Trailblazing author Candice Carty-Williams is back with a much-anticipated second novel, People Person. She sat down with Stylist to talk about everything from family drama and therapy to Queenie comparisons.
If ever there was a book to take 2019 by force it was the hot pink cover of Queenie. Its content and book jacket were so iconic that it became the subject of many group chats, book clubs and conversations, not least because Candice Carty-Williams so aptly captured the problematic world of dating for Black women within her debut novel.
Now, the award-winning author is back in a big way with her second novel, People Person. This time around, trauma is not on the table; her new novel is centred around the heartwarming – and emotionally realistic – story of a family reunited after a tragic event.
As we sit down to talk, Carty-Williams can’t help but be excited about the book’s release, but feelings of nerves are out the window. They’re replaced, she says, by a busy schedule preoccupied with casting meetings for her upcoming BBC drama Champion. Filming is due to start at the end of June, she shares, and because of her busy schedule, she “doesn’t really have time to worry”.
People Person may be one of the most anticipated second novels from an author, but Carty-Williams remains calm about the fact that she’s written what she wanted to write with this book. Keep reading to see everything she had to say about her new release.
How are you feeling in the run up to the book coming out?
Candice Carty-Williams: Do you know what? I’m a lot more excited than I could be when Queenie was coming out. I guess I know the lay of the land; I know how it’s going to feel in some ways. And also, when your first book comes out, you just don’t know what to expect, so you’re kind of jangly. But I’ve done the work and it’s a book I’m proud of.
Now I can just hope that people take something great from it, that they like it and I get to talk to lots of people about it. I also don’t think I’m above criticism; I don’t think anyone’s above criticism. I actually like the challenging conversations as much as people telling me they like it.
But the anxiety of being in the unknown, that’s gone now, which is good.
Having had such a successful debut novel, do you think the success of Queenie has contributed to any pressure or insecurity around People Person?
CCW: I was very aware of it. I’m very aware that Queenie did what it did and that’s cool.
And like this book, it’s going to do what it’s going to do. I just want people to take something good from it. I want people to enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Pressure is pressure, but there’s nothing I can do now. Do you remember when you did your exams and then you’re waiting for results day? You know there’s literally nothing you can do. But I’ve done what I needed to do, I’ve done what I set out to do.
People Person is very different and I think that that’s fine. I know that people are asking ‘Oh, is it a [Queenie] sequel?’ and they’re really excited. But no, this one isn’t.
There might be a sequel one day, but this is something completely different. And also, I can see that I’ve matured as a writer and that’s really nice. I wrote Queenie when I was 25 – I’m 32 now. So there’s not really pressure anymore. I know that I wrote what I wanted to write this time around and I hope people receive that well.
It’s also wonderful in loads of other ways. Everyone thought I was Queenie, so now it’s nice to write something where it’s like, this can’t be about me.
The comparisons to you and Queenie are so shocking but it must also be annoying. Do you think anyone would make any links to any character in People Person with you?
CCW: I think the only link is that I have half-siblings, but so do many people.
I always want to write about what feels real to me and what feels true to me. So, like Queenie, I know what it’s like to be a Black woman trying to navigate two different worlds and feel like I’m fucking up on both sides. So from that basis, I know exactly how that feels and it has to be authentic in that way.
Everything that I write, everything that I do has to be authentic because I think you can tell when writing isn’t authentic. And even conversations – I don’t like fakery; I don’t like any of that stuff. Because it doesn’t feel real.
Thinking about People Person landing in people’s hands over the coming weeks, what would you want people to take away from the book?
I want people to enjoy the journey of it. I just felt like I could say different things this time. Queenie was incredibly political. I think all of my writing will be political just because when you’re a Black woman, people are always questioning your existences and you, your skin, your hair and all of those things.
But there’s not really any whiteness in this book, and that’s really important to me because Queenie was about someone who was in this world of whiteness and was effectively offset by how this shaped her.
With this, though, it’s about five half-siblings trying to figure themselves out and trying to figure out who they are, offset by the absence of their dad. So, it’s kind of keeping it in one space this time. That felt really interesting and really good.
It’s also less traumatic because writing Queenie was definitely harder than writing this. Yes, there’s stuff about dads [in People Person] and I’ve got my shit with my dad. But otherwise, I could step back from the trauma of things in life and just ask myself: ‘How can you write something where it’s five very different people coming together and just having to figure themselves out?’
