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

Nationwide book tour kicks off in D.C.



(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 goes behind the scenes of ‘A League of Their Own’

‘No Crying in Baseball’ offers tears, laughs, and more



(Book cover image courtesy of Hachette Books)

‘No Crying in Baseball: The Inside Story of ‘A League of Their Own’
By Erin Carlson
c.2023, Hachette Books
$29/320 pages

You don’t usually think of Madonna as complaining of being “dirty all day” from playing baseball. But that’s what the legendary diva did during the shooting of “A League of Their Own,” the 1992 movie, beloved by queers.

“No Crying in Baseball,” the fascinating story behind “A League of Their Own,” has arrived in time for the World Series. Nothing could be more welcome after Amazon has cancelled season 2 of its reboot (with the same name) of this classic film.

In this era, people don’t agree on much. Yet, “A League of Their Own” is loved by everyone from eight-year-old kids to 80-year-old grandparents.

The movie has strikes, home runs and outs for sports fans; period ambience for history buffs; and tears, laughs and a washed-up, drunk, but lovable coach for dramady fans.

The same is true for “No Crying in Baseball.” This “making of” story will appeal to history, sports and Hollywood aficionados. Like “All About Eve” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “A League of Their Own” is Holy queer Writ.

Carlson, a culture and entertainment journalist who lives in San Francisco, is skilled at distilling Hollywood history into an informative, compelling narrative. As with her previous books, “I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy” and “Queen Meryl: The Iconic Roles, Heroic Deeds, and Legendary Life of Meryl Streep,” “No Crying in Baseball,” isn’t too “educational.” It’s filled with gossip to enliven coffee dates and cocktail parties.

“A League of Their Own” is based on the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). From 1943 to 1954, more than 600 women played in the league in the Midwest. The league’s players were all white because the racism of the time prohibited Black women from playing. In the film, the characters are fictional. But the team the main characters play for – the Rockford Peaches – was real.

While many male Major and Minor League Baseball players were fighting in World War II, chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, who owned the Chicago Cubs, founded the league. He started the AAGPBL, “To keep spectators in the bleachers,” Carlson reports, “and a storied American sport–more important: his business afloat.” 

In 1943, the Office of War Information warned that the baseball season could be “scrapped” “due to a lack of men,” Carlson adds.

“A League of Their Own” was an ensemble of women’s performances (including Rosie O’Donnell as Doris, Megan Cavanagh as Marla, Madonna as Mae, Lori Petty as Kit and Geena Davis as Dottie) that would become legendary.

Girls and women  still dress up as Rockford Peaches on Halloween.

Tom Hanks’s indelible portrayal of coach Jimmy Dugan, Gary Marshall’s depiction of (fictional) league owner Walter Harvey and Jon Lovitz’s portrayal of Ernie have also become part of film history.

Filming “A League of Their Own,” Carlson vividly makes clear, was a gargantuan effort.  There were “actresses who can’t play baseball” and “baseball players who can’t act,” Penny Marshall said.

The stadium in Evansville, Ind., was rebuilt to look like it was in the 1940s “when the players and extras were in costume,” Carlson writes, “it was easy to lose track of what year it was.”

“No Crying in Baseball” isn’t written for a queer audience. But, Carlson doesn’t pull any punches. 

Many of the real-life AAGPBL players who O’Donnell met had same-sex partners, O’Donnell told Carlson.

“When Penny, angling for a broad box-office hit chose to ignore the AAGPGL’s queer history,” Carlson writes, “she perpetuated a cycle of silence that muzzled athletes and actresses alike from coming out on the wider stage.”

“It was, as they say, a different time,” she adds.

Fortunately, Carlson’s book isn’t preachy. Marshall nicknames O’Donnell and Madonna (who become buddies) “Ro” and “Mo.” Kodak is so grateful for the one million feet of film that Marshall shot that it brings in a high school marching band. Along with a lobster lunch. One day, an assistant director “streaked the set to lighten the mood,” Carlson writes.

