It was 2010, the end of a decade that was astonishingly poisonous for women. All the visuals were brutal: Amy Winehouse, bleeding, being chased by paps; Britney Spears’s loss of virginity and her breakdown, being chatshow jokes; the “Charlotte Church Countdown Clock” to her 16th birthday, when she would become legally fuckable.
I rang my editor at the Times, and said I wanted to do a thinkpiece on how, in this current awful climate, one could try to be a modern feminist. Was there a way feminism could become popular again? “I’m not feminist, but …” was a common catchphrase, back then, when women tried to talk about inequality, but didn’t want to get dirty feminism all over their shoes.
“What topics would you cover?” my editor asked. “Everything. Big and small. And as amusingly as possible. Handbags, lap dancing, Botox, periods, abortion, miscarriage, abusive relationships, comfort eating, how great furry muffs are, masturbation, having children, not having children, how ridiculous £20k weddings are, loving your body, Katie Price, Lady Gaga, being fat, how we treat our role models, what we call our vaginas, how we need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. The headline would be ‘How to Be a Woman’ … ”
I tailed off. “Actually, Nicola, I’ve just realised – it’s not a feature. It’s a book. Soz. Bye.”
Because of the way publishing schedules work, I had just five months to write it, while also writing three columns a week for the Times, and dealing with the kids being off school for the summer. I wrote the chapter on pubic hair – “I Become Furry!” – while the kids rolled across Brighton beach in Zorb balls. I wrote “I Am Fat!” in a bunkbed, with a child asleep on my legs. I think most female writers with children have stories like this. It’s why that story of “Kubla Khan” grinding to a halt when a “person from Porlock” interrupted Samuel Taylor Coleridge always amuses me. Is it the only time a man has been interrupted while writing? Women have 50 “persons from Porlock” a day.
It was physically painful – sitting and writing, seven days a week, for five months, will really fuck your arse up. But mentally and emotionally, it was a joy: I just allowed myself as many coffees and fags as I wanted, and never wrote fewer than 4,000 words a day. One day, I did 8,000. I’d start with a 6km run, working out what I’d write, while listening to the Prodigy: I would air box and shout “RARGH!”, like a dick. It was such a thrill to be able to write whatever I wanted – to rifle through the box marked “TABOOS” and pull them out, one by one. I addressed women as if they were brilliant, funny, messy mammals that I loved very dearly; most writing for women, at the time, seemed to talk down to us, and scold us, before telling us to just “buy some stuff”.
I ironically also felt an unsisterly rage in case some other bitch might beat me to writing a book like this. The terror of being intellectually gazumped glued me to the chair. “Hysterical panic” is an underrated value in writing. You never get writer’s block if you have to write 5,000 words a day, minimum. You just don’t have the time.
I thought it would do “well” – sell 60,000 copies and get a nice review in the Guardian. Instead, it sold more than a million, in 32 countries. I’d walk on to tube trains where half the carriage had it open; Kate Moss was papped reading it, topless, while drinking champagne. It was banned in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; women smuggled it in, and had reading parties.
Ten years later, when I wrote the sequel – More Than a Woman, about middle age – I had a luxurious 10 months, which is just as well: my knees are fucked from all that running now, and my adrenal glands are battered. You can’t write every book in a panic. But sometimes it’s the only way.
• How to Be a Woman is published by Ebury (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.