Caitlin Moran is doing a day of press interviews at The Groucho Club to promote her début novel (strictly speaking, her first novel for adults; her children’s book, The Chronicles of Narmo, was published when she was just 15) and The Bookseller is sandwiched between Good Housekeeping, home of the “foolproof recipe”, and gay lifestyle magazine Attitude—proof, if any were needed, of Moran’s exceptionally broad appeal.
A Times columnist since the tender age of 18 and with just shy of half a million followers on Twitter, Moran had a solid prospective readership for her witty memoir-slash-feminist polemic How To Be a Woman (Ebury). It did very well indeed, far exceeding the expectations of its author: “I knew exactly what would happen when that book came out,” she recalls. “It would sell 30,000 copies. It would be well-reviewed in the Guardian. And that would be it.” But it won the Galaxy Book of the Year 2011 (voted by the public), was published in 25 countries and has, to date, sold an impressive 356,139 copies in the UK through Nielsen BookScan.
Now Moran has turned to fiction with How to Build a Girl (Ebury, July), a coming-of-age story set in the 1990s narrated by 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan. She lives in a chaotic Wolverhampton council house with four siblings— big brother Krissi, wide-eyed six-year-old Lupin and the three-week-old Unexpected Twins, as yet unnamed by their permanently exhausted mother, the others call them David and Mavid. Their musician father is still chasing the dream of rock stardom—which remains stubbornly elusive— and the family survive on benefits. When a financial crisis looms Johanna decides it’s up to her to make the family’s fortune. With the help of some shoplifted hair dye and makeup, and the local library’s music collection, she sets about reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, a hard-drinking, fast-smoking music journalist who gets a job on the music paper D&ME.
If the Wolverhampton council estate/large family/escape through music journalism sounds familiar to readers of How To Be a Woman and her autobiographical journalism, it’s probably because it is—as Moran, talking a mile a minute, freely acknowledges: “This is the point in my career when people will start to say: ‘Hang on, you wrote How to Be a Woman, which was about a fat teenage girl—yourself— who is gobby and always says too much and is a bit dirty and wants to get laid. And you’re writing [Channel 4] sitcom “Raised by Wolves”, which stars a fat teenage girl who is a bit gobby and always wants to get laid. And now you’re writing a novel about a fat teenage girl!’ But what they don’t realise is that this is what I’m going to do for the next 30 years: this is a Woody Allen deal. He always writes about neurotic Jewish men. This is what I do: I will always write about fat, gobby teenage girls.”
Moran wanted to write specifically about teenage female sexuality, partly as a response to another novel, as she explains: “I read Fifty Shades of Grey and became so angry and despairing when I read it because that’s a book where it’s a teenage female virgin who hooks up with a much older, more powerful man. Basically the deal is if he repeatedly beats her on the genitals with a hairbrush she’ll get an iPad . . . a lot of teenage girls are reading this and it’s forming their sexuality.”
Something to be proud of
Moran wanted to redress what she saw as an imbalance: “It’s always about teenage boys going off and having amazing adventures. You don’t see teenage girls anywhere unless they’re being bitten by vampires so I wanted to write about a funny, weird teenage girl having adventures, particularly sex adventures. I grew up reading Jilly Cooper at the age of 13; I think it’s really important which sexy books you read—particularly when you’re a girl. These form your sexual imagination and I wanted to get in there before anyone else and talk about sex.”
Another preoccupation is class: “Generally we talk about class now in terms of, ‘the working classes exactly the same as the middle classes, they just haven’t got as much money’. So basically they’re failed middle-class. I wanted to write about being working-class and present it as something to be proud of.”
How To Build a Girl is very funny, honest and deliciously rude. There is plenty of sex (“I’m a feminist and I can write filth!” she says at one point) and it’s stuffed full of 1990s pop culture references. Moran started writing the novel a year ago, alongside her three columns a week for the Times (though she had to drop one last September due to time pressure). On the novel’s acknowledgements page she compares writing the book to giving birth to a baby through her eyes. Not that the writing itself was difficult: “The writing is really easy—I write really fast, really quick. It’s almost always first draft—it’s the working seven-day weeks for three years, which is what I’ve done.”
But she has no plans to slow down. How To Build a Girl is the first in a planned trilogy (“unless this sells fuck all”) to be followed by How To Be Famous and How To Change the World. The idea is to follow the same characters over the next 20 years, dealing with fame and politics respectively, and she hopes to start writing the second instalment at the end of 2015. In the meantime she has “Raised by Wolves” to write with her sister—the pilot, which aired in December last year, has been picked up for a series—plus a couple of films to work on: one is a secret project and the other an adaptation of How To Be a Woman.
It’s a phenomenal workrate by anyone’s standards—“I don’t really have a social life, all I do is write and then hang out with my kids”—but Moran also found time to judge the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which entailed reading 58 books. “If you’re a writer, it’s like a digestive system; you need to read the words to make the words,” she explains.
To promote How To Build a Girl, Moran will undertake a “rock ‘n’ roll literary tour”. She says promoting How To Be a Woman on the literary festival circuit felt a lot like gigging: “The fact that I was getting someone to interview me on stage just seemed nuts. As you can see I’m quite chatty so someone would come all the way to Hay . . . and I would just talk all over them for an hour.”
She always wanted to be a stand-up comedian, she says (“humour is just the truth but faster”), so this is her chance. The tour starts on 3rd July in London, followed by dates in Brighton, Bristol, Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, Edinburgh and Dublin. And it won’t just be readings from the book either: the plan is to “ferment revolution” and talk about what’s wrong with the world—and how we can change it.
“So much of what’s written for women or to women— whether it be in films or on TV or in books or magazines—is just a bit hectoring and unpleasant. You often feel worse, nine times out of 10, when you’ve watched something or read something in a magazine that’s told you what to do. I want it to be [the case] that when you get to the end of it you feel better about yourself. I try to write things [so] that by the end of it women are going, ‘I am all right as I am!’”
Formats: £14.99 HB/EB tbc iSBn: 9780091949006/ 9781448118519
Rights sold: Seven territories to date
Editor: Jake lingwood, Ebury
Agent: Georgia Garrett, RCW
1975: Born in Brighton
1991: Started working for Melody Maker aged 16; began her Times column two years later
2003: British Press Awards' Columnist of the Year; she then won critic and interviewer of the year in 2004
2011: Publication of How to Be a Woman, winner of the Galaxy Book of the Year