Jessica Gross | Longreads | Sept. 25, 2014 | 13 minutes (3,300 words)
Caitlin Moran has worked as a journalist, critic, and essayist in the U.K. for over two decades, since she was 16. In her 2011 memoir/manifesto, How to Be a Woman, she argued women should keep their vaginas hairy, said she has no regret over her own abortion, and advocated for the term "strident feminist." Moran brings the same gallivanting, taboo-crushing spirit to her debut novel, How to Build a Girl, which follows Johanna Morrigan, a working class teenager, as she navigates her way toward adulthood. Morrigan shares a few traits with Moran, from her background and career path to her obsession with music and masturbation.
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As I read How to Build a Girl, I pictured you laughing uproariously to yourself as you were writing it. But in the acknowledgments, you say, "Writing a book is literally worse than giving birth to a baby—in hell."
I wrote the acknowledgments in a welter of self-pity. I love writing—it's the easiest thing in the world for me to do. But all through that summer, my children and husband would disappear and come back all covered in sand, having been to the beach while I sat at the table I'm at now, in the garden, chain smoking roll-up cigarettes, chain-drinking coffee. I was working so hard that I genuinely thought I'd have to go to the psychiatrist and get some valium prescribed to me. I've always been incredibly cheerful and laid-back, and that summer I was incredibly anxious and depressed, like my head was going to explode. There was one morning where I was putting the coffee pot on, and I noticed it said that it made 12 cups of espresso. I'd been drinking that, diluted with milk, before lunchtime. I stopped drinking the coffee, and it all got a bit easier after that. Do not drink 12 espressos before midday. It's enormously bad for your mind.
So was my image completely wrong? Were there moments you laughed aloud?
Oh, so much so. Every time you write something, it's good to have someone in mind that you want to amuse. For this book, it was my friend John Niven, the writer and screenwriter, who's got the most beautifully dark sense of humor; nothing is too extreme for him. So particularly the chapter all about masturbation, where Johanna is talking about using a deodorant bottle as a dildo, I was just sitting out here at this table laughing my ass off, imagining him reading it.
Like you, Johanna Morrigan is a working class girl from Wolverhampton, she's very into masturbation and music, and she gets a job as a music critic at 16.
Yes—I was that pioneer girl, a fat, teenaged journalist in London, and so is Johanna. But a lot of the penises she encounters were not ones that I myself encountered; they were penises that friends encountered. A lot of mistakes that she makes are things I stole from other people's lives. There's a really famous journalist in our country called Julie Burchill, who started working for the NME when she was 16. She was a hot working-class girl from Bristol with a flash of lipstick and dark hair, who wrote these really rebarbative pieces and became more famous than most of the bands that she interviewed, and was the center of this gang. When I was writing about Johanna, I thought it'd be far more fun to make her like Julie Burchill than me. Because when I was a teenage music journalist, I'd just stand in the corner of the magazine, really shy, going, "I really like Crowded House, would anyone like to be my friend?" I certainly wasn't part of a great gang. It was far more fun to make up a really interesting character than the sad lump of my own teenage years.
Was it wish fulfillment, in a way?
I did want to have a gang. I came from such a big family—there were eight kids, and we were all taught at home, so we were together all the time. When I moved to London, being on my own for the first time ever, not having a group of people that I went out and did everything with, with our own shorthand and jokes, it was like having my arm cut off. So that's why the idea of that story appealed to me, because I was desperate to find a group of friends.
Johanna's brother Krissi is gay. Was it important to you to have a gay male character in the novel? Was it a conscious choice at all, or did he just emerge from your imagination that way?
Well, the character was based on my sister Caz, who I wrote about in How to Be a Woman. We were out drinking one night when I was halfway through the novel, and she turned to me and went, "If you've based another fucking character on me—an angry ginger girl who keeps having a go at her fat gobby sister—I will cut your face off."
I came back and went, "Shit. I better make it a boy, then." I still needed them to have a conversation where they're talking about Johanna having sex for the first time, and the sibling character is interested, so he would have to be a gay boy. That was halfway through the book, and after that the character morphed completely. All my favorite art is created by people having to work around massive restrictions. So you're often at your most inventive when you've been physically threatened. [Laughs.]
To a certain extent, there have to be bits of you in every character, and I saw you in John Kite, the musician who becomes Johanna's major crush. In an interview, he delivers a searing polemic about poverty that reminds me a lot of your own polemical writing.
