“I was a very lonely teenage girl,” says Caitlin Moran. It seems an unlikely confession from someone whose energetic, tell-it-like-it-is approach to talking about womanhood has struck a chord with people all over the world. But it’s one that explains her drive to write a trio of coming-of-age novels about teenage hero Johanna Morrigan, aka Dolly Wilde - a young woman with no connections, no money, and no formal education, who arrives in nineties London on a mission to take the music press by storm before the age of twenty. And preferably before lunchtime.
“I got all my information from books,” explains Moran. “I still believe there must be lonely teenage girls out there, trying to get their information from books. I want to be next to them, describing things that will happen, and giving them ideas for how they can cope with it.”
It’s a mission that Moran took up in her 2014 Letter to Teenage Girls, and the two instalments of the trilogy that she’s completed so far - 2014’s How to Build A Girl (which she is currently adapting into a film due for release next year), and the new novel How to be Famous - read like continuations of the same message. Why, then, are teenage girls so important?
“They are children, thinking: ‘In ten years I’ve got to be an adult woman - what does that consist of?’ And if you look at the rising instances of mental illnesses, self-harm, eating disorders, general unhappiness, what we can see at the moment is that we don’t make it look like a good job to be a woman. It doesn’t look fun. So teenage girls are trying to delay their adolescence, to escape from the idea of being a woman, because it just looks awful.”
I still believe there must be lonely teenage girls out there, trying to get their information from books. I want to be next to them, describing things that will happen, and giving them ideas for how they can cope with it.
And since Moran has set out to put the fun back into the prospect of womanhood, and to offer young women honest information that’s hard to come by elsewhere, there’s one obvious topic she knew the books needed to tackle in detail: Sex.
“All the sex I learned about was from reading books,” she explains. “At least I wasn’t watching endless, horrible hetero-porn that involved women being spanked by men who looked like Burt Reynolds, but most of the sex that I read about was still very much written from a male point of view.
“But all the sex I’ve enjoyed reading was written by women - Marian Keyes, Jilly Cooper.... The sex that you see or read about in your teenage years tends to form the larger part of your sexual fantasy framework for the rest of your life, so I really wanted to write about sex honestly; about good sex, bad sex… particularly good sex – it was really important that the book ended with a great shag!”
Moran stresses that this is even more important now, when “we’re swamped with pornography, during which it’s bafflingly common to see women being strangled, slapped on the arse, and singularly fail to orgasm. How, when this is the majority of heterosexual porn, is anyone watching supposed to learn how to have sex? Especially when you see the statistics showing that, for most young people, that’s how they get their sexual education now. I think it’s really important to know that what you’re seeing is not sex; you are seeing some people at work. That’s a day in the office - or a day in the orifice - but, of course, you’re not being told that.”
I’m constantly terrified that I might accidentally get in a Tardis and go back to a time when it was worse for women. Most of my books are about quickly writing a manual for how I would cope with that.
The ‘bad sex’ in the latest book is the very worst kind of bad, as Johanna finds herself the victim of a celebrity comedian’s revenge porn, suddenly gaining a type of fame she never asked for, and faced with figuring out how to reclaim her own narrative – something Moran wanted to offer her own suggestions for.
“I’m constantly terrified that I might accidentally get in a Tardis and go back to a time when it was worse for women,” she says. “Most of my books are about quickly writing a manual for how I would cope with that, like, if I suddenly find myself in 1860 and I can’t vote and I’m being burned as a witch. I like writing manuals for coping with terrible situations. And I thought, ‘if you’re a teenage girl and you’ve got no power, how do you cope with sexual shame, how do cope with a famous, powerful man abusing you? OK, this is what I would have done if this had happened to me.’”
Uncannily, Moran found herself tackling this subject just as the abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein began to surface, and the #MeToo movement took social media by storm.