“No Crying in Baseball,” is slow-going at first. Marshall, who died in 2018, became famous as Laverne in “Laverne & Shirley.” It’s interesting to read about her. But Carlson devotes so much time to Marshall’s bio that you wonder when she’ll get to “A League of Their Own.”

Thankfully, after a couple of innings, the intriguing story of one of the best movies ever is told.

You’ll turn the pages of “No Crying in Baseball” even if you don’t know a center fielder from a short stop.

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Season’s best new books offer something for every taste

History, YA, horror and more on tap



(Book covers courtesy of the publishers)

Shorter days, cooler temps, and longer nights can send you skittering inside, right? Don’t forget to bring one of these great books with you when you settle in for the fall.

Releasing in September, look for “Between the Head and the Hands” by James Chaarani, a novel about a young Muslim man whose family turns him away for being gay, and the teacher who takes him in (ECW Press, Sept. 10). Also reach for “Cleat Cute: A Novel,” by Meryl Wilsner (St. Martin’s Griffin, Sept. 19), a fun YA novel of soccer, competition, and playing hard (to get).

You may want something light and fun for now, so find “The Out Side: Trans and Nonbinary Comics,” compiled by The Kao, Min Christiansen, and Daniel Daneman (Andrews McMeel Publishing). It’s a collection of comics by nonbinary and trans artists, and you can find it Sept. 26.

The serious romantic will want to find “Daddies of a Different Kind: Sex and Romance Between Older and Younger Gay Men” by Tony Silva (NYU Press), a book about new possibilities in love; it’s available Sept. 12. Historians will want “Glitter and Concrete: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City” by Elyssa Maxx Goodman (Hanover Square Press, Sept. 12); and “Queer Blues: The Hidden Figures of Early Blues Music” by Darryl W. Bullock (Omnibus Press, Sept. 14).

In October, you’ll want to find “Blackouts: A Novel” by Justin Torres (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a somewhat-fantasy novel about a dying man who passes a powerful book on to his caretaker. Look for it Oct. 10. Also on Oct. 10, grab “Love at 350º” by Lisa Peers (Dial Press Trade Paperback), a novel about love at a chance meeting at a baking-show contest and “The Christmas Swap: A Novel” by Talia Samuels (Alcove Press), a holiday rom-com.

You’re just warming up for the fall. Look for “Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date” by Ashley Herring Blake (Berkley, Oct. 24) and “Let Me Out,” a queer horror novel by Emmett Nahil and George Williams (Oni Press, Oct. 3).

Nonfiction lovers will want to find “Dis… Miss Gender?” by Anne Bray (MIT Press, Oct. 24), a wide, long look at gender and fluidity; “Friends of Dorothy: A Celebration of LGBTQ+ Icons” by Anthony Uzarowski and Alejandro Mogollo Diez (Imagine, Oct. 10); and “300,000 Kisses: Tales of Queer Love from the Ancient World” by Sean Hewitt and Luke Edward Hall (Clarkson Potter, Oct. 10).

For November, look for “Underburn: A Novel” by Bill Gaythwaite (Delphinium), a layered novel about Hollywood, family, and second chances. It comes out Nov. 14. For something you can really sink your teeth into, find “The Bars are Ours: Histories and Cultures of Gay Bars in America, 1960 and After” by Lucas Hilderbrand (Duke University Press, Nov 21). It’s a huge look at the spaces that played strong roles in LGBTQ history.

And if you’re looking for yourself or for a special gift in December, check out “Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects” by David Evans Frantz, Christina Linden, and Chris E. Vargas. It’s an arty coffee table book from Hirmer Publishers of Munich. You can find it Dec. 20. Also look for “Second Chances in New Port Stephen: A Novel” by T.J. Alexander (Atria / Emily Bestler, Dec. 5) and if all else fails, ask for or give a gift certificate.

Season’s readings!

