Author John Waters (center) stands with the staff of Atomic Books at a book signing Sunday for his new novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance.” Photo courtesy of Atomic Books.
Author John Waters (center) stands with the staff of Atomic Books at a book signing Sunday for his new novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance.” Photo courtesy of Atomic Books.

Baltimore embodied its nickname as “The City That Reads” on Sunday – or at least The City That Gets Autographs and Selfies – as scores of John Waters fans lined up outside Atomic Books in Hampden to meet the writer and filmmaker during a book-signing event for his new novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance.”

Some of his fans came in costume. Others showed off Waters- and Divine-themed tattoos and tee shirts. A mother introduced her two small children. At one point John Waters came face-to-face with John Waters – a fan wearing a face mask designed to resemble the lower half of John Waters’ face, complete with pencil-thin mustache.

The two-hour book-signing event was part of a coast-to-coast tour that Waters launched this month to promote his 10th book and first novel, which was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and landed in stores on May 3. Set primarily in Baltimore, it’s a cautionary tale about a woman named Marsha Sprinkle, who steals suitcases at the airport, and what happens when she finally meets her match.

Dressed in black and white, Waters was seated behind a clear Plexiglas shield as fans approached to have their books signed and get selfies, with the author on one side of the shield and them on the other. Masks were required indoors. As with other Waters signings at the Falls Road bookstore, the line stretched down the block and around the corner as fans waited for their turn to interact with the writer. Many carried more than one book for him to sign.

But if the Atomic Books event was a rare chance for local admirers to spend time with Waters in his hometown, not just spot him at the grocery store, he won’t be here for long. Over the next few weeks, he’ll be back on the road with appearances scheduled for New York; Provincetown; Reno, Nevada; Bellingham, Washington; London; Madrid and Barcelona.

That follows a whirlwind month that has seen him visit Washington, D. C.; Cambridge, Mass.; Chicago; San Francisco; Los Angeles; San Luis Obispo; Las Vegas; Atlantic City; Richmond, Va.; Phoenixville, Pa., and Lawrence, Kansas, since mid-April.

The line of fans waiting to meet John Waters at Atomic Books on Sunday stretched down the block and around the corner. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Commencement speech in New York City

One of Waters’ next stops will be Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan, where he will be the commencement speaker for the School of Visual Arts on June 27. The school announced last week that Waters will be the keynote speaker for “an in-person makeup commencement in honor of the classes of 2020 and 2021,” whose exercises were held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bestselling writer Roxane Gay will be the keynote speaker during commencement exercises for the school’s Class of 2022 at Radio City Music Hall on June 22.

Waters, 76, was the guest speaker for the school’s 2020 commencement program, in which he addressed students from Baltimore and debuted one of his John Waters face masks. In his 2020 speech, Waters claimed to have found the cure for COVID-19: Artists and their ability to “inspire the world to notice and then alter its destructive behavior.”

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Waters also has spoken to graduating classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design. This will be his fourth commencement speech in the past seven years, as the School of Visual Arts recognizes degree candidates from 30 academic programs.

“I am thrilled to be invited back in person to spread my cock-eyed optimism for the second time to graduating students infected with the will to be artists,” Waters said in a statement issued by the school. “Here’s hoping there will never be a cure for creativity.”

‘False Negative’ in London and Madrid

Waters visited Poland last fall and has been scheduled for several months to bring his “False Negative” spoken-word show – an update of his popular “This Filthy World” talk — to The Barbicon in London on June 10.

He recently added a show at the Alcazar Theater in Madrid on June 7, as part of the international film and culture festival known as RIZOMA. The show is being billed as the Spanish premiere of his “False Negative” tour, and follows his first stage appearance in Madrid in 2011. Tickets went on sale last Friday.

“John is very excited to return to this city,” said festival founder and director Gabriela Marti, in announcing the show. “Now more than ever we are all in need of his irreverent humor.”

Three of Waters’ books have been published in Spanish by the Caja Negra publishing house: “My Models of Conduct” (Role Models); Carsick (Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America), and “Advice from a Know-It-All” (Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.) Spaniards also have a knack for renaming his movie titles, turning Serial Mom into “The Murders of Mom” or “The Mommy Murders”; Female Trouble into “Things for Females”; and A Dirty Shame into “The Sex Addicts.”

While in Spain, Waters will participate in Primavera Pro 2022, a music-oriented gathering in Barcelona, from June 6 to 9. Twice nominated for a Grammy Award in the spoken-word category, Waters will appear in conversation with singer Samantha Hudson, speaking about his use of music in his films.

“If there is one person who understands how to break trends, it is none other than John Waters,” reads a preview for his appearance. “He has not only changed the face of cinema and literature, but he has also done it in the music sector through his award-winning spoken word and the soundtracks of his films. And who better than Samantha Hudson to accompany him and talk about how to pull the cliché of good musical taste to pieces?”

