Caitlin Moran in (Drunken) Conversation with Sophie Heawood – Part Two
In the second half of the two writers' conversation, they chat class, politics, abortion, literature, Russell Brand, and orgasms.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I already wrote up some of this interview I did with Caitlin Moran, where we sat at my kitchen table last week, drinking and talking about her books and life and love, only I gave up transcribing it halfway through as I was losing the will to live. Listening to the sound of your own voice on a dictaphone when you're sober is bad enough, but when it's three hours of the sound of a voice that has finished the white wine and gin that your friend brought and is now moving onto your own vodka, it's unbearable.
Still, people said they wanted more, so here is the other half of the conversation.
Sophie Heawood: So you wrote your first book, The Chronicles of Narmo, at 13 and it was published when you were 15 and was loosely based on your childhood as the eldest of eight children... yadda yadda. But what I want to know is how you knew that you could do it?
Caitlin Moran: Well, I found a box file recently of all the ideas that I had for novels at the time. Most of them were fucking terrible. One was called Kisses, Dreams, and Amphetamines, and the character was called Johnny Demo, because he was a half-formed, demo of a man [laughs].
We laugh, but to be fair, that would have been the perfect title in 1993.
Obviously I didn't know anybody in the publishing world—we didn't have those kind of contacts on a council estate in Wolverhampton. So I presumed if you wrote a book you'd get, maybe, about $1.5 million. I spent two years writing this book and sent it off and it was accepted. I was then summoned to London.
And this is when you went to the meeting in a dressing gown, because you didn't own a proper coat, and you pretended to be Courtney Love...
Yes, and they said, "We are prepared to offer you an advance of £2,500 [$3,700]." At which point I went, "Shit, I'm going to have to do something else." And then they booked me to go on Wogan, and I refused, because the thing about going on TV is that you come uninvited into people's houses and people generally decide in a second when they look at you that they don't like you.
I'm so weird that I think I knew most people were going to hate me. And I'd read enough autobiographies of child stars to know that to become famous at 15 was an incredibly bad idea. They sent me a huge letter bollocking me, and then really shouted at me on the phone. I was at home crying my eyes out, going, "I've let the grown-ups down." But I'm still really proud of myself that I stood firm. I still refuse to do most TV appearances. It's a boy's club.
Speaking of boys—the bit in your new novel, How to Build a Girl, where she works out how to give blowjobs, and its so wonderful and she's so chuffed that she's made the guy come that she just keeps on going at it, and he has to go "STOP, GET OFF MY COCK NOW, YOU'RE HURTING ME." I was so happy to read that bit. I thought it was just me. It's like the bit in your sitcom, Raised by Wolves, where she—oh, I can't remember the character's name, they're all bloody you anyway aren't they—she tells people that she got just mistaken for a prostitute by a man in the car park. And people give her sympathy. And she's like, "What? Don't you understand? It's bloody brilliant! It turns out people would PAY to have sex with me!"
There were a couple of things about sex that I wanted to get across in How to Build a Girl. One is the fact that you can always have sex, it doesn't matter what you look like, and also that most of the sex you'll have in the first couple of years you start having sex will be shit. It's that thing of life dividing into things that are either amazing at the time, or awful at the time, but will turn into amazing anecdotes. And most of the sex you have at the start will be awful, particularly if you're a woman. So it's the second thing; when you're telling the story in the pub and your friends are lying on the floor, crying, going, "No, I can't believe that happened, fucking hell." So enjoy that. You're gathering material. Enjoy your life.
And in How to Build a Girl, the only person who makes her come is herself...
But that's going to change in the sequel, How to Be Famous, which is going to be about having amazing sex. Because reading Jilly Cooper, for me, was huge, and then Anais Nin. But I still don't think we really have any female-based pornography and there are a couple of fundamental truths that I've still never really seen fully addressed in a book, or anywhere in popular culture. One is that women are clearly hungry—women can come all night. We can start coming and we can go on all night. We can not end. Men can usually only come once, and I still can't quite get my head around that.
Which is why you—I mean that fictional character—nearly broke a man's penis. Anyway moving on from sex, let's talk about abortion. Maybe your hero, that nice chap Rick Santorum who wants to be president of America? He's not into them.
Yeah, look at him saying that if his daughter got pregnant through rape he'd consider the baby a gift. Let's look at the word "gift" shall we—if I give you a gift, that means it's something I have chosen because I think it will make your life better. But that's like saying to an underage girl, I will give you the gift of a thousand oysters, and even though you can't eat them all, and you can't freeze them all, and they will block up your fucking hallway, and your life, that's the gift that I have given you. A forced and inappropriate gift, which is an aggressive act.
When I wrote How to Be a Woman, before they published it they said to me, look, you're a Times columnist, you're on a really nice wage, do you really want to write this book? The abortion chapter particularly—the Mail could take that and spin it and really go for you. And some people did take it completely the wrong way when I said that I spent more time choosing my kitchen worktops than deciding whether to keep an unwanted pregnancy.
[Interrupted by involuntary laughing from me. It is a funny line.]
You nearly always know if you're ready to have a child. Obviously there is a margin of error for some people who get pregnant accidentally and then make the decision that they can handle it, but...
If only we knew someone who did that, i.e. me.
[Laughs] Yes, but I already had two children when I accidentally got pregnant for a third time. That's why I argued that a good mother is someone who knows when to have an abortion. I am not a gambler. I don't do scratchcards or the lottery. I would not take a gamble on me, when there was absolutely no more capacity for the love and attention I could give to some children.
