The 68-Year-Old Thrill Seeker: John Waters

In Carsick, John Waters writes, with gratitude, ”I’m alive and so many of my friends aren’t.” To be alive for Waters, the writer/director whose films range from classic celebrations of vulgarity and kitsch like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble to the sunny hit comedy Hairspray, meant setting off in 2012 on a two-week hitchhiking voyage from his native Baltimore to his second home in San Francisco.  With TV Movies-of-the-Week and grade school lectures casting hitchhiking as a risky endeavor little short of a death wish, Waters in fact opted to write the first two-thirds of Carsick – titled ”The Best That Could Happen” and ”The Worst That Could Happen” – before hitting the road, as imagined possibilities for what carnal pleasures and deadly terrors might await him on the highway.

On his actual trip – ”The Real Thing” – Waters accepts rides from strangers unique in their histories, but uniform in their generosity. Young lovers helping each other stay off drugs. A cavalcade of moms. An indie rock band that merrily humblebrags on Twitter after finding Waters on the side of an eastern Ohio road. Even Brett Bidle, then a 20-year old college student and Maryland town councilman (not to mention proud Tea Partier and devout Methodist) who picked up Waters once, then drove nearly the full length of the country just to later meet him again. Each of these characters serves as another stretch toward the end of Route 10 West, and each a fascinating chapter in a pilgrimage which defies sociopolitical divides and finds Americans of varying creeds to be more alike in dignity than one might expect.

I spoke with Waters by telephone in mid-May. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. – Nick Curley


The Barnes & Noble Review:   I have to say, you sound exactly like you.

John Waters:   Oh, good. I think I’m a little more throaty… a little more Kathleen Turner today, because I have laryngitis (Laughs). But it’s getting better.

BNR:   I really enjoyed this book, and thought it had such warmth and a true dramatic arc to its structure. You write in Carsick that this trip was an idea that you’d had some time earlier: what sparked your desire to hitch from Baltimore to San Francisco?

JW:   I think it was because in Provincetown [Massachusetts], I had to hitchhike to go to this one beach. You couldn’t get a sticker to go there unless you lived there year-round. I loved the beach so much that I would hitchhike there. I really liked it, and I would ask people to go on hitchhiking dates with me. It was really ”training wheels,” and it gave me the idea, because I had hitchhiked so much when I was young, but never this far. At that time, hitchhiking was sexy and adventuresome, and very noble, I think. Even from my parents’ viewpoint, it wasn’t considered ”bad.” Then, of course, when the Hippie years happened, there were so many hitchhikers that you had to fight each other off to find a good place to stand.

But today, I think I only saw one hitchhiker the whole way across the country, and I rudely told the driver not to pick him up. We’re very selfish when we get a ride.

BNR:   You said in the book that hitching was so commonplace that your parents expected you to thumb rides home from…

JW:   …High school, yeah! They didn’t think that was weird. But they didn’t realize the same perverts who were picking me up are still driving around looking for young men today. And I was looking for them! And maybe I was even looking for them again this time, but I didn’t attract too many perverts. I just attracted wonderful people. I mean, who knows what they’re really like. They might have been murderers, but they didn’t murder me. You do instantly profile people when you get in the car. I had a short ride with one man, who was going to pick up his mother, and who knows? He could have been going to pick up his mother to murder her! I don’t know. But he was nice to me.

BNR:   He wouldn’t have been the first murderer to have a good rapport with his mother. I wanted to ask you a little something about your one-man show This Filthy World, in which you talk about going to the library as a kid and stealing the subversive books marked, ”See Librarian.”

JW:   Yeah, because they wouldn’t give it to me.

BNR:   You discuss the pleasure in reading Sigmund Freud’s case histories, Naked Lunch, and other mature works at a young age. Would you recommend Carsick to children like yourself in search of a thrill?

