Skyping with Caitlin Moran About 50 Shades of Grey, Big Penises, and Why Martin Amis Is an Idiot

Caitlin Moran How to Build a Girl

With her incredibly funny (and incredibly popular) memoir/feminist treatise How to Be a Woman, British writer Caitlin Moran put herself on the map here in the US as a force with which to be reckoned. Her novel, How to Build a Girl (now out in paperback), only solidified Moran’s reputation as an hilarious, frank writer whose brutal honesty about what it means to be—and become—a woman is incredibly welcome, and needed. Moran is about to embark on a one week whirlwind of a US tour (six cities in six days, which, as Moran tells me, means that there was no scheduling for hangovers, “a rookie mistake”), starting off at Strand Books tomorrow night. I chatted with Moran via Skype last week and found her to be just as open and charming via instant message as she is on the page. Beyond that, though, she’s also incredibly empathetic and sweet; our first interview had to be postponed because of an emergency trip to the doctor for my son. It was the first thing Moran asked about, and she even gave me some advice involving magical dog saliva. Read on to find out more about this, as well as Moran’s opinions on everything from 50 Shades of Grey, the difficulties of having sex with a well-endowed man, and why Martin Amis is an idiot. 

HELLO! How’s your kid, baby – is he/she okay? Rashes are just terrifying, aren’t they? you’re always like “Oh fuck, here’s the meningitis”

Yes! He is. He has eczema. And sensitive skin in general. Oh, god, we’ve had many emergency room trips (well, two, but that’s plenty) due to rashes.
Poor baby. My husband had it very, very bad when he was young. He now just has a tiny patch on one knee that’s almost cute, so, you know … it can get better

Because he’s even sensitive to water.
WATER? Oh man, sometimes you get the feeling God’s just up there, stoned, going “Hahahah this would be amusing.”

Ha. Yes, hopefully my son will see it as cute later on. This bout was in his “elbow pits” as he calls them. After showers he turns quite red and bumpy and needs to be slathered in lotion. So, you know, he rarely bathes. Which might be a problem when he hits about 12. We’ll see.
I know a man with a dog he claims can heal eczema if the dog licks the affected patch. I can hook you up if you want? (I’m pretty sure you’re going to decline that hahaha.)

That might be a last resort, but I appreciate the offer!
Hey – there’s always Lynx.  Do you have Lynx there? the BRUTAL deodorant that teenage boys seem to live in a permanent fog of? Imagine if I FedExed you a magic dog

We do not… but we do have Axe? Which might be the same? If you FedExed me a magic dog I would absolutely sign for it.
YES! That’s what you call it there! Much better than a brand that rhymes with “Stinks.”

It kind of is? But Axe is just so foul. Of course, even Old Spice now has the weirdest names for deodorant… like there’s one called Wolfthorn. How am I supposed to know what that even smells like. There’s also Bearglove. I guess they are all just codes for “man scent.”
I once saw a man’s aftershave called “Trench.” I mean, I know we’re running out of words for things, but still. “Trench.”

Trench feels like an inside company joke that just got released.
I confidently await the advent of one called “Jizz.” Do you have jizz there? I get confused which slangs translate across the Atlantic. Someone said you don’t do “spunk” there.

I think jizz scent is everywhere now in the form of the massive popularity of coconut water. And we do have jizz. Absolutely. I feel like we have spunk? But it’s not as common.
HURRAH! YOU HAVE JIZZ! OUR SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP CONTINUES! We can all unite for jizz. Spunk’s everywhere here gloomily I’m surrounded.

It’s things like this that keep us together.
So, you join me on Day Four of my Glastonbury Festival hangover. Turns out drinking half a bottle of Jaegermeister during Kanye = bad.

Wow. Four days! I gather Kanye’s performance needed that level of Jaegermeister?
When I go to a festival, I go hard. I kind of forget the “sleeping” thing, and live on cigarettes and joy.

