Candice Carty-Williams

“Everyone has a story to tell”: Candice Carty-Williams talks representation, confidence and how writing helps her mental health

Candice Carty-Williams wants everyone to start telling their stories – so she’s shared her tips on how to get writing.

Candice Carty-Williams is unstoppable.

Simply taking a look at her list of current projects is enough to make you feel tired: alongside adapting her number two Sunday Times bestseller Queenie for the screen, she’s in the middle of editing her second novel, People Person, and working on two top-secret projects and a film that’s yet to be announced.

“All very exciting projects, but all very, very busy things,” she says, laughing as I ask her what she’s currently up to. “I like writing and I write full time now. At first, I was a bit like how am I going to fill all of my time, but now I’m just like ‘well, if I don’t sleep tonight, then I can get all my work done’,” she laughs.

“I think one of the things about writing Queenie and having it publicised is having people ask ‘Are you her?’. So, the answer is no, and it’s really, really great now to be able to write other things where people can see that I have a breadth of work and ideas.”

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Alongside her love for writing – which she has a lot of – Carty-Williams is equally as passionate about bringing a more diverse range of voices into the publishing industry. In 2016, she launched The Guardian and 4th Estate BAME Short Story Prize, which aims to find, champion and celebrate Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers, and spoke widely about the importance of representation when she was publicising Queenie.

“At a lot of the events I go to, I’m asked about the publishing industry for people of colour and for black women in particular, and I just think if it was getting better then no one would have asked me that question,” she argues. “I’d be asked the same questions as my white counterparts – be they male or female.

“I think everyone has a story to tell – whether you’ve got it from a specific place, or you’ve grown up in it, or you’ve got it from your imagination.”

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It’s that spirit that informs Carty-William’s latest project (yes, another one) – supporting the Kindle Storyteller Award. Designed to recognise outstanding writers, the competition allows anyone to enter their writing for the chance to win a £20,000 cash prize and the opportunity to have their work translated and read by millions, among other things. 

Stylist caught up with Carty-Williams to talk everything from the catharsis of writing for writing’s sake, the publishing industry, and how to navigate your self-doubt when it comes to putting your work out into the world. 

How did writing become a part of your life?

Reading was always a part of my life in a huge way, and I never ever thought that writing would be something that was possible for me, because that wasn’t really a message I got at school. I really wanted to do English literature at university, but at school I was told I wouldn’t really get the grades to do that so there would be no point in trying – I was encouraged to apply for media studies from the beginning. But then after university I worked in publishing, and I was looking at all the books coming through and thinking ‘woah, this is really enforcing the message that this space isn’t here for writers like me,’ and that’s why I created The Guardian BAME short story prize, because I really do feel like we all have stories to tell whoever we are.

Whenever people ask me who I’m inspired by, I say Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie, because she was someone who I worked on really early on. I’m mainly inspired by the women around me with the anecdotes I hear and the stories that they tell. My Nan is a huge story teller, my Mum tells a story out of anything that’s happened to her in the day. We all have stories to tell, and just because they may not be deemed as ‘important’ or ‘publish-able,’ that’s not true. Some of the stories I’ve had from my friends are better than those you’ll find on the shelves. 

What’s the biggest challenge of writing/editing a novel?

I think cutting things that I loved was really hard. I look back and I think I should have said, I really, really want this scene in there. In Queenie, the Hanukkah scene was one that I really wanted in there, and when they said, ‘do we need it?’ I was like, ‘yeah, I’m going to put it back in.’ 

You have to justify why you want it there. It makes you think about your work and what you want to be in there. It does make you think about what you want to show about a character.

How do you inspire yourself to write when you’re lacking motivation?

I would say focus on what’s at hand. I don’t really have writer’s block per say, but I know I do have times where it’s not coming. And I would say do observe those times and allow yourself to have those times. But in terms of getting started, think about the reader that you want holding your book. I always think who do I want to do this for. Is it for myself? I think what would the young Candice want to read? And then broader than that, think of the people you are trying to talk to and all of the people who you’re trying to make feel less lonely because of the things they’re going through. There’s things where you’re like ‘I know this thing I’m writing about is so commonplace but it’s something I’ve never seen in literature before’ – I think so many writers have these ideas in their heads, so try and think about all of the people across the world who you might be able to talk to through your work.

