Caitlin Moran: ‘The Wolf Hall trilogy is a Kinder Egg of literature’

The book that changed my life
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. I read it when I was 11, and even though I was a girl in Wolverhampton in 1986 wearing a polyester blouse from a jumble sale, and she was a girl in a castle on a moor in a year I assumed to be roughly “Bonnet05 AD”, I could hear her talking to me. Of course, every girl who’s read Jane Eyre has had that feeling. That’s why it’s one of the greatest books ever written. But because the first “serious” book I ever read was a girl, a “plain” girl – not beautiful, not a princess, not a temptress or a cipher or a “sassy” kung fu scientist, but a plain, poor girl – just talking to anyone who picked up her book and wanted to listen, I had no idea that women were thought to be lesser writers than men, or that great literature was still thought to be a man’s game. I just presumed there must be millions of books out there where girls would tell you their stories. I thought that’s what books were. And, as it turned out, I spent most of the rest of my life only reading books by female authors, so I was right.

The book I wish I’d written
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is a combination of absolute mechanical perfection – the way the research into candles and cookery and economies and murder works as a series of perfectly interlocking counterbalances and flywheels – and Milky Way starburst genius. There are millions of books I wish I’d written, but this is the most recent. And three of them! WE GET THREE! It’s like a Kinder Egg of literature. Chocolate, a toy and a surprise when Cromwell does actually die. I am foolish and in love with him enough to hope that, at the last minute, she’d rewrite history, pop him in a spaceship, and fly him away.

The book that influenced my writing
At 13, I got my adult card at the library, and I knew which sweet shelf in the adult library I was going to clear out first: HUMOUR. I took out Spike Milligan, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams on that initial visit, then came back the next day and ordered their entire back catalogues. This question is basically: “Who have you ripped off the most?”, isn’t it? I definitely ripped them off. I’ve also pretty obviously ripped off both Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole and E Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers. Oswald Bastable is the greatest unreliable narrator in British literature. Just the title of Chapter 12 – “The Nobleness of Oswald” – makes me howl. I really regret not having a son and naming him Oswald.

The book I think is most under/overrated
Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick keeps being referenced as this huge, unfinishable, unmanageable book, and I don’t know if I’m massively more brilliant than everyone else, but I just find it really, enjoyably chatty and “extra”? The first three chapters are basically him having a massive crush on Queequeg, and then the rest of it – AKA Get the Whale – is an amazingly clever gay man, born in the wrong century, trying to download literally everything he can into a book, so that some part of him might still be alive in future centuries that might accept him. He just wangs everything in there, like the book is Google, or a suitcase, or the last thing he’ll ever say. I like how rammed it is.

I’d also like to give a controversial shout-out to Lolita, in which Nabokov writes some of the most truly breathtaking prose about love humanity has ever seen – but condemns it to never be read aloud at weddings, or quoted by lovers, or immortalised on keyrings, by making it, in a screeching emotional handbrake turn, the awful thoughts of a paedophile. If Nabokov had given those words, and paragraphs, to any character other than a paedophile, whole pages of it would have been made into plays, and songs. “It was love at first sight, at last sight – at ever and ever sight.” Every writer wants people to quote them! To swoon at their words! But Nabokov does this thing that is still, ultimately, inexplicable to me: he grows all that ravishing love-prose out of poison, and makes it so we never mention it, unless it’s with distaste, and with gloves on. It’s a madly fascinating choice – one of the biggest “WHY???”s in literary history.

The book that changed my mind
There’s a bit in Food in England by Dorothy Hartley where she explains that, before the first world war, all grandfather clocks’ weights hung on cords made from the tendons in bulls’ penises, which absolutely changed my mind about both clocks, and penises. Penii.

The last book that made me cry
Nearly all books make me cry, but the last time I was prostrate with grief was on a holiday with fellow novelist John Niven, and we read John Williams’s Stoner around the pool. John’s a big weeper, as am I, and sad, unfulfilled Stoner made us weep so hard we became quite weak, and had to lie on our sun-loungers, gasping. Occasionally we’d look across at each other, and then burst into tears again with a roar of “POOR STONER! SO LONELY!”

The last book that made me laugh
I read Pete Paphides’s rhapsodically reviewed Broken Greek, and, like thousands of other readers and critics, properly tipped into hysteria as I realised that, yes, he would be dedicating a whole, 5,000-word chapter to a single bus ride around Birmingham; or fully nine pages to a peerlessly awkward childhood meeting with his heroes – comedy rock band the Barron Knights. Obviously being married to him, I’ve long been aware of how legendary his astonishingly long, whimsical anecdotes about nothing are – party guests often come up to him and request certain, infamous ones, like he is some kind of Ronnie Corbett Long Anecdote Jukebox – but he’s managed to make them even funnier on the page. I guess because he could make them even longer.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
The problem is I am the progenitor of The Dickens Plan: I want to read his entire works, starting with Sketches by Boz, in chronological order – so I can see how he’s progressing and learning and expanding as a writer before, eventually, Going Full Dickens. As it’ll be both a literary feast and fascinating research, it also gives me a handy The Dickens Plan BOGOF. But I came up with The Dickens Plan in 2011 and I’ve still not started it yet, and it’s starting to look like many other of my big plans, like learning contemporary street dance, fostering spaniels, and, one day, owning my own forge.

The book I most often give as a gift
The memoir of Margery Kempe, which was recently republished under the title How to Be a Medieval Woman by Penguin. Kempe herself was illiterate, so dictated her memoir to a series of monks – all of whom seemed to hate her, and keep making little asides about her that, presumably, she never knew about. It starts with Kempe describing being possessed by demons – a strong opener – and then goes on to describe her pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in the company of a bunch of people who, again, seem to really hate her. Written at some point in the middle ages, and only discovered in the 1950s, it’s the first ever autobiography in English, and it’s such an odd, brilliant thing – Kempe is middle-aged and clearly mentally ill, but also voyaging across Europe, often alone, and inventing the autobiography. She’s brilliantly irascible company, and if someone doesn’t adapt this book and have either Miriam Margolyes, Jennifer Saunders, Julie Walters, Kathy Burke or Emma Thompson playing her, then there just isn’t any point in Britain existing any more.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
I’m hoping that I keep writing feminist memoirs every decade so that, in the end – having died as the Oldest Woman Who Ever Lived, at the age of 147 – How to Be a Woman (2011), More Than a Woman (2020), Keep on Womaning (2030), Woman 3: Back in the Habit (2041), Still Got a Vag (2060) and So Tired: Being a Woman Never Ends (2074) all appear together in a single volume, which I presume would be called, even that far into the future, But Can Women Be Funny?

More Than a Woman by Caitlin Moran is published by Ebury.

The Guardian

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