John Waters Has Never Been Wrong

Back in Baltimore after the third annual John Waters Camp, where fans live and dress like his characters over a long weekend, the transgressive filmmaker was still processing his new status of respectability. “A lot of people said, ‘My parents told me about your movies,’” he says. “When I was young, their parents called the police when they found them with my movies. So a lot has changed.” His newest book, Mr. Know-It-All, tracks the Prince of Puke’s evolution into insider and offers advice—like harnessing one’s insanity and finding happiness through creative fulfillment—for the misfits and weirdos plagued by crazy ideas.

“I’m being Norman Vincent Peale for the neurotics,” he says, “although I actually don’t think my fans are neurotic. I think when society told them they were crazy, they learned how to triumph above that. Mr. Know-It-All is like all self-help books, but at the same time I might be telling you to go a very different way than you’ve been taught by your parents or what came before.”

Waters, who wrote all of his dozen feature films, published his first book, Shock Value, in 1981. The memoir covered the making of classic midnight movies, like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, and chronicled his childhood in Baltimore, the “hairdo capital of the world,” a line that anticipated his best-known work, Hairspray, which features a “hairbopper” played by Rikki Lake who championed body positivity before it was a thing. His next film, Cry-Baby, spoofed Elvis movies and their fans. While straight men from his generation like Bruce Springsteen cite Elvis as the inspiration to pick up a guitar, Waters writes that it was Elvis who made him realize he was gay. “Is there anything more rock ’n’ roll than whacking off the first time to Elvis Presley?”

Ricki Lake as Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad by Henny Garfunkel

Asked when he started writing, he says, “That’s what I really am, more than anything, a writer. That’s how I could discover forbidden worlds. Life magazine corrupted me because I read about beatniks and Tennessee Williams and drug addicts and homosexuals and everything.” He also learned at an early age that his delight in grotesque material could be contagious—and dangerous. As a 12-year-old at summer camp he wrote a horror story called “Reunion.” “I read it each night around the campfire,” he says. “At the end, there was this hideous gore and people had nightmares. The parents called the camp and called my parents and complained, so right from the beginning it was trouble.” Later, his first published work, “Inside an Unwed Mother’s Home,” written under the pseudonym Jane Wiemo, proved to be an exercise in drag. “It was written for Fact magazine,” he says, “but I made it up!”

Other books include Crackpot, a collection of journalism published in Rolling Stone, and Carsick, which is built around the stunt of hitchhiking across the country. Waters is no stranger to stunts—at screenings for Polyester, audience members received scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards with smells that corresponded to scenes from the film. In Mr. Know-It-All, he explains how the idea emerged from an unsympathetic critic’s warning to readers: “If you ever see Waters’s name on the marquee, walk on the other side of the street and hold your nose.” His response? Fill up scratch-and-sniff cards with smells of flatulence, gasoline, and skunk spray. Somehow, Waters knew that proving his critics right was always the best way to build an audience. He also needed a new business plan after the decline of midnight movie theaters. “People wanted to see [movies] at any time, at their house, with their friends, and smoke their pot that they didn’t have to hide from nosy ushers,” he writes in Mr. Know-It-All. “Better yet, they could jerk off while watching—the real reason home videos became so big.”

When I tell him that I was 13 the first time I saw a John Waters movie on VHS, he says, “God, that might’ve been illegal.” Then I name the film—Serial Mom—and he claimed it’s his best. In the book, he describes the original pitch: “Not the usual John Waters movie about crazy people in a crazy world, but a movie about a normal person in a realistic world doing the craziest thing of all as the audience cheers her on!” Kathleen Turner played the titular homicidal maniac straight, and a suburban rampage became punk rock catharsis, complete with a scene starring the band L7 scorching a Baltimore club as Camel Lips.

John Waters and Kathleen Turner by Greg Gorman

With right-wing provocateurs co-opting the absurd theatrics of the radical leftists who inspired him in the 1970s, Waters hasn’t given up the urge to provoke. In a chapter on the sex clubs of yesteryear, he pitches a business plan: a club for gay people to copulate with the opposite sex and create, he says, a “new sexual minority… Gay heterosexuality.” The name of the club? Flip Flop.