JW:   Yes. Because God knows they’d get it. I mean, the worst and best parts of this book include murder, violence, diarrhea, sex. Everything that kids want to read about. Kids want to hear about the most horrible things that can happen to you. So yes: I believe that if a seven-year old kid has heard of Naked Lunch and is daring enough to want to read it, he’s old enough to read it. A kid can self-censor himself, I think, if they really hate something. I wouldn’t give this book to children that were unaware of it. You can’t horrify a kid on purpose. But if a kid already knew who I was, or saw my movies… Sure, I don’t think this book is going to hurt him. I don’t know why I said ”him,” because my women fans can be equally bizarre.

BNR:   You have a quotation that’s taken on a life of its own: ”If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”

JW:   Well, I talk about that in my second book [Role Models]. I’m maybe a little bit of a hypocrite. I think Lady Bunny busted me on that in an interview I read. She said, ”I thought he had been with people who were criminals and stuff.” Which is true. There’s something really cute about looking at the home libraries of thieves. And then I was later asked: ”Could you ever fuck a racist if they were cute enough?” I say send something in the mail to shut them up. That’s really how you deal with racists: you can teach them something, up to a point.

But I said that quote, and it did get a lot of play, and now I’ve expanded on this concept with the idea that you should reward people sexually when they give you books for presents. I believe in rewarding people sexually for giving me books. I think it’s proper literary manners. It’s sort of a thank-you note.

BNR:   Given that you’re someone who champions literature, you have a home library of, at the printing of this book, eight thousand four hundred twenty-five titles and counting…

JW:   I think that was in the period of Role Models, wasn’t it? Or was it this book? I must have nine thousand by now. Divided in three homes.

BNR:   I’m wondering who the great readers in your life have been. Who turned you on to great books?

JW:   It wasn’t that great, I’ll tell you. I didn’t read until Grove Press made me a reader. I hated reading in grade school and junior high, because they gave us the dullest books to read. If they had given us Tennessee Williams… They gave us the life of Benjamin Franklin. Incredibly, terribly boring books. I remember the first books I ever read on my own were Hot Rod and Street Rod, and they got me going. But I didn’t really read until censorship happened. Grove Press really made me become a reader by publishing Jean Genet and William Burroughs and all those kind of books that caused trouble. They turned me into readers. I thank Barney Rosset. To this day, I read because of him.

BNR:   It’s amazing how many interviews I’ve done where people bring up Barney Rosset.

JW:    Yeah! He changed everything, by publishing Genet and just so many other great writers. Could I read Alain Robbe-Grillet today? I don’t know. But I loved him back then. So [Rosset] really did force people’s taste in literature to completely change, and make it adventuresome and fun and cool to read, where before, in school… Oh, it was torture! Every summer you had to do book reports on the last things you felt like reading. The list they gave you to pick from, believe me, didn’t have Hot Rod and Street Rod on it. They had books that were so dreary that it made me avoid reading until I was seventeen years old.

BNR:   In the chapter of Role Models entitled ”Bookworm,” all of the books which you cite as your all-time favorites seem to be about sort of different varieties of intelligent outcasts, and particularly women and children: In Youth Is Pleasure, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Two Serious Ladies, The Man Who Loved Children, Darkness and Day. The characters at the core of those stories are outsiders who learn to become bold and confident in their eccentricity.

JW:   Well, each author treats his or her characters with great respect, and finds dignity in their lunacy, especially Jane Bowles. I mean, Two Serious Ladies is the best novel ever. When I re-read it for that book, I would burst out laughing in parts. Any book that can make you burst out laughing by itself is such a strong book. I think that all the characters in all those books became that strong in secret, and they realized they were strong when nobody else did. They kind of lived a life on the edges, but not really ever wanting much more than that. They liked being on the edge. They pushed the edge. So that’s always been exciting to me, characters like that. I guess with the children, it’s even one step further, because they don’t have the power of being a white male.

BNR:   Did reading teach you to be yourself?

