Candice Carty-Williams was born in 1989, the result of an affair between a Jamaican cab driver who barely speaks and a Jamaican-Indian dyslexic receptionist who speaks more than anyone else in the world. Raised in south London, she moved around a lot as a child. She and her mother started out in Clapham, and spent a few years in Norbury before moving in with her grandparents in Streatham. When I was born, my mum and I lived in Clapham, then Croydon (haters will say it doesn’t count, but it does). We spent my most memorable early years in Norbury. Our neighbours were Turkish and I spent my evenings clambering over the garden wall to go and eat my second dinner at their house. By the time I was able to recognise cultural difference, the area that we lived in was buzzing with everyone and anyone, so I just thought that that was what life was.
When I was eight we moved to Lewisham, the blue borough. I went to a primary school with lots of children from different backgrounds. The turbulent times began when I went to a secondary school with less people like me. I was put in all of the lower sets and had ‘behavioral issues’ on my file. These years were rough years for many reasons. For years I was unofficially adopted by various friends and their families in Sydenham, Catford, Honor Oak, Camberwell, Brockley, Peckham. At the time I was temporarily saved by walks in the parks around me; I’d walk them day and night and always felt safe. When my mum met her partner, we all spent some time living with my grandparents in Streatham. Immigrants from Jamaica, my granddad had ensured they had the biggest house on the street; in the basement of that house was a flat occupied by a couple from Australia who were welcomed into my family like they were Jamaican too.
We moved down the road when I was fifteen; me, my mum, and a new little sister. Still in Lewisham, much happier, and much safer physically and mentally. In our new block lived pretty much one person from every culture and of every sexuality; our next door neighbour was an old, kind Irish man who my mum would coax out onto the balcony to have a chat so that he wasn’t lonely.
Candice studied Media at Sussex because her sixth form teachers said that she wasn’t clever enough to do English, but she showed them all by first working at the Guardian Guide and then moving into publishing at 23. Carty-Williams says her childhood was “really shitty. I was lonely a lot of the time and I felt that I would never be able to achieve anything.” Her lack of confidence stemmed from her early years. “I have a cousin who is a bit older than me who is very beautiful, and I was always compared to her. Everyone in the family would say: ‘You’re smart but your cousin’s beautiful.’ I felt such an outsider because of it.”
Carty-Williams has worked on marketing literary fiction, non-fiction and graphic novels ever since; her first highlight was interviewing David Cronenberg and telling him that if she were a white man she’d like to look like him. In response he called her a ‘delightful person’. In 2016, she created and launched the Guardian and 4th Estate BAME Short Story Prize, a prize that aims to find, champion and celebrate black, Asian and minority ethnic writers. She also contributes regularly to Refinery29 and i-D.
Candice Carty-Williams never thought she’d become a writer, but when she got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work on her manuscript at Jojo Moyes’ cottage, she knew what story she wanted to tell: a tale of a black woman doing online dating and generally making her way in the world. The result is Queenie.
Carty-Williams, who works in publishing as a senior marketing executive, talked to Goodreads about how she was influenced by Bridget Jones’s Diary. “Even though we couldn’t be more different,” she says, “she’s the first character in literature who showed me that it was OK not to be perfect.”
Carty-Williams On ‘Queenie’ Book
Queenie is a young black woman living in London. Life is all set out for her, or so she thinks. She’s managed to get a good enough job in journalism, a field middle-class enough for her family to stop nagging her. She’s living with her white boyfriend in a nice middle-class area in an expensive flat that he’s mainly paying for. This suits her fine, as she’s determined not to end up in the relationships her mum has been in. Queenie decides that marriage, children, and stability are for her. And she’s so set on this ideal of the perfect life, she’s been ignoring the signs that her relationship is taking a turn for the worse.
They go on a break—that’s fine, Queenie thinks, maybe time apart to reassess and remember how much they loved each other will do them good.