“They flipped out when [I proposed this at the John Waters Camp],” he says. “But they laughed, that’s the whole thing. The main thing I’m trying to do is make you laugh. If I’m taking you into a world that makes you uncomfortable, people are okay if I’m the guide, because I’m not mean. I’m mean about the Catholic Church, but that’s not mean, that’s protection. That’s religious war.”

It’s been 15 years since Waters has released a film, though he’s not bitter toward Hollywood. “I have been paid to write many movies since A Dirty Shame,” he says. “As I said in the book, I don’t really complain about anything, but I do believe that I’ve probably made my last movie. I think I’m just in the wrong business because my movies have shelf lives, like what you want with a book. It’s always in print and always there’s two copies in every bookstore, even 40 years later.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.

Lead image credit: Larry Dean

All Books Are Maybe Books: The Millions Interviews Tim O’Brien

Dad’s Maybe Book, the first in almost two decades from the National Book Award-winning author of The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, began with stories and reflections Tim O’Brien wrote for his sons after becoming a father at the age of 58. Over time, the book evolved into a recursive meditation on fatherhood, fiction writing, and the unexplainable mysteries of life.

Midway through the book, O’Brien shares a scene from his own childhood in the 1950s, when his father—often drunk and absent—gave him a book of Hemingway stories and asked him to pick five to read and discuss with him. When he finished, his father was nowhere to be found. As a boy, it was devastating, but in looking back on it now, discussing the Hemingway stories and telling us how the best fiction doesn’t explain, he arrives at a stirring description of what fiction does instead:
The essential object of fiction is to embrace and widen and deepen all that is unknown and unknowable —who we are, why we are—and to offer us late-night company as we lie awake pondering our universal journey down the birth canal, and out into the light, and then toward the grave.
O’Brien and I talked about the book, the life lessons he offers, and how to tell a true story.

The Millions: At what point did you know this would be a book book as opposed to a “maybe book”?

Tim O’Brien: All books are maybe books until they’re finished. Even War and Peace and the Bible. So it went beyond just a title to something important about the way we live our lives. We’re always provisional and conditional. Maybe there’ll be tomorrow and maybe there won’t. So that’s kind of how it developed. After I knew I would have children, I gave up writing and thoughts of publication for many, many years, but periodically I’d sit down and write a little vignette about something that caught my attention that I’d laughed at or cried at. It began really as little messages in a bottle to leave for my children. The way I wish my own dad had done.

At some point along the line, my youngest kid saw me writing and he said, “What is it?” And I said, “I hope it’ll be a book someday.” It was the first time I’d even said that, kind of not believing it when I said it. He said, “What are you going to call it?” And I said, “I don’t know. I don’t even know if it’ll be a book.” That’s when he suggested the title. Call it what it is. Call it a maybe book.

TM: Sometimes, in literature and in life, fathers inhabit a silence. Your book speaks from the place of late fatherhood, and you have a great deal to share, which made me think about how other fathers and sons might interact with the book. What did you want to share about fatherhood?

TO: There are several chapters called “Pride,” which get into my misgivings about the subject. We tend to erase our kids’ failures or remember the basket they made from the three point line, and then forget the 25 ones they missed. The same goes with grades and everything else you tend to take pride in. On the other side, disappointment and anger and sadness can come in. Then there’s the pride we take in our country and how we’ll kill and die for it. Pride can be a vice and it can kill people. So there’s this tension inside of me about this whole fatherhood and pride thing. Telling myself, “Watch it. Be careful. It can kill.” And not only can it, it does and has. This is an example of how the book moved from fatherhood to a kind of memoir, in a way. I suppose the book really is essentially a selective memoir. Not chronological, but picking out points of my life or things that have happened that have changed my life.

TM: You write about the dangers of certainty and absolutism. In our increasingly polarized world, what you think is the best way to beat them?

TO: Going After Cacciato ended with the word “maybe” as the second-to-last word, and it infects all my work, since I was in Vietnam when staying alive was always a maybe proposition. Everything seems conditional and I see few absolutes that I can’t some way modify or qualify or change my mind about.

There’s a kind of know-nothing rhetoric, when it comes to immigration and warfare. Who cares about the facts? We’re hearing it from very high places now on a regular basis, in the form of little tweets, which have their own kind of absolutist rhetoric. A tweet doesn’t qualify, show modification or exceptions to the rule. It just declares things. It’s disturbing. 

TM: Some of the book’s vignettes are similar in style to your short fiction, where you convey a truth while calling attention to the made-up parts. Did you start drawing intentionally on the writing style that you became famous for?