I think that’s the way you’re supposed to do it! So, well done.
Kanye was “special”. I’ve never seen an audience more willing to love a performer, and be let down so much. My favourite bit was the five minute silent interlude where he just kind of stared at his laptop, like a man who’s just seen the message “Printer cartridge not in alignment” and was thinking, “200,000 people are watching me. This is bad. I wish I’d not pressed the “Updates Available – Later” button

Oh no. Ah… so the Jaegermeister was definitely needed.

But so! How to Build a Girl!
YES! Hit me! Number one TWICE in a year. I’m still celebrating dances around the room

As you should be! I really loved it. And have been thinking about it a great deal. But my first question is: What is it about adolescent girls where they feel the need to, in a way, create themselves? I wonder if, in part, it’s because there’s so many messages bombarding girls from such a young age about who they should be, what they should look like, what ten tricks can turn them into the ideal woman… boys just don’t have that.
Yes! I think the big thing for me was, all through my early teens, reading all those multiple choice quizzes in women’s magazines that were like “Which Spice Girl are you?” “Which member of Sex & the City are you?” and this feeling that there were only, like, four types of women? And thinking “If I chopped off half my thoughts and personality maybe I could be a BIT like one,” and feeling I was a failure for not being one of the Four Recognised Types of Lady available, and then realising, gradually, that I was like ALL OF THEM PUT TOGETHER, PLUS extra stuff, AND some stuff I hadn’t thought of yet. And “yet” was the key word. When people go “there aren’t girls like you,” “There aren’t books like this”, “that’s not how the world is”, you add one word, and it changes everything. “Yet.” There aren’t girls like me – yet. There aren’t books like this – yet. I am the yet. This generation, and the next, is the yet. And this extends out across all “minorities” – who are, actually, the majority: straight white Protestant males are 7% of the world’s population. We are the yet. That’s why it’s FUCKING BRILLIANT to be us.

I’m getting a “yet” tattoo when I’m fifty. When, appropriately, I suspect I’ll look like a yeti.

“We are the yet.” It’s so true! Those quizzes are fun as fuck but you don’t even realize how quickly you fall into the trap of trying to answer them in a way so that you get a particular result. And then that’s also how you, like, TRY TO LIVE YOUR LIFE.
This is the thing – everything we think is shit about being a girl is actually the amazing stuff. We own the future. This is a culture in thrall to the new. They’re so fucked for things for straight white guys to do they’ve remade Spiderman 9000000 times. And Superman. And Batman. When they’re finally ready for new stories, BANG! Here we are! We’ve got billions!

I loved the line toward the end of the novel, when Johanna reflects on what happened as she tried to build herself, and she talks about all the secrets she kept, and how the worst part of it is when she tried “to keep the secret of herself.” Because you can’t keep that secret, it’s actually out there, but you need to be prepared to embrace it.
YES! As the oldest girl in our family, I really felt like a) becoming a woman was a CHOICE I’d made, and that it was my fault, and therefore I couldn’t complain about any aspect of it.

Which is the other part of this, because straight white males have never been afraid to embrace themselves (hell, that’s why they’re all the superheroes) but we need to do it too. Which leads me into my next question: Do you think there will be a time when that kind of unapologetic embrace will stop being a threat to so many people?
That’s one of the key things I wanted to put in the book – that the common mode for so many women is self-loathing. So I wanted to show you, if you loathe yourself – think of a self you’d love! And be that! I think it often takes women DECADES to realise you can be your own best hobby. And you don’t just do it once – you do it over and over again. That is the work of your life. But not to accept the you your parents made, or your school made. You can make a customised, amazing you. Make a you you’d fall in love with. You should always fancy yourself a bit, really. And that’s where the wanking comes in.

Caitlin Moran

Ha. yes! And it comes in right at the beginning. Which, that’s as it should be.
That’s on purpose! I was so enraged by 50 Shades of Grey. This constant idea that women are empty, sexless neutral things until a man comes along and shows them what’s what. No girl I know was like that. We were aware of our own sexuality in the same, visceral way boys are, and it’s constantly chronicled in popular culture. That’s why page one, line one, she’s masturbating. This girl’s journey is NOT going to be about a man showing her herself. She wants to show herself TO THE WORLD.