Totally. I was so annoyed by all the rock star characters I've ever read in books—it's always some skinny bloke in black leather trousers who's wearing shades and just kind of smokes his cigarettes and does a really bad impression of Mick Jagger and is a bit stupid and venal and just goes "All right!" and then falls over. Coming up as a music journalist in the early '90s, those were not the boys in bands I was meeting. They were brilliant working-class auto-didacts, well-dressed but not much money, who would sit in the pub and go off on boozical flights of fancy and be the best company ever. I wanted to write a musician like those—the ones that are properly your heroes—to explain why people do give their hearts away to a rock-and-roll band. When girls fall in love with boys in bands, if it's this clichéd stupid rock star in black leather trousers, you think less of that girl for falling in love with that boy. I was like, "I want to write a proper rock star I fancy." Now, as a consequence, I'm madly in love with this character that I made up. I don't know if that makes me egotistical or a complete psychopath, but now I just need John Kite to be alive so I can have sex with him.
How to Build a Girl is the first in a trilogy. What comes next?
The second book, called How to Be Famous, deals with defining working class culture, which is utterly dismissed in this country and has never been properly defined, and also what the nature of genius is. It'll also have a lot of really good sex, because this first book is about really bad sex. And then the third book is called How to Change the World, and that's about how you would go about forming your own political party and changing the world. I want to novelize that, so by the end of that book you should know how you could start a revolution.
What draws you to the prescriptive how-to title formulation?
I like the idea of reading something that has a stated objective at the beginning, and by the end, you learn something. That's what will make you go, "Yes, I will give my time to this thing." Also, one of the things women are most addicted to is self-help books. All of them, to my mind, propagate an idea of womanhood that seems like no fucking fun at all—be more kind and more generous and have lots of colonic irrigation and meditate.
Men are not being taught that shit. They're being taught: have fun, express yourself, live your life. We treat men—in a good way—like they're dogs or animals, running around and being sensual and living in the moment. And then women are supposed to be some fucking weird llama on the side of hill trying to ascend to a higher plane. I'm all for being spiritual and happy and thoughtful, but fuck me, the option you're getting is not much fun at all. So my whole idea of how-to is the opposite of self-help. Rather than being told, "Here's all the things you should do," it's, "Here's the things you don't need to bother with." It's, "Do as thou wilt."
Have you ever written an advice column?
I did for a while, when I was 18, for a magazine. But all the things that I've learned most in life have been from watching brilliant characters in books and films. If you really feel that you've got advice, I think it's best to put it in a story, in a character, instead. That's the stuff that sticks in people's heads. Plus you get paid more. I'm very much a bitch-gotta-pay-rent girl. I worked my way up from the ghetto and I think women should be paid for their great ideas.
There's a lot of masturbation in this book, and part of what I really appreciated about those scenes is the inventiveness of Johanna's sexual fantasies.
When I was 13 and I had a very rich imagination, one of the first books I read was a book called My Secret Garden, by Nancy Friday. She was a sex researcher who interviewed thousands of women about their sexual fantasies. They were incredible psychedelic, synesthesiastic, strobing, colorful, insane things—women talking about having sex with wolves or turning into gigantic robots or putting whole cities inside them and using them as a dildo. It was like, woah, this is telling me that female sexuality is very different from male sexuality. All we usually see is male sexuality, female sexuality tempered through the male gaze, or the kind of female sexuality that we feel comfortable admitting in a male-dominated world. Women have to go, "Yeah, I have lesbian fantasies!" or "Yeah, I'd have anal sex!" but you never hear them going, "I have a dream where halfway through, my lover turns into a river that's flowing out through the top of my head and then I assume godlike status over the universe and rub clouds across my nipples," because they would feel foolish and weird, and also like they wanted too much. I mean, that's the other thing: men come once and that's it. Women can come for hours. And so I think women are very conscious of trying to limit their sexuality and make it seem like they don't want too much.
Female masturbation is more harshly stigmatized than male, but there's shame around it for both genders. What hobby could be more harmless to others—and more beneficial to the person doing it?
Totally! I'd like it to get to the point, and I think this would do so many families so much good, where parents of teenaged kids who are just being horrible and stroppy and sulky could legitimately say, "Just go upstairs and have a wank and then come back down and we'll talk about it." Because that's clearly what they need to be told!
Do you say that to your children?