TO: That’s the age-old question of writing, in that it’s not going to be word for word dialogue. It’s going to be my reconstruction of things that were said, and so on, as faithful as I can be to what I recall. Never exact, but I think that’s true for everybody, not just me. If I were to ask you, “Tell me what happened yesterday,” how much you could get out of your mouth before you’ve blocked out the dish washing and the dialogue coming out of the TV set? I don’t think you could reconstruct what you said when you were shopping for groceries. But none of us can. So much is lost.

There’s a line in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: “Well, your memory speaks, but it stutters. It speaks in ellipses.” You do your best to give an impression of a thing that happened, but it’s not an exact replication of what occurred. A few things were so indelible they remained permanent. There’s a part where we’re vacationing in France and my mom died. I told my young kids, who were then 7 and 5. We were walking down this long road down to a little town in France, and one of my sons looked over to me. I asked, “Are you thinking about grandma?” He said, “No, I’m thinking about you thinking about grandma.” That’s indelible. I didn’t make that up.

I’m Very Bad at Being Secular: The Millions Interviews Nathan Englander

In Kaddish.com, Shuli (née Larry) tries to set things right with his dead father 20 years after paying a stranger to say Kaddish through the internet instead of doing it himself. The Millions chatted with author Nathan Englander, who discusses the fascinations that drove his novel of obsession, the creepiness of Instagram, and why it doesn’t make any sense to be a writer.

The Millions: The book opens in 1999, at a crossroads where many people allowed the line between technology and private life to dissolve. What kind of thoughts about the internet did you bring to it?

Nathan Englander: I grew up really religious. I remember being tossed out of class for asking a question. It was like Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews.” My rebellion was solely theological, which is just heartbreaking. They were asking us to believe in a god that could know what everybody in the world was doing, what they’d done before, and what they’re going to do next. Like a predictive omniscience. It was such a giant ask. And so looking back, I was like, we’ve built it! My Instagram is full-on creepy. It knows I’m hungry and it offers me food. I think I found out my wife was pregnant from, like, a side ad. It really knows your stuff.

TM: What do you think makes people susceptible to strong religious beliefs?

NE: We’re in a moment of extreme black-and-whiteness, and I’m obsessed with the gray space. So I thought, this radically secular Larry still has his old self in him. What would it take to flip? “He used to be religious, now he’s secular,” is so part of my bio. But then I was thinking, man, I’m so hardwired for switching. People tease me that I’m very bad at being secular. I feel like my wife’s afraid she’s going to come through the door and I’ll be koshering the kitchen, or I’ll turn Hasidic while she’s out picking up our kid or something.

I’m also interested in giving mass to jokes. One of my first stories, “Reb Kringle,” is about a Hasidic guy who can’t afford to pay for his synagogue, so he has to work as a Macy’s Santa Claus. I used to have long hair, and my sister’s religious friends used to say, “I could make such a great wig out of that hair.” I was like, that’s a good joke—a woman who desperately needs a man’s hair.

TM: Why was it important for Larry to mourn his father in his own way and reject (initially) the pressure from his family?

NE: When a sister believes it’s a brother’s job to say Kaddish, it’s not symbolic. You need to say this prayer eight times a day for 11 months, and if you miss once, your father burns in hell. I wanted to find a bridge between such extraordinary opposing realities within a family. You know, it had been 10 years since my father passed away when I started the book. It’s been really moving to be on the road and hear from people who’ve accidentally read it while mourning. People are reflecting on how they mourn. Your relationship continues. I really feel that I get closer to my father as the years go on.

TM: In a dream, Shuli’s father inspires him to take on a crazy task. It reads like satire, but the emotions are genuine. How did you balance the different registers?

NE: We’re all on a mission. It really doesn’t matter what it is. I can’t read any more articles about people who need to “summit” things. Did you watch Free Solo? I was like, is it even ethically tenable to film this guy? The fact that he’s not dead is actually surprising. I’m also interested in us having empathy for the framing of a mission. We all cheer this guy on. I’m almost 50 and I still need everyone’s approval. Maybe that’s the writing life. My wife is always like, “Are you on the phone with your mother again?” It doesn’t make any sense to be a writer. It’s not supposed to work. And even after it does, you feel like it doesn’t. So you have a mission. What are you supposed to do except be on it?

