In this month’s IMAGE Magazine, Bridget Hourican talks to the phenomenal Caitlin Moran about her debut novel, and what it is to think for oneself, and possibly change the world…
I’m interviewing Caitlin Moran about her new novel – if that’s the right verb. How do you interview someone who’s so famous her story is already out there, so confessional she’s revealed all her own secrets, and is such an old industry pro she could do your job? This is the woman whose interview with Lady Gaga ended in the loos of a nightclub – allowing her to reveal to a breathless world that yes, Gaga was born woman (and was not, as some then thought, transgendering).
I’m not going to equal this. We don’t meet in the flesh, or even on Skype, so I can’t persuade her to do a virtual Cribs tour of her house ending in the loo (not that it would be revelatory – she’s already told us she’s rocking the full ’70s down there). And she’s already shown us her house; it’s on YouTube (FYI very clean, quite Ikea).
We speak on the phone, old school. I don’t get to see the kooky facial expressions, but I do get that hyper-energetic voice with its sudden endearing swoops to Wolverhampton, and the only original thing I can think to ask the world’s most famous feminist is whether her hair is a homage to Susan Sontag? (Apparently not – the racoon stripe was for Halloween a few years ago, and stayed – “I thought, this looks amazing!”).
Her new novel, How to Build a Girl nods to How to be a Woman in more than title. A disclaimer insists “this is a work of fiction” but the narrator, Johanna Morrigan, is a fat, working class Wolverhampton girl from a large family, who ceaselessly masturbates, gets a job aged 16 on a music mag, wears black, sleeps around, gets cystitis, and re-names herself.
In fact, the only things Johanna hasn’t done that her creator has confessed to are: apply armpit pads to soak up excessive sweat, and have an abortion, but this is only the first book of a trilogy (to include How to be Famous and How to Change the World) and Johanna is still only 18, so there is plenty of time for her.
But it doesn’t matter if Johanna is familiar because How to Build a Girl is hilarious, clever and sweet. Caitlin wrote it in six months while doing the day job (columnist with The Times) and being a mum. Blimey! She agrees it was “distressingly quick” and she “couldn’t get drunk for six months”, but she’s currently writing a sitcom for Channel 4 (Raised by Wolves, based on her childhood) and the screenplay for How to Be a Woman, and will shortly start on the next novel in the trilogy, and is still doing the day job – and she doesn’t actually sound remotely distressed.
She likes coming across as everywoman – she can’t go out now without women coming over to ’fess all about their vaginas – but of course, she’s not ordinary, she’s a phenomenon. The bit from her CV that amazes me most is that she left school, aged eleven, to be “home-schooled”, except that there were no lessons or syllabus – “we sat around watching musicals and eating cheese”.
Her saviour was the public library. She’s a total autodidact and still doesn’t think school is where you get an education: “It’s good for socialising. The downside of my childhood is that we were all quite lonely. So that’s why I send my kids to school, ’cause I want them to have friends.”
Her upbringing could have gone horribly wrong, I think – though maybe I’m hopelessly conventional – but it left her with a brilliant ability to see beyond received wisdoms. She dredges up stuff that the rest of us think is too obvious, embarrassing or unchangeable to mention. Martin Amis complained that by “talking about wanking”, she was “pretending to be a man” – but the wonder is it took ’til now for a woman in the mainstream to write about stuff like masturbation and abortion that women have been doing forever.
About five years ago, she was trying to get a sitcom made, and this was before Girls or Bridesmaids or Miranda, so all the commissioning editors thought it was too girlie. One of them said, “you’d have to change the culture”, so she went off and wrote How to Be a Woman, and now, of course, the sitcom is being made.
It’s no accident that all her books begin with “how to”. She’s pure MacGyver – at one point, she says happily that she just wants to sort out “the admin of the world”. She doesn’t go on TV panel shows because “they’re made by boys for boys. I love them, but when girls go on, it just doesn’t work. It’s like – as a woman, you can piss in a urinal if you’re desperate, but you’ll be at a very uncomfortable angle, and you’ll probably end up exposing your arse. That’s what it’s like for a woman trying to go into a space created for men.”
Her solution is not to change the panel shows, but for women to create their own space – which is why she loves the internet and Twitter. “It’s an infinite space. It’s really noticeable that all of the feminism of the last few years, like The Vagenda and Everyday Sexism, is online. The key thing now is for women to teach their daughters how to programme. Otherwise, the future will be built by men. Again.”
I ask about her favourite books. The answer is surprising (at first): “Ulysses blew my tits. Joyce found a way to write about how you actually think. When you’re thinking, it’s not in sentences and you’re not contextualising for the reader … It’s the first time someone’s genuinely managed to write down what it is to have a brain, to be a thinking human being.”
I think she’s just retitled Ulysses: How to be Human or How to Think. And Joyce noticed the obvious stuff that everyone else was ignoring, and he bust taboos…
Follow Caitlin on Twitter at @caitlinmoran
To read more about this month’s IMAGE Magazine – it’s the happiness issue! – Join in the conversation online with #ImageHappy