Interview with: John Waters

Reading as a Pleasant Deviation: A Guided Tour of John Waters Library

I was not a book fanatic until I was fifteen and discovered Genet and Burroughs and all these Grove Press books and thought, thank God, I'm not that abnormal. That opened up a whole new world to me. Those were my friends. Tennessee Williams was a huge influence on me. I thought, I don't have to worry about all these creeps. There are other people more interesting.

It just made me get out of suburbia, go to downtown Baltimore and find what I liked quicker. Reading was a very positive influence on me. The boring books we had to read in school certainly discouraged me. I hated school. I'd get the other kids to do wild shit against the teachers. They finally just let me sit there and read whatever if I'd just shut up. So I would be reading 120 Days in Sodom -- they didn't know what that was -- and they'd think, isn't it cute, he's reading a fat book.

I read the most devious books all through Catholic High and they let me, just so I'd shut up. I went to NYU for five minutes and got thrown out during the first drugs on campus bust in 1966. If I'd have quit school at sixteen I'd have made one more movie. I never liked school. I think it's great for some people but I wanted to discover it all on my own. I didn't want to hear what they wanted me to read. I've always had piles of what's next to read.

My books are obsessively arranged in different rooms by different subjects. I play with them. Fifty years from now people will go crazy for the books I've collected. Not that I'm a book collector. No, I don't buy things for what they're worth. I just buy what interests me. Obscure stuff.

This wall is all fiction and literary bio. What I hate is when an author's dead and I finally read his last book. This just happened with John Fante. I like to read him on the plane to Los Angeles. He really gets me in the mood. Now I've read his last one. That's depressing.

Grace Metalis, of course, is one of my all time favorites. Primarily because she has the best author's picture of all author's pictures. You know, the woman who wrote Peyton Place. I finally got all of her books but I don't have a cover for No Adam and Eve. She's my favorite trash writer. There's a great biography of her called Inside Peyton Place. This is a paperback original from some time ago called The Girl from Peyton Place. What happened to her is so good. As soon as she had fame she left her husband, took to martinis, became an alcoholic, bought Cadillacs, moved to the plaza Hotel in New York and committed suicide.

I have her next to Lillian Hellman. I like to make people turn over in their graves. This sounds really sexist and awful but in her book Maybe she says she has vaginal odors. That's what Maybe is about. It's so awful but I don't feel bad saying this stuff because she started it. I don't usually think about girls having vagina odors. When I read that I couldn't believe my eyes. How could she say that? It's not a thought that's usually running through my head. In a literary biography or memoir that's not something I ever wanted to know but now she's got me wondering. I think Maybe ruined her whole career.

I think my very favorite novel in the whole world is Two Serious Ladies Possessed. I love reading about Jane Bowles. I love her and I love her life of misery. She fell in love with people that would be impossible, like a straight Arab woman that was real mean and abused her for twenty years. Of coarse, Firbank. And Baron Corvo is a must because of his evil Catholic ways. I loved all his gossip about priests and ecclesiastical mobsters. Reynolds Price I like. Kate Vaiden is his best. He was Anne Tyler's teacher and she is a Baltimore writer.

Marguerite Duras has always been a favorite because she made pretension a life style. This book I can't believe. It costs six dollars but it literally takes thirty seconds to read. Of coarse, Tennessee Williams, who takes up most of these two shelves. William Inge is one of my favorites because he was sort of a more pitiful Tennessee Williams. I love his obscure books like Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff, which is a shocking novel. Really rude. In the end a spinster school teacher is getting fucked by a black student while her breasts are being singed on the radiator. There's a really good biography of him called A Life of William Inge -- catchy title -- that I hardly saw anywhere.

Albee is another of my favorites and I'm really mad because lately his plays don't even come out as books. The Man With Three Arms hasn't come out. At least I can't find it. James M. Cain I really like too. He died in Maryland. I write fan letters to anyone whose books I like. Why not? Mary McGarity Morris is my new favorite writer. Her kids go to school here at Hopkins so we talk. Have you read Vanished? Vanished is funny in a horrible way. Speilberg bought it for the movies, if you can imagine that.