So that’s why Johanna ends up in that S&M relationship with Tony Rich, which ends as 50 Shades should have – with a MASSIVE dumping speech. I wanted to get the REAL story of what  it’s like if you, as a young woman, hook up with an older, more powerful man into a kind of sex you’re NOT into. my Dirty Auntie DNA was desperate to tell those girls that. Because I learned about sex from books. I love books that give you information. Hence, the sex scene with Big Cock Al. You gotta know how to deal with those big penises. No one ever tells you! You’re supposed to be excited about them! no! they’re a medical emergency! Hence, also, the chapter on cystitis.

The list of rules for how to deal with a big penis ought, I think, to be taught in sex ed classes. It’s all so, so true.

And I think the way masturbation is usually portrayed is so gendered… Marc Maron does a bit about how people have complained because in his act he uses the universal hand gesture for jerking off, and that’s only what it looks like when a guy masturbates, so now he made it into a joke and also simulates a woman doing it. But, like, it IS kind of annoying that jerking off is always going to be shown as being by default a male action. Every woman I know masturbates a ton.

Martin Amis had a go at me for it – said I was being “a lad”, talking about masturbation. HELLO! you GENUINELY think that only men masturbate? That I am being “like a man” when I talk about disturbing the mist in MY Brigadoon? Is there ANYTHING more female than having your lady-hand on your lady-vagina and having NINE THOUSAND MULTIPLE ORGASMS COUNT THEM BOYS. Sorry you only have one. Idiot.

I mean, I hate to be ageist toward Martin Amis, and I do really love Money, but also, that sounds like such a “man from several generations ago trying to pay a compliment but missing the point completely” kind of thing.
Also, I saw how much money E.L. James got from writing 50 Shades and I was like “I think I could write better sex than that, and I, too, would like a gold-plated swimming pool and gold knickers and a gold head.”

I feel like all women writers have a duty to try and write good sex scenes to make up for what E.L. James wrought.
When I read that bit out loud, you have 2000 women in the audience going NUTS. I act it out in quite a visceral way. The signings usually go on for three or four hours after. I was boasting about this to Neil Gaiman, and he was like “Mine go on for six hours.” So now I’m in a competition to have one that’s TEN HOURS LONG.

When girls cry, I try to make them feel better by licking the tears off their faces, and saying “We are now crying sisters.” Then my agent said “Er, health & safety issues?” So I need to think of a new thing.

I mean, maybe you do. But I don’t know. That kind of behavior is what will take you straight to the ten hour lines.
Imagine if I caught herpes from someone’s tears, and my husband was like “you’ve been screwing around!” and I was like “no, I was having a bonding feminist moment.”

I feel like he’d understand and so it would be worth it. Maybe.

What writers are you into right now? Whose work really excites you? (Besides Martin Amis and E.L. James, of course.)
Just discovered Lorrie Moore – am OBSESSED with her. She is a proper genius – can ram more into one, elegant, spacious sentence than, truly, others do in a whole chapter. Am working my way , chronologically, through Dickens – he and Orwell are my heroes: they started off as polemic journalists, then turned to fiction because people understand things better through characters and story. Also, characters and story are more FUN. It’s hard to fit a massive wanking scene into a 800 word op-ed piece for the Times although, God knows, I’ve often done it

What’s harder for you to write? Fiction or non?
Oooooooooooh, let me think. I’ve started drinking wine.

I like that in your acknowledgments you say that writing a book is “literally worse than giving birth” which is both scary and impressive.
Well, I’ll be honest, I find ALL writing IMPOSSIBLY easy. Other writers hit me with things when I talk about writing, because most find it a bit trickier, but I could genuinely write forever – my Stickie with ideas for columns, films, books, movies, tv shows is HUGE – I’ve got the next three films, four books planned. It’s just the sitting, babe. Sitting on a chair all day. My arse REALLY hurts. Apparently, Dickens used to write standing up. Maybe I should start doing that.

I’m trying to take a picture of my keyboard, which is covered in blood – I cut my finger opening the wine bottle, it looks so visceral. Like I REALLY MEAN this Skype.

