Devoted to porn and complex modernist fiction

John Waters, king of cinema grotesquerie, owns at least 8,425 books and has written six. John Waters, king of cinema grotesquerie, owns at least 8,425 books and has written six. (Greg Gorman)
By Eugena Williamson
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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John Waters strives to achieve liberation through filth. His 17 films, salvos of charming grotesquerie, stand in service of this aim. His new memoir, “Role Models,’’ attempts to eliminate what he calls the tyranny of good taste, praising Commes des Garçons and outsider pornography with equal effusion.

A funny thing happened on the way to annihilating middlebrow decorum: Waters got famous, his mustachioed enthusiasm reaching a wide audience. Though it might surprise rigid defenders of family values, Waters is a great and rangy reader — he owns at least 8,425 books and has written six. He now shares a publisher with Edmund Wilson and Grace Paley, the venerable Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

What are you reading now?

“The Secret Life of Glenn Gould: A Genius in Love.’’ I’ve read every book about Glenn Gould, and I finally get to find out who he slept with.

My favorite new book is Lionel Shriver’s novel, “So Much for That.’’ She is the best at plot of any writer. That and Norris Church Mailer’s memoir (“A Ticket to the Circus’’) are the last two books I’ve really loved. I knew Mailer pretty well — his son, Stephen, was Johnny Depp’s enemy in “Crybaby’’ — and I really liked the book by his assistant, Dwayne Raymond, “Mornings With Mailer.’’

You seem to like novels from the 1940s.

It’s not so much the era as the writers — I like books that are difficult, and maybe there was more of a market then for difficult novels. The style of the writing was incredible, and once you learned to be able to read it, you felt like you were in a secret world.

So you’re a modernist?

Yes, and a feminist too.

What book would you send to a prisoner?

“Middlesex’’ by Jeffrey Eugenides. That I’ve sent to prisoners. It was a page-turner to me!

Have you ever read anything that shocked you?

Oh, sure. There’s a porno biography — “A Thousand and One Night Stands: The Life of John Vincent’’ by H.A. Carson. That is the most shocking book I’ve ever read, and I loved it. He would tell the most hideous stories of being a drug addict and having to strip onstage and [defecating] in the middle of his act, the worst side of being a male prostitute.

I collect shocking titles — “Sex on Horseback,’’ “Roughneck River,’’ “Convict Lust,’’ “Stars and Their Pets.’’ My most shocking books I put in the guest room, so people don’t stay real long.

You keep shocking books in the guest room and fiction in the living room — what do you keep in the bathroom?

Don’t ever read in the bathroom — reading material in the bathroom is the most disgusting thing I can think of.

You’re an advocate of Little Richard’s biography. Any other celebrity tell-alls you’d like to recommend?

Klaus Kinsky has a book called “All I Need is Love.’’ I have the first edition, which is quite rare. It was pulled by Random House because of all the sex stuff. He liked giant women — not fat. They took a lot of it out, all these eye-popping details no one wanted to know.

What book would you like to add to the high school curriculum?

“A Confederacy of Dunces,’’ “Falconer,’’ maybe a James Purdy novel, certainly Tennessee Williams and Jane Bowles.

I didn’t read until I was 17 because I hated the books we had to read in school. They were so boring! You have to give kids books that surprise them a little. I didn’t care about “The Life of Benjamin Franklin’’; I wanted to read “Naked Lunch.’’