Journalist and author Caitlin Moran’s is back with How to Be Famous, the semiautobiographical sequel her hit best-seller How to Build a Girl. This tale of a young writer finding her way in the mid-’90s London rock scene pops and fizzes with the energy of those Cool Britannia times — and her smart, nervy take on female selfhood and sexuality feels bracingly of now. EW chatted with Moran about delving back into the world of Johanna Morrigan, writing “really lovely sex,” and much more. Read on below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The follow-up to your semiautobiographical hit How to Build a Girl revisits journalist Johanna Morrigan as she navigates the mid-’90s London rock scene. What is she up to now?
CAITLIN MORAN: When I started writing this book — and it was way before the Harvey Weinstein stuff had happened — I’d always known the plot was going to be she would be hanging around all these famous people, she would have sex with a famous person in the industry, and he’d have a sex tape of her and use it to shame her, ruin her, and destroy her name and reputation. I wanted to show how one woman without a connection to power can do if men use [her] sexuality to shame [her]. And then the Harvey Weinstein stuff started to break, and it was crazy because I was writing this book as all this was happening. Hundreds of women who were in exactly the same position as Johanna were basically doing what she does in the book: showing that the only way to reverse shame is to not keep it a secret and talk about it. To say, “The shame is not mine, the shame is my abuser’s — that is the person who has done the wrong thing. I have done nothing.” It was a thrilling book to be writing while [the Weinstein news] was breaking around the world because I felt solidarity with all these women who were going through exactly the same thing Johanna was going through in the book.
Did something similar happen to you in your own life?
Yes, it happened to me. All the young women that I knew who moved down to London in the ’90s knew there were these vampire-like men, a lot of them famous or in the industry. And you would see them at parties and they would be all charming and dark and charismatic, and you would gradually realize that darkly charming men — there’s a reason we say darkly charming. The problem is that so many male characters in romantic novels are these difficult, f—ed-up guys and it’s down to the women to understand them. Help them and heal them and make them better people. And I wanted to write a story where it’s like, “No, your job is not to go in there and save these dark guys, your job is to go around and tell people to keep away from them.” These days you look at Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre and just say no.
Because the book is set in 1995, we couldn’t talk about it in the way we do now that women can now connect with each other on social media. But before the internet there was a woman’s internet, and that’s what I talk about in the book. We knew who the bad guys were because older women would come and tell me, “Stay away from him, he has a reputation,” or, “He has a lot of girlfriends.”
Beanie Feldstein of Lady Bird was recently cast as Johanna in the film adaptation of How to Build a Girl. What is it like seeing your book come to life on screen?
[Feldstein] is just magical. You just root for her the minute you see her, she’s so loveable and so charming. It’s a miracle she exists because I started writing this film four or five years ago when Beanie didn’t exist, but she’s perfect for this. Movies really are a team effort. When you’re writing a book and you write the word “dragon,” you imagine a dragon and that’s it. When you write the word “dragon” in a movie script, 200 people are involved in making this dragon, working out what color the dragon is, making the dragon move, working out what voice it will have. We just sat around for a couple years, dared to dream a movie, decided how far to push it; we start with what I hope will be the world’s greatest female masturbation scene and go from there.
Speaking of sex, How to Be Famous, like How to Build a Girl, contains a good amount of it.
I wanted to write really good, lovely sex. And so there’s a scene where Johanna takes the virginity of a man. You don’t read about women taking men’s virginity but it’s fetishized with men taking women’s virginity, and that’s usually a really bad shag, painful and confusing. I wanted to write a really beautiful, positive, realistic sex scene. Because how most young people get their sex education now is through pornography, and that is just a horrible, mechanized, brutal, joyless thing. And the sex you see and read really early on in your teenage years tends to form your sexuality the rest of your life in terms of triggers. I just wanted to put a different shag out there for young girls to read and have it form a different sexual experience. If I can dictate what young girls masturbate to for the next 10 years and what they look for when they go out there and start having sex, then I’d like it to be lovely, beautiful, conversational sex. Then I can retire.
Will there be another book featuring Johanna?
It’s called How to Change the World, and it will be catching up with Johanna in her 40s. I conceived this as a trilogy, so I’ve always known what was going to happen to Johanna. She starts as basically a little girl with literally nothing, no contacts, no power. She gradually assembles herself and goes out into the world, becoming brave, being able to fight sexual abuse, stand up to power, find her own people. And then you meet her in adulthood and see how she tries to change the world. I want to examine how much is nature, how much is nurture, how much can you turn yourself into something else. And become the person you want.