The interviewer becomes the interviewee, as we talk to the leading British journalist about her debut novel.
When I arrive to meet Caitlin Moran – only the most influential British journalist on Twitter as of last month – she’s on her way to the outside patio at her stomping ground, the Groucho Club. She launches into a characteristic monologue: “I’m going out for a gin and tonic and a cigarette, and you’re welcome to join me for one or both of those things”. I’m not sure I got a chance to reply, but I wound up with a drink, so everyone was happy.
When it came to time for promoting her debut novel How To Build A Girl, Caitlin says Attitude was top of her list. “The best thing that has happened to me in the last couple of years was winning your Honorary Gay award.” She’s not impressed when we tell her last year’s winner didn’t make it to the event. “If future winners don’t turn up, I will always be on speed dial with 20 minutes notice.” Ever the life and soul of a party, she recalls being on the smoking terrace as a bouncer attempted to take a vodka bottle from Cleo Rocos, who had stuffed it down her bra. “And then Clare Balding – like a brilliant school prefect – just went across and said, ‘Darling, you have had a few, don’t give the man a hard time, just give him the bottle’. And so she did! Clare keeps order. She’s one of the women that would have founded the British Empire. She knows that we are all only ten minutes away from chaos and disaster and just wants to keep everything in order, running smoothly. I’d fucking vote for her.”
Caitlin is unusually productive at the moment – even by her standards – and when I admit to a speed read of her book, she says “I had a speed write of it darling. I’m still writing it I think. I was writing three columns a week, and writing a film, and writing a sitcom, and so I was very tired.” She also mentions a secret project which leads to a quick chat about Madonna’s secret project – which materialised last year as a sexy black and white short film with a manifesto for art and revolution. “That’s not a secret project, that’s just pissing about with an iPhone!” she laughs, before continuing. “I thought I was having a nervous breakdown, and I was just about to go and get some valium. And then I realised that I had brought a 12 cup cafetiere and was drinking all of it before noon. Turns out I was just poisoned on caffeine.”
With its semi-autobiographical tale of a council estate dwelling, Wolverhampton teenage girl, How To Build A Girl is similar to Raised By Wolves – the TV show Caitlin is writing with her sister, slated to start next January. “I will always write about gobby teenage girls from Wolverhampton. It’s like Woody Allen. I just have the same character over and over again. I understand the world through that character. I am going to write about a second century girl in Britain because I am fascinated to see – would I have been burned as a witch? The answer is yes. That book is very short.”
“I also wanted to write about class. People always ask ‘Why did your parents have so many kids if they couldn’t afford it?’ I don’t know. But they did, and it mean that I didn’t starve and I have now educated myself and I am now paying back more in tax then I ever claimed in benefits, so thank you. Thank you for the dental care and the libraries, and I hope my taxes go to help another kid like me, and if they don’t have access to things like that, then they will just fester and go on the dole somewhere and won’t become a contributing member of society like I did. That system does work really well.”
Whereas the sitcom sticks to life growing up at home, the novel carries on to document her early life as a music journalist in London – and will form the first of a trilogy; the sequel is How To Be Famous, and the third is How To Change The World.
Caitlin tells me of how she began her crusade to find fame herself. “I spent years interviewing famous people. I started off trying to make friends with them, and talking about me for the entire interview, and then I just started trying to have sex with them.” None of these plans worked out, but I put it to her that she has attained a certain level of fame. “I can tell you exactly how famous I am. I won Elle magazine’s Writer of the Year, and dressed up in a lovely dress and heels and went on to the red carpet, and then the photographer shouts out ‘Paloma! Over here Paloma!’ So I am famous enough to win an award, but not famous enough to have photographers know who I am. And I think that that is the exact amount of famous I want to be.”
Should it ever amount to more though, Caitlin knows the drill. “Once you get to a certain level of fame Bono will apparently take you to one side and give you advice on how to cope with your fame and stuff and tell you what to do. And I just love the idea of that – the Bono talk. There are two layers of fame as well” she continues, “you know the people on The Only Way Is Essex and Big Brother, and then there are people like Chris Martin, who don’t want to do any publicity at all. But we need to take paparazzi pictures of people falling out of hotels and stuff and so we created reality TV so we had just the famous people but without being creative. We could leave Chris Martin to be completely shy and wear a shit hat, and carry on making great albums and we could just have people to be full time famous. I thought it was quite clever. We get to see Joey Essex getting bitten by a monkey, that’s great – but Bono doesn’t have to do that – fantastic! Well done humanity, we were working very well that day.”