“The book was written as the Harvey Weinstein thing was kicking off,” she says. “The idea has been there for ten years, and I was slowly typing it out, and it was just incredible that the plot was syncing up with what was happening in the headlines every day. I was like ‘Hey, I’m onto something here…”
Moran was thrilled by the power and solidarity with which women everywhere were reclaiming their stories, but she was also excited to find that the movement’s approach to empowering women and tackling abuse mirrored the strategy that Johanna’s adopts in the book.
“The #MeToo movement has come to the same conclusion that Johanna does; that what you have to do is tell the experience from your point of view, so it’s not just the simple, salacious fact of ‘they had sex’ or ‘she was raped’. While we keep this stuff secret, the shame is on the woman. As soon as you put it out in the open - although it’s painful to do it - the shame disappears.
“What you are doing is saying ‘I do not accept this shame. I did nothing wrong. You were abusive. You have the fucking shame, it’s nothing to do with me,’ and walking away from it. That’s what the #MeToo movement has done on a global scale. It’s why I was so thrilled when I was writing it because I was like ‘Shit! This is literally happening in the world now. As I am writing this book! That’s amazing!’”
It’s a benchmark in a woman’s life, the first time you come into your anger. We train anger out of girls, so, when you get into your teenage years, the first couple of times you feel angry, you tend to be scared of it.
Through her friendship with Suzanne – a riotous, rabble-rousing musician ten years her senior – the novel’s young heroine discovers that allowing herself to feel anger at her situation is a crucial step on the way towards reclaiming her power. Does Moran think that this is something that women, in particular, struggle with? Do we all need anger lessons?
“It’s a benchmark in a woman’s life, the first time you come into your anger,” she says. “We train anger out of girls, so, when you get into your teenage years, the first couple of times you feel angry, you tend to be scared of it. It’s important that Dolly’s being given permission by an older woman who’s seen it all, and is saying, ‘No. Feel this anger. Get your angry wings.’ If you reclaim your anger, you use that as an energy, that’s when things will change. That’s basically the plot of the book - Johanna comes into her anger and uses it to change the situation that’s made her so scared and angry.”
This discovery of her own power to instigate change looks set to be the springboard for Dolly’s third adventure in the book that will complete the trilogy: How to Change the World.
“The last book will be set in the present day, when Johanna enters politics,” Moran reveals. “We’ve reverted – after that brief post-war Clement Attlee government blip of working class people being the political class and introducing the Welfare state and the NHS and people’s government for the people – back to the traditional ruling class; the same guys from the same school, same education, same degree, same job.
“And whilst they do many great things, they’re not thinking about solutions for working-class problems, for women, for people of colour, for the LGBT community. So I wanted to write a trilogy where you can see a girl who’s come from nothing, and she eventually enters politics, so that other girls reading it can go: ‘Oh my God - she can do this! I can do this! This is how you do it! You don’t have to be one of those men who come from one of those places.’ Anyone with some good ideas should be able to feel that they can go out there and change the world.”
For Moran, this drive toward greater diversity in politics is as vital to political progress as it is to achieving greater equality:
“The political class we’ve got now - they’re all out of ideas. Every single idea that’s on the table is simply about going back into the past and saying, ‘Let's make it more like 1950, or 1970, or 1980’. We need new ideas. And we’re only going to come up with new ideas if we have new people in parliament. So this is everything that I can do to encourage people who think politics isn’t for them to change their minds, to go: ‘No, politics is for me’.”
Given how closely some of Johanna’s ambitions have mirrored the milestones in Moran’s own career so far, I can’t help but wonder if she’s ever considered going into politics herself?
“I’ve thought about it,” she admits. “But I think I can be far more effective as a freelance idea-floater, ROFL-minstrel and all-round practical utopian. There’s that quote from the Breitbart website where Steve Bannon talks about politics being ‘downstream of culture’. I’d like to stay upstream. The view’s nicer and I can fit work in around childcare, the pub and Love Island.”
Interview by Rachel Stroud.