CAITLIN Moran’s inclusive take on life puts equality first and then invites a conversation about everything else – preferably with wit. She does just that with her new novel
Interviewing Caitlin Moran is like playing a frenzied game of Swingball in a Wolverhampton garden in the Eighties, where her seven younger siblings have turned the ground into a muddy quagmire with their water pistols. While you flail around trying to keep up she never stops talking and laughing, volleying and slamming ideas and opinions on everything from abortion to Ullapool, feminism and family, w***ing and the working class. All you can do is lob questions in as she talks, and she’ll finish what she’s saying and answer the next one at the same time.
“Yes, if you’re from a big family you talk very fast and over each other,” she says. “You eat really fast too. If you don’t eat it in five minutes, it’s gone. The first time my husband, who has one brother, met my family, it was a culture shock. Because I’m the oldest there was a houseful of younger kids, and immediately I was on the floor wrestling my nine-year-old brother, punching him in the head. We’re still like that. Last time they all visited they put a bag over my head and pulled me down the stairs. Nobody makes me laugh like they do.”
Given that Moran’s home life was secure and happy, albeit lacking in cash, did she ever want to replicate it?
“When I was 11 I thought I’ll have eight children too. But then I had one child and it hurt quite a lot and it still really hurt when I had the second, so I thought f*** that.
Moran has two daughters, Nancy, 13 and Lizzie, 11, and lives in Crouch End with her husband the Times rock critic Peter Paphides. Finding herself pregnant with a third child she opted for abortion and wrote honestly about this in How To Be A Woman. She believes that women’s control over their fertility is crucial.
“Whenever contraception is available the birth rate falls. As soon as women are given the choice, they say two’s enough. You don’t get all those children you can’t handle and look after. And then women have the brainpower to contribute. Society progresses.”
Moran is a multi-tasker, an exuberant renaissance woman. Growing up on a council estate in a family on benefits, she was home schooled and super-bright. Winning a Dillons essay competition at 12, then the Observer’s Young Reporter award at 15, she wrote her first novel at 16 and at the same age landed a job at Melody Maker writing music reviews. By 18 she had her own column with the Times and was soon hosting the Channel 4 music show Naked City. In 2010 she won Columnist of the Year in the British Press Awards and in 2011 Interviewer of the Year. Her Twitter comments were included in the A Level syllabus this year.
As well as three newspaper columns a week and the sitcom Raised by Wolves about her childhood that she’s writing with her sister, there’s the screenplay of How To Be A Woman she’s working on with Scottish writer John Niven. Then there are the books. How To Be A Woman, Moranthology – and her latest, a novel entitled How To Build A Girl, which she’ll be promoting in Edinburgh next week.
“I talk about how to build a girl. It’s about funny feminism, not that other kind. Why are pants still too small and end up inside you? Germaine Greer didn’t really cover that in The Female Eunuch.”
There will be tour merchandise, with the proceeds going to women’s refuges, featuring Moran’s Rules of Feminism, which are “1. Women are equal. 2. Don’t be a dick. 3. That’s it.”
The novel follows Johanna Morrigan, a gobby overweight, bookish girl, who moves from her Wolverhampton council estate to London and a job on a music magazine. And just like Moran her family is on benefits, there are multiple siblings and she lands a career after winning a writing prize.
“It started with the teenage girl and sex. I thought it was wrong that 50 Shades of Grey was the most famous book about sex. Being given an iPad in exchange for being beaten with a hairbrush and women waiting for a man to bring them alive. But girls are out there having sex, w***ing … I wanted to write about a lady sex pirate. I also wanted to write about class and pop music.
“It’s the concept of building a girl. In the post-therapy era it’s all ‘my mum and dad screwed me up. Forget about that, have some balls and get out there. Fake it ’til you make it. We’ll all be dead in 50 years time.”
Growing up in the 1980s Moran despaired of the female role models on display on TV, the Joan Collins and Linda Grants in their shoulder pads and lip gloss.
“It was the women from Dynasty and Moonlighting, the camera smeared in Vaseline, like their faces were so hideous they had to be covered in make up and blurred. The men were always in focus. So I just gave up and turned to cartoons.”
Bugs Bunny done up as a woman to fool Elmer Fudd, in fact, with his peep-paw shoes, tight skirt and shock of out-there hair. She dyed it black and added a white streak.
“Richard Madeley told me I had a Mallen streak. I’d never heard that before. I thought he was coming on to me, but he wasn’t,” she laughs.