It might even be about the things that excite you: so, think about envisaging being able to connect to all those people, emailing your publisher, having conversations on social media, meeting people in the street who are like ‘hey, I read that,’ or even hearing people say ‘I saw the cover and I felt seen.’ Think about what that cover might look like. Think about how beautiful or how exciting or attention-grabbing your cover might be when it’s a finished product. 

Candice Carty-Williams
Candice Carty-Williams: "In terms of getting started, think about the reader that you want holding your book."

Do you think there’s value in writing for writing’s sake?

First of all, it’s a really cathartic thing and one step beyond journaling, I guess. I’m someone who believes that when you’re going through something, it’s really important to observe what you’re going through and sit in it. I write a diary – and it’s just the process of writing that’s so therapeutic. Also, the other thing is you’re not talking with someone else or texting and waiting for a response, you’re just relieving yourself from the thoughts and feelings. If there’s something inside you it’s really good to release it.

And I think writing in general is great – I love writing little short stories and little things and notes on my phone. So many of us have such a vivid imagination and just writing for writing’s sake is a really amazing outlet for all those things.

Do you think writing can be a powerful tool to help with mental health?

Absolutely. I think that many times, late at night, when my brain is sort of all over the place, writing something gives you a clear channel get stuff out of your head, even if it doesn’t make any sense. I think one thing for me is, if you’re going through something, you don’t necessarily have to write what you’re going through as yourself. I remember a few years ago a friend told me, when I was really anxious and really depressed, ‘why don’t you write what you’re going through but through the lens of someone else?’. And that was the most amazing tip because it meant that I was able to remove myself from what was happening – but also get it out of my head.

What is the biggest barrier for people who want to enter the writing and publishing industries right now?

I do think it’s a money and an access thing. I think that everyone’s got a story to tell – whether you’ve got it from a place, or you’ve grown up in it, or you’ve got it from your imagination – and I think that you often do need the right people around you and the right tools to harness that work. So many people don’t have that, and so I do think that the industry needs to handle the real problem with representation in publishing houses. 

I think in general a lot of editors buy and publish what they have a taste for, because of what they know and what they like. So if you have 100 editors with the same kind of taste, you’re going to have 100 books with the same thing. We have to broaden who is in the houses and who is making the choices and judging the writers before we can actually think about who is being properly represented.

What message do you have for people who want to enter the Kindle Storyteller Award but struggle with confidence when it comes to their writing?

The thing that I would say to people who want to write is that you have a voice – your writing and your voice are valid. Only you can write the story that you want to write, and you have no idea how many people might connect with you – that is the most exciting thing. It amazes me how many people can connect to one story, because the personal is so universal and there’s so many people going through the same thing as you are, but we don’t always have the texts to refer to or talk about. That’s the main thing. I know that to be true. My story isn’t necessarily rags to riches, but I’m someone who didn’t think I had a voice or didn’t think that my voice was valid, and it’s something that has proven not to be true. I was always someone who didn’t think I had any story worth telling, but we all do. All of us do. 

People connect to books on a very different level to something on the internet or a blog post. A book legitimises the things inside it, and I think that when people pick a book up they think ‘I’m going to connect with this, I’m going to find myself in it.’ Or ‘I’m going to observe the life of someone else,’ and only when we, as writers, push through the feeling that we aren’t good enough – only then can we put that book out.  

The Kindle Storyteller Award celebrates independent and newly published work in the English language across any genre. Budding authors have until 31st August to enter their work for the chance to win a £20,000 cash prize, a marketing campaign, and the opportunity to have their book translated and read by millions. Submissions close on 31st August 2019, for more info on how to enter visit:

Images: Provided by Candice Carty-Williams/Getty