Books

Exclusive: Candice Carty-Williams on writing Queenie for the screen, working with Zadie Smith and dealing with burnout

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Hollie Richardson
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Queenie bestselling book

Following the release of Queenie’s new summer edition yellow cover, available to buy at Waterstones, author Candice Carty-Williams chats to Stylist about what happens next after such a hit debut novel. 

Last year, we predicted Queenie to be one of the best books of 2019 – and we weren’t wrong. After signing a six-figure deal following a bidding war between four publishers, it was always going to be something special. 

A lot has happened in the world of Queenie since Stylist last caught up with the best-selling book’s author Candice Carty-Williams. Aside from being a Sunday Times number two bestseller, Queenie has received rave reviews from critics and fans, which include rapper Stormzy, literary icon Jojo Moyes, Everything I Know About Love writer Dolly Alderton and Brick Lane author Monica Ali. 

Just in case you haven’t read it (what have you been doing?) Queenie follows a 25-year-old black woman working on a newspaper in London, whose life starts to unravel when she takes a break from her long-term boyfriend. She sleeps around, isolates herself and makes career-jeopardising decisions. It’s a darkly funny take on millennial life from an underrepresented perspective, and is often very, very close to the bone for its readers.

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“Lots of black women have said that just seeing that cover is enough for them to walk into a bookshop and feel like they are represented and seen,” says Carty-Williams, reflecting on the hugely positive response that the book has received. “Also it’s not in a “black” section, it’s just with all the other books, which is an important thing to them.”

The book is also proving to be a huge hit over in America where it was first launched and, perhaps quite surprisingly, New York women are identifying themselves in Brixton girl Queenie. 

“One woman said it felt like I was stalking her because it was like a year in her life - and she lives in Brooklyn! They just say it’s really relatable and nice to have a character who is vulnerable and who doesn’t have to be sassy and strong, and who can show weakness and can learn and grow from their experiences.”

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One of the most important pieces of feedback for Carty-Williams was a message from a white woman whose daughter’s dad is black. “She understands, having read Queenie now, that she cannot just raise her mixed race daughter like her and that she’ll have to understand that there are differences that come with being mixed race or black and that her existence will not be the same as hers,” explains Carty-Williams. “It’s amazing for me because I didn’t really think that someone would read it and be like, ‘OK I need to realise that my child isn’t exactly like me, because she is different.’”

So, what’s next for Queenie? Carty-Williams has said that writing 2019’s favourite female protagonist for the screen “is happening”, which is great news for an industry that is lacking black female leads. “But Queenie can’t fix problems, I guess,” she says. 

“Because I’m still yet to see myself. There have been really great shows that have had really amazing black characters – like Lolly Adefope (who is doing amazing work!) in Shrill – but I can only really give you one example in Britain and I watch a lot of TV. So yeah, I think that there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Candice Carty Williams
Candice Carty Williams

Earlier this year, Carty-Williams spoke at a sold-out event with June Sarpong at London’s Southbank Centre, and she’s set to take part in more projects including a reading with Zadie Smith at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre as part of its Windrush Festival.

“My essay was included in the New Daughters of Africa Anthology,” she says. “I did a couple of events with it and then I got this email saying, ‘How would you feel about a reading event with Zadie Smith?’. I was like, ‘What did you say?’ I’m really bad at processing stuff so I haven’t really sat with it. I can’t imagine what that will be like.”

This huge success of her debut novel means that, just like Queenie does in the book, Carty-Williams needs to address her mental health and deal with burnout. “Sometimes it’s just about one foot in front of the other. I’ve felt like I should go to every event and do every piece because I’m thinking, ‘If I’m the only black girl speaking in the room there might be one or two black girls in the audience who are like ‘I can do what she’s doing’,” she says. 

“I went to like four or five events a week and I was like, ‘I can’t physically get on a train to do another one, I’m burning out’. This is why I’m out of London at the moment – to recover for a week and to reset.” 

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But it sounds like there’s still a lot of work to be done with Queenie, including a secretive event at the National Theatre. “I’m really excited about this one because I get to interview a great person who we can’t announce yet [a YA author],” she teases. “I’ll be announcing who I’ll be talking to very soon.” She then very nearly accidentally shares another huge event that she’s been told not to talk about. No doubt, it’s going to be something extra special indeed.