Caitlin Moran on why modern feminism is in a good place

Caitlin Moran’s writing has struck a chord with a whole generation of women. Yvette Huddleston meets her as she appears live in Yorkshire.

Caitlin Moran. Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
Caitlin Moran. Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Caitlin Moran has plenty to say. And she is worth listening to.

A multi-award winning journalist, author and broadcaster, her non-fiction book How to Be a Woman became an instant bestseller, won the British Book Awards Book of the Year in 2011 and has since been published in 28 countries.

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Its fresh, frank and funny approach to feminism spoke to, and inspired, a whole generation of women. It broke down barriers and started conversations, which is a stand-out feature of much of Moran’s work.

Caitlin Moran with the award for Best Writer at the 2012 Glamour Women of the Year Awards in London. Photo: Ian West/PA Wire

She’s never one to shy away from controversy and if there is a taboo subject on the horizon she is the first to admit “that’s where I’m going to run to”.

Her books are full of candid observations on women’s sexuality, often using her own experiences as an example and all related without shame or fear. That’s quite some role model.

Moran is currently on a book tour for the paperback publication of her latest novel How To Be Famous and the audience members that come to her show in Yorkshire this month – at York Theatre Royal – are in for a treat.

“The show is quite gossipy and chatty – one of the big themes is sex, there will be some celebrity anecdotes and there’s always a lot of joy,” she says. “And I really love meeting people afterwards; I once did a signing that went on for four hours after the show had finished.”

The book is a sequel to How to Build a Girl (2014) – now being made in to a film, more of which later – and is part of a trilogy that will conclude with How to Change the World.

Like all Moran’s fiction, How to Be Famous is partly autobiographical – and with such an interesting life story, there is a wealth of material to mine.

She had an unconventional upbringing – growing up on a council estate in Wolverhampton the eldest of eight children, she was home-educated from the age of 11 and spent her days in the local library hoovering up as much information as she could.

“I used to go to the library sometimes twice a day and if you devour books you become full of words,” she says. “It was through being a reader that I became a writer.”

Writing is in her DNA, she published her first book, The Chronicles of Narmo, when she was just 16 (“we were on benefits and I decided that I had to earn some money for the family, so I wrote a novel”) and in 1992 at the age of 18 she became a columnist for The Times where she continues to write two weekly columns.

Moran’s move to London from the Midlands as a teenager and her adventures in the capital as a music journalist during the Britpop era provided the inspiration for her protagonist Johanna Morrigan, pen name Dolly Wilde, in How to Be Famous.

“She is a young woman who has nothing and the book is really about how you can slowly build on that,” says Moran.

“She is thrust into this environment where there is all this money, power and fame; and how do you deal with that as an outsider, particularly in the 1990s when you were often the only girl in the room and also you were only 18/19 years old. This is 1995 in the Britpop era which was great but it was also the time of the ‘ironic sexism’ of magazines like Loaded and Nuts and as a woman you were supposed to laugh at all that; you were not allowed to get angry about it.

“Also at the time we didn’t really have the language to talk about those things, so I felt it was a rich and fertile area to explore.”

The book is a brilliant, exuberant, often laugh-out-loud funny celebration of being young, fearless and free and at the same time it thoughtfully dissects the uneasy relationship between power, sex and fame and how vulnerable young women can be when they find themselves at the centre of that vortex.

That particular theme became increasingly relevant even while Moran was writing. “I was about halfway through when the #MeToo movement started up in the real world and all these women’s voices were being heard and we were able to say ‘look this is what it was like’. Now we have a chance to change things.”

Moran feels that modern feminism is in a good place and as the mother of two teenage daughters, she feels quite optimistic.

“Feminism is such a huge news story today, much bigger than it was a few years ago. When these issues come up we are talking about them. Feminism has to be a group effort, the more people who are involved the better it is.

“My own daughters feel they are part of it, they understand the concept and what’s great is that the next generation of girls coming up assume it is their right to talk about these things. The other thing I have learnt about modern feminists is that we all make jokes as well – we talk about the serious aspects but also the funny, silly things about being a woman and allow women to be human.”

Moran is not one to rest on her laurels. In addition to her ‘day job’ at The Times, she has completed a screenplay for the film of her novel How to Build a Girl, currently in production, which is due for release in the UK in early 2020.

“I have never done a screenplay before and so I sat down and painstakingly learnt how to do it. It has been amazing writing the script and working with all the incredible people involved in it.”

Those people include Emma Thompson, Paddy Considine, Chris O’Dowd and rising star Beanie Feldstein as Johanna.

She is also writing a follow-up to How to Be a Woman which will focus on women in their late 30s/40s/ 50s “and how they are running themselves ragged looking after older parents and teenage children, doing unpaid social care basically” and has started work on How to Change the World, in which Johanna Morrigan runs for Parliament.

“The working classes don’t get involved in politics anymore; we seem to have lost that connection,” she says. “We need to read a story to know we can do that and the book shows how it can be done.”

As it is something she is clearly very passionate about, has she not been tempted to enter politics herself? “I’ve thought about it but I think the political system is broken really. I’m more interested in grass roots activism and would rather work on trying to introduce something new. It feels as if we are coming to the end of an old world order and a new one is trying to be born. It is both a terrifying and exciting time to be alive.”

As a public figure Moran has the potential to be hugely influential and I wonder whether that responsibility ever weighs heavily on her.

“Not at all – I love it,” she says. “As the eldest of eight children I am someone who has always taken responsibility. I like suggesting ways around problems and also reminding people that the world is, essentially, full of joy. If you have a platform you can perhaps find new ways to help.

“Many of the terrible things about being famous you can avoid by not going to those parties or those places. With the fame I have, I have always tried to have a useful function.”

Caitlin Moran is at York Theatre Royal on July 16. Her novel How to be Famous is out in paperback now, published by Penguin.