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

A Veteran Reflects on America’s Longest War

Erik Edstrom enrolled in West Point in 2004 with the goal to effect positive change in the world through a career in the military. Things didn’t go the way he hoped. His platoon suffered senseless casualties for a senseless, unending war, and in the years since he has examined the War on Terror’s “legal injustices, unforced errors, and gaffes.” Edstrom hopes his book Un-American “can be an antivenom to America’s fetish for war.” Part memoir, part treatise against blind patriotism and war for war’s sake, the book is a must-read for those who believe we should redirect our resources away from endless wars.

The Millions: How did you come to write about your time overseas?

Erik Edstrom: Un-American started not as a book but rather as a combat journal of sorts. In 2009, I began a one-year deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan. I was 23 years old and leading a platoon of light infantrymen in the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban—a district affectionately known as the heart of darkness. My platoon and I spent a lot of our time playing human minesweeper—either with our tires, or worse, our boots. Roughly 25% of the platoon became casualties.

We lived outside the wire, beyond the relative comfort and security you’d get from being on a large military base, in dilapidated mud shacks. We slept in the dirt and in our vehicles and had little access to satellite phones that would allow us to connect with the world outside. And even when you were at the main base, there wasn’t enough time to speak to everyone you cared about, so I chose to write.

I punched out long emails—about 10 pages per week—and sent them to a thread of about 100 people. After 52 weeks, I realized I had inadvertently created a ream of really emotional, primary source content from the nexus of the “war on terror.” As more time passed, I felt like every life event conspired to tell me that I needed to keep writing. The military provided me, through the medium of the daily news, with a constant stream of atrocities, whipping me to persist.

TM: What broader point are you making in this book about your military experience?

EE: The War on Terror remains one of the greatest crimes of the 21st century, and it’s difficult to recall a time in our past when more was spent to accomplish less.

I want America to reflect on whether we believe in justice, and if so, ask the question: “when do we intend to hold military and political leaders accountable for crimes committed across the Greater Middle East?”  In America, justice is subordinate to the military. America’s relationship with its military is creating a slew of unwanted consequences. Patriotism has mutated into blind support for almost anything the military does. Blind support betrays the American soldier, exacerbates problems the military intended to resolve, devastates people we are allegedly trying to help, and threatens all organized human life on this planet, escalating nuclear tensions while simultaneously diverting assets and attention from far larger threats such as climate change.

Our leaders have deliberately chosen to shackle generations of Americans to trillions in war debt to fight low-value, morally dubious conflicts in dusty parts of the world. This should spark sufficient outrage. The message that America needs to take away is that investing in climate change is an investment in national security.

TM: Your book is part memoir, part policy. How did you balance the two?

EE: I was thinking about it as a ghost-of-Christmas-past structure. If it were possible to be visited by three different visions before supporting another bout of American political violence in some other country, what sort of questions would you ask yourself? First, imagine your own death in the specific war you’re being asked to support. If you’re not willing to die in that conflict, then don’t ask anyone else to. The second part stems from my getting a small taste of what war and conflict are like and imagining the other side. If the birth lottery had allowed you to grow up in Iraq or Afghanistan, how would you think about an occupation of your country by people who are aiming guns at you? Third, imagine the opportunity cost. If you’re an able-bodied 25-year-old combat soldier and you look at a map of the world, you’re physically capable of going anywhere. Then imagine what that map would look like with an overlay of disabilities from battlefield amputations.

TM: What role do you think the military should play in the world?

EE: The role of the military is to defend the borders of the national territory and supplement global intervention when it is agreed upon by a governing body. In nine years wearing military uniforms I only trained to fight offensive wars. My training had nothing to do with the defense of American soil. I didn’t prepare to defend Washington D.C., or a protectorate like Costa Rica, or even a US military base plopped down in a foreign country. I was trained to force people in foreign countries to orient themselves towards the will of the U.S. military. If these people chose to defend themselves from us, it was my job to fight and kill them.

Humanity’s greatest problems will not be solved by the military. The military is not a tool for development and I certainly wasn’t issued a “humanitarian aid rifle” that shoots apples and warm blankets to the needy. To build a better world, I believe that we need to grow our capacity for cooperation, not conflict. This involves the reorientation of our patriotic instincts. We must minimize, rather than expand the scope and importance of the military in society and the world.