The message in the window of Atomic Books in Baltimore promised a book signing with John Waters, but that was only the beginning.
Over the course of two and a half hours on Friday, the writer and filmmaker did autograph copies of his 2022 novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” and other books he had written.
He also signed DVDs, Blu-rays, photos, posters, clothing, high heels, a Natty Boh beer can, an eggless egg carton, a never-scratched Odorama card from “Polyester,” customized Nike shoes and more than a dozen Funko Pop! figurines of himself.
He also fielded offers and requests from a cavalcade of fans who waited patiently in line for an hour or more to make their pitch — fans such as Greg Strohecker, who wanted to get physical with the 77-year-old celebrity.
“If you arm-wrestle me, I’ll buy another book,” Strohecker challenged him.
“You would definitely win,” Waters demured from behind a Plexiglas shield put up to protect him from COVID-19 but not necessarily arm wrestlers.
“I would let you win,” Strohecker offered.
“Then I would hate it more,” Waters replied.
People who think of book signings as mild, sedate affairs have most likely never been to a John Waters book signing.
Waters’ fans know it’s a chance to get some quality one-on-one time with their hero and come away with an autograph and a selfie, if not a wrestling trophy.
Friday’s event capped a weeklong book launch for the softcover edition of “Liarmouth,” the tale of a woman named Marsha Sprinkle who steals suitcases at the airport.
Earlier in the week, Waters met fans during a book signing in Los Angeles and appeared onstage at the Sydney Goldstein Theater in San Francisco, where actress Aubrey Plaza interviewed him before approximately 1,500 fans. One last stop will be a June 15 book signing at MAP on Commercial Street in Provincetown, the Cape Cod beach town that plays a key role in the final chapters of Liarmouth.
‘On the bucket list’
At Atomic Books, the line of fans waiting to see Waters stretched down the 3600 block of Falls Road, as fans waited for the doors to open at 7 p.m.
They ranged in age from kids to seniors. Most were from Baltimore, Waters’ hometown, but more than a few came from out of town, even out of state. Some wore Waters-themed T-shirts (“Blame John Waters”) or dressed like characters from films such as “Hairspray!” and “Cry-Baby.”
Destiny Orndoff and Tristan Clay drove six and a half hours from Ashland, Kentucky, to meet Waters and get him to sign “Pink Flamingos” and “Serial Mom” posters. “We came just for this,” Clay said proudly.
Several asked if “Liarmouth” will be made into a movie. Last fall, Village Roadshow Pictures disclosed that it has optioned the novel and Waters confirmed that he would write and direct the film, but not much information has come out since then.
Waters had a consistent answer to the movie questions: “I can’t talk about it because of the writers’ strike,” he said, referring to the labor union strike called by members of the Writers Guild of America.
Rafael Pagan, from Newark, Delaware, told Waters’ that he’d like to be in his next movie. “An extra at the airport, anything,” he pleaded.
Pagan told a reporter after meeting Waters that he was named in the credits of a documentary about Divine, Waters’ longtime friend and muse, because he provided financial support, but he’s never been in a John Waters film. “It’s been 19 years since his last movie,” he said. “It’s on the bucket list.”
Michael Faulkner told Waters he worked on two of his movies, as a set production assistant for “Cecil B. Demented” and as a location scout for “A Dirty Shame.” Waters asked Faulkner whom he worked with on those movies and what he’s doing now.
Jeremy Shell of Baltimore wore a T-shirt bearing an image of him and Waters taken at Camp John Waters, the annual get-together for superfans that Waters has dubbed “Jonestown with a happy ending.”
Shell boasted that he’s been to five of the six camps that have been held so far and asked Waters to sign a book and a photo. The next camp, in September, will feature guest counselors Johnny Knoxville, Mink Stole, and Elizabeth Coffey, Waters told him.
Several couples brought children, including infants.
“Are you old enough to read this?” Waters asked one pre-teen as he signed a copy of “Liarmouth” for his father. “Maybe start with Hairspray,” he suggested to another parent.