“I’m not stylish, I’m scruffy. Everything is from Topshop, clothes I can relax in, shoes I can walk in. When I did my book tour stand-up I pulled up my T-shirt and made a smiley mouth with my belly. It got a standing ovation. Next time I’m going to draw eyes on my tits. It’s my feminist smile. The only time you see a belly like that is when it’s covered in marker pen on Embarrassing Bodies. I’m 39, if you come near me now I’m quite sweaty and smelly, have a wobbly belly with a line of fur on it. And you know what? I’m really happy. I’m enjoying life, I’m a big teenager.”
So, is How To Build A Girl Moran’s life, barely fictionalised?
“God no. If only I had done the things Johanna does! I was never part of the gang at Melody Maker. I literally went into the office three times. I was a girl from the middle of nowhere, going to see bands and writing reviews in front of the TV in Wolverhampton.
“I know the background and milieu, but there was no rock star boyfriend, I’ve never had sex with a man with an unfeasibly large penis or gone into the office and told people about wild parties I’ve been to. I was thinking about Julie Burchill at the NME. Sorry Julie Burchill, I nicked your life. She’s reviewing it for the Spectator and whether she likes it or not, I just love that she read it. She was hugely inspirational to me.”
Moran is already working on book two of the Johanna Morrigan story, and there’s a third after that as we follow her tale into fame, feminism and womanhood.
“My PR asked what I was going to write next and I just said the next two books of How To Build A Girl. I was still p***ed from the night before because I’d been drinking pints of port with a friend, listening to music till 5am. That’s what women do, isn’t it, say things out loud, try it out?
“They don’t know what they think until they start talking. That’s why that tone of cynicism on the internet – feminist activists shouting down people championing women on a bank note or No More Page 3, telling them they should be fighting about female genital mutilation – needs to stop. When women get shouted down they stop talking and then they stop thinking.
“It’s like when Kirstie Allsopp said going to university and racking up debt when you’re young isn’t the best idea and everyone jumped on her. Kirstie has no troops, she’s not planning another anschluss, she’s just a woman talking about an idea. We need to chill out and listen to each other. There are so many different kinds of feminism, it’s not one or the other. Feminism is a set of tools, not rules.”
As well as the How To Build A Girl trilogy, Moran intends “to keep writing about the same girl from different points in history. I’m going to do something about a 7th century girl in Scotland, a fat gobby girl, and show how she survived. I saw a Viking map drawn from the north, and I want to write about the religions and beliefs. Who invented the idea of magic? Who were the witches, and magic makers – fat gobby girls living in the upside down map of Scotland.”
In her writing Moran represents a regional, working class voice that isn’t always heard among the RP tones of the metropolitan media and it’s a constituency she is proud to champion.
“In this country 67 per cent of people describe themselves as working class but how many shows reflect their lives? Shameless maybe, but what about any intellectual working class people?”
“Rock music, literature, technology, it’s never about some posh politician, it’s people saying this is what I’m going to do, the working class organising and getting into parliament. The NHS, education, music, literature, all those things are down to the working class. So if you don’t want to be bored, let the working class have that same access.”
Moran herself was always in the library as a child, being home schooled, which she says amounted to watching musicals and eating cheese for five years. Even her name came from a book when she changed it from Catherine to Caitlin, having read it in a Jilly Cooper novel and pronouncing it ‘Catlin’.
“I won a scholarship to Wolverhampton Girls School but on the first day a girl decided she hated me and opened a can of coke on me. And they laughed at me because I didn’t know how to make a vibrator out of Meccano. I didn’t know what Meccano was! Or a vibrator. So at half term my dad said, do you want to go to school, and I said no.
“I had such a massive imagination and lived in the future. I thought I will never wear a pair of white pixie boots from a jumble sale that flay the skin off my feet again. I would live in London and Stephen Fry would be my friend.”
Does she know Stephen Fry?
“Yes. I have met most of my heroes. Gaga was amazing. I saw her vagina. Courtney Love was annoying. I had spent ten years pretending to be her, thinking what would Courtney Love do in this situation? When I met her she said, ‘Caitlin I used to be as fat as you are now. The secret is don’t eat cheese.’ We went to a party, then did a 14-hour interview, chain smoking until we ran out. She said ‘What will we do?’ So I phoned reception and said ‘it’s Caitlin Moran and I’m interviewing Courtney Love and we need more cigarettes, I’ll give you $50 if you bring us some.’ She said ‘how did you do that?’ and I said, ‘because I’ve just spent the last ten years pretending to be you love, and I thought that’s what you would do.’ She said, ‘I could never do that.’”
The real Courtney Love may have turned out to be a disappointment, but Moran had only been following her own advice: just fake it ’til you make it.
• How To Build A Girl is published on Thursday, £14.99; Caitlin Moran is live at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Friday 11 July, 7:30pm, £20.