Caitlin Moran is a British columnist who writes regularly about television and feminist issues. Her previous book, How to Be a Woman, was a collection of autobiographical essays. Her latest novel, How to Build a Girl, is a work of fiction about a teenager coming of age.
You're a journalist by trade, and made your name as a writer of personal essays. How did writing fiction compare with these other mediums?
Oh, it's great because you can make stuff up, and you can lie! Nobody told me that that's what fiction meant. The bummer about writing a memoir is you're sitting there going, "Wow, it'd be so much funnier if this had happened." You're stuck telling the truth, which is often a less amusing story, whereas when you're writing fiction you can pull things from your own life, but you can also steal things from other people's lives, and make shit up. Everybody seems baffled over what fiction means. That's what it means. You're welcome, I've defined it for you.
Thank you! You did seem to pull some plot elements from your own life -- the protagonist begins working as a music writer at a young age. But certainly the entire book isn't based on your own experiences?
The analogy I like to use is Little House on the Prairie. Obviously in many ways it is as unlike Little House on the Prairie as it could possibly be, what with all the wanking and penises, but basically if you read the correspondence between Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, who was an editor, you're exposed to the fact that Wilder was definitely a pioneer girl. She was in the wagon with Ma and Pa. But the specific occurrences in her book didn't happen to her, they happened to other pioneer girls she knew, or she researched the kind of things that would happen. So that's what I've done with my book. I was that pioneer girl going down to, well, London. But a lot of the penises I describe in the book happen didn't happen to me, they happened to people I know.
That's a great analogy.
I work with words.
So, your book is about a young adult. Would you say that makes it a Young Adult book, or are you not interested in making those types of distinctions?
I know nothing about Young Adult literature -- I've never read any in my life -- so it'd seem incredibly presumptuous to say I've written Young Adult fiction. Aside from that, I don't know what the phrase means. I know that my market isn't age-dependent. I've just done a stand up tour, and we'd get, like, three generations of families. A twinkly eyed 60-year-old who'd been around in the '70s, a bourgeois 40-year-old daughter, then that mother's teenaged daughters.
The hope, of course, is that some young readers pick it up, too.
Totally. I didn't realize until I was finished who I was writing the book for. Then I realized I was writing it for myself when I was 15. I tried to put in all of the things I wish I'd have known. If there was some way I could time travel and bring my 15-year-old self this book, I'd save myself so much trouble. If I ever get the chance to time travel, that is what I shall do.
Your novel opens -- characteristically -- a little bluntly, with a masturbation scene. Why did you choose to do this, and was it difficult to write? I imagine not ...
No. Our big TV series here is called "Newsnight," and they had me on just after an article about Syria, and the presenter, who's a really brilliant, stern, fabulous woman, started it by asking, "So, you've opened your book with masturbation. Why did you do that?" To which I replied, "You know, it's always good to start things off with a wank. It kind of relaxes everything!" Then I realized that by giving that as my reply, it made it seem that I might start masturbating as a way to start the interview.
But why did I start the book that way? First of all, I've never seen a taboo I didn't want to bust. As soon as I see a taboo I just want to run up to it and go, "wahhh!" Let's grab this taboo and drag it into the party. There's no way we're leaving this taboo out there in the darkness, to be filled with fear.
Secondly, I really am on a mission to write about female sexuality in such a way that doesn't fucking terrify young girls. With the last book, doing related talks with associated feminist pressure groups, I heard some of the most awful stories about how our next generation is learning about sex education through hardcore pornography. These awful stories about 14- and 15-year-old boys having sex with their girlfriends for the first time and starting to strangle the girl halfway through and the girl going, "Please stop doing that," and the boy bursting into tears and saying, "Oh thank God, I didn't want to do that, that's just what I've seen in pornography." They don't even think of pornography as pornography. They call it sex.
The final thing that ticked me off was Fifty Shades of Grey because it was just another fucking step in that trope of women not owning their sexuality, women being seen as these completely empty, sexless vessels, until a man comes along and basically has sex on them and at them. When I talk to all my female friends, they were very aware of their sexuality, and were doing something about it. Especially for teenage girls -- masturbation doesn't cost you any money, doesn't make you fat, you can do it in three minutes flat, and it'll leave you relaxed.
The three hobbies I'd encourage teenage girls to have are long country walks, to get some air in your lungs; masturbation; and the revolution. If you have those three things, you can't go far wrong.
Your book, including its title, alludes to the idea that womanhood involves some level of performance. There's a quote in your latest essay collection, too, about how deciding what to wear is so difficult for women because it means deciding who you want to be that day. That theme seems to resonate throughout your work.
Well, we still don't really know what being a woman is. There was this perception that as soon as we got the vote and contraception, immediately we would have cities run by women, economies run by women, the female Beatles, the female Mozart, the female Einstein. A lot of the arguments you see against feminism -- mostly made by angry men who can't get laid -- involve women still not doing things as "well" as men are. That's because it takes a long time for an underclass to recover, and work out what it is. So, the whole question of, "What are women going to be?", is what constantly fascinates me.
I think change happens in the arts first, then politics and economies follow. At the moment, some of the most interesting artists are all female: Lorde, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham. It's all happening with the girls. And there are still a billion role models we need. I'm a straight, white, able-bodied woman and I don't see enough role models for me. If I were a different race or religion, or if I were transgender, I'd just be going, "There's no point in turning on my television. There's nothing for me here at all."
You speak very plainly about womanhood, but it seems that you also enjoy employing another approach, too: humor. Why do you think humor is an effective means of disseminating feminist ideas?
It's inclusive. When people write about serious subjects, they make the mistake of doing it in a serious way, and often in an angry way. Whilst I respect women's anger, I think if you're communicating emotionally, people will respond to your emotion rather than listening to what you're saying. We've seen that happen particularly with Internet activism in the last couple of years, different sects of feminism pitching themselves against each others. You can load far more truth into a joke than you can into a serious paragraph.
Also, I'm an idealist. I think this revolution should be fun. If I'm going to be part of a revolution, I would like for it to be enjoyable. We seem to have only lost that in the last generation. If anything it's the last generation that's been like, "Yeah, are you gonna sit around and talk about politics and feminism and changing the world?" Yes! Yes I am. In the pub. With gigantic hair and amazing shoes on.