John Waters signs a copy of his new novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” for a fan who is wearing a face mask with Waters’ face on it. Photo by Ed Gunts.
John Waters signs a copy of his new novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” for a fan who is wearing a face mask with Waters’ face on it. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Reopening The Stork Club in Oakland, California

Another recently-announced venture is the proposed reopening of the century-old Stork Club, a dive bar in Oakland, California, where Waters is advising the new owners.

According to The Oaklandside, TimeOut and other publications, Waters is helping resurrect the famed dive bar, which closed during the pandemic. The new iteration, expected to open July 1, is a collaboration between Billy Joe Agan and Matt Patane, the co-owners of Eli’s Mile High Club, and Marc Ribak, whose Total Trash Productions is behind the Mosswood Meltdown, formerly known as Burger Boogaloo, a music festival that Waters hosts every year in Oakland.

The new operation is a bar and music venue that will be inside the old Stork Club at 2330 Telegraph Road in Oakland and will be called Thee Stork Club. It’s aiming to bring back “the trash cocktail” and have a 1970s vibe a la The Madonna Inn, where Waters just appeared in San Luis Obispo.

“Waters, a part-time Bay Area resident who directed trash-embracing films like Polyester and Pink Flamingos, isn’t technically the fourth partner in the business, but as a longtime friend of [the owners], the cultural icon’s influence, mentorship and guidance is all over the design plan,” writes Eve Batey for The Oaklandside.

Waters “appears to be acting as a hands-gently-on guardian angel/mentor/artistic godfather for the venture,” which “is basically built to give him a place to stop by” when he’s in town, Batey explains. She notes that another Oakland bar called Crybaby “gives a nod to Waters” and his 1990 comedy “Cry-Baby,” but doesn’t have a direct relationship with him.

“Waters plans to be a fixture at the bar, and we can only imagine this is going to be a surreal and fantastic club experience that will lead to all the very best hangovers,” writes Erika Mailman in TimeOut.

This is the second time in a year that Waters has been instrumental in the reopening of a storied night spot. Last year, he helped breathe life into The Club Charles in Baltimore, urging its owner in a letter to reopen after a 21-month hiatus due to COVID. It came back in December.

Baltimore: A good place to have COVID

Waters has taken extensive health precautions during the COVID pandemic – getting vaccinated, wearing masks, eliminating the Meet-and-Greet sessions at the end of his spoken-word shows and cancelling his own holiday parties for the past two years.

During an appearance in New York on May 5, Waters mentioned that he tested positive for COVID at some point. He did not say when he had the virus or for how long or how severe it was for him.

True to form, Waters made light of his bout with the virus, turning the disclosure into a plug for his hometown. During his speaking engagements around the country, he frequently extols Baltimore’s virtues, saying he likes its people, its cost of living, and its proximity to New York and Washington, among other factors. This time, he casually slipped into his conversation with interviewer Michael Cunningham that he thought Baltimore was a good place to have COVID.

“When I had COVID, of all the places to live, I was happy I could be there,” he told Cunningham during a Q&A at the Symphony Space performance venue in New York. “My house is bigger than my apartment here, so you know it was better to have COVID there. And Johns Hopkins is there, good hospital.”

Waters jokes that he used to get sick even before COVID, from people hugging him and otherwise interacting with him after his in-person shows. He said he’s turned his Meet-and-Greet sessions for VIPs into “Group Therapy” gatherings in which fans can still get a photo with him but can’t get too close.

“I don’t pose next to people” anymore, he said. “I used to do it everywhere. I used to get sick without COVID. I used to come home [after] hugging everybody, sitting next to me in each city.”

During a book signing Sunday at Atomic Books for his new novel “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” author John Waters signs a fan’s arm. Photo By Ed Gunts.
During a book signing Sunday at Atomic Books for his new novel “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” author John Waters signs a fan’s arm. Photo By Ed Gunts.

Staying busy

How does he do it all? Waters said he’s already-written his commencement speech for the School of Visual Arts, and he timed his appearances in Spain and England to be within days of each other so he only has to cross the Atlantic once each way.

At the book signing yesterday, he seemed to feed off the energy of his fans and appeared delighted to spend time with them and see what they brought to show him. Despite the COVID barrier erected at Atomic Books, he signed his name on at least one fan’s bare skin.

Unlike some celebrities who retire at a certain age, Waters said he wants to stay busy and keep traveling for as long as he can, while people still want to see him. He said he already has 20 dates lined up for his Christmas show later this year.

“I believe you have one life and I believe it’s very short,” he said. “In the amount of time you get, I want to do every single thing I can while I’m here, while I have the chance, while it’s lasting, while I still have a book tour where people want to read what I want to do, and people want to see a movie or want to hear what I have to say. Keep doing it until the day you drop dead. And if I retired, I probably would drop dead maybe. I don’t know.”

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Ed Gunts

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