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John Waters talks about his debut novel, ‘Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance’

Nationwide book tour kicks off in D.C.

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(Book cover image courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

John Waters has directed movies; written non-fiction; given spoken-word performances; made visual art; modeled for fashion designers, even lent his voice to a country music video. After reaching his 70s, he added a new occupation: Novelist.

The result, after three years of writing, is “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It follows Marsha Sprinkle, a woman who steals suitcases at the airport; her mother Adora, who performs plastic surgery on pets; Marsha’s daughter Poppy, the head of a band of renegade trampoline bouncers; Marsha’s partner-in-crime, Daryl, and Daryl’s talking penis, Richard.

Set in Baltimore and points north, Liarmouth is what fans of John Waters might expect from him and yet different from anything he’s done before. As the title implies, it’s filled with stories and situations that seem hard to believe but may be just a few years away from happening, such as facelifts on pets. It also gives Waters a chance to write about sexual kinks including erotic tickling and ear masturbation. 

To promote his debut novel, Waters, 76, launched a coast-to-coast book tour that began in Washington, D.C. at Politics and Prose Bookstore, where he was interviewed by Baltimore-based writer and columnist Marion Winik. The following transcript of their conversation has been condensed and edited.

Marion Winik: John, this is your debut novel, and the convention is that a debut novel is usually highly autographical, a version of the author’s coming of age. Is this true of Liarmouth?

John Waters: No. I think I am every character in it. When you write a novel, you live with those people. You become those people. I read it aloud to make sure I don’t say the same word over and over and everything.

Q: Is there one character you identify with more than the others?

A: Well, Marsha, only because I love to have villains that are the heroines in my book. I think Marsha Sprinkle would get along with Francine Fishpaw. She would get along with Serial Mom. She would get along with all of them. But she’s a loathsome person. She does terrible things. She loves to lie. Lying gives her power. It makes her feel prettier. She does even practice lies. You know, just to get in shape, like going to the gym. She’s a contemptible person, really. She only eats crackers because she never wants to defecate. She finds that repellent. She just shoots out little pellets. She doesn’t have to wipe, even.

Q:This leads to my next question. I picture a book group, for example, the book club at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which is mostly ladies from Guilford, discussing this book. And I picture them asking the question: Is poop really this funny? 

A: Well, she learns to have a proper bowel movement, later, through love. She has a fudge dragon. That’s one that won’t even flush. You asked me. But anyway, this is a tiny portion of the book.

Q: Not too tiny. 

A: And Anne Tyler read this book. That was my favorite. Anne’s my friend and I said to her, “Oh, you poor thing. You have to read this book.”

Q: In comparing your films to this novel, I realized that you’re in fact a magical realist much like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende. And while I suppose CGI [computer generated imagery] could create a film equivalent for Richard the Talking Penis, I would argue that Richard has a life on the page that he could not have in film. Do you agree? Did you find that you could do things in fiction that you can’t do in any other medium?

A: Certainly you can. Because I don’t have to worry about the budget. If this were a movie, it would be NC-17, which would make it not get made, and it would also have a huge special effects budget, because there’s all this insane trampolining going on and bouncing and everything, and Daryl does have a talking penis. Now, there are talking penises in a lot of books. But in mine, his penis turns gay while he’s straight and it’s a battle. So could that become a movie? Sure. But somebody has to buy the rights from me to make it. That’s even funnier.

Q: Maybe Pixar. Going into the fudge dragon situation.

A: I thought I was trying to get away from that.

Q: The entire group of people is heading up to Provincetown for something called The Analingus Festival.

A: She’s giving the plot away. But it’s not so hard to imagine that in Provincetown they would have an Analingus Festival. They have Gay Pilots’ Week. They have Lesbian Crafts Week. They have Gay Family Week. They have Bear Week.They have every kind of obscure thing. So Analingus Week, maybe this book will make that happen. They could have children with face-painting, like, anuses, and Rimmer Bingo. Make it a real theme.

Q: Back to trampolines: Marsha has a daughter that’s alienated from her and has gotten involved with a movement. It’s kind of an identity, sort of like LGBTQIA+, but this one is trampolines.

A: She’s been shut down, from a trampoline accident at her Bouncy-Bouncy place.

Q: In the book, ‘trampoline’ is standing in for many, many different identities.  It gets to be the occasion to make many, many woke jokes, but the woke jokes are all about trampolines.

A: They have to bounce. Their car bounces when they’re in airports. They live on waterbeds so they can bounce. They only eat food that bounces.

Q: Where did this come from? Why trampolines?

A: I don’t know. I just thought of it. I read about trampoline parks and then I went to one. I know they get shut down because of accidents and stuff, so I tried to imagine a cult where it was like a speakeasy where she opens illegally, and these [trampoline people] — they call them Tramps – hang out and there are other Tramps and they see each other around. There are all these people that are going like this all the time and they can’t keep still, or they get depressed. So they keep bouncing more and more and they get higher and then they learn to do other things, like shake sideways and roll and all different spiritual things.