Confessions, gossip and other exchanges of information were running themes. Several, including Chris Tallent, told Waters how much his books and movies meant to them. Kayla Elliott from Baltimore showed off the Waters-themed tattoos on her legs. Two women told Waters they were engaged.
Might Waters officiate at the wedding ceremony, since he’s licensed to do that?
“I only marry people I’ve known for a long time,” he said afterwards. “Otherwise, it’s a photo op.”
No items for eBay
Atomic Books doesn’t limit the number of items fans can bring for Waters to sign, and that’s part of what makes the event both popular and relatively stress-free.
While most fans brought one or two items, a few brought an armload or box of books, DVDs and other items for Waters to sign. Posters were common items, too, including ones for “Polyester,” “Serial Mom,” “Pink Flamingos” and a giant one for “Pecker.”
Then there are people who bring three-dimensional objects.
Rosemary Solomon, from Takoma Park, brought a pair of high heels, but they weren’t like the cha-cha heels Dawn Davenport wanted for Christmas in “Female Trouble.” “These are my glittery rhinestone stripper shoes,” Solomon said.
Continuing with the footwear theme, Faulkner asked Waters to sign a pair of Air Force 1 shoes by Nike, customized with scenes from “A Dirty Shame” by local “shoe muralist” and all-around wearable art specialist Akio Evans.
Tallent brought the scratch-and-sniff Odorama card. Jodi Feldman offered the back of her “Blame John Waters” T-shirt. Andie Basto of Baltimore presented the beer can.
Why a beer can?
“When I think of Baltimore, I think of John Waters and Natty Boh,” she said. Plus, “I was just having dinner.”
Another reason: Waters always says Baltimore is the only city left that’s cheap enough to have a bohemia for young people.
Joey McManamon-Simon brought the egg carton, in honor of Edie “The Egg Lady” in “Pink Flamingos.” He said he didn’t know about the event until he saw the sign at Atomic Books the day before. His knapsack contained two more items for Waters to sign — a “Pink Flamingos” DVD and a Blu-ray of “Serial Mom,” “the first movie I ever saw.”
Waters was obliging with just about everyone. The main things he won’t autograph, he said, are items that he suspects the person plans to sell on eBay as soon as he signs it. He also balks at signing Waters-themed artwork or merchandise that he didn’t authorize.
One young woman brought an original drawing inspired by a fairly well-known image of Waters strangling a Pink Flamingo, except the flamingo was colored green rather than pink. Waters declined to sign it, saying he recognized the source, but he praised the artwork just the same. The woman said she did it herself and offered to leave it as a gift, which he accepted.
Waters asked Faulkner if he planned to sell the Air Force 1 shoes if he signed them.
“I won’t sell them,” Faulkner said. “I’m just going to treasure them.”
West coast events
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, “Liarmouth” is Waters’ tenth book and first novel. The hardcover came out last May and the softcover came out on May 2.
This month’s book launch began on May 8 at Book Soup in Los Angeles, a store that Waters said was a West Coast counterpart to Atomic Books on the East Coast.
The format was different in San Francisco, where Waters’ May 9 appearance with Plaza was a ticketed event, part of the prestigious City Arts & Lectures series. Members of the audience each received a signed copy of Liarmouth as they walked into the theater.
Plaza, who was born and raised in Delaware, gained widespread attention over the past year for her roles in “White Lotus” and “Emily the Criminal,” and her hosting stint on “Saturday Night Live,” among other shows.
She’s a longtime John Waters fan who has made no secret of her strong interest in being cast in his next movie. As he did in Baltimore, Waters told the San Francisco audience, “because of the writers guild strike, I can’t talk about that,” so no casting news came out of the event.
Like the dialogue in “Liarmouth,” much of the banter between Plaza and Waters was on the blue side. At times, Plaza seemed to be acting like one of the off-kilter characters she has been known for playing ever since her days as the brooding and snarky April Ludgate on the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation.”
“If your penis could talk, what would it say?” was her opening question for Waters.
“Things are looking up!” he answered.
“What would be the answer to what a vagina would say?” he asked her back. “Come on in!”
