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The Sex Queen of England

Caitlin Moran’s manifesto ”How to Be a Woman” crushed taboos. Her new novel ”How to Build a Girl” may obliterate them. EW sits down for a fierce, funny, filthy chat with the foul-mouthed British monarch of feminism.

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”So where were we?” muses British author and newspaper columnist Caitlin Moran. ”Sex? Sex? Sex? Sex, probably.” Moran, 39, is sitting in the back garden of her London home trying to remember the subject we had been discussing before she broke off to greet her two middle-school-age daughters, who have just returned home from their classes. And there’s no doubt the smart money would indeed be on ”sex.” Moran’s new novel, How to Build a Girl, is the tale of teenager Johanna Morrigan, who embarks on a career as a music journalist in the early ’90s while exploring her sexuality. Or, as the author puts it on this sunny June afternoon, the book features a ”massive shagging section in the middle.” How to Build a Girl has autobiographical elements—Moran, like her heroine, was raised in a large, welfare-supported family in Wolverhampton before starting to write for a music paper in her teens. But it was also partly inspired by a certain best-selling erotic novel. ”Fifty Shades of Grey really f—ed me off,” Moran says.

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”So where were we?” muses British author and newspaper columnist Caitlin Moran. ”Sex? Sex? Sex? Sex, probably.”

Moran, 39, is sitting in the back garden of her London home trying to remember the subject we had been discussing before she broke off to greet her two middle-school-age daughters, who have just returned home from their classes. And there’s no doubt the smart money would indeed be on ”sex.” Moran’s new novel, How to Build a Girl, is the tale of teenager Johanna Morrigan, who embarks on a career as a music journalist in the early ’90s while exploring her sexuality. Or, as the author puts it on this sunny June afternoon, the book features a ”massive shagging section in the middle.” How to Build a Girl has autobiographical elements—Moran, like her heroine, was raised in a large, welfare-supported family in Wolverhampton before starting to write for a music paper in her teens. But it was also partly inspired by a certain best-selling erotic novel. ”Fifty Shades of Grey really f—ed me off,” Moran says. Translation: She loathed the relationship between innocent Anastasia Steele and kinky billionaire Christian Grey. ”Every time she’s good and submits to pain, he buys her something or takes her off in his f—ing helicopter,” Moran says. ”The whole plot is will-get-spanked-on-the-clitoris-with-a-hairbrush-in-exchange-for-an-iPad. It’s just such a f—ed-up situation. In so much fiction, young women only come alive when a man shows them what’s what. I wanted to show someone who wants to be a Lady Sex Pirate. Johanna is the one who’s showing herself what’s what.”

In a way, Moran isn’t just talking about her new novel but about her 2011 nonfiction best-seller, How to Be a Woman. Essentially a feminist treatise masquerading as a hilarious Rabelaisian memoir, the book finds Moran detailing the assorted pluses and minuses of womanhood refracted through her own experiences—including a frank chapter about the abortion she decided to have rather than give birth to a third child—while offering thoughts and advice along the way. In Britain How to Be a Woman transformed Moran from a marginally famous newspaper scribe into a major cultural figure, and in the U.S. and Canada it has sold around 200,000 copies. ”It’s funny seeing all the different reactions from different countries,” she says. ”The Catholic countries at first wouldn’t buy it unless we took the abortion chapter out. I said, ‘No—get f—ed.’ I held firm, and they bought it in the end. It’s been banned in all the kind of oppressive Middle Eastern countries you would expect, and I get tweets from women going, ‘We’re reading it together in our flat and doing secret drinking.’ I was like, ‘That’s f—ing awesome!”’

