Caitlin Moran: “I’ve always had really gigantic dreams”

The writer, feminist and mother of cool girls gives advice to her younger self

At 16 I knew I wanted to be a writer. In fact I was already a writer, I’d published my first book, a children’s novel. And I was just starting to work for Melody Maker. That was quite weird, turning up at a cool rock magazine having written a children’s book [The Chronicles Of Narmo]. I was trying to project the aura of being a sassy rock’n’roll lady, so at the first editorial meeting I turned up with a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of Southern Comfort, and I threw them down on the table and said, ‘Who wants a shot?’ because I thought that’s what grown-ups did. And all the grown-ups around the table were like, who is this mad child monkey in a dress – we’re trying to have an editorial meeting.

I had big plans when I was 16. I was in a three-bedroom council house in Wolverhampton with seven other siblings, and at that point we had 18 dogs because my parents were breeding dogs. I was sharing the double bed that my nan had died in with my three-year-old sister, who persistently wet the bed. So when movies were telling me that teenage girls were going off to the prom and having their sweet sixteens, I was lying in bed, wearing my dad’s thermal underwear that was wet from my sister’s urine, thinking, I’m gonna make a better life for myself.

I got interviewed when I was 16, and the journalist, Valerie Grove, said I came across as very arrogant, that I would talk myself up a lot and dismiss other people who weren’t our family. Because obviously I felt massively insecure; we were dirt poor, I only had three items of clothing. I was aware that I smelled quite a lot. So I had to play up this whole thing of like, yeah, this is how we are, and it’s cool and it doesn’t matter if I’m poor and fat and ugly because I’m really fucking clever and I’m gonna tell you 10 jokes now. If you’re a wise person you would have seen that I was very insecure and scared and smelly. And if you were just taking me on surface, you’d probably think I was an annoying prick.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

I was still a virgin at 16 so I was very interested in getting kissed and having sex and touching boys. The problem with being home educated, as we were, is that you can’t really have any kind of early teenage crushes because you only have access to your brothers and that would be wrong. So the first time I had access to men was when I became a journalist and started to interview them. To me at 16 this seemed like a magic thing – you could ring up a person called a press officer and go, I’d like to meet Evan Dando from The Lemonheads at 11 o’clock on Thursday, and then Evan Dando would be delivered to my pub table. And I would think, well, I should probably get off with him because this is an opportunity. Unfortunately, most of the pop stars that were delivered to pubs for me to interview were profoundly not interested in that happening. So I went through a process of trying to get off with rock stars, and they were very firmly ‘no’. You would think as a child going out to meet rock stars they’d just be pigs, kind of like bumming you in a hotel. But actually they were all so respectful and treated me like a little sister and looked after me.

I don’t think my 16-year-old self would be very surprised by anything that’s happened to me. I absolutely have lived the life I presumed I would when I was 16. When I read the novels of Jilly Cooper, and she described to me what a middle-class life was like, I was like, I want that. I want to live in a lovely house with a beautiful garden with herbaceous borders, surrounded by delightful spaniels, and have friends over and we’ll get drunk in the garden drinking champagne, smoking fags and gossiping. I’ve always had really gigantic dreams so I absolutely imagined a future of film premieres and books being published.

I had massive social anxiety due to being raised at home and never talking to anybody. I wish I could go back to the earliest point where I started socialising and tell myself I didn’t need to drink and smoke in order to talk to other people. That has taken so long to try and reverse, I don’t think I spoke to anybody not drunk and not smoking a cigarette until probably two years ago. I’m a lightweight so I’ve been to amazing celebrity parties going around talking to all my heroes and I’ve just been the twat that fell over backwards into a hedge. And then sent an email to Jimmy Carr or Jonathan Ross the next day going, I’m so sorry. I haven’t been invited back since so I just want to tell them I’m not a problematic drinker any more, I’ve cured my social anxiety.

I’d tell my younger self what every girl needs to hear; don’t go out with a troubled boy and think you can save him. Don’t think that you are the mender of a broken person and the more you love someone, the better they will get. They won’t. I think the thing women find hardest to believe is that someone who’s supposed to love them doesn’t love them. Whether it’s your parents or an abusive partner. I think if someone says they’re your boyfriend, you presume that they must love you. So everything that is happening to you is love. And it’s not. Those people don’t love you, they’re just abusing you. And the harder you try, the smaller and more broken and the more upset you’re going to get.

When it comes to love, art is a very bad advisor. In the early Nineties I was listening to Afghan Whigs and Nick Cave who were writing about sex and love being dark and dangerous. They’re not songs about true love, they’re songs about unrequited love or dysfunctional love. And so when I met Pete [Paphides, her husband, who she’s been with since she was 19], because he wasn’t a dangerous fucked-up dark boy I just presumed he was a mate. I knew I felt more comfortable around him than anyone else; I didn’t have to pretend to be anyone, I didn’t have to drink or smoke. It took my subconscious about two years to just go, oh for fucksake, and make me have a dream where we were going on an escalator together, and the escalator just went on and on and on and on forever. And I turned to him and said, what’s happening here, and he said, it’s OK, we’re just going to stay together till the top. And I woke up and went, I’m in love with him, we’re gonna stay together forever. So thanks unconscious for stepping in there, because my conscious mind was too stupid to realise I was in love with him.

I think the thing about me now that would surprise the teenage me most would be raising daughters as cool and non-fucked up as I have. My family was pretty dysfunctional and quite screwy, and so I just presumed that everybody had to grow up with a certain amount of screwed up-ness. But I seem to have – touch wood – raised girls who are just very happy, very confident, they can ask for what they want, they’re not scared of anything. They know who they are, they can talk about anything they want. That would be a genuine surprise to me.

If I could go back to one time in my life it would.. be two times. One would be Glastonbury 2010, which I spent with the best bunch of mates, blissfully happy the entire time. The other thing would be, I’d go back and have my second birth again. I would happily give birth again 1,000 times. If anybody I love ever wants a surrogate, I would happily get pregnant and give birth for them. There’s something quite amazing about pulling that off, and you feel pretty high afterwards. And then you look at this little thing and you think wow, who are you? Before you have kids you think you’ll have a little version of you or your husband and each time you have a baby you’re like, oh my god, you’re you. I don’t know you. What are you going to do?

How to Build a Girl is available to stream on Amazon now