But while Queenie is meant to be remembering how head over heels she is with the supposed love of her life, she gets distracted. Attention is what Queenie wants. From all of the wrong people. Through an unrelenting spiral of reckless behavior that every young woman has fallen into the grasp of, as well as the exhaustion of trying—and failing—to assimilate into a culture she can’t quite fit into seamlessly, Queenie begins to unravel, and after ignoring and burying a turbulent childhood, she now has to face up to the past that’s catching up with her.
It’s a book full of politics, the inevitability that is gentrification, bad sex, worse decisions, and relatable WhatsApp group chats. Everyone who has read it can find something in it that speaks to them.
I had no idea that I’d become a writer, and I’m still pretty shocked when I’m referred to as one. When I was younger, I was obsessed with libraries. I got kicked out of class a lot, and the school library was where I’d end up, reading a book a day while my friends were learning. It was then that I decided that I’d do for people what books would do for me; being the person encouraging reading. You can imagine my unmatched delight when I realized that publishing was a career and that I could contribute to the life of a book.
Skip to the end, when it dawned on me that I’d been trying and failing to find myself in books that could have helped me through breakups or spells of low self-esteem or bad decisions, I decided to write my own.
As queen Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So I applied to a legitimately life-changing opportunity offered by mega-author Jojo Moyes to go and write in the cottage near her house for a week. I took a week off of work, drove there, sat down to write before unpacking my suitcase, and a week later drove home with 35,000 words written.
After banging out 35,000 words in Jojo Moyes’ cottage, I work full-time and can be found exclusively in front of Netflix every weekday evening, so I worked solidly on my manuscript every single weekend until I had a first draft. I was more disciplined than I thought possible, but it was mainly because once I started writing a character like Queenie, I couldn’t stop.
Once my first draft was written and all of the “INSERT MORE DESCRIPTION HERE, TOO BORING RIGHT NOW” and “CHECK THIS MAKES SENSE, CANDICE!!” or “WOULD SHE REALLY LET HIM DO THAT? REALLY??” notes to self had been gone back over and the thought of showing it to someone didn’t make me feel nauseous, I sent it to four trusted readers and said, “Hi, please would you give this a once-over and give me some feedback; I don’t want to know what you like, I ONLY want to know what doesn’t make actual sense, what’s a bit too overboard, or is just crap writing.”
When I got their notes, I color-coded them (I’m a nerd, nobody seems to understand just how nerdy I am), went off to Jojo’s for another week, and got back to work. There was also a terrifying few minutes at Jojo’s where she read my first three chapters WHILE NEXT TO ME and gave me vital feedback. After draft two, I sent it very timidly to my now agent, and there we have it. I should add, it was only when I finished the first draft that Queenie had a name. Every name I thought of didn’t feel right, so she was just “X” until I said to my mum one afternoon, “What name would you call a girl that was actually really nice but she maybe would think was a bit too much?” My mum immediately answered “Queenie?” and there she was.
I myself have… dabbled in the dating apps, and while I’ve had my fair share of unmemorable dates and encounters, there was one person I can’t forget. I would use OkCupid, and one of my best friends (white, brunette, attractive) preferred to use happn, a dating app that allows you to talk to people that you’ve crossed paths with. We always compared and contrasted potential dates, and, one day, sent each other screenshots of our respective conversations with the same person. “Hi. I’m *. Great to meet you on here” was his opener. “I work with kids. Really gratifying.” We laughed at how earnest he was and how one of his pictures was the obligatory one of him surrounded by “African” kids on some sort of volunteer year.
His opener to me was quite different. “Hey,” he’d said. There was no name attached to his profile, instead a nondescript username. “You look hot.” After a small back-and-forth, he said this: “Why don’t we each take a day off work so I can take my time f**king you?” It was then that I realized that me and my white friends were really living different lives when it came to dating, and that so much of our existence as young women in this day and age is so focused on dating, desirability, and ultimately marriage. It’s what society would want! While that was the spark, it was so easy to build on Queenie’s story. Like me, her family is Jamaican, a culture not to be messed with or adapted in any way, try as we second-generation immigrants might. Plus, I’d had the material in my head for longer than I realized. When I sat down to write, I could see and hear every single character loud and clear. Very loudly. Especially Maggie. And Kyazike. Definitely Kyazike.