I read somewhere recently that “sitting is the new smoking.” Standing desks are all the rage here, like green juice.
I SAW THAT! Terrifying, given that I smoke whilst sitting.

Maybe they cancel each other out? So do you have any writing rituals then? Other than drinking wine and bleeding on your keyboard??
I’ve recently started a new regime of getting up super early, hitting all my deadlines by midday and then going to swim at the Ladies bathing Ponds on Hampstead Heath. Just to save my arse. Literally.

That sounds quite lovely, actually. Like, the perfect writer’s day.
Well, is pissing around on Twitter and Facebook reposting pictures of Bruce Springsteen looking hot a “ritual”? I have that ritual.

Yes, that is definitely a ritual.
Thing is, the weather here only allows for outdoor swimming like, six days a year. The rest of the time, to survive in England, you have to COVER yourself in baked potatoes and huddle next to a fire.

I don’t know that I could survive that. New York winters are very cold, but the spring through fall is more temperate.
“Temperate” = rats lying on the sidewalk sweating and crying over the humidity. I’ve been to New York in the summer. JESUS. Actually I’m there next week. [Ed. note: Moran will be appearing at The Strand for a reading.] What should I wear? Should I basically be naked?

Ok, it DOES smell. It’s actually been very cold here this June, so that’s why I’m deluded and calling it temperate! But I would guess that it will be steamy and disgusting by the time you’re here. And probably humid enough that you’ll feel like you’re walking through soup.
Tour starts next week [7/7] – a city every day. NYC Tuesday, Boston Wed, Philadelphia Thu, Chicago Fri, SF Sat, LA Sun. I think I missed a few out there. Vague hand gesture, I’m in America.

I’ll bring a snorkel and sliders.

That’s quite a fast pace.
Yeah – they seem not to have scheduled in hangovers, which I would call a rookie error.

Oh, most definitely. I guess you can sleep on the planes. and lick young women’s tears for energy and various venereal diseases.

Those signing sessions are amazing – I know girls in the queues who’ve formed bands, feminist  societies at school, started relationships … girls just need a safe space to meet in. That’s what Lady Gaga’s gigs were like a couple of years ago – a space where freaky people could meet, and discuss firstly their hair, and then the revolution.

Now that we’ve covered the novel and hangovers and Kanye and my delusions about NYC’s weather, I just have one parting question, before I let you go to enjoy your wine and get a Band-Aid:How do you feel about influencing the next generation of young women, who are growing up with such conflicted messages? Like, what do you think is most important to impart to them when they see such varied role models before them, everyone from Adele to Rihanna to Amy Schumer to Kim Kardashian?
I love that there seems to be a new wave of dirty, round-faced ladies taking over. You know how, up until now, most famous women have long, thin faces? And suddenly now we’ve got Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling and Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson, and the era of the round-faced dirty lady is upon us? Women who often look, gloriously, a bit rough, and are just LAUGHING at the absurdity of being a woman – like, “It would be IMPOSSIBLE to do all this shit, you’d look MAD!” – rather than being oppressed by it. You can’t oppress a laughing woman. And that’s what this wave of feminism is. Women laughing at all the bollocks.

Excellent. And, on that note, thank you so much for talking with me. This has been really fun on my end, and I hope wasn’t too painful beyond the cut fingers on yours.
SHIT SHIT – someone’s just told me on Twitter than Jess Phillips MP has just quoted “How to Be a Woman” in the Houses of Parliament, and told everyone to stand on their benches and shout “I AM A FEMINIST!” Fucking hell. What amazing breaking news hahaha.

Well, there’s a fucking neat end for your piece! She’s @jessphillips. Oh, it’s GREAT when the end just writes itself.

Trying to imagine that happening here in the US. Failing.
Good luck with your kid’s elbows, man. xxx

Thank you so much. This has been so fun. And maybe I’ll try the magic dog saliva trick one day!

Caitlin Moran will be in conversation with Judith Regan at Strand Books tomorrow, 7/7 at 7pm

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity, punctuation, and because Skype changed “Kanye” to “kernel.”

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


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