John Waters


At Work

Filmmaker John Waters is the author of Role Models, which was published this May by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. I caught up with him recently while he
was in Provincetown.

Waters in his summer rental with a sign he made for hitchhiking to a beach.

I saw your appearance on The Colbert Report and I was impressed that you didn’t laugh.

You have to give the totally straight face with him because he is such a good straight man. It was so funny, right before we went on, backstage, it was me and the kid who wrote the article about General McChrystal that toppled the government [Michael Hastings], and I loved the journalist, and we were talking because I used to write for Rolling Stone. So I was showing him my Rolling Stone press card, and right before we go on, Colbert looks at us, because he’s always in character, right, even before, and he says, “I like one of you.”

No way!

Which is really funny and I knew it was funny; but I think the young author was horrified. I knew it was part of the act, but what a terrible thing to say!

So you’re in Provincetown for the summer?

This is my forty-sixth summer here. I came here for the first time when I was seventeen. I hitchhiked and then stayed two weeks and lived in a tree fort.

Wow, a tree fort!

A guy named Prescott Townsend owned it. The first gay radical I had ever met. He was from a wealthy family from Cambridge and he seemed completely insane, in a great way. Part of the tree fort was a submarine. He had to like you to let you live there and it was free and he gave you free hot dogs and eventually the town burned it and then they cut the tree down.

How sad.

It was a magical time in my life. I worked in the bookshop. First I worked in the East End Bookshop that was run by Molly Malone Cook and her girlfriend, Mary Oliver, the poet, who was not famous yet. And then I worked at the Provincetown Bookshop for many, many years. And it’s still there. Elloyd Hansen, one of the owners, was the guy who really gave me my complete education about books. I didn’t go to school, so he’s the one who told me about Ronald Firbank, Jane Bowles; I learned everything working there.

And when I worked there they said, “you can have free books—whatever you want, but you have to read ’em and you have to sell ’em.” So I read everything and would get obsessed by a book and sell tons of copies—

Because you would talk enthusiastically about it—

Yes! Same thing I did in the chapter in this book. But now you go into a bookshop, and they don’t even know the books. It’s a gift shop! Not all are like that, but many. So, it was a great job. It was my college, really. They’ve only had about four other employees. Jane, who works there now, has worked there since I did. That was forty years ago. I worked there every summer and then I would go get unemployment in the winter, because it closed in the winter (it doesn’t anymore, but it used to). So I could go to San Francisco, I would make my movies and everything and it saved my life, that bookshop. It was really, really important to me. And I still love it. The rest of Provincetown; everyone else says, “it’s changed, blah, blah, blah.” I don’t think it has, I feel like if I dropped a piece of gum there in 1971 it would still be there.

What are you reading right now?

I’m on the last chapter of a book called, Denial: A Memoir of Terror by Jessica Stern. The author has always written about terrorists and in the book she goes back and she investigates her own rape, which happened to her when she was young, and she writes about that and explains why it got her interested in terror.

Coming up next, I’ve really been obsessed by Robert Walser. I was stupid and didn’t know about his career, and New Directions is publishing all of his old stuff; I think he is absolutely, amazingly brilliant.

What else do I have on my reading list… I’ve got The Scandal of Susan Sontag. I just love the title. I’m not sure what it is, but I bought it. It’s all articles, “essays by well-known critics who bring pertinent areas of expertise to bear on this iconic figure.”

Then there’s Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw. That’s my next three books to read.

Do you read a lot during the summer?

Yes, I always read a lot. I read the same amount. no matter what season it is. I read every night. When I’m on book tour, I’m on airplanes all the time, so I’m always reading. People say, “How do you have time to read?” Oh, come on, it’s simple! You’re single and you don’t watch television. If you’re married it’s hard to read unless you married another total bookworm. If you watch TV, and I’m not saying there isn’t good TV, but if you watch TV you can’t read and watch TV. You can read and watch bad TV, but what’s the point? Good TV you’ve got to pay attention.

In Role Models, I love when you say, “Fiction is the truth, fool!”

I’ve had people say to me, really educated people, “I don’t have time for fiction.” Well, what do you think literature is? That is what life is!


But do you know how widespread that reaction is? Well, you probably do know! People say they’re “too busy” to read fiction. Or they say that you only really learn if you know facts. Come on!

As if you don’t learn from a novel.

Yes! But they don’t think you do. Which means they’re stupid.

Can you tell me about your next film project? On The Colbert Report you talked about Fruitcake, about a boy who shoplifts meat from the grocery store.

But I can’t get it made. I mean, I’ve been trying to make it for two years. To be honest, I don’t know anyone who can get a five million dollar independent film made these days. So I’m thinking up another one, but I’m not sure, because it will cost the same amount of money. The New Line I know is gone, a lot of the companies I worked with are gone. I mean I’ll try to make another film, I certainly want to. I’ve got projects. I’ll write another book. I loved writing a book; it was a really good experience.

What was it like? What are your writing routines?

Oh, I have such a routine it’s ludicrous. Monday to Friday, I get up everyday at six AM, read about six or seven newspapers, look at my emails, and at exactly eight o’clock: write. Every day. I have to think up something, even if I’m not writing a book. Today I’m working on my next draft of a spoken-word act I do. So I write every day at eight. If I’m thinking something up, plot-wise, I can only go for two hours. If I’m writing, I can go until twelve. And then in the afternoon with my assistants, we sell it. I think it up in the morning and sell it in the afternoon. Friday night I drink, Saturday night and Sunday I don’t work. But sometimes I have to work if it’s a personal appearance and they’re paying me. If they’re paying me, I take the job.

My other ritual is that I write in longhand. On this one kind of legal pad called AMPAD Evidence. I like BIC pens, the clear black ones. And I have to use an exact kind of scotch tape when I cut things up—Scotch Magic Finish Tape. And I have to use the same style scissors.

So you use the scissors and the tape to take what you’ve written in longhand and rearrange it?

Yes. When I’m re-writing rather than copy the whole thing over and over, I’ll cut out three sentences and put ’em in. It’s a word processor, old fashioned, by hand. Then, when I get it back from my assistant typed, I cut it up again. Then there’s less and less writing the closer and closer it is until we start copyediting and proofreading and all that.

One thing I liked about the book was that it’s structured and well written, and yet it feels like we’re just having a chat with you as we read.

Well that’s good—I hope it’s like that, but it’s the exact opposite; I mean, that thing has been rewritten a million times.

Editing is a long process! Well, I loved Role Models. It’s full of unexpected inspirations.

There’s no bad taste and there’s no irony in this book. And my movies aren’t in this book. It’s about people I’m asking you, with a very straight face, to at least investigate and look at in a different way. These people are all important to me and even the ones that have gone through terrible periods of life—I’m not sorry I met them; but I am astounded by the behavior of people that think they’re completely normal, and can act so insane and not realize it.