. It doesn’t matter when you do it, you just have to write every day. I wish there was a shortcut. But it took me three years to write my new book. I never turn in a first draft. I turn in the sixth draft or so.

I remember reading that Tennessee Williams wrote every morning, no matter how chaotic the rest of his life was with drinking and debauchery. He said he considered the rest of the day “posthumous” when he wasn’t writing.

The rest of the day I have to run my business. I have two desks. When I write I’m in a different room. When that’s over, I move to another room and become whatever kind of cockeyed business man I am. I think if you’re a writer, you’re always thinking and asking questions and being nosy. For me, I read a million newspapers and that always helps.

I remember going on long drives with you and you’d start with a gigantic pile of newspapers and magazines in the front-seat, and by the end of the journey they’d all been read and tossed into a pile in the backseat.

I don’t read every article. I read what I need to read to get material.

Your arc and output as a writer is quite inverted compared to most. You published your first book, Shock Value, in 1981. And then only one other in the 20th century. But in the past decade you’ve published five books plus an art book. Your pace has actually accelerated.

Well, when I don’t make a film, I write a book. Because I need a way to tell a story. I have written many scripts, too, that haven’t been made yet. It’s not like I’m through with the film business.

You handwrite your books rather than type them on a computer.

I have the exact kind of legal pads I need. The exact kind of Bic pens I need. The right kind of clear scotch tape and scissors. I’m a human word processor. Then I cut it up and read it back to tape and listen. And then I give it to my office and they’ve learned to read my Cy Twombly handwriting. Then they type it up and I have the first draft. Then I cut that up and add handwritten parts and keep going draft after draft.

My staff are all very good copy editors and they also are quite good “sensitivity editors” – a new hideous term in publishing due to the incredible self-righteousness around humour today. Sometimes these days it seems like there are more rules in the counterculture than even my parents’ generation ever had.

David Foster Wallace wrote by hand as well, and I read that he sometimes felt like he had a “hot pen” and was almost superstitious that a particular pen was one that he was channelling ideas through.

I don’t have any lucky pens, but I have to have the right kind of pen. And I have a red one, too, for when I go through to make notes. Certainly, writing multiple drafts of a book can be very tedious in the end.

The craziness is hard-won and well-honed. I’m curious how it was for you writing your first novel after having authored so many non-fiction books.

Well, with fiction I could go into more detail as to the mental lunacy of each character. That was exciting for me. In my mind, I play every character, every day. So hopefully with the novel, I go even deeper into the humour because I parody many kinds of writing in this book – the sex writing, the alliteration, people’s names, the narratives, jumping the third wall.

In many ways I see a lot of what you’re doing as a cross between William S. Burroughs and Mark Twain. Mark Twain because of the witticisms.

I’m never going to be as experimental as Burroughs was. I’m never going to randomly piece sentences together. But both he and Twain are nice. Thank you. And William S. Burroughs is the one who called me “The Pope of Trash.” And he is the deity in the solar system I live in, I guess.

A stellar one-liner from your new book that captures a character instantly is: "Marsha doesn’t mow her lawn, she moves.” Another great snippet is: “There are no safe words to halt what is about to come. Dog Armageddon.

Well, there is Dog Armageddon in this book. Some people might believe that I don’t like animals, but I believe I am more radical than PETA in what I think about people owning pets. I know dog owners that have read the book and laugh because it is so extreme. But they look at their pet now and think, “Uh, oh.”

I feel like the book is so richly written that it is almost like people are paying to be inside your brain for 244 pages.

Well, that’s a compliment to me. That’s why novels are literature because they can make you see people’s behaviour better than any non-fiction can because you are inside them and you can go on and on about motivation, about feelings, things which you can’t really do in a movie. You can only show it. Or somebody has to say it.

But in a book, hopefully you can be entertaining and go into detail that is beyond ludicrous. At the same time I try to write it with such seriousness that I am never winking at the audience, even though they do know that I’m trying to be funny.

There’s a description of aeroplane bathrooms from the new book that demonstrates how artfully drawn your writing is: “This is not a women’s room, a men’s room, or a gender-neutral room. Even the most exhausted traveller could never call it a restroom, either. It’s an outhouse in the sky for every human orifice on board that needs evacuation.”

You’ve been on an aeroplane. Even in First Class, even if you are the first person to use the bathroom there’s still some stinky paper towel already on the floor or sticking out of the garbage. I once walked in on a guy who hadn’t bolted the door and was jerking off. All sorts of hideous things go on in aeroplane bathrooms. And now it’s COVID central on top of it. So, you should always eliminate before you leave home.

John Waters will be performing his all new, stand-up comedy monologue False Negative at the Barbican on Friday, June 10.

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