Plaza, 38, read an excerpt from a glowing review of “Liarmouth” that was published in France, where the book has the title “Sale Menteuse: Une Romance Feel-Bad.”
For the next hour they touched on a wide range of topics and took questions from the audience, some personal. One question for Plaza from the audience: “Is there ever a time that you’re, like, not high?” A question for Waters: “When did you know that you were different?”
A few takeaways from the San Francisco event:
What Waters used to wear to San Francisco’s Deaf Club on Valencia Street, a venue for punk music in the late 1970s: “I dressed then like a hippie pimp. I had long hair that looked like bacon.”
He takes a bath every weekday morning: “Showers are too violent for me.”
His take on Sam Briton, the nuclear waste official who was fired from the Biden administration after they were caught, just like Marsha Sprinkle in Liarmouth, stealing suitcases at several airports: “I think [Briton] read the book.”
A critic once said that a plot in a John Waters movie is “nothing more than a clothesline to hang my filthy wash.”
Waters’ suggestion for the weirdest place in San Francisco: “If you want to see the weirdest thing, just take public transportation. Every person is insane.”
What Waters would be if he were the opposite of himself: “I guess I’d be a hetero sports fan who likes Yanni.”
In Baltimore, Waters greeted fans from behind a long white table that served as a barrier of sorts. Fans moved up in line until they got to the front and it was their turn to step forward and talk to the author. A few, unaware of the protocol, tried to walk around the table to get closer to Waters and were quickly asked to step back.
During a signing event for the hardcover edition of “Liarmouth” last year, Waters wore a face mask even when he was separated from fans by the table and Plexiglas partition. This year, with COVID numbers down, he wore a face mask but kept it below his chin.
For signatures, Waters used a fine tip Sharpie that leaves a bold, permanent mark. He famously likens his handwriting to the line drawings of Cy Twombly, one of his favorite artists.
Waters seems to have two signatures, one for two-dimensional objects and one for three-dimensional objects. For books and other flat materials, he dashes off a squiggle that contains the initials J and W. For three-dimensional objects, he tends to write out his full name.
After signing the items fans brought, Waters posed for photos, with him seated behind the clear partition and his fans sitting in front of it. An Atomic Books staffer took the photos using the fans’ cell phones, so they would have them right away.
The crowd at Atomic Books was good-natured and appreciative — of Waters and each other. After meeting with the author, some lingered to browse in the bookstore or have a drink in the back bar, called Eightbar, where Atomic Books was having a “Liarmouth paperback release party.” Waters stayed to sign even more copies of Liarmouth for people who ordered a book but couldn’t make it to the event.
After hours of book signing, Waters remained upbeat. Of all the fans who waited in line, “I only knew two,” he said. “It’s all new people. That’s great.”
Brittany McLean, who stood in line with Bret McLean, summed up the fans’ delight in meeting Waters: “I would have waited another hour.”
Waters had a sold-out performance of his “End of the World” spoken-word show on Saturday at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster. He’s heading later this month to Provincetown to spend the summer, his 59th there.
Before Waters leaves for Provincetown, he has at least one more local event: On May 24, he’ll receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Baltimore, during its 2 p.m. commencement ceremony for undergraduates at The Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
This is the latest of several degrees he’s received in recent years, along with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design, the School of Visual Arts in New York City and the Maryland Institute College of Arts.
The University of Baltimore will have two commencement ceremonies on May 24 for students in its College of Public Affairs, Merrick School of Business and Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences. It has scheduled a 10 a.m. ceremony for 197 graduate students and a 2 p.m. ceremony for 225 undergraduate students. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott will be the keynote speaker for the morning ceremony but is not receiving an honorary degree. University President Kurt Schmoke, who served as Baltimore’s mayor from 1987 to 1999, will speak at the 2 p.m. ceremony and will present Waters with his degree.
According to Chris Hart, the university’s director of communications and public affairs, Waters was recommended for his honor by a committee of the faculty, working in consultation with Schmoke, “in recognition of his support for free artistic expression and his focus on the rich diversity of Baltimore City.” Waters is the only person receiving an honorary degree from the University of Baltimore this year, Hart said.