A book-signing at the airport?

If any book deserved it, it would be “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” a cautionary tale about a couple who steal suitcases at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Liarmouth is the debut novel of a local writer, filmmaker and fashion model named John Waters, who decided to become a novelist in his 70s to supplement his work in other fields.

Set in Baltimore before the COVID-19 pandemic, Liarmouth follows the exploits of an eccentric family that includes Marsha Sprinkle, the suitcase thief; her mother Adora, who performs plastic surgery on pets; Marsha’s daughter Poppy, who leads a cult-like band of trampoline bouncers; Marsha’s partner-in-crime Daryl; Daryl’s talking organ, Richard, and an extended cast that could only come from Baltimore. If it were a film, it would be a road movie. It’s both what fans of Waters might expect from him and yet different from anything he’s done before.

Waters, 76, spoke with Baltimore Fishbowl about his first novel just as it arrived on bookshelves this month. The interview has been condensed and edited.

Baltimore Fishbowl: Did anyone from the airport call you?

John Waters: About what?

Q: I thought you might have received a cease-and-desist order to stop sales of your book, because it could make travelers cancel their plane trips.

A: Maybe the whole reason I wrote this book is: Why don’t they check tags on luggage like they always used to? Because when 9/11 happened, suddenly they searched you and did everything, but they did away with checking the tags when you [picked up luggage.] Every airport used to do it. You got your bag off the carousel and there was somebody there to check the tags. They don’t do that anywhere in the world anymore.

Q: How do you know so much about all the scams you wrote about?

A: I always think up things. That’s the idea. I hear one little grain of truth. Somebody did tell me that they knew a girl once, someone who stole a suitcase from an airport. That was it. And being with people like [best friend and travel companion] Pat Moran. We didn’t steal. But I realized that you could have easily done it. So I try to imagine things. That’s what a novelist does.

Q: Why did you write this book, your first novel, in your 70s?

A: Because I want to dare myself. I hitchhiked across the country at 66, took LSD when I was 70, for the first time in 50 years. I hadn’t written a novel. I liked it a little bit when I was doing Carsick, because the first parts were fiction, imagining myself in the best rides and the worst. That gave me a taste of it. I just wanted to do something I hadn’t done.

Q: To challenge yourself?

A: Yes, as a writer. Because I had done autobiography. I’ve done reporting, really. I’ve never written a play or done poetry. Maybe I’ll be a poet next.

Q: I heard you tell an audience: ‘If I get away with this, that will be something.’ You said you were trying to write a parody of a novel.

A: Well, what I mean is, this one is pretty crazy…I think I’m satirizing everything about writing a novel — about narrative, about alliteration, about characters’ names…Every kind of thing about fiction, I think I do a joke about it.

Q: To what end?

A: To make you laugh. That’s always my goal, in everything I’ve ever done. To surprise you and make you laugh.

Q: What is the book’s message?

 A: Don’t judge other people. Because she [Marsha Sprinkle] had a reason to be that angry. Her sexual past. Kind of, she did. Did she learn her lesson? Maybe not. But everybody in it has a reason for how they act. I think that’s my message. No one is born guilty. No one is born f*cked up. Something happens to everybody in this book. Everybody has a past and they talk about it, to a ludicrous extent.  I’m making fun of that by exaggerating it, treating the bouncers and everything as if this is a really valid, discriminating group of people that have a cause. And they do have a cause.  

Q: You express views in this book and elsewhere that could get others cancelled in this era of cancel culture. How have you avoided being cancelled?

A: Because I made fun of things I love. That’s the difference. And I don’t think I’m mean. When I make fun of things, I’m making fun of the rules of the outsider society I live in, no matter what it was. When we made Multiple Maniacs, we were making fun of hippie values. Hippie values are the same as politically-correct values. I am a bleeding-heart liberal, so I’m making fun of the same rules that I live with. It’s just the self-righteous part that I try to make fun of. I want to win, and you don’t win by making people feel stupid. You make them laugh.

Q: If you write about the things you love, does that mean you love Marsha Sprinkle?

A: Yes. I love writing her. And I love reading about her. Would I want to be her? No, but I love being her. Because I’m every character when I write. I live in them. I talk like them. I live in their minds. I love being every one of them. If I didn’t love them, I wouldn’t have them in the book. They would have been cut.

