Johanna Morrigan, the protagonist in Caitlin Moran's new novel How To Build a Girl , is a hot mess, like most of us were at 14. She loves books, masturbation, her family, and cheese toast — but not necessarily in that order.
In an attempt to bust out of her tiny working-class English town, Johanna reinvents herself. She starts calling herself Dolly Wilde and dons a top hat. She embarks on a quest to become a music journalist, have sex with as many people as she possibly can, and conquer the world (or at the very least, London).
In her best-selling book of essays How To Be a Woman, Moran tackled topics like motherhood, sexuality, bikini waxes, and abortion with a mixture of raw honesty and humor. With How To Build a Girl she depicts the painful process of growing up in a similarly bittersweet, and at times very funny, tone.
I talked to Moran about the process of writing the new book, her thoughts on 50 Shades of Grey, and the fact that “when you catch yourself crying in the middle of what you’re writing, you really need a holiday.”
BUSTLE: I want to start with the very end of How To Build a Girl — the Acknowledgments, where you say, “Writing a book is worse than giving birth to a baby – in hell…” You were in tears at one point, about to give up on the book. That all sounds pretty awful. Was this one tougher to write than How To Be a Woman?
CAITLIN MORAN: It was mainly because I was just exhausted. The actual writing wasn’t hard; I can easily write 3,000 or 5,000 words a day. The longest writer’s block I’ve ever had was for one day and that was several years ago. The day my youngest went to nursery [school] I started writing How To Be a Woman and as a consequence I wrote a TV show, and then traveled around the world and did a live standup tour and then wrote another book. I was crying because I was simply exhausted. Writing is easy, but having to write seven days a week for three years is really bad for your lower spine. I have the posture of a very old woman.
So besides the spine, it wasn’t a painful process, despite the fact that you compare it to giving birth in hell?
I love writing and I suffer from panic attacks quite badly and one of the only ways I can deal is [to] sit down and write a 2,000-word feature. When I sit down and open up a Word document, I am in my safe place. Writing is the only place where I feel in control of the entire world; it’s lovely. But when you catch yourself crying in the middle of what you’re writing, you really need a holiday.
With 50 Shades of Grey it’s that trend you see all the time where women don’t own their sexuality.
At what points did you cry while you were writing the novel?
I cried when I wrote about [Johanna] meeting John Kite for the first time, and suddenly not being alone. That really hit me. All that stuff about unrequited love I came up with before and just typed it out on my iPhone. I cried at the end when I was writing the part about the fact that the whole quest of your life is to invent yourself over and over again. It’s a trilogy so there are two books after this one, which I’m excited to do.
Sex is a major part of Johanna’s quest — she’s on a mission to sleep with as many people and gather as many experiences as she can, even if the sex isn’t so great.
This book is all about bad sex, and the next book I want to be all about good sex. The next book is going to be even dirtier. When I was writing this book I thought I was writing a book about the class system and unrequited love and pop culture, but I’ve basically just written a massive book about wanking. I did a show here [in the U.K.] and the first question was, So you open the first chapter of your new book with the main character masturbating – why is that? I was like, Well, it’s a nice way to kick things off, it’s quite relaxing. And then I lost my train of thought.
The next book is going to be even dirtier.
Would Johanna love or hate 50 Shades of Grey?
The reason I started writing the book is because I was so furious about 50 Shades of Grey that I was like, Fuck it I am going to have to write a book my daughters can read. Ironically the one person at the end of the world who will never read my books is my daughter. She’s just horrified that mommy writes dirty books.
What about that book made you so angry?
With 50 Shades of Grey it’s that trend you see all the time where women don’t own their sexuality and it has nothing to do with them. They’re just empty blank vessels that don’t have any sexuality until a man comes along and stirs something deep within them. She’s coerced into it by a billionaire who says let me bat you on the clitoris with a hairbrush and then we’ll go in my helicopter. That’s just such bullshit.
Why aren’t there any stories about female masturbation?
When I talk to my friends most of them were discovering their own sexuality from about 12 onwards. Everyone tells stories about it and we’re laughing hysterically but you also feel really empowered. It made me angry — why aren’t there any stories about female masturbation? Look at American Pie — it’s based around a man sticking his dick in a pie and wanking with it and then it’s a franchise. Boys go to school and boast about it and I would like a world where girls did that and got competitive about it. I wanted Johanna to completely control her sexuality. She sleeps with guys because she wants to sleep with guys. And you need to get on with it yourself until you find someone who is actually halfway decent in bed.
It is good that [50 Shades of Grey] has been written because other books will be commissioned that will be beautifully written with the money the publishing companies have gotten from that book. When people put money into female writing that’s great. Politically, I’m in favor of 50 Shades of Grey. It started some conversation.
Music is also a big part of Johanna’s journey. You started out as a music journalist so it’s obviously important in your life as well, so what’s your take on the music industry right now? Do you think people still define themselves by listening to certain types of music, or do people just listen to everything that comes across their path?
What has happened to youth culture and music has changed. When people start saying they listen to everything is when they just start downloading everything for free. Before you could only buy two or three albums a month so you’d just be into one genre but now people will listen to everything. The working classes just aren’t making music because you can’t earn as much money when you’re in a band anymore and we’ve gone back to where we were 120 years ago where only the rich can afford to make and compose music. A lot of that is what’s happening in the next book.
I love Johanna’s signature top hat. It’s a way for her to stand out and form some sort of identity. What was your style at that age?
I wanted to dress like I was in Victorian times; I loved my Victoriana. I wore black because I was very fat and it was a slimming color. People thought I was a Goth but I didn’t like any Goth music apart from The Cure. I just liked the clothes. I was part of the New Wave generation and people had their lives changed by that but I didn’t know anyone who had a car and I didn’t look good in the clothes they wore because they were all wearing fluorescent overalls. None of those people ate because they were doing huge amounts of speed. Your story about what gang you were in as a teenager is all very arbitrary. You’re so closely defined by things — whether you look good in the style of that gang and whether you knew anybody who had a car.
What's the second book about?
It’s called How To Be Famous, and my wall is covered in little Post-its. There’s this whole schizophrenia with our celebrities where on the one hand they’re treated like gods and on the other it’s like, Oh look at that fat bitch, but we never treat them as being normal humans. We can’t relate to them or relate their stories back to us. They are archetypes in the same way as the gods in Greek mythology. Horrible shitty magazines like OK and Hello never delve into what we can actually learn as a society from these stories. I wanted to write something about celebrity culture and I want to write about the creative process and about defining what working class culture is. That’s what the next book is.
We feel less control over how our countries are run and I want to write a book explaining how we can connect to that political activism.
The last book is called How To Change the World and I want to write a novel that is a manual for how you could actually have a political revolution. We feel less control over how our countries are run and I want to write a book explaining how we can connect to that political activism and feel that we are in control of the destiny of our countries again — but again with a lot of shagging going on. That’s the theme of all my books.
Important issues plus tons of sex.
Yes, because that’s how I run my life. Johanna and John Kite are at the center of all three books. The next book is set six months after this book finishes. The last book is 20 years after that. So you see what happens to them in their 30s. It’s exciting, but it’s going to be five years before I finish both books.
Does she take her top hat with her in the next two books?
Yes. She’ll always have that hat.
OK, good. Last question — what do you do to celebrate when you finish writing a book?
The boring answer is that you never finish a book, but this time I went online and Googled “size 12 David Bowie outfit.” I found a shirt that’s got pictures of David Bowie all over it in size 12 and so I bought it. I saw it as a sign. That was how I celebrated — I bought a David Bowie shirt.
Image: Mark Harrison/Lucid