Did you enjoy the writing process for People Person?
CCW: Yes, it was just funny and I laughed so much – I really enjoyed writing it. Maybe you shouldn’t laugh at your own stuff.
It’s an exploration of family, and family is something that I’m completely obsessed with. The nuclear family has never really touched my life, I’ve never really seen it or understood it. And so, I just want people to ask what that is but also what is a ‘not nuclear’ family? Because so many people are from that.
I always try to write for people who don’t see themselves. I really want people to understand that there are different ways of living, people have different backgrounds, people come from different places, people come from very disparate places. I’ve never shied away from the fact – it’s in my bio – that my dad had an affair with my mom and that’s why I was born.
That doesn’t make me any less of a complete person because I’ve come from something that isn’t stable. But it definitely means that I have had to figure out how to find balance in my life and find my own grounding. That’s been a challenge in itself.
What made you want to explore the theme of family?
CCW: Well, I always try and write about what’s authentic to me. I’d written a whole other novel about friendships and it was about four friends – it was called People Person. But something for me was never quite clicking. I was editing it but thought, ‘No, this isn’t chiming with me at all; my energy isn’t here anymore. So I binned it and asked myself ‘What do you want to write about?’
I was talking to my half-sister one day about hypotheticals. I asked her what would happen if I got in trouble or someone tried to hurt me. She was like, ‘Well, everyone would just assemble.’ And then, from that, I asked myself, ‘What could happen if there are these half-siblings who are living all these different lives, don’t know each other and then all come together?’ And then I just went from there.
Then one night I wrote 10,000 words. So People Person was based off of literally one tiny little thing my sister said.
How did you go about forming these characters? Are they based on anyone in particular?
CCW: I love Cyril and Cyril is so totally different to my dad in so many ways. And so it just couldn’t be based on him. If I wrote about my dad, it would just be very boring because me and my dad barely talk.
I start with characters’ names and then their star signs. I’m one of those star sign people and I’m really interested in people’s signs because I’ll know how to work with your personality and not take things personally because I know that, for example, a Capricorn is going to be kind of cold. And that’s cool, because it’s not about me.
It’s also thinking about how these characters would work together and then all the stories just come from that and I just start writing. Then the story does what it does and I just type it up – I just follow what my brain is doing.
That’s so interesting. So your writing process is dictated by where you just naturally go?
CCW: Yeah, where I land. I don’t structure anything. I’ve never structured anything in my life. Essays, short stories, anything that I write I have never thought about the beginning and the end. I just think, ‘What’s going on? Talk to me.’ And then we just go from there.
In that process, were there any parts that were hard to write or get through?
CCW: Were there any? In the characters that I’ve got, I like so many of them that I just enjoyed writing it. I loved writing the explosive scenes and I basically love to go where the drama goes.
I enjoy writing so much and I feel so privileged all the time to do it. Everything that comes with it, I’m really grateful for. And it’s really nice to do what I do, because I can always show people that you can come from what I’ve come from and be something and do something. That your story is valid, whatever your story is, even if you don’t think it fits in the mainstream or doesn’t belong there.
To me, writing is really my happiest place. And I’m not naturally a very happy person. I’m a chaotic person but also a very emotional person. But when I’m actually sitting down and writing – that is my safe space.
What is your writing routine?
CCW: I just write for hours and I’m basically almost fasting in that time. Next to me, I’ll have water, my lip balm and that’s it. I’ll write for about seven or eight hours at a time. And once I’m finished, I always feel very wired, so I have to listen to one song, which is The Essence by Giggs. And for some reason, that just levels me out and I’ve been doing that at the end of every big session for years – since I was 25.
And do you have an ideal writing set-up?
CCW: When I’m writing, it’s in bed and I’ve got to be as relaxed as possible, with a candle on and my phone on ‘do not disturb’. And you’re just in that world – it’s amazing, because there’s a lot going on in the world.
In the lockdown, I was just by myself all the time and was just sitting around with my demons. I think that is why I could write a whole other novel because I just sat with myself.
I was finding different parts of myself that I was able to exploit and I unlocked a lot of stuff. I started therapy during lockdown, and when I sent her the first 10,000 words, I told her to let me know [what she thought]. I was a bit scared that because I’d started therapy and lost some of my trauma, I wasn’t as good a writer.