It's only through reading you and Zoe Williams that I found out most abortions in this country are on women who already have kids and don't want more. But you were one of eight, didn't you want more?
No, because if you have eight children, then you're raising a village, you're teaching your culture to the oldest children and they pass it on and help raise the younger children. But I didn't want to do that. I wanted to be absolutely and intimately involved with my children's lives, and to be there for every single thing that happened. So I had an abortion. And I wrote about it in The Times and I got a letter from a colonel in Surrey. You know that's who I write everything for, really, people like the colonel in Surrey.
[There are some hard to transcribe bits as we sort of lapse into fantasizing about the colonel in Surrey.] And he said, "All my life, I thought I knew what I thought about abortion, but I read your piece and that is not what I believe any more." This is the thing! So much of my political activism is about writing my column for Times readers. The paper's owned by Rupert Murdoch, and given my background... I just think that often, the greatest activism doesn't draw attention to itself. Russell Brand said he would die for democracy. Well, nobody in the Western world needs to die for democracy.
Are you cross with him for telling people not to vote?
No, because Russell Brand is a gateway drug to all this stuff. He's a training bra. He's actually getting people into politics.
Are you not angry though? I am, although I'm conflicted because his housing stuff is bloody brilliant and aaargh, I can't decide.
Well I don't know why I would feel a natural affinity to a working-class autodidact with backcombed hair who talks too fast. I don't want to attack him. What he's doing is more useful than what most people who are attacking him will probably ever do. Which is that he's making people who never thought they could talk about politics, talk about politics. He's democratizing democracy. He's depoliticizing politics. If you're 12 or 13 and you see what he's doing, within three months you will have read more than he has and realized that not voting is the wrong thing.
He is the starter seed. It doesn't matter what he goes on to do. But if I were him I would target one company and stand outside it—like the Falun Gong people have been sitting outside the Chinese embassy for years—I'd sit outside Amazon and tell my fans to boycott them for a week, just a week, and let's see what that does to their shares. You'd see it on Newsnight, you'd watch their shares go down. Then next week he could go to another company and do the same thing. He could take all his mates, make it like Comic Relief, get Dermot dancing down there.
Then every other company in this country who are tax dodging would shit them–fucking–selves. He doesn't need to die for it. That thing where the Guardian said there are nine companies in the world who are responsible for global warming... go and sit outside them! There's only nine. If you don't believe in voting, then go and hit their fucking markets, hit the stock exchange.
You told me that in the third part of your fictional trilogy, How to Change the World, we see the characters of Johanna Morrigan and John Kite 20 years later. We leave them in 1997 at the end of Britpop and then we hit them 20 years later, when they form the unseen coalition...
And weirdly, it's like what Paloma Faith's doing now with Owen Jones. Even what Jamie Oliver's doing now. All of this is about marrying the word to the intent. Which is what it was with feminism. Women did not feel any less fucked up or angry about things before I wrote How to Be a Woman. If it changed anything, it gave them a word to use that they might not have used before. You just say to people, "This is a thing, and it's called feminism." You marry the word to the intent that was already there. And it's the same in politics. You name it. First of all you name the shame, the awfulness. Then you start talking about the ways you'll change it.
I have absolutely no doubt that, at the time of the next election—not this one—at least two new parties will have been formed. Proper parties, not like UKIP. Because when we wonder why people don't vote, it's not because they don't care. People care!
I don't think I've ever been surrounded by a more politically bothered population in my life. Most of our energy now is spent on going, "Who do we vote for, can we really vote for them?" The answer is, none of these parties work, we'll have to invent a new one. People care so much about politics at the moment.
They do, and if they don't want to vote it's because the parties don't represent them. None of these parties fit us in the 21st century. We've got shifting women's rights, shifting rights for people of color, for gay people, trans people... We've got a completely shifting economy, completely different tech sector. So let's start again and make new political parties. You can take a bit from the left and a bit from the right. As much of a Marxist as I am, I wouldn't ignore market forces either. You'd look at independently peer-reviewed policies of education and economics that had worked in other countries and just start doing them here. These pressure groups now need to come together and coalesce, because that's how the Labour Party came to be, with the Fabians and the unions. But I think Labour now is done.
Do you think your politics manifest in your writing?
When I write, I try and write it so anyone can feel they could write like that. Not using "writers' words," like when you use a load of impressive words and go, "Look at me!" That's a middle-class thing. It's not a bad thing, because you want to admire and worship brilliant writers. But my whole idea of writing How to Be a Woman was that it was open source, like Tim Berners-Lee, it was a starting point for other people to write their stories. It was half a memoir of my life, it was never meant to be a definitive text on how other people should be a woman.
Self Help is a genre that sells a lot to women, and in it they say you must do this and you must do that. With How to Be a Woman I was like, everything you've been told you have to do, fuck that. Don't do it. Don't bother. And I'm telling you now, if anyone reading this interview is interested in writing a book a bit like mine, here's how you do it, and please do it. You write the story of your life, and at every point where something awful happens, or society fucked you up or wronged you or made you feel awful, you stop and do a rant about it.
I would love to read about what's going on in India right now, in terms of women's rights and things, through an Indian woman writing the story of her life like that. Or anybody, anywhere. There are so many. Just use that format, if you want to, please. "How to Be a Trans Woman." "How to Be a Gay Man." I want to hear all the stories.
How to Build a Girl is out now in hardback, published by Ebury. The paperback comes out on the 9th of April.
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