But once they learn these powers, they realize that there are drawbacks. There are side effects. So I believe, in a novel, once you set up this world, no matter how crazy it is, there are rules in that world and you have to respect it, no matter how crazy it is.  So even if there’s something that’s completely impossible to happen, as long as the logic of the novel that you set up follows it, it’s like having a continuity person in a movie. Copy editors do that. They go through with you and they say, ‘Well, how could this be?’ It doesn’t matter how could it be. Nobody jumps up in the air and stays up there. But still, if you believe in that happening, then there’s a certain logic that has to continue through the whole thing. Now, this book, I make fun of narrative. Like, 40 things happen in every sentence. If in four days, all this happened to any one person, they would be dead from exhaustion.

Q: But then they’d be at the Analingus Festival, so everything would be great. Back in the 1970s, Abbie Hoffman wrote Steal This Book and taught thousands of people how to make free long-distance phone calls and wring a profit from American Express travelers checks.

A: I did both of those things. You’d buy $500 worth of travelers checks. Your friend would go. They’d look the same. He’d report them stolen and I’d report them, and then we’d split it. You could cash them. One cashes the other’s.

Q: Aren’t you worried that your book is going to spawn a lookalike baggage claim theft [wave]?

A: Well, it is easy. To me, the security in airports after 9-11, it completely changed where you couldn’t do anything. Except the one thing they did was stop checking luggage tags. They used to [check tags], in every airport when you came in. Now they don’t. And it gave me the idea because I was with my friend Pat Moran once and we were leaving the airport and this man was chasing us up the escalator: “You’ve got my bag!” They do all look alike. So even if you get caught, you can say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought [it was mine].” And [Marsha] has a fake chauffeur with her so it even looks more real.

And there’s another thing. I know somebody that steals flight attendants’ pocketbooks when they get on a plane, because they’re always in the same place. So I do tell that. And my friend, when she did it, her friend was with her and she didn’t know and then they said, “All right. Someone took the flight attendant’s pocketbook. No one’s getting off this plane.” Like school. And she didn’t snitch, and the plane eventually took off. So I’ve heard of some of these things, but I exaggerated. I’m in a plane almost every day, touring with my shows and everything. So I’m doing research the whole time — how women always put their pocketbook in first and how you can get things when they come out of the X-ray.

An easy way to steal — the Baltimore airport has not done anything about this, but in the [bathroom] stalls, always, the hook for your coat, people reach right over and grab your bag and run. So, many airports have lowered it. Baltimore has not yet. You can still do that. When someone’s on the toilet, they just reach over and grab your coat or your bag when it’s on the hook. You’d have to pull your pants up to chase them. They’re out of there.

Q: You have to do a book-signing at BWI [airport.] As far as social commentary goes in this book, there’s plenty. It’s not just the trampolines. There’s Marsha’s mother. Tell us a little about Marsha’s mother. 

A: Her mother does facelifts on pets, illegally. Then the dog has a problem and thinks he’s a cat. So he’s trapped in a cat’s body. It like species change.

Q: He’s transitioning.\

A: It’s complicated. It is. But I don’t think animal plastic surgery is too far in the future. I can imagine it in Beverly Hills, I really can, where they try to get the cat to look like Joan Rivers, that wind tunnel look. But [Adora] has her own plastic surgery. She makes her belly button an outie, not an innie, because she’s repelled by nature catching things in her. She’s obsessed by nature’s garbage can, her belly button.

Q: I feel like the whole country is full of people who can’t make a joke about anything. I mean, God forbid we would talk about a dog who wants to transition to being a cat, or the people with the trampoline not being able to express their identity. I am wondering, how are you getting to make these jokes?

A: Well, because I don’t think they’re mean. I make fun of the rules in my own community that I live in, the community I love. I’m a bleeding-heart liberal. I say I’m an Antifa sympathizer who’s too old to run from the tear gas. But we made fun of ourselves, with Abbie Hoffman and that crowd. That’s the only thing the trigger-warning crowd doesn’t [do.] They don’t make fun of themselves, and they need to a little, you know? So I’m making fun of something I love, but I don’t think I’m mean-spirited.

I did a show this week and the first question that really threw me was: How did you avoid cancer? I quit smoking. But what they really said was: How did you avoid getting cancelled?… If I fear censorship today, it would not be from the right. It would be from maybe the left. A rich kid in school. I agree with what they’re saying. I just don’t agree with the self-righteousness about it. Make fun of yourself. I made fun of everything. Johnny Depp made of himself. That’s why he was in Cry-Baby. Patty Hearst made fun of being a victim by being in a movie. Traci Lords made fun of being in porn by playing a bad girl. If you make fun of what you’re trying to do, then you can work, because humor is what works. Humor is what gets people to listen, not standing up and badgering, saying you can’t do this.

Q: I think you are cancel-proof.

A: No, I don’t think I am. And I think you have to be very careful. There is now a sensitivity editor, a word I can barely say out loud, [in publishing.] My friend Bruce Wagner’s whole book stopped because of sensitivity editors. They go through the book. We sent [Liarmouth] to a sensitivity editor and they refused to call back. Even my editor didn’t know what to do with that, so we just went on. I did read through it with my editor, my agent, and I have three really smart women who work for me who are three generations and are really good copy editors and we went through it. And if anything was touchy today, we went even further liberal the other way to make it funnier.