I like odd Oscar Wilde books. I love this one: it's a biography of his wife. What a wonderful life that must have been. David Plante I like a lot. Especially Difficult Women. Carson McCullers, of coarse. That biography of hers was really good. What a monstrous woman. Jean Rhys is another of my all time favorites. The thing I remember from her biography is that her own children would try to put up with her until they couldn't stand it anymore and then they'd just pass out from her being awful. A mean drunk bitch but a great writer. Monsters.

John Cheever I liked except I like him less the more I found out about him. Those diaries! All that suffering. Falconer was my favorite. All of Genet. He got me through high school. I don't know how I heard about him. Probably the Evergreen Review. They used to have those stickers you could write away for that said "Join the Underground". I love this book called The Cinema of Jean Genet, especially as he only made one movie.

Do you know Violet Ledoc? She was in love with Genet, imagine that, and Mad in Pursuit is about their affair. Poor thing. Pasolini, of coarse. M.F.K. Fisher. Anyone who can write a cookbook with a chapter on how to boil water is A.O.K. with me. William Burroughs and his son, who I thought wrote good books -- yet another one who got me through high school. This guy, Gombrowitz -- I've never known how to pronounce his name -- we read all of his books back in the sixties. This is the kind of book I was obsessed with twenty years ago but God knows if I could read it now.

James Purdy I really, really, really like. I have every one he ever wrote. There's a new one out now that's only available in England, Out With the Stars, and it's in the style of his old really crazy ones. Even gay audiences don't like him. He's not exactly politically correct. What he is is over the top. I think my personal is The House of the Solitary Maggot but On Glory's Coarse is up there. People are so horrible in this book. There's so much gossip in this little town that while this woman's hanging her wash out she hears evil things being said about her in the wind. One of the meanest things I've ever read is a scene where this daughter, who's twelve years old, comes to her mother and says, what's this? She's having her period. And her mother says, I don't know. I've never heard about this. I think you're the only person this has ever happened to. So mean. I really like James Purdy. I think he's great.

Gordon Lish is very literarilly incorrect. At least Spy magazine is always making fun of him. He does wear an ascot but I think his Peru is one of the best. And Fran Lebowitz. This is a first printing of Metropolitan Life. There weren't very many of them. I just met Joan Didion. She has the best titles and her books are the most beautifully designed -- not just the writing, they always look great. Julian Barnes' Staring At the Sun is a favorite but you have to be in the mood.

Jim Thompson I love and this was a brilliant little series, Black Lizard, with all the original covers. They did a really good job. Pop. 1280 might be my favorite but they all start to run together after a while. Saul's Book is my favorite hustler book. Capote, another monster. I believe every word of that biography. Mencken, another Baltimore writer. Delmore Schwartz never knew he wasn't in Baltimore. Paul Bowles is over here, Jane is over there. I don't put them together. Jane was a much better writer.

I must have read Willa Cather in high school when I was on LSD. I went right past her. Philip Hoar, who wrote the Stephen Tennent biography, tells me ge goes to these Willa Cather groupie meetings and I just can't picture what they must be like.

I like all these biographies of women on the edge. When I finished the Anne Sexton biography I read the Shirley Jackson biography and I just finished The Interior Castles of Jean Stafford. I really did love to read Gertrude Stein. I don't know if I could read her today but I used to love to. Ellen Gilchrist I liked in the beginning but I can't read her anymore. Joyce Carol Oates I cant read anymore but I loved Them. Here's my Jackie Susanne collection. I've got all the biographies. This is the one where she has the affair with Ethel Merman. Imagine. What a sight!

