John Waters On His New Book, Carsick, and Dealing With His Inner Control Freak
John Waters at home in San Francisco with his two favorite book titles.
In the many years that I have known John Waters, the one thing that has always cracked me up most about him is the fact that his personality is such a study in contrasts. One side of him seems completely conservative and rigid, and yet on the other hand he is the most insane radical punk who loves the most shocking and unexpected. He hates spontaneity and surprises -- he's known for carrying trusty file cards with him listing what he has to do everyday, and which keep him on super strict schedule that he never wavers from -- yet he makes art with titles like Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot. Now he's hitchhiked across America alone at age 66 and written Carsick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a hilarious book about the experience that's in bookstores now. I was excited to meet up with him for a gab recently in one of his favorite cities, San Francisco, where he keeps an apartment these days and has become famous with locals for riding the local buses and cable cars -- his preferred modes of transportation.
KIM HASTREITER: You are a piece of work and your personality is so filled with contrasts. You're not a snob -- you take public transportation, enjoy visiting prisons, are attracted to outsiders, yet God forbid someone does not RSVP in a timely manner to a party invitation you send them or, even worse, if someone reschedules or is late for an appointment they have with you, you're not a happy camper. Your personal aesthetic has always leaned towards classic -- never kitsch or trendy -- yet you relish wearing demented looking Rei Kawakubo designs and carry eyeliner wherever you go to touch up your signature mustache. You love the unexpected yet hate surprises.
JOHN WATERS: My friend Pat Moran always said that I was insane from birth because I was baptized too much as a premature baby. I was a "teacup baby," like a Chihuahua. Maybe I scared my parents right from the beginning because I was the first child born way too early.
K.H.: Tell me about your file cards. Why did you start this obsessive scheduling?
J.W.: It's just good planning. Time management is important to me! How do you think I made fourteen movies? I don't know how because I took drugs every single night and drank, but, still, I got those films made.
K.H.: Did you ever take LSD?
J.W.: Are you kidding? I'm here today because of LSD.
K.H.: Me too! I always tell the kids that LSD made me who I am.
J.W.: Me too. And my mother always said, 'Don't tell young people that!'
K.H.: I think young people don't take enough LSD. I swear.
J.W.: Nowadays it's not the same as when we had it. It's not as pure. I had it in 1964, it wasn't even illegal until '67. But I definitely don't want to take it now.
KH: Oh no, me neither. I'm too old.
JW: Think you need an inner journey?
KH: [Laughs.] But, see, there's that crazy contrast again. You talk about scheduling and then losing control with drugs.
J.W.: But with LSD we did it under control. We always did it at one person's apartment, we all did it together.
K.H.: From what I see, you're not fond of spontaneity.
J.W.: No! I like a spontaneous moment!
K.H.: Come on! So if a friend calls you and says "John do you want to go out in a half hour? I'm gonna just drop by your house." I know you! You would bite their head off!
J.W.: Not in a half-hour! There's never a half-hour ahead of time where I'm not scheduled.
K.H.: That's what I mean! How far ahead of time are you scheduled?
J.W.: Six months. I plan far in advance. And I never cancel.
K.H.: So you never leave time for spontaneity?
J.W.: With my personal life I do.
K.H.: On your file cards?
J.W.: My personal life isn't on my file cards. Well, maybe sometimes it is, if I'm having dinner with somebody but if someone comes over to dinner at my house for an evening at home that's not scheduled. I don't write that down. But if you see nothing on my schedule that night, hopefully that's what I'm doing. I stay home and read a lot. "Read a book!" I don't write that on my calendar, I'm not that bad yet.
K.H.: Lately I find that the older I get, the more liberal I'm becoming about my Nazi control freak tendencies. As you age, don't you feel like you're loosening up a little? Will you ever stop with these crazy file cards?
J.W.: No why should I? It's not hurting my life in any way. It's not stopping me from having a personal life. It's just how I keep organized. I have a total personal life. I see friends all the time. I have people I have sex with, I have all that, but that is my personal life, I never talk about that or write about it, people think they know it, but they don't know it.
K.H.: I can't imagine what you were like as a 5-year-old.
J.W.: My mother told me that when I went to kindergarten I would come home and say "there's this weird little kid in my class and he only draws in black crayons, he won't talk to other people." I talked about him so much to my mother that she asked the teacher about this boy and she said, "that's your son." I was creating a character for me, early. I had plenty of friends but if I was alone I pretended I was "Nude Descending a Staircase." Do you know that painting? I saw it in Life magazine, and I just loved it so I pretended I was that when I came down the stairs in my house everyday. I didn't tell anybody, but I pretended I'd won a mink coat everyday on The Big Payoff with Bess Myerson. I was like a crazy child. I had a great fantasy life. I even had a stage in my house. At the top of our steps at home, was this landing and my parents built me a stage there. I'd always have a little show when relatives would come over. I would do one man shows where I was Elvis Presley. My Aunt Rachel was the only one who could sit through it and watch these shows. Thank god they didn't have video cameras then!
K.H.: Did they give you a lot of attention for it? Did your parents show you off or brag about it?
