Candice Carty-Williams talks Queenie, making history and believing in your unique voice

Candice Carty-Williams talks Queenie, making history and believing in your unique voice

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Wednesday, 9th November 2022
Credit: Emil Huseynzade
Credit: Emil Huseynzade

When Candice Carty-Williams’ debut novel Queenie was first published in 2019, she didn't want it to be released quietly.

Calling it 'the black Bridget Jones', Carty-Williams knew Queenie wasn't going to be a small book. “I [expected] it to be at the scale of Bridget Jones, that was my expectation and my statement of intent."

The novel tells the raw and unflinching story of 25-year-old British Jamaican Queenie, who is trying to get through a difficult year. Carty-Williams calls it a “modern messy story for black women.”

The publication of the book was anything but quiet and it was named Debut Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, and Carty-Williams was the first black writer to win Book of the Year. 

“When they said you’ve won book of the year, I thought they must be fucking joking,” said Carty-Williams. “I still didn’t believe it even up until it aired, I thought maybe they just told everyone they won and then played the winner.”

Despite cementing her place in history and becoming a household name, Carty-Williams is not one for celebrations. 

“I like birthday parties, but I would never be like ‘everyone, I’ve achieved something, let’s celebrate me’, I find that really stressful.” Instead, on the day of her British Book Awards win, she stayed at home had dinner, a mint tea and watched The Karate Kid

Queenie was released during a time when authors began to find themselves in the limelight just as much as their stories. In the past readers often didn’t know what authors looked like, but Carty-Williams found herself being recognised even during times when she was wearing a mask because of Covid. 

She initially struggled with the recognition and the pressure of the press, to the point that she wouldn’t be able to eat or sleep the night before an event. 

“Naturally, I talk to who I know and everyone I talk to I’ve known for a long time, so suddenly being away from home and your friends, touring in front of people, it’s like ‘wait, what?’”

As an inherently shy person, Carty-Williams is still learning to feel comfortable dealing with press and having lots of people listen to her. 

“Even in group conversations, I still don’t like talking to more than three people,” she laughed.

Where Carty-Williams does feel comfortable is with books. She has been a lover of books since she was a child so a career in the industry seemed inevitable. 

Starting off in the marketing department at Harper Collins, she had no aspirations to be a famous writer.  “I didn’t have one idea of how it would go, I was just like, ‘write and see what comes out’,” she admitted.

While at Harper Collins, Carty-Williams found that there was a lack of diversity in the authors who were being published. “I remember thinking, I’m in publishing but there’s nothing I’m working on that really speaks to me."

“I’m always someone who is like, if you see a problem then try and fix it.” Which is exactly what she set out to do by creating the 4th Estate BAME short story prize. The competition gave the winner a cash prize, a publishing workshop at 4th Estate and their story published on the Guardian website.

Carty-Williams wanted to prove to her colleagues that there were stories from authors of all backgrounds, but sadly, agents are not working with these writers because they don’t see them as having value. 

Reflecting on the industry, she said, “it has been changing slowly but I think there needs to be more change from the inside out.”

For Carty-Williams, writing authentically is important and she believes your own unique voice is the only thing you have, so you need to use it. “I have a very specific way of seeing and hearing things, so I always want to write in the voice that makes sense to me.”

With a Channel 4 adaptation of Queenie on the horizon and original drama Champion currently filming, Carty-Williams relished the challenge of scriptwriting.

“Scriptwriting is great because it’s more collaborative, but what I do find is that you might end up writing the same thing 20 times over.

“I have a fast brain, so repetition is really tough. I get so agitated and anxious going over the same thing,” she said.

It was important to Carty-Williams for the Queenie adaptation to remain true to the essence of the book, which took a lot of work and negotiation, but she knew she wanted it to be right even if it took longer.

Credit: Emil Huseynzade

“It’s been really tough because I know who she is and what she would do,” she reflected when talking about Queenie.

“I feel like with an adaptation you’re constantly justifying and fighting for your own story, whereas with an original you can make up something new.” 

Champion marks Carty-Williams’ first foray into an original TV series, which also saw her create original music for the show. The music drama tells the story of the chaos that ensues when fame collides with family.

Set in south London, Champion is a love letter to the black British music scene, and celebrates black British culture. 

The series follows Bosco Champion (Malcolm Kamulete), a rap sensation who is recently home from prison and ready to take on the music industry once more.

However, when his younger sister Vita (Déja J. Bowens) steps into the limelight and her own talent is discovered by Bosco’s rival Bulla, the ensuing tension may tear the whole family apart.

The music in Champion came to Carty-Williams before the story and she used it to form the characters, basing their personalities on their musical style. 

“Music is the main love of my life, music is always through my house, I love it and I just need it.”

Creating such a unique show has not been easy and she refers to the project as one of her most “demanding kids” because it requires so much attention and precision. 

“I have to be a showrunner, an A&R, do music editorial and work with producers and musical directors,” she explains. “It’s hard in a practical sense, but so amazing, this show is going to bang.”

To help curate the perfect musical sound, Carty-Williams enlisted the help of Ghetts and Ray BLK.

“Ghetts is incredible, I’ve looked up to him and been a fan for so many years, even when I text him I’m like, ‘oh my god, I’m texting Ghetts’,” gushed Carty-Williams.

From the beginning, Carty-Williams had Ray BLK in mind for the characters of Honey and as soon as she discovered that she used to act she knew she had to have her.

“She was one of the first people we cast, and no one could have told me that she couldn’t have done that role. I wouldn’t have seen anyone else," she said. “Whenever we do live vocals and Ray sings, the room goes completely silent.”

When it comes to her own musical tastes, Carty-Williams grew up listening to reggae, lovers rock and pop. 

“Pop played a huge part in my life, I liked the Spice Girls, Five, I lived through the Britpop era. As I got older I had my black girl indie phase and it was Bloc Party, The Strokes and Metronomy. 

“Music feels very much like an extension of my being,” said Carty-Williams. 

Carty-Williams’ love of music led to her being part of the school choir and although she has a good musical ear, she definitely never felt tempted to star or sing in Champion.

“There is no possible way I would ever want to be in front of the camera,” Carty-Williams laughed. “I think you have to have a different mind to mine to want to be an actor.”

With such a busy schedule, Carty-Williams would struggle to find the time to appear in front of the camera. 

She has just finished a US book tour for People Person, block one of Champion has been completed, with filming for block two and three about to get underway, and Queenie begins filming in January. 

From writing novels to writing scripts, Carty-Williams is already a household name changing the industry for the better - and doing none of it quietly. 

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When Candice Carty-Williams’ debut novel Queenie was first published in 2019, she didn't want it to be released quietly.