JW:    I think I was on my way to that before I read. But certainly Rock & Roll helped make me who I am. Elvis Presley happened, and I saw him twitching for the first time like an alien. You can’t imagine how dreary and horribly boring the 1950s were until Rock & Roll happened. That’s why it did happen, because there was an explosion. Everybody had a gray flannel suit, and then you saw Elvis, who scared the hell out of everyone’s parents. To me, that was the moment when I was liberated from the ’50s. And then reading Tennessee Williams was when I finally realized there was such a thing as Bohemia, which I didn’t know about. That was what I was searching for. And I still am.

BNR:   The supplemental soundtrack list you supply in the back of the book contains fantastic selections, most of them 1950s and ’60s rock that I’d never heard before.

JW:   Most people have never heard those sides before. Go online, on Youtube, then pay for them and listen to them! But at the same time, a lot of the best-known songs about hitchhiking are country songs. There aren’t a lot of Soul songs except the famous one, [Marvin Gaye’s] ”Hitchhike.” Almost every song about hitchhiking – and there’s obviously many-many-many songs about hitchhiking – are country or novelty songs. And those have always been a favorite of mine: vintage, pure country songs. So there’s plenty in it for you to listen to.

BNR:  The more frenetic acts that you have on there, like the Sonics and Nervous Norvus, offer so much to contextualize an eerie experience, and your mindset during your increasingly frenzied rides, real and imagined.

JW:   I have a song that’s on the radio in every ride. But in real life, we never listened to the radio. Every ride I ever had, I don’t think the radio was ever on.

BNR:   Did your drivers prefer talk radio?

JW:    When someone picks you up hitchhiking, they don’t have talk radio on. They want your talk. Or they want to talk. You don’t want to talk over somebody else.

BNR:   I hadn’t thought of that.

JW:   I think the only time we listened to music was with [rock band] Here We Go Magic, and they gave me their CD. We played my mix tapes, and they had some mix tapes, too, that they played me.

BNR:   In your introduction, you in fact talk about learning that Steinbeck’s road memoir, Travels with Charley, was largely a work of fiction, and that this in part inspired your choice to pen these fictional best case-worst case scenarios of what a cross-country trip would be.

JW:    That’s true. I didn’t know that until last year or something, when the New York Times broke that story, that it was totally bullshit, that book. Which is still in print, and is an award-winning book that is complete nonsense.

In these scenarios are my fears and hopes, I think. I could have never written those chapters, which remind me very much of my earlier movies, unless… I couldn’t have written them if I had already done the trip. So I am really glad I didn’t wait to do any of them until after I had done the real trip, because I don’t think it would have been the same.

BNR:   Some of the scenarios outlined in your second act, entitled ”The Worst That Could Happen,” are graphically brutal. Imagined encounters with serial killers…

JW:   …And diarrhea, which is truly the worst thing that you could imagine happening. Realizing you’ve gotten picked up by somebody who won’t let you out.

BNR:   That and superfans over-quoting your work.

JW:    Yes. [Laughs] Or an insane dog-handler. That one’s pretty lewd, too.

BNR:   You cite [Pier Paolo] Pasolini’s film, Salo, and certainly, sections of Carsick reminded me of it.

JW:   [Laughs] Great! Salo is such a beautiful movie. I presented that at the Toronto Film Festival a couple of years ago, and watched it again. It’s really an elegant movie. It is a film about storytelling. And I tried to write this book in my voice, with a sense of storytelling, just as I am speaking to you now, because it’s really me telling these stories, as if sitting around the campfire.

BNR:   The story of this book could have been perhaps a Times headline: ”In Ohio, Beloved Pope of Trash Murdered.”

JW:   Well, I do get murdered in Las Vegas in the book. But in real life, I felt like I was being murdered in Ohio when I stood there for ten hours a day with nobody picking me up. Ohio was tough.

BNR:   Are you a big daydreamer? Are you someone who conjures up these elaborate fantasies of doom and success?

JW:    That’s my job, is to daydream. But I have to write it down. That’s the difference. If you’re a writer, you record those moments. Daydreamers forget to write it down. [Laughs]

No, for fun I don’t sit around daydreaming. I mean, I guess I do all the time. I’m always watching people and thinking up stories about them. But no, I go to work in the morning, and that’s when I write it down.