J.W.: They didn't brag about it. They were mortified in a way. They thought I was insane, but yet they encouraged it, which was an odd thing back then.
K.H.: Were your parents arty?
J.W.: No, not at all. My mother read and she played opera on Sunday. She exposed us to the arts, but she was hardly a beatnik or a commie. My parents, my father always voted Republican although my mother didn't at the end, They were a fairly conservative upper middle class family.
K.H.: Maybe that's why you're so conservative in a lot of ways.
J.W.: What am I conservative about? Not about politics I'm not! I'm a bleeding heart liberal.
K.H.: There are certain parts of you that's definitely reflect conservatism, like being on time for everything, having good manners, and being proper about how you do everything.
J.W.: I'm very punctual. I always write hand-written thank you notes. My mother taught me that. I believe you have to have good taste to make fun of bad taste, which is what my career was about. I had to know the basics. I do know which fork to eat with. I know all that shit, and I'm glad I know it. I'm glad my parents had the tyranny of good taste and proper upbringing that was drilled into me. But at the same time, you have to know the rules to break 'em.
K.H.: When you were little were your parents strict with you?
J.W.: They had limits. The worst thing a parent can do is be your friend. They were not my friend, they were my parents. Even at the worst period of the '60s when I was really defiant , they still wouldn't take shit from me. They would say, "No, you can't do that if you live here."
K.H.: Did they ever say they would disown you or anything?
J.W.: They never said they would disown me. They would be upset about drugs. But they were always there. As soon as I moved out of the house I got along way better with them. It was way better for me too because then I had my own apartment and I could do what I wanted. They never gave me money, but I knew they'd be there if something happened. They even backed the movies! But I payed them back every penny.
K.H.: They backed your early movies? That's amazing. I thought you said they were conservative!
J.W.: They backed them but they never saw them.
K.H.: They never saw them?
J.W.: My parents never saw Pink Flamingos. What parent would be happy their child made Pink Flamingos?
K.H.: I can't believe they never asked to see it, though.
J.W.: They stopped being curious once they looked in my drawers and found gay porno and hypodermic syringes. They never looked again. I told them, "Oh, we had that for the movie" and they went "Oh good, good!" Which was sort of true.
K.H.: You say you're not a control freak, but you said that the reason why you wanted to do this crazy hitchhike adventure...
J.W.: Was to give up control.
K.H.: Right, because you felt you were always so control-oriented. And you wanted to see what happened if you lost control of it all for a week or so.
J.W.: I am always very "scheduled". And you can't schedule a hitchhiking trip. I did control the experience as much as I could. I had rules. I refused to ever leave Route 70. If they were going anywhere else I had to get out because I would be lost. And I never never walked. Susan, my assistant, said "you should get good boots for this trip." I told her," I'm not walking! I'm hitchhiking! " You think I'm walking to the next exit? I never walked more than a very short period, ever. I just stood there.
K.H.: So, tell me, how was it losing control on the road?
J.W.: Boring! It wasn't as exciting as the good and bad fictional chapters I wrote before I went on the trip where I end up in a carnival or in a rave that's in a junkyard. It was good though. I felt brave doing it because I'm 66 years old and I didn't know where I was a lot of the time.
K.H.: So how long did the trip take.
J.W.: Nine days and twenty one rides.
K.H.: That was brave.
J.W.: Well, it wasn't that brave, I did have a credit card, I had a phone, and worst came to worst, I could've booked a helicopter to come pick me up, but I didn't. I felt brave when one night I thought I'd have to sleep in these woods and a trucker said "I'll make you up a bunk." I would have done it if he had on bermudas and flip flops, but he was really like a hillbilly, although he was nice.
K.H.: Out of Baltimore what was the first place you slept in?
J.W.: In Ohio, which I thought was gonna be easy. I got stuck. It took forever, two whole days, and then a cop gave me a ride.
K.H.: So you mean you hitchhiked for a whole day and no one picked you up, so you stayed? You just stood there?
J.W.: What else am I gonna do? There isn't a first class lounge on the highway along the road for hitchhikers. As a matter of fact, you're loitering if you're hanging around places. I would try to say hello to people that worked in the 7/11 and they ignored me. But in the end I actually looked up to the people who picked me up hitchhiking because I was amazed at how helpful they were to me. I felt like every time somebody picked me up they saved my life. I don't know what would've happened if they hadn't. There were moments. It was the tedium of it. When it's over with and you know you made it, it's fine, but during those days with no rides you thought, 'this could take a year.'
K.H.: Before we end, I wanted to say that you really killed it this year hosting the CFDA awards. The fashion folks loved you. Do you think fashion still as important for people who are older?
J.W.: I think it's even more important because you look worse. You need more fashion as you get older because you look uglier, so you have to make people not notice by wearing something far away from your face. That's why weird shoes really help because they're not looking at your face.
K.H.: So you think you should dress weirder the older you get?
J.W.: Weirder and you should develop your look more. Whatever it was, really fine tune it. It really helps. It's a disguise. Everyday is Halloween, if you dress right. But you can't look ridiculous. Nothing looks worse than men over 25 in super skinny jeans. But you need a look. it really helps, especially when you're older.