If you haven’t ‘met’ Caitlin Moran, we strongly advise you do. She’s a woman all women need to know, bravely saying what other people might be thinking but daren’t vocalise. Caitlin has been one of the Times’ top columnists for years (since she was a teenager) and is now writing books, TV (Channel 4’s Raised by Wolves) and a Hollywood film. Making feminism funny, her best-selling memoir How to be a Woman – part coming-of-age tale, part feminist manifesto – came screaming into the collective consciousness with its brutal and hilarious honesty about the female plight. We caught up with Caitlin to talk to her about her first foray into fiction – How to Be Famous – about the life, love and adventures of teenage journalist Johanna Morrigan in ‘90s Britpop London…
Who is the book aimed at? Is it teenagers since the lead character is 19?
When I first started writing it I just presumed that it would all be women my age [40-something] but it’s 50/50 now. I think it’s mums giving it to their daughters and saying this might make you feel better than what you’re normally having to see.
Basically, the book is for all women who wake up everyday and think: ‘hang on is it just is this my fault that I feel awful or is it the world conspiring to make women feel crappy?’ I think it might be the world making people feel crappy because it seems too much of a coincidence that so many women I know feel insecure and bad about themselves and have these unkind voices in their head. I know the power of a book when you’ve got a good heroin that can become a good voice in your head and that’s what I like to do.
The book really celebrates the power of teenage girls, which is brilliant and not often seen…
I always have teenage girls in mind because books were my life as a teenage girl. Now, having teenage girls as well, I’m really aware of the range of stories that they get. And, even though there has been a big surge in female role models, it’s still horrible things happening to them and it’s always in a dystopia. In your teenage years you’re still trying to work out what bra size you are, what to do with your hair, yet you’ve also got to save the world! My kids watch The Hunger Games – I love that they love Jennifer Lawrence and she’s saving the world – but god I would feel depressed if I was 14. That’s why I loved growing up with Little Women and What Katy Did – they were just normal girls with normal things happening to them and they wanted to try and better themselves. Seeing a girl like you in a book was so magical and we still don’t see enough about that which is why I write these things.
What’s the appeal of the ‘90s?
My daughters and her generation are fascinated by the ‘90s. It was amazing because you had grunge, then there was The Spice Girls and Britpop and it seemed like everything was really sunny and positive and brilliant. But that’s what it was like, and my generation was really lucky. Acid print tops and dungarees, the Berlin wall came down, there was a new brilliant band every week, it was cheap to live and it always seemed to be sunny. It was an amazing time, so I can see why my daughters’ generation look at the ‘90s how we looked at the ‘60s.
Spoiler alert – the book really chimes with the #MeToo movement. Was that intentional?
I’ve known what the plot was going to be since 2010 and it was a trilogy. I knew it was a sex tape, I knew it was about sexual shame and taking ownership of it – that was always the plot. Then three quarters of the way into writing the book this #MeToo stuff kicked off and I thought this plot that I came up with ten years ago – if a famous powerful man tried to shame me and keep it a secret – it’s happening now and this is how these women are responding. They have come to the exact same conclusion – we must talk about it, this is not my shame it’s yours.
You started out really young and had your column at The Times when you were 16. What was that like?
I moved to London on my 18th birthday, I had to print and fax my copy at the newsagents around the corner. Because I was taught at home and had no friends coming in or out of the house, everything that happened to us felt normal. I wrote a book when I was 13 and then it was published when I was 15, which felt quite normal because that was what I like to do. I needed money and I liked to write. I‘d read books so I knew how to write one, I got in touch and sent it to publishers. The writers and artists book was in the library and said the kind of things that they did. I sent it to Terry Pratchett’s publisher because he influenced me. You have nothing to lose when you’re 16, literally nothing. I had read Little Women and The Railway Children, as a working class girl you don’t need anything apart from pen and paper. It took me until my early thirties to realise my route into this industry is quite unusual!
What was it like being one of eight siblings?
We just see ourselves as a mega mass. There were times that we would be in the car and I would be looking in the rear-view mirror and I couldn’t tell if I was looking at myself or one of my other siblings. We all look very similar and we all talk the same. It’s also oddly like being famous. If you’re a big family and go uptown people will stop and stare at you, a big crocodile of kids dressed like freaks. I couldn’t believe people would take photos of us because we looked so similar. I hated it at the time, we were very, very poor and I had one shirt and one skirt and when they were in the wash I would just have to wear my dad’s thermal underwear. It was dark green and incredibly itchy, so I would sit there covered in nettles and waiting for the clothes to wash.
How important have clothes been in helping establish your identity?
When I first started being famous and I moved down to London and started earning money, when you could earn it and gradually worked your way up the food chain, they would style me in these beautiful dresses and I would look in the mirror and think, I look terrible in this. If you put me in a really beautiful Erdem dress I look like a slouched peasant. I’m high street all the way. Everything I wear is high street. If it’s comfortable, I can climb over a fence in it and it makes my eyes pop, I will purchase it as long as it’s under £50.
You do have a look though – definitely a bit rock ‘n’ roll?
That’s just not washing and brushing my hair! The hair should be big, I think that’s the working class thing and looking at the girl groups in the 1960s and Goths. If you can’t afford delicious handbags and jewellery, then the best accessory is your hair. You can grow it and embolden it and if you get drunk you’re not going to loose in in the back of a cab or in the club because its stuck to your head, so it’s the perfect accessory. Black eyeliner, big hair, shoes I can dance in, keys in my pocket and I’m ready to go.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m doing the screenplay, and we’ve got one of my favourite singer-songwriters doing the score. I’ve written the script. It’s hard work but it’s exciting to be learning how to do a new thing. The main thing is that it is quite embarrassing because you’re suddenly involving hundreds of people in doing something of your creation. I know people are building a house now, people are flying out from LA to learn accents and sourcing music, and people are writing songs and making costumes. Now I know why women, particularly English women, tend not to make that many films because we’re so British. “I’m so sorry for the fuss, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
How to be Famous, published by Ebury Press, is out now