BNR:   So many of these true-life characters who join you on your journey out through the course of the real thing, have their own dark pasts, or wild back stories, but who now seem to have pulled themselves together. While you’re coming at it differently than Steinbeck, their lives are stories of a certain steadfast American attitude, of redemption and family ties. So many of these once troubled men credit their wives as their saviors and greatest supporters…

JW:   Listen: I’ve never had so many heterosexual men talk so well about their wives as I was when hitchhiking across the country. I called it a ”feminist highway,” because all the men spoke about how great their wives were, which I don’t always hear in my own life. The people that pick you up hitchhiking have usually fought through something in life, and they’re willing to give somebody else a chance. Most people thought I was a homeless man. You don’t see a sixty-six year-old man hitchhiking. Some recognized me, but they would dart past and then say, ‘Did I just see John Waters?” Why would I be standing there with a sign? Only once did somebody go, ”Ha, John Waters!” right when they pulled over, and that was a block from my house. The first ride. Even that took a long time to get, because there weren’t any cars.

BNR:   As a reformed bicoastal elitist, I feel I learned something from the openness and generosity of these people you meet.

JW:   And they’re just as open-minded, too. They just don’t like people that don’t work. That’s one thing that I found in the middle of America, that they don’t like freeloaders. They don’t mind slackers, because slackers don’t usually try to get something for nothing. But they do mind people that are just bullshitters and people that are complaining all the time and don’t work. That’s what I would think got the most complaints.

BNR:   It really challenges some judgments and assumptions that we might make about the phrase ”flyover people” that you renounce in the book’s acknowledgments.

JW:    When people say the term ”trailer trash,” I’m offended. That’s the last accepted racial slur, I think. It’s like saying the N-word to me. But people say it, all because liberals say it. And I think ”flyover” is so dismissive. Look: there are assholes everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you live. There are assholes, and not one picked me up. It’s a classless group, assholes, because there’s rich assholes, there’s poor assholes, there’s middle-class assholes. But I didn’t have an asshole pick me up, and I don’t think assholes pick up hitchhikers.

BNR:   It seems that perhaps the biggest fear of all in writing a book like this, as suggested in your introduction, would be that either no one would pick you up, or that your drivers would prove uninteresting.

JW:   No, my worst fear was I would walk up to the corner, and the first guy was going to San Francisco that took me. [Laughs] How dull.

BNR:   Roll credits.

JW:   But I would have gotten out. Which would have been funny, too, to have to escape.

BNR:   I’m reminded of Sarah Finlayson, the minister’s wife who picks you up. On the phone, Sarah’s sister says, ”Be careful with my sister,” and you reply, ”I will,” while acknowledging that a serial killer would say the same.

JW:   Exactly. Because so many people had said to me, ”A woman by herself will not pick you up.” But the first ride was a woman by herself with a baby, and the second ride was a woman by herself. So you never really know. It depends what kind of woman. She was interesting. And she was coming from her exercise class. She was going a mile or so, and she took me fifty miles, just out of kindness. It was raining, and she wanted a little bit of adventure, too. I love that about a month later, she went on the radio and did a whole show about it. Good for her!

BNR:   It’s a terrific moment, and one that illustrates a central crux of hitchhiking, which is that it’s a barometer of trust.

JW:   To stop or to get in is trust. And an adventure. And a date. It also does involve sex, in a weird way, because it’s such a cliché, due to all the erotic literature about women and hitchhiking. You take a good look at each other. You have to instantly profile that person when you get in the car, and you say, ”Well…” But I let them set the conversation, talk about what they want to talk about, and I would never get out my Blackberry and look at it, I would never get out a tape-recorder. I made notes when I got out. I told everybody I was writing a book. I think a lot of them thought I was just homeless or demented. I wanted them to talk more than I wanted to talk. But I talked when I knew I needed to, to sell them on the ride.