So you thought going to therapy and working through trauma was going to impact your writing negatively?
CCW: Yes, I thought because I’m such an emotional person – and I channel all of that negative energy into my work and through writing – I thought that if I lost that and I was more measured in myself and more measured in my writing, I wouldn’t be as good.
Queenie is kind of one big energy burst. I was so angry and upset by the way that Black women are treated in this world and I just wanted to put it all on a page. But with People Person, there’s not really anything to be pissed off about. I thought that when I lost that pain, I would be boring. But actually, I’m not and that’s good.
You’ve been open in speaking about your journey with therapy and loving it. But has that had to come alongside your newfound success as an author as well?
CCW: For sure. The reason that I got therapy at all was because it was about to be announced that I’d won Book Of The Year and I knew loads of people were going to be messaging me, congratulating me and saying: ‘Well done, you’re the best.’ But I was at a point in my life where I hated myself so much.
I’m just not naturally ever going to be a person who is like, ‘I’m the best.’ My friend, Daniel [Kaluuya], he’s one of my best friends. I remember one time, he messaged me and told me that I need to say to myself: ‘I’m fucking wavy.’
I couldn’t physically do that, and he said I had to but I was said to him: ‘You don’t understand, I can’t.’ He FaceTimed me and I was crying. I eventually said it, but I was actually crying at having to say I’m wavy and that I like myself. But now I’m getting there – therapy is helping me with that.
And that in itself is, arguably, such a marker of success and growth. Do you feel that your definition of success has changed now going forward?
CCW: I feel like my success is not numbers in any way. It’s not money, it’s not social media, it’s just talking to people and people being impacted by what I do. It’s like when people have come up to me in a shop, or on the Tube or at an exhibition and say: ‘Excuse me, did you write Queenie? I really loved it and it changed how I think about things.’ That’s amazing to me, that’s what success is.
That’s why I do the work I do – because I want to reach out to people and I want to talk to people and show them the world.
Were you inspired by watching, reading or listening to anything else for People Person?
CCW: No, and I watch everything. I love everything and enjoy such a broad range of TV, film and theatre. One play that will always stick with me, though, and that made me really start examining my family as I know it is Nine Night, written by Natasha Gordon.
It’s a play about a Jamaican family, and it is a nine night so they’re sitting around after the matriarch passes away. Her daughter arrives from Jamaica and the family basically explodes because of it. That happened in my family on my mom’s side and that play was one of the things where I saw how important it is to tell these stories because I’m not the only one. Natasha Gordon is not the only one. We’ve got to talk about this stuff because it’s real.
Nuclear families are cool, blended families are cool, but there are also families of people who, in the case of People Person, are disparate. You’ve got siblings across the pond, you don’t know them but you can’t talk to them – these people share your DNA but you don’t know where they are and that’s crazy to me.
What are you currently reading at the moment?
CCW: When I’m writing stuff, it’s very hard to read. I’m re-reading All About Love by bell hooks because that’s a classic. I’ve also been reading Bless The Daughter Raised By A Voice In Her Head by Warsan Shire, which is an incredible collection, but I feel like you’ve got to treat poetry gently.
She’s obviously incredibly powerful. But you know in every generation, there are writers that I feel very lucky to have witnessed and read them. And I think we’re in a really amazing time when it comes to literature now finally.
Yes, it feels like people are finally being able to write the books that they want to write.
CCW: Yes and I remember when I was writing Queenie that wasn’t the case at all. I was in the industry and there was literally nothing coming through.
I had friends in every publishing house and I would ask, ‘Guys, have you got anything by anyone who’s Black, anything by anyone who’s South Asian and everyone was like, ‘No but we do have this amazing novel written by a white person about someone who goes to Congo.’
Are there any authors of color that you feel have kind of gone under-the-radar that you’re loving at the moment?
CCW: I really love Ashley Hickson-Lovence. He wrote an amazing book called The 392 and has recently released Your Show, which is fantastic.
I’ve also been really enjoying The Secret Lives Of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, which are short stories that are incredibly sexy without being sexually explicit, which I think is a massive skill. I recently loved Bryan Washington’s Memorial that I loved and His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie, which is also fantastic. And I’m also making my way through Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? You should see my bookshelves – they’re literally heaving.
People Person by Candice Carty-Williams (£12.99, Trapeze) is out on 28 April.
Images: Ekua King; Lily Richards; Emil Huseynzade