If you want an anecdote about just how huge the British feminist writer Caitlin Moran currently is, the one she recalls about a concert venue in Bristol will do nicely.
You don’t need an anecdote, mind. The numbers alone are proof: a million sales of her 2011 memoir-cum-manifesto How to Be a Woman, translated into 38 languages, more than 500,000 followers on Twitter.
And there’s the critical acclaim, of course. In 2010, she was named newspaper columnist of the year at the British Press Awards. A year later she won best critic and best interviewer. Judges were especially impressed by a piece on Lady Gaga, which started as a one-hour slot with the superstar and ended, like all first time meetings arguably should, at 4am, in a German nightclub, with the pair talking about Madonna while dancing on tables. “It was an insane night,” she notes today.
But if you really want an anecdote, let’s go back to Bristol Colston Hall.
A talk she was giving there this summer – half stand-up routine, half political polemical – had gone well. The bit where she got the audience to stand on chairs and bellow “I am a feminist!” was, according to local press, especially raucous. Afterwards, for three hours, she signed autographs on, she recalls, “books, tickets and a six-month-old baby”. But it was later that a paradigm-shifting fact was relayed to her.
“The show had been a sell-out,” she tells Friday today. “My friend from Bristol said to me ‘You do know what that means, don’t you? The Beatles played Colston Hall – but they didn’t manage to sell it out’. I was like... oh. I’m definitely taking that. I think I’ll be mentioning that to people.”
So, here we are interviewing the newspaper-columnist-turned-author who (sort of) became bigger than The Beatles. She’s agreed to talk ahead of her new novel How to Build a Girl – a semi-autobiographical tale of a friendless teenager who becomes a famous music journalist – being released in the UAE. It’s a terrific read too, full of hormonal longing and excruciating anecdotes, with a side of socialist and feminist theorising. More on this shortly.
For now, the first thing one notices about Caitlin Moran is that she speaks exactly – exactly – like she writes. Fast, excitable prose. Short, sharp sentences. Sudden bursts into metaphorical capitals.
Exclamation marks are all over the shop. Stories are littered with swearing and references to Han Solo. If you leave a short pause to take stock, she goes again; riffing and rattling off anecdotes. If she didn’t write things down, she once noted, “words would dribble out my ears and leave stains on the pillows”. When you speak to her, you believe it.
The second thing one notices is that this is a person who uses the word ‘darling’ an awful lot. Within a couple of minutes today it’s already had a handful of outings. “You sound very relaxed, darling,” she says almost immediately. “Does the heat in Dubai make you languid?”
She comes over like a cross between an opinionated best friend, a standard metropolitan media luvvie (“I live in Crouch End in London, where all the actors are”) and the school friend’s mum you looked up to: kind of kooky and kind of scary, but mystifyingly interesting.
And right now this 39-year-old – standard appearance: huge hair, lots of eyeliner, essentially Russell Brand without a beard – is offering advice on what she would do if she was me. Which is to say, what she – an award-winning interviewer – would do if she was assigned to interview herself.
“I normally make the suggestion we go and have a coffee,” she says. “That works. People open up more that way.” In this case, such methods may prove logistically problematic. Mainly because, with around 5,500km between her in London and me in Dubai, the chance of hooking up for an Americano seems somewhat unlikely. Still, we press on...
Moran’s own story is worth telling.
Certainly, a critic may say, she thinks so. Her childhood and teenage years are referenced constantly in her books, columns and the TV sitcom Raised by Wolves she’s scripted with her sister, and which will be aired in the UK in 2015.
But then, it’s a fascinating tale.
The eldest of eight siblings, she was raised and home-educated on a Wolverhampton council estate by hippie parents before having a children’s book – The Chronicles of Narmo (named after the heroine Morag Narmo) – published at the age of 15. At 16 she started working for music-weekly Melody Maker, before moving to London at 18 and joining The Times as a columnist.
“I was very different and that didn’t work in Wolverhampton,” she says. “I knew I had to go and find the other freaks in London.” She’s been knocking out columns, interviews and reviews for the paper ever since.
Among her finer moments in print have been telling Paul McCartney to reform The Frog Chorus, and going AWOL while spending 14 hours straight interviewing Courtney Love in a hotel room.
Then around 2010, she decided to write a book. She hoped the aforementioned How to Be a Woman would pay off a chunk of her and her husband’s mortgage. In fact, it ended up selling seven figures.
Girls and guys alike loved this feminist romcom rant, which, for all its freewheeling thinking, boiled down to two clear and concise principles: women should be equal to men; and, in life, don’t be an idiot. “I was having so many conversations with my friends about this – about how feminism should be fun, how it should be rock ’n’ roll, how if you believed in equality and in equal pay and in female emancipation – then you were a feminist, whether you knew it or not – I was having this conversation so often, I just thought I should write this down to save my time.” So, she did. The result was a publishing phenomenon. As well as those sales, it was named Galaxy National Book Awards Book of the Year and Moran was labelled as “one of the most important voices of the generation”.
A slew of celebrities and taste-makers were pictured reading the book. “There was a photo of Kate Moss lying on a beach with my book in her hand,” says Moran. “I don’t think you need an advertising budget after that. Just blow up that picture. It couldn’t have been more perfect.” It appealed to adults and adolescents alike. “I get teenage girls stopping me in the street, thanking me for giving them a voice, making them a space.”
Moran says she reckons the success was down to the timing as well as the subject.
“I was lucky really,” she says modestly, “I wrote a book about something just as it was becoming the zeitgeist. I compare it to surfing. I’m a good writer, but the trick was catching the wave.”
Now How to Build a Girl is set to build on that success. Based on Moran’s own teenage years, it follows its protagonist Johanna Morrigan from growing up on a Wolverhampton council estate to becoming a music writer in London. “It’s based on my own experiences but this isn’t a true story,” says Moran. “The things that happen to Johanna didn’t happen to me. Although some of them may have happened to people I know.”
Imagine The Bell Jar written by Rizzo from Grease, is how the blurb describes it. But Moran says it’s more the anti-Fifty Shades of Grey. Her hopes for it are somewhat more ambitious than paying off the mortgage, too: “I want it to change things,” she says. “I want to help start a revolution.” The revolution, as it turns out, may be coming. “I just want to tell women,” she notes at one point, “you don’t need that lipstick, you don’t need to go to the gym. Why don’t you cultivate your mind and soul instead? You should enjoy your life.”
She has two follow-up books already planned. How to Be Famous and How to Change the World will continue following Johanna Morrigan’s footsteps while further setting out the Moran Manifesto for Feminism.
In the meantime she’s scripting a film – based on How to Be a Woman – with Scottish author John Niven.
Then she has two more books she wants to pen, including one about “the word’s first feminist superhero, set in the 16th century”.
It might sound a lot, but then writing, she says, comes easy to her. As a general rule she will knock out 24,000 words a week. “I love doing it,” she says. “When I’m sat at my laptop I’m in charge of the world. If I go three days without writing I get twitchy. I like fiction. You’re just making people. Which, as a mother of two, let me assure you is easier than making people the other way.”
Oh, and now, she’s also planning to set up her own political party.
“UKIP inspired me,” she says. “If that bunch of hat-asses can form a party and dictate the media agenda, then I’m sure there can be a positive, inclusive party to counter them.”
That’s all to come. And while it sounds ambitious, one rather suspects she may well achieve it all. For there’s one other thing you notice when you talk to Caitlin Moran: she’s not entirely, one suspects, the laid-back, occasionally bumbling every-person she projects herself as, darling. Underneath it all is a steely ambition to be, yes, as big as The Beatles.