It helps to talk, when hitchhiking. The more you can share about yourself, the better. Because people were very generous to me. They would take me a little further, or they would pull off to good spots when they were going to drop me off. Because the whole problem with hitchhiking is where you get dropped off. It has to be in the right kind of place to stand, where you can get a ride, and that’s complicated in cloverleaves and stuff. Or where two highways meet? That’s a bad place for a hitchhiker.

BNR:   You avoid strip malls and city centers, where people are just going from one place to another, shopping locally.

JW:   All cities are bad. You don’t want to get near a city when you’re hitchhiking. Because there’s local traffic, and you don’t ever want local traffic.

BNR:   Speaking of this notion of trust, and finding people who look decent or suspicious… Do you think you’re a good hitchhiker because you have faith in the goodness of others, or that you’re able to read people?

JW:   I think I’m a good hitchhiker because I can listen to people. I’ve taught in prison. I know all kinds of people. I can get along in the fanciest dinner party and I can get along in the scariest bar. I can get along with extreme people. And this time, the only challenge when I was getting along with ”the middle,” which is a world I very seldom explore. I must say that it was just as much fun and just as interesting as both extremes that I usually spend most of my time in.

BNR:   I particularly loved the long, ennui-filled periods of waiting for someone to pick you up.

JW:    Well, you might have loved it as a reader! As a hitchhiker, it was torture!

BNR:   Because that’s the real peril.


JW:   That’s the bad stuff. Because you think, ”This is going to take two years.” I scheduled two weeks for this trip. But you know, there were days… now that it’s over, it’s hard to really remember those fears, because I know I did make it. But the thrill, if that’s the word… The mantra I kept repeating is, ”It only takes one car, it only takes one car.” And that’s true. But sometimes you wait for a long time for that one car to show its soul.

BNR:   That waiting also illustrates something about how we resist helping the poor, in large part, because we’re scared of them…

JW:   Well, I don’t think we’re scared of the poor. We’re scared we will be poor. [Laughs]

BNR:   But that fear creates a situation where perhaps we’re afraid that we’ll be abused in some way by acting charitably.

JW:    I don’t know. I was never afraid standing there. The people that picked me up never seemed to be afraid of me. I think that people who pass you by, I would say eighty percent of them had never seen a hitchhiker, and most of them would never even consider doing it themselves. They don’t know how to deal with it. When they saw me, they’d just throw their hands up. It’s better, I think, when they make up a fake excuse for why they can’t take you, or they mime making a turn. That’s at least polite. One hard part was that I was never standing near a place where there was a red light where you could walk up to cars. The best was when I’d land at a park-type facility in the middle of the country, because then they’re going slow, and most of those people are going a long distance, and they get to see you, and sometimes when they stop, they see you and they notice you. It’s always a split-second decision.

BNR:   Waiting on the side of the road, you write, ”Maybe regular people don’t talk to strangers. Maybe that’s why I’ve made no friends here.” Which is a very simple but eloquent idea.

JW:   That was even truer when I was eating at night in some chain restaurant or truck stop. I’d think, ”God, nobody talks to each other; they just stare at the TV on the wall.” I thought, ”Do I look that weird?” But they just don’t talk to strangers. I’m always talking to strangers, so I don’t have a fear of them. I thought it was only children who weren’t supposed to talk to strangers.

BNR:   There’s something about becoming an adult that indoctrinates us to this idea that being regular or normal means we’re incurious or dispassionate. To that end: do you hope that this book produces more hitchhikers? Does it advocate the act of hitching?

JW:   I think it encourages people to do it. But I don’t want to be blamed if somebody reads my book and then they go out and get murdered. Use common sense. But you have about the same chance of dying as you do getting in a car accident on a summer vacation with your family. I think the only thing you should ever be scared of is staying home and never going out, and never taking a chance. And the older you get, the more chances you’ve got to take, or you stop experiencing things.

BNR:   And that’s coming from a sixty-eight year-old thrill seeker.

JW:    Yes! I am ”a sixty-eight year-old thrill seeker.” That’s a good way to put it.