Carty-Williams can’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t subject to subtle forms of racism and “othering”. This has ranged from boys at school telling her they’d love to go out with her but their parents would never allow them to date a black girl, to women she’s never met before coming up and touching her hair. “I wear a headscarf all the time now because it’s too much,” she says. One of Carty-Williams’s masterstrokes in Queenie is using humour and pathos to examine social and racial politics.
“I haven’t been to the Notting Hill carnival for two years because the last time I went my friends had to form a circle around me. These people just kept reaching out and going [adopts voice of braying posh girl] ‘Oh my God, I loooove it.’ I have had to do a lot of work to educate people on why racism is bad. Just because you’re not calling someone the N-word doesn’t mean that the way you are talking with them isn’t racist. It’s completely exhausting.”
“People are always going to be on hand to say that you’re overreacting or you’re wrong when you get upset about these things,” she says. “It takes so much strength to say, ‘Look, this is bad’. Now we have #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and these movements are amazing for me as a black woman because I don’t feel alone in this any more. I know that my voice is valid and is heard. I think to myself, ‘Thank God for social media.’ I know it has its drawbacks, but it has connected so many people and I think feeling alone and suffering in silence is one of the most horrible and destructive things.”
I don’t read anything while I’m writing, I think because I’m scared about my voice sounding like someone else’s, but Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding is always going to be one of the books that I love the most that has had a huge impact on me. Even though we couldn’t be more different (though, like Bridget, I work in book publishing), she’s the first character in literature who showed me that it was OK not to be perfect.
Obviously, Queenie is ten times more political due to my being black and writing through my black female working-class lens, but I still feel comfort in her story. One of my main characters, Queenie’s best friend, is called Darcy, in homage to Bridget Jones’ dream man and savior in her diary.
Guardian and 4th Estate BAME Short Story Prize
When I was 23 and had been in the publishing industry for less than a year, I very quickly realized that I was mainly working on books by white writers.
I didn’t understand this, as I’d grown up seeing writers of all backgrounds on my godmother’s shelves (we didn’t have books in our own home), so I took a week off work (you know I’m about to do something significant when I book a week off work) and wrote down a loose plan to get some more voices like mine coming through. A short story seemed to be a feasible thing to request from would-be authors who had other jobs and were writing in their spare time, and the prize format meant that they could come directly to us, the publishing house, instead of going via an agent.
So many writers don’t even know what an agent is, and I think that can be easily forgotten when you’re so used to doing things the way they’ve always been done. With the help of the head of publicity at 4th Estate, the Guardian came on board, and the prize was launched soon after. This was the first inclusive initiative of this scale the industry had seen, so it was incredibly well-received, more positively and wider-reaching than any of us could have imagined.
We had some amazing entrants; the prize was something I ran alongside all of my other work (I was a marketing assistant at the time), so I sat in a room with many cups of tea and sifted through all 300 short stories we received. Along with the winning story, “75” by Abiola Oni, one that really jumped out to me was “Black Flag” by Guy Gunaratne. He went on to be shortlisted in the next round of reading (thankfully not by only me), and his debut novel, In Our Mad and Furious City, was longlisted for the Booker Prize two years later.
I’m always forcing my friends to read books (it’s the librarian in me trying to get out), and some of the books I’ve loved and have shouted about recently are How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs; We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, a collection of essays by Samantha Irby; poetry from Morgan Parker in the form of Magical Negro; My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh; and Becoming by Michelle Obama.
Before Christmas, I sent a first draft of my second novel to my editors and said, “PLEASE I don’t want any notes on this for MONTHS because I need to enjoy my life again, THANKS,” so I can tell you that another novel is coming, but it’s still in its infancy. Very different to Queenie, but just as character-led, with a cast that told ME what they were going to do next. If you loved Queenie’s Corgis, taut friendships on the verge of breaking, and the unwinding mess that can be human nature, you’ll be very into novel two…
- Candice Carty-Williams Biography and Profile (Candice Carty-Williams / Goodreads / Vice)