Q: What do the trampoline bouncers in the book represent?

A: They represent physical fitness gone insane. They’re underground now. They’re like an insane, radical group that’s on the run because they are closed down by the cops. They have to keep bouncing. They also want to kill the mother because she stole from them. Everyone wants to kill Marsha. But basically, they are a cult. They are just like Heaven’s Gate or any cult that thinks they’re completely right and lives their lives to ridiculous degrees of excess — I hope, for humor.

Q: The dog that transitions into a cat is an obvious reference to transgenderism and the transgender rights movement. It’s a species change, instead of a sex change.

A: Exactly. So I am taking it even further, for humor. And at the same time, I think that you root for the cat. The cat actually wins in the end. The cat is smarter than all of them.

Q: You brought up the idea of plastic surgery for pets before, in a 2012 artwork called Reconstructed Lassie that was exhibited in a Los Angeles gallery and showed what Lassie would look like after getting a facelift. Do you think it’s closer to reality now?

A: The idea of somebody doing plastic surgery on pets, believe me, it will happen soon. I’m exaggerating all that to comment on it. I’m obsessed by behavior I don’t understand, and I want the reader to come along for the ride and meet all these people. They might not want to hang out with them, but I think they’ll have a good time on the ride.

Q: Could Liarmouth be a movie?

A: Sure. It would be NC-17, probably, and it would have a lot of special effects budgeted in it for all the bouncing and stuff.

Q: Who would play Marsha? Did you have anybody in mind? I envision Jennifer Coolidge.

A: No, I don’t do that when I write a novel. I only do that when I have a green light. If I had a script and I was writing it, I would. But for a novel…

Q: Liarmouth seems in line with the expectations that people have of you. Some of the reviews say, “It’s what you would expect from John Waters.” The headline from NPR was: “John Waters finds a new way to peddle his filth.” It’s Baltimore-centric and consistent with your brand.

A: It completely is.

Q: Part of that reaction is because your work contains a number of running themes which are familiar to your audience and which Liarmouth continues. You’ve obviously written about other female criminals — Dawn Davenport, Babs Johnson, Serial Mom — Beverly Sutphin.

A: They’re not criminals in my world.

Q: What would you call them?

A: Heroes.

Baltimore fans line up for John Waters at Atomic Books.

Q: Readers familiar with Baltimore are likely to appreciate the way you name-check local people and places — Harry Little’s, Dutch Village, Jayne Miller, Denise Koch, The Prime Rib, Gilman.

A: Baltimore is a character in this, completely.

Q: Liarmouth is also filled with social commentary, especially in the early chapters based in Baltimore. You write about people who get on a bus after it’s been in an accident so they can be part of a law suit.

A: That’s in a Laura Lippman book that I just read, too, and I didn’t even realize it. Everybody in Baltimore knows that. It’s what they call a suit-case. Did you know that word before? I didn’t. It’s a Baltimore word. You know: A lawyer, a suit and a case. A suit-case. I got a suit-case against them.

Q: Marsha thinks that the squeegee kids who clean car windshields at street corners are all being controlled by a pimp.

A: Well, that’s her being so evil that she doesn’t think there are any real poor people. She thinks they’re all actors that a pimp controls and puts them out there and takes all the money at the end… I just put in ludicrous theories that I hear. That doesn’t mean that I agree with them.

Everybody has to go to work. Everybody who goes to the corner to do squeegee. Everybody that hustles. Everybody who steals. They go to work. That’s their job. I just try to imagine what it would be like to be each one of those people.

Q: Have you read reviews of the book?

A: So far we’ve gotten four good trade reviews. Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal.  We’ve gotten good ones so far in Vanity Fair, Time, Esquire, The L. A. Times. The New York Times. Who knows? Somebody’s going to hate it. Believe me, I’m not expecting that somebody won’t…The best thing that can happen to a book, of course, is if [public officials] are stupid enough to ban it. That just makes everybody want to read it.

Q: How does it feel to be a novelist?

A: Ask me in three weeks. It took a lot of work. I’m really proud of it. It feels great. It’s just me continuing my career, which is not that different from anything I’ve ever done really. It’s just another way to tell a story.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.