Caitlin Moran on Her Raunchy Teen Heroine

Photo: Mark Harrison

Caitlin Moran, author of the 2010 memoir How to be a Woman, is back this fall with a  novel: How to Build a Girl. It’s a coming-of-age tale she describes as “a bit like Little House on the Prairie, but with really big penises and getting too drunk.”

Her heroine might not appear to have much in common with the Katniss Everdeens of the YA universe: Johanna is overweight, foulmouthed, and obsessed with sex. She’s not on a quest to save the world; she just wants to make a career as a music writer and escape small-town British poverty. But Moran still has grand, YA-epic-style plans for Johanna. “This is going to be a trilogy,” she told the Cut. “The next book is called How to Be Famous, and the last book is How to Save the World. In the last book, I intend to show girls how they can start the revolution.”

Moran spoke to the Cut about healthy hobbies like masturbation, and why she loves people who look like potatoes.

Why decide to tackle fiction? Why not just write another memoir?
You have stuff like the Hunger Games, Divergent, and Twilight and we’re seeing a lot of strong female characters but they’re all in terrible dystopias. It’s on their shoulders to save the world or they’re completely ostracized from society or mankind is completely broken down. It’s great that we’ve got them, but I wanted to show that it’s equally difficult to be a teenage girl even in a time when society isn't  broken-down. Just in the times when you’re trying to find a pair of trousers to wear to kiss someone and trying to work out what the rest of your life’s going to be. That’s a difficult enough quest to be on as a teenage girl.

So what’s different about Johanna — if she’s not saving the world, what is she doing?
She’s fat, she’s poor, she fumbles, but she never feels the need to fix herself. She’s stronger than a lot of the people she meets, even though she doesn’t know it, which is one of the unfortunate things about being young. I like odd girls, you know — I’m always disappointed when I read a book and it kind of goes, Although she wasn’t beautiful, her eyes were incredibly striking and there was an amazing spirit about her. Like, no, I don’t even want that, I just want you to go, She literally looked like a potato, there’s nothing charming about her whatsoever, but by sheer force of will, she ruled the world. The more thunderously non-beautiful someone is, the more I love them. I wanted someone who could own their own power and learn from their own mistakes. Whose worst enemy was themselves, who fell the other way and said, “I’ve got some big life lessons to learn, and I intend to learn them. I intend to become a big, strong, clever, weird person.”

And do you really think that there were no other characters like that? In early interviews about the book, you suggested that there were no YA novels out there that wrote about sex honestly. I read a lot of Judy Blume, so I don’t know that I agree.
When that whole controversy kicked off, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as YA. I was just referring to the teenage girls you see in mainstream culture. You know, Twilight, Divergent, The Hunger Games, and in Fifty Shades of Grey.

How is How to Build a Girl different?
I wanted to write something about a teenage girl who was very present in her own sexuality and who was in control of it, because I kept reading about teenage girls who only became aware of it when a man came along and awoke their sexuality. It was kind of like the sexuality was there and he had shown them how to use their body and shown them what sex was. When I talked to my friends about our teenage years, basically, they’d all been very horny at a very early age. They were all sitting around at 13 or 14 going, “Although I would not like to have sex right now because I am too young, I am very interested in that subject. I am masturbating furiously.” I just thought: Why have I never read about a teenage girl masturbating? That’s just nuts. I wanted to write a brilliant, consensual sexual relationship because I know the way that I want to write about sex I’ve not seen anywhere else.

What could be more brilliant or helpful than for teenage girls to know at a very early age that they are in control of their sexuality? It doesn’t have to involve anyone else. They can just be in their room and have all these amazing experiences, which won’t cost them any money or mean that they leave the house. It’s got no calories in it. It’s a really lovely hobby for a young girl to have.

She does masturbate a lot.
In the stand-up tour that I’ve been doing, I’ve been saying that the three hobbies that I recommend for any teenage girl are long country walks, because it’s important to get fresh air, masturbation, and the revolution. With those three hobbies, any teenage girl should be set for the future.

Was this what you were like as a teenager?
I’m still very in touch with my teenage self. I still dress like I did when I was a teenager! But yes, I was absolutely sex-obsessed. Very early, from the age of 11, as soon as I found out what it was, I was like, I would be really interested in doing that. I discovered masturbation at 13 and that became an all-consuming hobby for a year and trying to experiment and do it in as many different places as possible. I was just proactive, and I rarely met a boy before the age of 18 that I didn’t try and get off with. You try and get off with boys when you’re 17 and they’re 17 and you’ve all had drinks; they will just get off with you. It was very, very simple.

Is this YA that adults will feel is a worthwhile read?
Because so little about being a woman is seen as being enjoyable or gleeful I want readers to feel comfortable in their bodies and to go, Actually it’s amazing to be alive. You can go out and make all these mistakes and ridiculous things and not be beautiful and not have a sense of destiny about you, you know, and not wait to meet an amazing man who sees secrets inside you. But if you put on some eyeliner and pretend to be a confident person, no one will be able to tell that you’re not a confident person. You can just be a kind of round-legged, round-bellied person, wearing quite shabby clothes, who's cheerful and gleeful and works hard and is hopeful and will go out and make friends and enjoy their lives. I wanted glee, I wanted women to feel good about their fat legs, and I wanted to tell some secrets. And I wanted to make people laugh — that’s the main thing. You know, however much I believe in the revolution, I would never sign my name to any revolution that wasn’t also incredibly funny and dirty. So that’s my plan.