Last month, Caitlin Moran could be found sitting outside of the Chapel in San Francisco, where she was busy promoting the paperback release of her latest book, “How to Build a Girl.” There, sitting among the bins at the back of the venue, the broadcaster and author was telling the story — complete with physical re-enactments — of the time she hid from former Smiths frontman Morrissey at a party.
“Once someone tried to introduce me to Morrissey,” she begins, “and he was over there, and they went, ‘Caitlin! Morrissey wants to meet you.’ ”
Moran, who is sitting on a chair, begins acting out the experience.
“I suddenly just went ‘Nope!’” she says, turning in her chair away from the back door, which had presumably taken on the role of Morrissey in this encounter.
“And they went, ‘No, no!’ And Morrissey was standing there going” — she begins gesturing now, switching from the role of famous rock critic to that of famous rock star — “come over!”
“And I was like, ‘Nope!’ ”
She turns in her chair again, eyes firmly down at the floor. “(The people who were trying to introduce us), they were like, “Why don’t you want to meet Morrissey?’ ”
“And I was like, ‘I’ve got literally nothing to say to him!’ ” Moran explains. “It’s better if I just listen to his records. I’ve got nothing to say. It was really awkward for a full minute.”
Moran finally turns back. “In the end, the crowd kind of just closed around us,” she says, “and they were like, ‘No, that’s not gonna happen.’ ”
When talking to Moran in person, who speaks at what seems like an average of 266 words per minute, or four and a half words per second, one hears stories like this fly thick and fast. It’s how the British writer is on the page, too, where she’s achieved critical acclaim for her books “Moranthology,” a collection of her columns over the years, and “How to Be a Woman,” a memoir and rallying cry to modern feminism.
Moran hasn’t always been in a position to avoid legendary musicians at parties, though. Raised in a working-class family in Wolverhampton, England, Moran spent years borrowing books and tapes voraciously from her local library, finding an identity and world outside her Midlands town in bands such as Hole and the Smiths, before going on to become a music critic at the music weekly “Melody Maker” while still in her teens.
In an era where digital downloads weren’t free and fans eagerly awaited the release date for the Smiths’ 1984 album Hatful of Hollow, “I learnt all the lyrics to ‘How Soon Is Now’ about six months before I ever heard the song,” Moran says, “ ’cause I had to order it from the library, but someone had put all the lyrics somewhere. So I just spent six months imagining what it would sound like, and then when I did hear it, oh my God.”
The cigarette she has just finished rolling is hanging on for dear life in the corner of her widely smiling mouth, which is, 30 years later, trying to do the duty of all good music journalists: put sounds and sensations into pure, bright words.
“I mean, who — who would ever imagine that guitar sound that (former Smiths guitarist) Johnny Marr came up with? It was like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” she says. “The hairs are going up on my arm thinking about it now, just talking about it. Fuckin’ hell.”
She shivers and then cracks a smile as she lights her cigarette.
Thirty years later, Moran is still madly in love with music.
“I couldn’t write without it … Noise. That’s like fuel,” she says. “You use music as the fuel to get you to go to places and the books that you read as the ideas for the maps and coordinates that are how you’re going to get there.”
Moran is talking about her own journey, but she could just as easily be talking about Johanna, the music journalist protagonist of “How To Build A Girl.” Music, on which the book largely centers, is a perfect anchor for Moran’s debut coming-of-age tale — not to mention a means by which teenagers across generations and time zones have always created themselves and grabbed glimmers of freedom from academic and parental rule off of EPs and B-sides.
“It’s so easy to laugh/ It’s so easy to hate / It takes guts to be gentle and kind,” Morrissey sang on “I Know It’s Over,” a year after a young Moran had memorized all the words to “How Soon Is Now” in her local library.
Turns out Moz didn’t need to meet Moran to know what she was like — add in honest, generous and hilarious, and you’ve got it down pat.
Contact Tyler Allen at [email protected].