Feminist, columnist, activist, humorist, memoirist—Caitlin Moran is a woman of many descriptors. She can now add "novelist" to that list thanks to How to Build a Girl. Something of a roman à clef, this hilarious, poignant and no-holds-barred coming-of-age tale stars a girl from a council estate in the Midlands who, like Moran herself, became a rock critic at a young age. We asked Moran a few questions about writing, class, feminism, celebrity interviews and, of course, her new book.
How to Build a Girl shares some common themes with your memoir, How to Be a Woman. What are the differences when approaching similar material for fiction?
Well obviously the thrill was that I could make things up. Sticking to the truth, and my own experiences, for How to Be a Woman was often quite frustrating. Now I get to use all the weird, mad adolescent experiences my friends have, then ramp them up for comic effect. You get to exaggerate. I love exaggerating. I would say I am definitely the best exaggerator IN THE UNIVERSE.
"I love exaggerating. I would say I am definitely the best exaggerator IN THE UNIVERSE."
On a related note, you were also a music critic at a fairly early age. How does Johanna’s experience as a pop critic compare to yours?
Well, although Johanna is, like me, a fat working-class teenage rock critic from the West Midlands, she's based on the journalist Julie Burchill, who started working at the NME in the punk era when she was just 17. She was a hip young gunslinger—often more famous than the bands she interviewed, the centre of the storm. A bit of a legend. When I was a teenage rock critic, however, I used to hide in the corner of the office of Melody Maker whispering "I like Crowded House. I wish I had a friend." It was much more fun to write about a girl like Julie Burchill than a girl like me. I kind of stole her life a bit. She inspired me.
Can we expect more books about Johanna Morrigan?
Yes! This is the first of a trilogy about all those characters. The next is called How to Be Famous, and then How to Change the World. I love Johanna and her drinking buddy John Kite so much. I kind of want to hang out with them and have sex with them. This is part of the essential patheticness of being an author—we invent these people, then fall in love with them. You adore them. But, of course, they're just a part of you, from your brain. Does that make you an egotistic mental? Probably. So that’s why we drink a lot, as well.
"This is part of the essential patheticness of being an author—we invent these people, then fall in love with them. Does that make you an egotistic mental? Probably."
The relationship with John Kite is such an important one for Johanna. Is he based on anyone?
I was so annoyed with all the usual rock stars you see invented in books, and films—all in black leather and sunglasses, skinny, whining, spoiled, a bit thick. That's not like all the great working-class boys in bands I used to interview in the early 1990s—Teenage Fanclub, the Boo Radleys and now Elbow. Clever, self-taught, whimsical hilarious boys who you could while away the afternoon in the pub with, smoking and drinking and shooting the breeze about anything. So I made John Kite out of all those lovely boys. He's basically Richard Burton, in a fur coat, singing the songs of American Music Club. I know exactly how all his songs sound.
American readers may be less aware of the class and financial issues that are so key to the plot of How to Build a Girl. What can you tell our readers that would help them understand what is at stake for Johanna and the Morrigan family?
Class is a HUGE issue in the U.K. Let me put it like this: I'm a columnist for The Times, I write a sitcom for Channel 4, I'm making a film of How to Be a Woman and I publish books and novels. In my dealings with all the people, across all these different media and cultural companies, I've met precisely ONE OTHER person who was raised on welfare. In the last 20 YEARS. And yet, 60% of our country claims some form of benefit or other.
"Working class/poor people just don't get to tell their stories in this country. I am one of the very few lucky ones."
So, as you see, working class/poor people just don't get to tell their stories in this country. They don't have access to the media. I am one of the very few lucky ones. And so all our films and TV shows and book end up being what the world's continuing impression of Britain is: depictions of lovely middle-class/upper-class life, all picnic and brittle dinner-party chat and public schoolboys in the rain and balls and chintzy dresses and old maids on bicycles and vicars drinking tea.
And that's all fine, but I love the working classes: We do it differently. The power and energy and inventiveness and joy and euphoria and hedonism and anger and sideways thinking that powered the revolution, then the 1960s, then Britpop.
What's working class culture? The Beatles, Joe Orton, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine, Tracey Emin, Danny Boyle, Irvine Welsh, Roxy Music, Alexander McQueen, The Sex Pistols, The Who, The Fall, Julie Walters, Steve McQueen, Shane Meadows, Pulp, Slade, Black Sabbath, Amy Winehouse, Richard Burton . . . oh I'm turning myself on. I need to stop.
Music is such a key part of this book. If you were creating a soundtrack for it, what songs and performers would you include?
All the guys in there, man—it's the story of music in the early 1990s. Sonic Youth, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Jane's Addiction, Pixies, New Order, Cure, Hole, American Music Club, Levitation, Suede, Manic Street Preachers, Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub, Massive Attack, Blur, Mazzy Star, PJ Harvey, Ride, Lush, Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, U2's big dark reinvention—it was such an exciting time.
Every week there seemed to be some new fabulous blast of colour being fired up into the sky—every week the music press would make you feel desperate to get some new album, or single, or go down the front of a gig and get your head blown up.
I was so obsessed with Pavement I got my friend Julie—who could drive, and who only liked New Kids on the Block—to drive me all the way from Wolverhampton to Derby to see Pavement live, by lying to her, and telling her they sounded like New Kids on the Block. Amazingly, she didn't punch me in the tits when a band who sounded like The Fall, exploding, came on stage. She actually got quite into them. It was a time of wonder.
You have two daughters. Have your ideas about feminism changed at all after having children?
Yes—I realised how URGENT feminism is. That there could easily be another two or three GENERATIONS of girls before we even get something as basic as pay equality—it's not predicted to come about until 2070, despite it being ILLEGAL to pay women less than men. If any other law was being broken as frequently as the Equal Pay Act, there'd be an outcry. Instead, we just ignore it. IT'S ILLEGAL HELLO HELLO IS THIS MICROPHONE ON?
"If any other law was being broken as frequently as the Equal Pay Act, there'd be an outcry. Instead, we just ignore it. IT'S ILLEGAL HELLO HELLO IS THIS MICROPHONE ON?"
You were a judge of the Bailey Prize, which is Britain’s top prize for women in fiction. What was that experience like?
Exhilarating. To judge in a year where there were books as astonishing and truly genius as The Goldfinch and Eimear McBride's a Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is a total joy. Tartt runs with Dickens' legacy, McBride with Joyce's, and they both fashion something new and euphoric and freeing and utterly beautiful.
Who have been some of your best interviews?
Going to a sex club with Lady Gaga; getting pissed with Benedict Cumberbatch and me going "Do Sherlock!" and him just . . . doing some Sherlock. Asking Keith Richards if he wears a wig, and him making me pull his hair to prove it was real. Courtney Love describing what it was like the first time she fucked Kurt Cobain. Turning up late to interview the Prime Minister in a shitty minicab that looked like the kind of thing terrorists would use as a suicide vehicle. Challenging Jeff Buckley to make himself look ugly (he stuck jellybeans on his teeth and gurned. He still looked astonishingly handsome.).
What is your idea of a perfect night out with women friends?
Oh I don't like to go out. I like to get no more than six people over to my house, and we sit on the patio smoking fags, drinking gin from mugs and launching into impassioned manifestoes about what we would do if we managed Madonna (make her “go hag”! Age! Go grey and angry! Or get her back out with the gays again!) Around the piano by 10 p.m. for a sing-song—all killer no filler: Queen, Jesus Christ Superstar, Beatles, Kate Bush—and then overly sexual disco-dancing in the kitchen to Rihanna from 11.30 p.m. onwards. Crisps at 1 a.m.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of How to Build a Girl.