More Grove Press. Hubert Selby Jr. I have all of him. I love The Room, and I love the one where the mother's on speed watching television -- Requiem for a Dream. I buy all of John Rechy even if I don't read them. Nobody read Marilyn's Daughter. Let's just say I'm for John Rechy. James Baldwin was another one who got me through high school. Another Country, Giovanni's Room, The Fire Next Time. I like this one, How I Became Hettie Jones: what it was like to be LeRoi Jones' wife. I used to love LeRoi Jones when I was a kid. Particularly The Toilet. Denton Welsh is my all time favorite writer and this is his self portrait. I bought it from his biographer just after I read the diaries. I think he's just, oh, the best.

Let's go over to true crime. I think I have almost everything that's come out in hardcover. I hate paperbacks, period. When I couldn't afford hardcovers I stole them. This whole shelf is on the Manson family. Manson has a certain brilliance, a sort of genius. He hams it up so he doesn't get put in with the general prison population.

I'm really working hard to get some of the original family out, the ones that have had no contact with him for eighteen years and who look back on it with complete horror. They're totally rehabilitated. They're yuppies now. A horrible thing happened to them when they were very young and joined the wrong commune. Here's The Manson Family Sings the Songs of Charles Manson. It's not bad.

This is all Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. I have quite a collection on that. The have great titles like Let's Hold Hands and Die and Our Father Who Art In Hell. People send me crime ephemera sometimes and these were chipped from the People's Temple.

This whole shelf is Patty Hearst. Here's the Von Bulow affair but it really was a little too PBS for my taste. The MOVE people from Philadelphia, I'm obsessed by them too. My Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment in twenty volumes. Here's another favorite, Mary Bell. She was sentenced to life when she was eleven years old. She killed when she was eight and nine, leaving notes saying "I kill because I like to." A little warning sign when you have a child.

This is a case I've been obsessed by lately and unfortunately there are only two paperbacks about it: Hush Little Baby and Lullaby and Good Night. This girl convinced her entire family she was pregnant when she wasn't so she followed a real pregnant woman into the maternity ward, took the woman's car keys and the baby. She took it home and cut the baby up. She just used a pair of keys. I think it deserves better than two cheap paperbacks.

Here's one of the best cases. The Indiana Torture Slayings and Kate Millett's The Basement. That's Gertrude Banisewski. She served twenty years for killing the foster children she took in for money. They let her out a couple of years ago. I have a portrait of her upstairs. And, of coarse, Alice Krimmins, the woman New York Loved to hate! She used to hang out in steak houses. Shall we go upstairs?

The bedroom is all show business. Here are all the Russ Meyer books, everything, in French, German and English. Linda Lovelace's books -- both amazing but my favorite is Ordeal. Sonny Bono's biography, Tiny Tim's, Farrah's World, The Mat Dillon Scrapbook and The Mat Dillon Quiz Book. The Making of The Other side of Midnight, The Making of Heretic, The Making of Exorcist Two. These books were out for five minutes and they're going to be worth something in twenty years.

Do you believe this is a book already: Elvis, My Dad. There were lots of books about Jane Mansfield. These are my Hollywood scandal books. The Big Love was one of Auden's favorites. All of Hitchcock. All of Warhol. That paperback, The Velvet Underground, is the S&M book the band named themselves after. Kate Millett's my favorite difficult feminist writer. Honey Bruce's book, Lenny's wife, they met in Baltimore. All the books on Billy Baldwin, the great Baltimore designer. And Diana Vreeland, talk about arch! "I hate spoons and I love forks."

Here are all the Glenn Gould and Oscar Levant books. They belong together.

There's a shelf here of all the books about me or the people I've worked with. Here's a book with a chapter about when I was expelled from NYU. Richard Goldstein's One in Seven: Drugs on Campus (New York: Walker and Co, 1966). "New York City: Pot on the Asphalt Campus", that's the chapter.

My film reference and criticism sections are in the television room. I really liked Renata Adler when she wrote for the New York Times. She would get so bored she'd write about how comfortable the seats were, the usher's uniforms, and how clean the theater was that day. I really liked her.

