With her debut novel Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams is a new and vital voice. She speaks to Stylist about representation, casual sex and therapy
Candice Carty-Williams is looking at me with sympathy. The conversation is about astrology and Carty-Williams, a Cancer (“very, very sensitive”), has just heard I have a Leo sun and Cancer rising in my chart. “So there’s a battle between fire and water,” she says thoughtfully. “Poor you.” Analysing others is something the 29-year-old excels at.
Her debut novel, Queenie, lends a knowing voice to one young woman’s self-destruction. It’s also this year’s most talked-about literary debut. Carty-Williams signed a six-figure deal for the book after a bidding war by four publishers. She was discovered when she was chosen from 600 applicants by Jojo Moyes to spend a week writing in Moyes’ cottage. “In 500 words I knew she could write,” Moyes told The Bookseller.
Queenie is expected to be as big as Bridget Jones’s Diary, which has sold more than 15 million copies, but it is rooted firmly in the modern day. There’s therapy, group chats, friends playing psychiatrists. The story follows 25-year-old Queenie, an assistant at the newspaper The Daily Read, who’s desperate to be a force for good and flailing. She pitches stories about #BlackLivesMatter, only to be asked to produce a gallery of the best black dresses at award shows. When she goes on a break with long-term boyfriend Tom, things begin to unravel. She sleeps around, isolates herself and makes career-jeopardising decisions.
The book is also darkly funny. Carty-Williams laughs as she recalls a scene straight from her own life. Queenie’s oldest friend, Kyazike, turns up to a date in Louboutins and a full face of make-up to be taken to a budget Thai restaurant where they sit next to a hole in the wall. “In. This. Dress. In. These. Heels,” she bellows to Queenie.
The idea for Queenie came three years ago. “I was living in a shitty studio, I had mice, slugs, damp, mould,” she says. “It was bad.” She had a full-time job as a senior publisher at Penguin, where she still works. “I’d leave work on Friday, get all my shopping and then lock myself away writing until Monday morning,” she explains. “I’d emerge blinking, back to the humans.”
The book explores womanhood, representation and what it means to be black and British. “I’ve written the story I wish I had growing up,” explains Carty-Williams. “People often ask me, are you her? I’m not. I’m not Queenie, but we see the world through the same lens.”
How would you describe Queenie to someone who hasn’t read the book?
Well, everyone has made the comparison to a black Bridget Jones. That’s how I thought of her in the beginning, too. But this book is also naturally political just because of who Queenie is. She’s not Bridget Jones. She could never be.
What made you want to write this story?
It was all about representation. I grew up with Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs And Full-Frontal Snogging and Bridget Jones’s Diary. I remember trying to find myself in stories. Black women were always the sassy, loud best friends. People still do sometimes describe me as sassy, which I’m far from.
It felt like, OK, I’m not any of these women, I don’t seem to exist. So much of who we are is quantified by being seen. By seeing ourselves in books, in films and TV. You want to be like, ‘Oh, Fleabag? Classic me!’ I couldn’t do that and I don’t want that for anyone else.
Queenie goes through so much and it takes her a long time to realise she needs help…
There’s a problem with the idea of the “strong black woman”. Growing up I went through a lot of shit – stuff I would never write or talk about – and I felt I had to be really strong. It ruined me for years.
There is a part in the book where Queenie says, “Well, what’s the point in crying?” and I remember thinking those things. My friends never saw me cry. I’ve seen all of them cry and would encourage them to let it out. But I would never do that for myself.
Young black women need to know that you can be vulnerable and ask for help. So, I decided I’m going to create this character who isn’t perfect, or strong, who can’t endure everything – because learning that is when I started to get better.
Her relationships also become really toxic, was that something you wanted to explore?
Yes. As women we’re taught to see our value through men. Do they like us? Do they fancy us? Do they want us to be taller, shorter, fatter, thinner? How does that make you see yourself? You don’t see yourself as anyone important or as having anything to say. And unless you scrutinise it, you just take it on. I’m holding a mirror up to that.
I also wanted to explore the treatment of black women by white men. There is a scene inspired by an experience my friend and I had. She’s white and we realised we were both talking to the same guy on different dating apps. His opening to her was “Hi, I work with kids, I saw on your profile you do the same thing. I would love to go for a coffee”. His message to me was “Hi, how about you take a day off work so I can fuck you?” I wanted to comment on how one man can see two women completely differently.
How do you think the reading experience will differ for a BAME person and a white person?
Lots of white people have said to me that they have learnt a lot and that, actually, they have realised that the language they’ve used at times isn’t alright. And they’re embarrassed and grateful. Black girls have told me they’re happy to finally be seen.
Have your feelings towards Queenie changed since finishing the book two years ago?
Yeah, for sure. As I get older, I’m more like, ‘God! She’s the worst’. But Queenie is also the sort of person that me and my friends would have been at 25. She’s in that place where you’re not a teenager and believe you’re making the right adult decisions for yourself. If she was my little sister, I would say you are going to therapy immediately.
She’s an amalgam of myself, my friends, girls I’ve spoken to, girls I hear on the bus, things I’ve read on Twitter. And you care about those people, you care about the girls of your generation because you know that it could be you. You could have your heart broken and completely fuck up.
What’s next for you?
I’ve finished the first draft of my second book, which is exciting. Continuing to mentor others is also important to me. When I launched The Guardian and 4th Estate BAME short story prize in 2016, it was the first inclusive initiative in publishing, which is crazy. It shows that once you have a person in those spaces that has the thought to do those things, you can make great change. I will always hold the door open.
Queenie (£12.99, Trapeze) is out on 11 April
Images: Sarah Brick