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Intriguing historical novel based on the true story of 1800s lesbian couple

‘Learned by Heart’ by Emma Donoghue a moving read



(Book cover image courtesy of Little Brown)

‘Learned by Heart’
By Emma Donoghue
C. 2023, Little Brown
$28/324 pages

English landowner, diarist and businesswoman Anne Lister (1791-1840) married her last partner Ann Walker in a marriage ceremony at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate, York. This is considered by many to be the first lesbian marriage in England, and likely, the world.

Lister, born in a landowning family at Shibden in Calderdale, West Riding of Yorkshire, who’s been called “the first modern lesbian,” is having a moment. In two seasons in 2019 and 2022, “Gentleman Jack,” a riveting series, based on Lister’s diaries, co-produced by the BBC and HBO (streaming on Max), dramatized Lister’s relationship with Walker.

“Learned by Heart,” an intriguing historical novel by Emma Donoghue is based on the true story of the queer relationship of Lister and Eliza Raine. Raine is believed to have been Lister’s first lover.

Much of the novel takes place in 1805-1806, when, at age 14 and 15, Lister and Raine were students at Miss Hargrave’s Manor School, a boarding school for girls in York.

Raine was born in Madras (now Chennai) in India. Her father, who was English, was a surgeon with the East India Company. He and an Indian woman, whom he did not legally marry, had Raine.

In an author’s note, Donoghue writes of a letter of Raine’s that refers to her as having “sprung from an illicit connection.” Another letter calls Raine a “lady of colour.”

Raine is sent to England at age 6. After her father and mother die, she’s left an orphan with a small inheritance.

Through “Gentleman Jack” and her diaries (which are being digitalized), Lister, with her brilliance and charismatic personality, has become a queer culture icon.

Raine is comparatively unknown. Perhaps, for this reason, “Learned by Hand” focuses on Raine’s point of view.

Raine arrives at the Manor School before Lister. Prior to Lister’s arrival, Raine is mousy, rule abiding.

Because Raine’s from India, she sleeps alone in a small room. Aware of unspoken racial bias (against people who are part Indian and part English), she wants to blend in – to stay out of trouble in this school with its many rules. “She’s trained herself to wake at seven,” Donoghue writes, “just before the bell.”

When Lister arrives at the school, Raine’s world and personality are transformed. Lister, known even at this young age for being too smart for her own good, is assigned to room with Raine — isolated from the other girls — in the tiny room they call “the Slope.” Donoghue skillfully illuminates how the girls’ friendship becomes sexual, passionate first love.

One day, Lister and Raine, who call each other by their last names, alone in a church, conduct a marriage ceremony for themselves.

“Learned by Heart” is heartbreaking because its chapters are intertwined with letters that Raine writes to Lister in 1815.

It’s clear from this correspondence that Lister has (and will have) other lovers than Raine. And, that, sadly, Raine is writing from what is then called an “insane asylum.”

As is evident from “The Pull of The Stars,” and her other historical novels, Donoghue has an unerring talent for creating fascinating tales out of true stories.

Unfortunately, as so often happens, Lister, the bad, outrageous girl, is far more interesting than Raine. Raine frequently comes across as loyal, passionate, but too needy and clingy. As Lister’s Barbara Stanwyck to Raine’s June Cleaver.

“There’s nothing noble about Anne Lister…,” Donoghue wrote of Lister in “The Guardian.”
Lister had the sexual ethics of a bonobo, Donoghue continued, “lying to every lover as a matter of policy.”

Yet, Lister is Donoghue’s hero. “Because she looked into her heart and wrote about what she found there with unflinching precision,” Donoghue wrote in her “Guardian” essay.

“I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs,” Lister wrote in a coded entry in her diary on Oct. 29, 1820. (Lister wrote one-sixth of her diaries in code to hide from homophobic eyes.)

“Learned by Heart” is a moving, entertaining read. Raine’s story along with Lister’s should be told. Even the clingy can be unsung heroes.

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