At one point in How to Be a Woman, Moran writes, ”Feminism is too important to only be discussed by academics,” and happily admits her own background was resolutely unacademic, at least in the traditional sense. Her parents—whom she describes as ”the only hippies in Wolverhampton”—homeschooled her and her seven younger siblings. ”We just watched MGM musicals whilst eating pieces of cheese for five years,” she says. ”I put on an enormous amount of weight.” But Moran’s mother and father succeeded in gifting their eldest child with a love of reading and, in turn, writing. ”My parents did a really brilliant psychological trick,” she says. ”When I was about 7 or 8 they showed me the suitcase under their bed that was full of books. They were like, ‘You’re not quite old enough to read this yet.’ So it was like, every day, ‘Am I old enough to read the books? Am I old enough to read the books?’ When they finally opened it up when I was 8 or 9, it was full of classic children’s literature. I used to read at least a book a day, sometimes two. I just thought everybody was going to write books. I didn’t realize that was not generally something a girl from Wolverhampton would think would be a career for her.”

Moran’s own sexual awakening was kick-started at the age of 13 when she read Riders, by the raunchy British romance novelist Jilly Cooper. Moran, whose birth name is Catherine, also permanently borrowed the name Caitlin from a character in the book, which she pronounces—incorrectly, by her own admission—as Cat-lin. At 16, Moran published her first novel, a children’s book called The Chronicles of Narmo. ”It was about a big family who were taught at home,” she says. ”They only had five children because I couldn’t write eight—it’s difficult coming up with characters!”

The publication of Narmo coincided with the start of Moran’s stint at the indie-rock-obsessed, cooler-than-thou music paper Melody Maker. ”I was never part of the cool gang,” she says of her time at the title. And the publication of Narmo didn’t help. ”I went into Melody Maker going, ‘Yeah, let’s talk about Skinny Puppy!’ while publicizing my wacky children’s book,” she says. But Melody Maker brought her a modicum of fame, and it was there that she met her future husband, music writer Peter Paphides (the pair married in 1999). Moreover, TV producers thought she was hip enough to cohost a music show called Naked City, which began its two-season run in 1992, when Moran was 18. ”I was awful,” she admits. ”I can remember interviewing Iggy Pop and they had to explain to me who he was. All I could talk to him about was how shiny his hair was. ‘You have such shiny hair, Mr. Pop!’ He was really into conditioners and he was telling me about all the ones that he used. So I went to Kiehl’s afterwards and bought some conditioner on Iggy Pop’s recommendation.”

Moran assumed How to Be a Woman would appeal just to women her own age and sell 60,000 copies at most. She realized it had become a phenomenon only when she visited the famed London media watering hole the Groucho Club. ”I had about 30 women come up to me in an hour and a half kind of kneeling, and crying, and going, ‘Oh my God,”’ she says.

Her fans include Lena Dunham, who supplied a blurb for How to Build a Girl. ”Lena had read How to Be a Woman, and she introduced me to the Girls set as ‘a very important feminist from Britain,”’ says Moran. ”Apart from the massive lady-boner that I got, it was [coming from] a young woman who’s running one of the biggest shows [on television]. Ten years ago, that wouldn’t have happened. Now, without a shadow of a doubt, the funniest people in the world are women. There’s Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey, and Lena Dunham, and Melissa McCarthy, and Kristen Wiig. That’s where all the funny is.”

Moran is currently writing a semiautobiographical sitcom called Raised by Wolves with her sister Caroline and two screenplays with novelist John Niven, author of the Britpop-meets-American Psycho murderfest Kill Your Friends. The first script is an adaptation of How to Build a Girl (which has been optioned by film producer Alison Owen), and the other is a ”secret mystery project” that the motormouthed Moran can’t help but spill some of the beans about. ”We found an amazing woman in the 16th century who we became obsessed with,” she says. ”We thought with our unique skill sets combined—him being able to kill people and be really filthy and me being a writer-feminist—we’d write this film very well.”

In addition to getting her feminist message across in column, book, sitcom, and film form, Moran reveals she is now spreading the word via that most British of kitchen aids: the tea towel. ”I’m going on this stand-up publicity tour, starting next week, and I’ve got a merchandise stall and we sell tea towels and mugs and stuff,” she explains. ”And the towels say, ‘Here are the rules of feminism. Number 1: Women are equal to men. Number 2: Don’t be a dick. Number 3: That’s it.”’

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