As conversation veers into politics and the recent European elections, Caitlin explains why she is oddly hopeful by the recent rise of UKIP, and asks a lady nearby for a light. “We are taught that in professional politics they go into parliament and they have never had a proper job, and that’s why people hate politics. But UKIP have come along – without any media training, without any establishment backing, without any money – and they are a bunch of fucking arseholes and they always make mistakes in interviews and they have risen to prominence really quickly. And I just think that if you had a UKIP that was good, full of people who weren’t homophobic, racist fat cats, but used the same way UKIP have risen to power, we could have a completely different party doing something different in the next couple of years.” How does she feel about the low voting turn out? “Who is ultimately getting screwed over when you don’t vote? It’s us. You know, we need to vote for the people who are going to change things for us but it’s in the powerful elitist interest for us to not want to vote.”
We get deeper into the benefits of an equal society. “If every woman in America who had an abortion went on strike, all of America would have ground to a halt for the day and you’d have seen how important being able to control your reproductive rights is to society. This is a society that is built on women being able to control their fertility. It’s the same thing with gay rights you know, keeping that secret, and having to hide these things. If you always have something for someone to blackmail you over, you could be the brightest, you could have a secret plan to bring about economic upturn to this country, but if you’re worried that someone’s going to blackmail you, you’re not going to turn around and say ‘I have the secret to this economic upturn’. Alan Turing’s story is amazing, that he managed to do what he did, but imagine what more he could have done, if he didn’t commit suicide because of fucking shame? He could have done something that we would have all been reaping the benefit of now. So again, well done society, you fucking idiot, we keep shooting ourselves in the foot. This goes for any country that has a less equal society, because the greatest resource that any country has is not oil or uranium – it is brains. And if you look at a map of the world, the ones that are the most fucked up and stupid, with the greatest poverty, are the ones that are least equal.”
After a deep breath, a moment to muse, and another round, I decide we better talk some more about this book; Caitlin cuts to the chase. “Do you want my gay angle on it? The main character has this fixed idea that she wants to have a gay best friend. All the way through it she has a brother who is gay, but she doesn’t realise because he’s not a classic gay – he’s into Public Enemy and hip hop – and at one point when she goes to London her editor on a magazine is gay but this guy is into punk rock and he’s bald and not glamorous, and he’s the wrong kind of gay too. We are fixed by the idea of the typical gay best friend, so it’s her constantly not realising that her brother is gay, right in front of her.”
Not that Caitlin ever had a shortage of ‘typical’ gay best friends back in the early 90s. “You know when you end up with those kind of bitchy gays screaming and by the end of it you’re like ‘Jesus Christ I have been evil for five hours and I’ve been drinking horrible cocktails.’ That was my social group. And it was because they had had terrible fucking childhoods and terrible times. And you had to just become this fabulous monster.” We agree that nowadays you don’t have to be a fabulous monster, though it would be a great title for a Lady Gaga single.
We discuss how our enlightened society has meant new generations of gay men are coming through without the same baggage as their predecessors – it’s all very journo to journo. “That’s why I am interested to see what Russell T Davies has for his next thing, Cucumber, Banana and Tofu, because it’s about older gays and younger gays. And I suspect that is one of the things that he may be discussing, how different it is, and getting older to discover what it’s like for younger, and vice versa. Russell is one of my great friends, and I have just been to a read-through and it’s one of the filthiest things you’ll ever see in your life.” So that’s something. “That’s the great thing about art – no government can make a legislation, that’s something that culture has to do. You need a TV show like that where you can talk about those things.”
This leads to Caitlin giving her unreserved praise for Lena Dunham’s Girls – which she welcomes in an age where internet pornography is all “horrific bumming and spanking”. She explains that when Dunham’s character shows unflattering bits of body, and portrays realistic sex scenes, “you can tell that’s a show written and directed by a woman. That is proper revolution. I was furious with Fifty Shades of Grey, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this book, because in that she’s a teenage virgin and she meets an older, powerful rich guy, and he says ‘If I beat you around the clitoris with a hairbrush, in exchange for an iPad, then we are all happy aren’t we?’ One in three women have bought that book in this country and I just thought, I don’t want teenage girls to read that book and think that’s what sex is going to be like.” One page in her book details a list of ways Caitlin has devised for dealing with a well endowed man in the bedroom. “It’s literally all the ways that it could be avoided – like being chased around on all fours.”
Dodging doggy done and dusted, we’ve just got time to discuss the rivalry Attitude ships between Caitlin and Grace Dent. “We are very Alexis and Crystal. We will end up one day – probably at the Attitude Awards – in a lily pond, tearing into each other’s wigs. No, my love for Grace is endless, and I have only said that because I know it will annoy her.”
How To Build A Girl is out on Ebury Press now.