Possibly as a result of having a loud, outspoken, feminist mother, my children are quite puritanical and proper at the moment. They're 13 and 11. Recently, I left them to be babysat by my brother Joe. He was teaching them how to play poker, and they were really desperate not to lose against him. I was like, "Why is it so bad if you lose?" and they said, "Joe said that if we lose, we have to read your book—the dirty bits!" They were utterly horrified by the idea. As you should be, I suspect, when you're only 13 and 11 and your mum's written a book about sneaking a deodorant bottle up her fanny. [Laughs.] Fanny here means vagina, not anus.
Much of the novel deals with poverty and the working class, and you convey how difficult it is to live on such little money. Are you writing for readers who can identify with that experience, or readers who have a hard time understanding?
Well, both, really. It comes back to how best you campaign for equality and how best to make clear to the world that there are massive levels of privilege and huge sectors of society aren't given access to the media to tell their stories, make films, make TV shows. You can write nonfiction about those subjects until the cows come home, but the best thing to do is to show a small, scared child being raised on welfare, who knows that that money can be taken away at any time. That does physically change you, being raised on adrenaline. It's easy to dismiss statistics and newspaper articles, particularly if you have no experience of it yourself. Whereas when you've read a story about a girl sick with nerves, shitting herself and passing out with anxiety, that explains more than reading a report would. I mean, talking about female sexuality is a huge issue for me, but a lot of the sexual revolution stuff in the book is a light relief from the Marxist polemic of being raised on welfare. But the sex is political as well!
That sense of injustice is counterbalanced by the pride in identifying as a working class person. In an interview with the BBC, you lamented the fact that as soon as a working class person achieves success, she's co-opted by the middle class.
I keep being told that I can't be working class anymore, because I now have this posh sort of accent and I live in a nice house and I'm successful. The middle classes absorb you and take your life as their victory. You join their team against your will. What that means is that all the things to do with the working class are to have failed, and to be poor, and to not succeed. And that's complete bullshit.
Why do I never hear about how clever the working classes are? It's always just like, "Yeah, they're just good at drinking and being animals that we can use to fuel industry." It's like, no, they've got a different way of thinking. I can be so much more stupid now I've got money. If my toilet breaks, I can get a man to come mend it. But when my dad's toilet would break, he would have to take that toilet apart and work out how to mend it. If you're poor, you have to invent things, and it's that inventiveness I love so much. The Beatles being the case in point—they just took what they had and turned it into something amazing. A middle class band would never have done that.
You chose your own name, Caitlin, out of a book when you were 13 years old, and pronounced it in an unusual fashion—"Cat-lin."
It's the stupidest thing I've ever done, and that includes trying to get a wasp stoned and playing chicken on the motorway. Because we didn't go to school, I went to our local library every day, and after I'd been doing that for about six months I decided that I was going to read every book in the library, section by section. The first section I chose was the paranormal section, because when you're a teenager, it seems like that's where they're hiding all the secrets. I read a book about numerology, where each letter is given a numerical value, and then you add things up to tell the future. I did numerology on my christened name, which was Catherine, and it said I would not be successful. So I spent about six months coming up with all these different names and working out what their value was in numerology until I came across Caitlin Moran, and it was like, "Yes, that one will be successful." And I was like, "Great."
But then, because I got the name out of a book, I didn't know how you pronounced it. I'm literally the only person in the world who pronounces it "Cat-lin." I feel so embarrassed—I've spent all my life trying not get special treatment, so the agony of having a name that everybody pronounces incorrectly and then feels bad about, and then I have to go, "I'm really sorry, that's not even my name, but you pronounce it this way," I just feel like it's the most ridiculous problem that anyone's ever given themselves. I am such a penis.
I listened to How to Be a Woman as an audiobook, which you recorded. Did you enjoy doing that?
I'll tell you what—it was absolutely mental. I had to write that book in five months flat, so I'd never read it through. So I was sitting there in the booth in front of the microphone, with my studious glasses and the headphones on, and about seven pages in, I was like, "Oh, my God, this book's incredibly explicit!" I wrote it with such velocity, in this sort of panicky dream state, and it genuinely didn't occur to me that anyone would read it. Reading it out loud and realizing how rude it was, I shocked myself. It was almost to the point where I was going, "I didn't even know a human body could do that!" although I had written it and it had happened to me.
What books are next on your reading list?
For the next couple of months, it's Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist, Amy Poehler's Yes Please, and Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl. Those are the three big books I'm looking forward to. They're going to be amazing. It's a great time to be a woman, isn't it? We've got so much fun to have.
Edited by Mike Dang.