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Caitlin Moran: "Give Me Stuff You're Not Supposed to Talk About and I'm Going In"

The fierce feminist talks with DAME about masturbation, her new novel, and how an episode of ‘Dr. Who’ brought marriage equality to the U.K.
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The first thing Caitlin Moran does when I meet her in the lobby of the hotel is tell me about a photo I have to see: a man whose body was infested with tapeworms after eating sashimi. I’m fascinated and find myself admiring her ability to talk about anything. It’s a quality that is evident in both of her books: her best-selling memoir, How to Be a Woman, and her new novel, How to Build A Girl. The writer is currently working on a bunch of projects in tandem, including two film projects. The first merges her memoir and her novel, and the second she describes as “an action movie about a bisexual, cross-dressing opera star and swordswoman” (Julie D’Aubigny).

Moran speaks quickly; so quickly that I was relieved to be recording our conversation and not trying in vain to take notes. It's easy to see how she can get so much done. Her energy is so infectious that by the time I left the hotel restaurant, I had the kind of an endorphin rush as if I’d gone on a long run and then drank three coffees, when really, I’d just had an iced tea and a discussion of politics and fictional characters. Oh, and a dose of indispensable writing advice—in fact, Moran gave me some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received.  

I couldn’t help but recognize some autobiographical elements from your memoir in 'How to Build A Girl.' What was it like to fictionalize your own life?

It was my favorite way of writing. The kind of person Johanna is is kind of based on my life, but the actual things that then go on and happen are fiction. This is the first of a trilogy. The next one is called How to be Famous and the last one is called How to Change the World. If you’ve read a book and followed these characters, and it’s going to be turned into a film and you follow them all the way through and you see how a girl like you that comes from nowhere and hasn’t been to a special university and doesn’t have an amazing social circle but she’s got ideas and she will work—you know, it can change politics. Hopefully that will show a generation of people “Yeah, that’s something I can have in my mind to do,” because 120 years ago normal people felt they could form trade unions and form political parties and influence things, but we don’t have that anymore.

What kind of political party does she form?

Well, one, it’s neither the left nor the right. Look at all the places around the world which have done it and form your manifesto around that rather than getting “I believe in the left” and “I believe in the right.” So, we just need to just do what any tech company or business would do and look at what’s proven to work and form your policy around that. And also we need to change the voting system. We need to have proportional representation. We also need to have a written constitution, which we don’t have, and funding of political parties should be state-funded and not from private donors. Those three things would probably change politics and then you’d have proper representation and it wouldn’t just be guys running the world.

And it’s basically like wish fulfillment if you write it. [Laughs]

Like artists, you know. Particularly with the working classes but within people of color and gay people, that is our power. You influence things through culture; that’s how we change things. Like in the U.K., I can trace the fact that we now have equal marriage in our country to a gay Welsh writer Russell T. Davies. He wrote Queer as Folk—the original Queer as Folk, then took over Doctor Who. And then Captain Jack Harkness, they kissed on prime time. And on the playground on Monday, kids in my daughter’s class, boys, were fighting to play the role of Captain Jack Harkness in school. And you know, he was absolutely accepted straight away and people love that character, and that’s just something that only art can do. Like especially in the world, no equality in ministerial government can you make 10-year-old boys want to play-act to be a bisexual man. There are some things that only culture can do. You know, art is about possible futures. We read these books and we go, “Actually that is the future I would like. I can work towards that.” I want books that are useful to me. You know, I want them to be beautiful as well, but I want to get into it and go “Yeah, okay, that’s helping me now.” That’s why all the books start with a How To. It’s you’re going to learn something; I’m going to tell you some stuff. It’s my job to sit down and think about shit, and if you’re kind enough to buy my book, with that money you’re paying me to give you some ideas that we can all use.

Who were some of your fictional role models?

It was really weird when I realized years later most of my role models were in the 19th century. Most 20th-century literature just didn’t do it for me. We were incredibly poor. And we weren’t going to school. So, my life was more like that of a 19th-century girl than a 20th-century girl. We weren’t shopping. There were no boys. There was no fashion. We were just dressed in fucking rags from thrift shops. So, yes, when I was reading Jane Eyre or What Katy Did or Anne of Green Gables, or any of the Brontës, those heroines made more sense to me than sort of ones who just wanted to get a ride and buy a new jacket. Nine times out of ten, if you’re a woman, depending on what your family situation is like and your background is like and your socioeconomic state is or your color or religion or sexuality, most women you see are just shat on and having a terrible fucking time. And the only time you’re going to see positive stories is when people have made them up. And that’s why these changes happen first in art before they happen in real life. You know, I have absolutely no doubt that what’s happening at the moment with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer, and Sarah Silverman has always been doing her own thing, and Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus, these kind of super-confident, dirty girls who don’t have a problem with sexuality and deal with it with fun and humor, the next generation of girls that come after that will be completely different sexually to what I was brought up with and what you were brought up with. They’re just erasing that kind of feeling that you can’t talk about these things. Once girls start talking about this stuff, they’re never going to fucking stop.

Speaking of sexuality, masturbation has always been a thing that women have enjoyed, but not always felt comfortable talking about. How do we take that discomfort away?

There are all these things like menstruation, masturbation, abortion, and kind of every taboo aspect of being a woman. Every time someone says they won’t talk about something, I’m like “Right, that’s where I’m going. Literally give me a list of stuff you’re not supposed to talk about and I’m fucking going in there.” If we started now, if we were to wake up tomorrow and there were no taboos around the world, I don’t think we’d now build one around that or masturbation or menstruation. These are hangovers from another period, another era.

Is there anything that you have a hard time writing about?

I wouldn’t write anything about my childrens' personal lives. But other than that, no. I mean, everything I look at and everything I do and everywhere I go, I’m just typing it out in my head and going “Okay, can I use that?”

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Michele Filgate is a writer, critic, and indie bookseller at Community Bookstore. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Rumpus, Salon, Buzzfeed, The Barnes & Noble Review, Poets & Writers,The Brooklyn Quarterly, Time Out New York, The Daily Beast, O, The Oprah Magazine, Vulture, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Capital New York, The Star Tribune, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. She used to work for the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, where she produced a segment called “Assignment America.” She is a freelance writer and occasionally produces literary segments for “Word of Mouth” on New Hampshire Public Radio. She lives in Brooklyn.
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