Q: What’s an example of that?

A: Well, in the first part, there’s this bus accident and this one couple is trapped in their seats but they were Asians. Which was fine, but then during [the writing], there was Asian violence, so we can’t have that. Marsha is proud that all of her victims are diverse. And whenever I introduce a character, I say ‘a white man,’ because I read once that all writers, if someone is white they never say that but if it’s a black person, the first time it comes up they say ‘a black person.’ So I try to put, if it’s a white person, I say that. I get that race is the most touchy thing. But I wanted to have every race in the book. The Asian couple we changed to Italian American and that wasn’t offensive. Why? Because it’s the news. So I tried to make fun of that but embracing it by trying to be even overly politically correct while making fun of it.

Q: I think it’s inspiring and leading the way, to show that we can still laugh about these things and there still can be jokes about them.

A: Racism isn’t funny. I say that in my [spoken word] show, that basically Black Lives Matter is the most effective [movement] since Martin Luther King. But I wish Jet magazine, which I used to get and love, would come back and have it be a hip kind of magazine for [black readers[ that makes fun of white reaction to it. This black friend in Baltimore told me that a guy at work said to her, what’s your tracking number, your bank? She said, “For what?” He said, “I want to send you something.” He sent her $50. She said, “What’s this for?” He said, “You know.” Slavery? No wonder there’s rage out there. Fifty bucks? Like that’s going to make up for it. I thought thatJet magazine could be like Spy magazine, only to make fun of white liberals’ reactions to Black Lives Matter.

Q: That’s a really good idea. Are you going to write another novel?

A: I hope so…The reviews so far have been good. But I don’t know yet…The best thing that could happen to this book is if the Florida governor bans it.

Question from the audience: Why a novel now, at 76?

A: Well, it’s not that big a stretch because I’ve written15 movies. They’re fiction. In Carsick, the book where I hitchhiked across the country, the first two thirds of the book I made up as the worst rides I could get and the best, like in fiction. And then I wrote about the real way it happened. That was easy. I was in it. But [why now?] To do it. To challenge myself. The same reason I hitchhiked across the country at 66, why I took LSD when I was 70, for the first time in 50 years. Just to challenge myself. I don’t know. What am I going to do when I’m 80? Turn straight? That’d be a stunt. Old chickens make good soup.

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New book reveals that some secrets last a lifetime

‘All the Broken Places’ should be on your must-read list

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(Book cover image courtesy Pamela Dorman Books)

All the Broken Places
By John Boyne
c. 2022, Pamela Dorman Books
$28/400 pages

It shall not pass your lips.

No, That Thing You Do Not Talk About is off-limits in all conversation, a non-topic when the subject surfaces. Truly, there are just certain things that are nobody’s business and in the new novel, “All the Broken Places” by John Boyne, some secrets must last a lifetime.

She hated the idea that she would have to adjust to new neighbors.

Ninety-one-year-old Gretel Fernsby wasn’t so much bothered by new people, as she was by new noise. She hated the thought of inuring herself to new sounds, and what if the new tenants had children? That was the worst of all. Gretel never was much for children, not her own and certainly not any living below her.

Once, there was a time when Gretel could imagine herself with many children. That was nearly 80 years ago, when she was in love with her father’s driver, Kurt. She thought about Kurt through the years – he had fallen out of favor with her father, and was sent elsewhere – and she wondered if he survived the war.

Her father didn’t, nor did her younger brother but Gretel didn’t think about those things. What happened at the “other place” was not her fault.

She hadn’t known. She was innocent.

That was what she told herself as she and her mother fled to Paris. Gretel was 15 then, and she worked hard to get rid of her German accent but not everyone was fooled by her bad French or her story. She was accosted, hated. As soon as her mother died, she sailed to Australia, where she lived with a woman who loved other women, until it became dangerous there, too. She practiced her English and moved to London where she was married, widowed, and now she had to get used to new neighbors and new sounds and new ways for old secrets to sneak into a conversation.

OK, clear your calendar. Get “All the Broken Places” and just don’t make any plans, other than to read and read and read.

The very first impression you get of author John Boyne’s main character, Gretel, is that she’s grumpy, awful, and nasty. With the many bon mots she drops, however, the feeling passes and it’s sometimes easy to almost like her – although it’s clear that she’s done some vile things in her lifetime, things that emerge slowly as the horror of her story dawns. Then again, she professes to dislike children, but (no spoilers here!) she doesn’t, not really, and that makes her seem like someone’s sweet old grandmother. ‘Tis a conundrum.

Don’t let that fool you, though. Boyne has a number of Gretel-sized roadside bombs planted along the journey that is this book. Each ka-boom will hit your heart a little harder.

This is a somewhat-sequel to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” but you can read it alone. Do, and when you finish, you’ll want to immediately read it again, to savor anew.

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Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system

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(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

A Place Called Home: A Memoir
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

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New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

The Family Outing: A Memoir
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

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