John Waters’ Debut Novel Is Everything You’d Expect From Our Beloved Waste Pope

John Waters has directed 16 films and written nine books. His art has been featured in museums and it has toured the world as a monologue. But he has never written a novel, until now.

Liarmouth, dubbed a “sentimental romance,” is everything you’d expect from Baltimore’s beloved Pope of Trash. It’s funny, it’s outrageous, it’s dirty, it’s wise. Waters is actually a great prose stylist — between the jokes about fetishes and villains and talk about gay penises.

The novel focuses on Marsha Sprinkle, a classic Waters heroine you love to hate (and just love). She hates the human condition and sees herself as above it all. Sex? Food? Defecation? These things are for mere mortals. She feeds on fancy crackers and contempt for her fellow man. The book follows her on the run after she and her partner in crime, Daryl (the one with the aforementioned talking penis) are caught stealing luggage from an airport. A long road trip filled with eccentrics, mayhem and sexual hijinks ensues.

We chatted with Waters about his secular picaresque.

Has been Liarmouth still a novel, or did you ever think of it as a screenplay?
At one point, a long time ago, it was going to be a movie, but I never pitched it, never got treatment, it never got far enough for it to be real. So I had it, I knew I wanted to do it – it was about someone stealing suitcases, but that was about it. Some people say I didn’t write fiction. Well, all movies are fiction. This one is a bit like a road trip, a family saga, only you hear a lot more about how the characters are feeling. You take their madness much further than you can in a movie, where you just have to show it or say it.

What attracted you to the character of Marsha Sprinkle?
I wanted to do a novel about someone quite despicable. Someone that, in real life, you would probably run away from. But I’m always fascinated by people who believe they’re right and who are obsessed and crazy and have their own vision. Even though I don’t want to be around these people, I like to read about them. So I wanted to have characters that would pull you in and make you root for people you wouldn’t otherwise root for.

Marsha is obviously a horrible person, but is at least part of her your alter ego?
He’s a terrible person! So no, not my alter ego. But I hate instinct. I hate having to shit! But you have to. I love that she was such a control freak that instinct was offensive to her.

She only ate expensive crackers.
So she could just have these little dumplings. It’s a very 50s thing, by the way. When we went to summer camp, there was a saddle board right in the middle of camp that everyone had to check off. Talk about ridiculous. Maybe that’s where it comes from.

So another protagonist is Daryl, the talking gay penis. Who or what inspired this?
I’m sure the talking penis has been in other books. But I don’t think there’s been one where the penis goes gay and the person’s head is still straight. It’s a battle. It’s not bisexual. It is a war between the top and the bottom. The equator is your height.

I’m always fascinated by people who think they’re right, who are obsessed, crazy and have their own vision. Even though I don’t want to be around these people, I like to read about them.

Marsha’s ex-daughter is the leader of the “bouncing community” – that’s exactly what she sounds like: people who constantly want to bounce back. These scenes were the ones I thought John would have a busy day filming this.
It would be a special effects budget. To me, it’s the same as Edie being obsessed with eggs. This is a new cult. I wanted to make jokes about political correctness. That they could be such a minority, that they felt like there were “bouncists” – people who hated bouncers. That they were radical bouncers. And I just kept developing the idea more and more. And it came from the idea, you know, I know people who are addicted to running or [stationary] bicycles. I think it’s a logical thing. It just goes much further.

Plastic surgery for dogs is another concept that could only have come from the mind of John Waters.
There is such a thing! That thing about the foul balls people put on their dogs? Nuticals? After having your dog neutered.

It’s about the insecurity of the male owner of the dog, isn’t it?
I suppose. Or a woman who doesn’t want to be castrated. Plastic surgery on dogs. I’m surprised that hasn’t happened yet.

There is a part in the book where the dogs rebel against their owners.
I’m beyond PETA! I think animals that are kept as pets are in prison, sentenced to a lifetime of human petting. I certainly understand people’s attraction to dogs. But I also think that one day there will be a revolt. They want to run in packs biting you and that’s where I want them to be!

The fact that at 76 you can make a shocking and outrageous novel, I guess you’re proud of it?
I do. But I’m also trying to make you laugh. And most people who read it said they burst out laughing. It’s the ultimate compliment. It’s easy to shock, but it’s much harder to surprise you and make you laugh out loud.

Do you envisage this book being discussed in book clubs?
So far we have had an incredible reaction. Nice reviews. A lot of attention. Who knows? It’s funny to think about. When I returned the book, I thought the reaction could go both ways. Because it’s pretty extreme. It depends on the type of book club, I guess. Stranger things have happened in my career, I’ll tell you.

Most people who read it said they burst out laughing. It’s the ultimate compliment. It’s easy to shock, but it’s much harder to surprise you and make you laugh.

Will there be more novels in the future?
Yeah absolutely. I have an idea for one. But certainly, I’m not starting it right away. I need a little break. I have just returned from London. Sold a show there so they added a second. I have been on the road. Ten cities. I’m fried.

You seem to have boundless energy.
I must have some energy because no Geritol for me.

And you’re still deliciously profane.
Thanks. I think it keeps you young. Curiosity about human behavior. And think of new ways to surprise you.

Irene B. Bowles