British columnist Caitlin Moran exploded onto the US scene this past July when her feminist memoir/manifesto, How to Be a Woman, became an instant bestseller. In honor of the American release of Moranthology (Harper Perennial, $14.99)—her follow-up collection of personal essays, celebrity interviews, and social commentary originally published in the Times of London—Moran talked about her unconventional start in journalism as a teenager, paywalls, writer’s block, and the trouble with unpaid internships.
How to Be a Woman has been a New York Times bestseller for 14 weeks now. Did you have any idea how successful it would be with American readers?
Not at all. When I came up with the idea I saw a hole—which you could also refer to as a massive gap—in the market for something that talked about feminism in a way that was amusing and approachable and had lots of anecdotes about vaginas in it. And I thought, “I’m good at oversharing; I could write that book!” But I don’t really travel much—I’m not really an international person, I think my writing is very British. So I thought it would sell okay [in the UK], but it’s now sold in 22 countries. And it keeps selling. It’s still absolutely baffling to me—I’ll get tweets from people in, like, Carolina! And then going to interview Lena Dunham on set of the Girls and having her stop the filming to say, “Everyone, this is a very important feminist from Britain.” I was going, “People from America have heard of me!”
Now you’re following it up with Moranthology. With nearly two decades of material from your career at the Times to pull from, how did you choose what to include?
It was a very, very simple thing in that I was pretty shit before about 2008! That kind of knocked out the first 14 years pretty rapidly. I could always write—I had a style, I used some 19th-century words—but it took me a very long time to realize what I should write about. I basically went, “RAH RAH RAH,” in an amusing and ornate way.
I started work when I was 16, and I was a home-educated, freaky, fat, chain-smoking, drug-smoking, hippy kid who hadn’t been to school and just crashed a job out of complete luck on the national press. And I didn’t want them to fire me, because I had no other employment prospects. So I just really tried not to draw attention to the fact that I was either young or weird or swear-y or alternative or very political or came from a very poor background, or had a very unusual worldview.
When I won my first award when I was 33 or 34—I got Columnist of the Year, and the year after that I got Critic and Interviewer of the Year—suddenly that felt like a mandate to finally start writing about the shit that I’m really passionate about, like feminism, politics, benefits, education, equality, mental illness, transsexuals, as well as how much I want to fuck Iron Man and how big I want my hair to be. Instead of trying to be the same as everyone else, I finally felt I could stand up and let my freak flag fly, as Crosby, Stills, and Nash put it. That, and my hard drive had crashed in 2007 and I lost everything I’d written before that. Those two massive indicators made the selection of the material very easy. And then I went onto Twitter https://twitter.com/caitlinmoran and asked people which columns they’d enjoyed, made a list of the ones everyone said and put them together in a book.
There’s a hilarious scene in the introduction where, after winning the Observer newspaper’s Young Reporter of the Year award, you botch your first editorial meeting and freeze when they ask you for some story ideas. How do you deal with idea panic now—especially with three columns a week to write?
I have a sticky on my laptop—not an actual sticky, but the ones on Apple Macs—and every time I see an interesting feature or quote or I just get an idea, I will make a note of it there. If I were driving an ambulance with a child dying in the back, it would still not stop me writing a column idea down. There’s nothing like the horror of knowing that in four hours you have to have filled the page and having nothing. I like to know what I’m going to write about a week in advance for my main column so it can sort of tick away in the back of my head.