This is my current table. This is what I just read. Why Buildings Fall Down. I thought that was an interesting subject. Each chapter is about a different building falling down. A life of Ricky Nelson. His brother, David, was in one of my movies. A new Marquis De Sade biography. This is my favorite new crime book. It's about Lesbians that run this old age home. Whenever they'd kill somebody they'd ask their victims 'How much do you love me?' and the first one had to answer 'Forever and one day' and the second one had to answer 'Forever and two days'. It's called Forever and Five Days.

Bag of Toys is about Andrew Crispo. Ah! the Doris Duke biography. It's so bad but I love it at the end when she takes up with the Hare Krishna girl. It's shocking that Pee Wee Herman hid out with her. I love that she hides people from scandal. That Jean Stafford bio. Friendly picture on the cover, huh?

This painting is by a San Francisco artist named Bret Reictman, who's having his first New York show this fall. Aren't they lovely. They remind me of Snap, Crackle, Pop, Pinochio, and Alvin the Chipmunk all together. If you really look at the one in the center your IQ drops ten points.

My workroom is largely devoted to magazines. I subscribe to eighty a month. Shall we go over those? A bit much, don't you think. There are books in here that don't go anyplace else: Die, Nigger, Die, The Lonely Lady of San Clemente. I was in a bookstore once that had a section I loved called 'Once Fashionable Subjects' and that's the way I think of this section. Let's go upstairs to where my weirdest books are.

The guest room is arranged like this: terrorism, sex psychiatric problems, Nazis, religion, severe weather and pornography. It starts with terrorism and moves to the Nazis. The book on Lord Ha-ha, that's my personal favorite. He was the Tokyo Rose of Germany. His wife was Lady Ha-ha. That's the best name I've ever heard in my life.

Freud I love to read. And I have all of Dr. Money, a local doctor who handles complete lunatic problems. Reckless Orgasm; it's about a person who'd strangle himself and jerk off. Which is what this book Auto-Erotic Fatalities is about. One of the most amazing books I've ever read. Tourette Syndrome books. This is all true sex. Dirty stories about sex with straight men by gay people. Ludicrous stories about one weird night after another. Actually insane, some of them. They're good. Do you know that shop that used to be right next to A Different Light in New York? All vintage porno. It was amazing. I think that people as they get older try to go back to the first images they ever jerked off to. Prose pornography is going the way of the record album.

This is all the religious stuff: The Bad Popes, Lesbian Nuns, Holy Anorexia, The Cult of the Virgin Mary, Sex in the Confessional and I love this one, How the Pope Became Infallible. Fire From Heaven is about spontaneous combustion, about how you're walking down the street and explode from feeling so guilty. Another reason you've got to wear good shoes. All the pictures in this book are just of shoes and the ashes of people who just exploded.

Then there's the nature porn, severe weather. I love weather! It's just like porno and there are people that buy it like that. You can send away for tapes of tornados, hurricane's, monsoon's, earthquakes, heavy storms. Those Terrible Twisters, The Year of the Storm -- look! It's just endless pictures of hardcore weather.

These are guest books: The History of Tattoos, Rat Catching From Volcanic Eruptions, second edition, Pasolini, Prison Exposures, Female Film Stars of the Third Reich. Baltimore hair-dos: Mr Ray's Magic Salon. On the cover he's pulling not a rabbit out of a hat but a hair-do. This is a book a fan gave me. It's an art book about Walter and Molly Keane, those people who did the big eye paintings, look -- with the tissue papers! It's Japanese!

There's a nice little book on travel accidents. When I was a child I loved to go to junkyards and look at wrecked automobiles. My favorites were the one's that had turned over a couple of times. When I saw this book in a junkstore I had to have it. It's from exactly the year that I was obsessed. It brought back all those memories.

And that painting over there is by John Wayne Gacy. Beautiful isn't it.
Interviews with: Diana Vreeland | Fran Lebowitz | Albert Murray | John Waters | Susanna Moore | Fab 5 Freddy | Alan Pryce-Jones