It was Candice Carty-Williams who came up with the “Black Bridget Jones” tagline for her debut novel, Queenie. (She wasn’t working in marketing for a publishing house at the time for nothing.) She wanted her novel, which follows the misadventures of millennial south London journalist Queenie, to reach as wide a readership as possible. She succeeded. Today, her name rarely appears without the words “publishing phenomenon” attached: Queenie won book of the year at the British book awards in 2020 (Bridget Jones took it in 1998), making Carty-Williams the first Black writer ever to get the prize, an indictment of the industry in itself. The novel has sold more than half a million copies and is being made into a TV drama on Channel 4.
But where Bridget Jones’s Diary now seems dated in terms of sexual politics, Queenie is often deeply shocking in its depiction of the heroine’s treatment at the hands of a series of toxic men, taking in internet dating, mental health problems and the housing crisis, as well as everything else that goes with being a young woman. Toni Morrison’s famous injunction to write the book you want to read might have been conceived with a future Carty-Williams in mind. Written when she was in her early 20s, and landing in the midst of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, Queenie couldn’t have been more timely. Critics praised its combination of empathy, wit and political awareness; some readers recognised themselves in fiction for the first time. “Queenie was this big burst of 25-year-old energy: ‘I am sick of sexism and going on bad dates and hearing all this shit, and my friends having to go through all this shit, and going through shit at work. I have to write it all down,’” the author, now 33, says when we meet to talk about her much-anticipated second novel, People Person.
“Queenie was so much about Blackness in response to whiteness, I’ve said what I needed to say about that,” she says. “It’s time to write something that is just about Black people. That’s it.” Also set in south London, People Person is about a non-nuclear family coming together rather than falling apart, but again touches on contemporary issues such as social media, revenge porn and distrust of the police.
“I’m a proper south London girl for ever,” Carty-Williams declares, after welcoming me into her home in Streatham, just round the corner from where she grew up, which she was able to buy thanks to Queenie. It is decorated with touches of the candy-pink and lush green of one of the book’s original hardback designs. While she is delighted to finally have a place of her own (much of Queenie was written in a studio with mice and slugs for company), doing it up as a single woman was no fun. In a scene that might have come straight out of her debut novel, a workman cornered her in her bedroom one night and started lighting candles. “It was horrible, but I was also like, ‘Of course this happens,’” she says, settling into the sofa. Now she always has a friend over if a builder is coming. “That’s just how it is. It is absolutely awful, but I’m so accustomed to it.”
On the wall behind her is the famous 1970s Jamaican tourist board poster of the model Sintra Arunte-Bronte in a wet T-shirt in the same candyfloss shade with the word “JAMAICA” across her breasts. “Yeah, she fits in,” Carty-Williams laughs. She has a small version of Sintra that goes on the top of her Christmas tree. More sombrely, on the other wall is a poster from the 2016 film Moonlight, which she saw at the Barbican with a live orchestra playing the score; she cried so much that a man asked her if she was OK. She cries a lot, she says. On the pink bookshelves, there are two black-and-white prints that she bought to support Black Lives Matter: one of a woman weeping, another of a boy in a hoodie, his face hidden by beautiful hands. “They are two identities that I’ve seen and that I’ve loved in my life – weeping and hiding,” she says. And a photograph of her nan, who was always her most stable influence growing up. “Isn’t she lovely!”
How do you follow a smash hit like Queenie? Writer Kit de Waal advised her to get the next book out as quickly as possible, so Carty-Williams had already completed a novel about a group of friends by the time Queenie was going to press. She had even sent it to her editor. But looking at it again during lockdown, she just “wasn’t vibing with it”. It was all about grief and she felt the world was grieving enough. “That novel was so raw. I was like: ‘People don’t need this.’ So I just binned it,” she says. “There was no one there to stop me.”
Then one night – she works best when it’s dark – she put a song on repeat and, starting at 11pm and finishing at six the following morning, wrote until she had 10,000 words. “This is it! This feels better,” she remembers thinking, albeit also feeling wired and sick. Queenie took off in a similar blast after Carty-Williams won a competition to spend a week writing in novelist Jojo Moyes’s house: she notched up 8,000 words in the first day, 40,000 by the end of the week. The whole novel was finished in six months, and she was working full time.
The result of that all-nighter is People Person. The first chapter introduces us to the Pennington clan, five half-siblings who have never met before, until their errant father Cyril decides to pick them all up in his gold Jeep one day. Fast-forward 16 years and the farcical second chapter sees the now adult siblings reunited for the first time, when they have to deal with the body of Dimple’s abusive boyfriend, who has slipped and hit his head after a row.
“Why would you call the police?” Dimple’s brother Danny asks when they are trying to work out what to do. “They’ll create some story and put it on you.” Against the background of the police handling of Richard Okorogheye’s disappearance (mentioned in the novel); murdered sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, whose bodies were photographed by the officers guarding the crime scene; and, most recently, the strip-search of Child Q, People Person has the same grim urgency as Queenie. “I’m sick that it takes these things for people to realise ‘Oh, Black people are treated really badly,’” Carty-Williams says of Child Q. “It’s like, Yeah, of course! People see Black children as women. It is horrible. I had men talking about my body when I was not even 10 years old.” Just last week, the police pulled the author over in her car while she was singing along to music with a friend. “They ran my plates!”
While Queenie dealt with difficult mother-daughter relationships, People Person is her “daddy issues” novel. “I know that as I go through my life I will always write the things that I’m trying to make sense of myself,” she says. “So when it came to dads, I was like: ‘I really have to do it.’” She is one of nine siblings with the same father – far too many characters for a novel, she jokes. Although she doesn’t keep in touch with all of them, “it’s nice to have different people to talk to”. Her father worked as a taxi driver and met her mother when he picked her up from her shifts as a hospital receptionist. It turned out he already had three children, and (like the characters Dimple and Lizzie in the novel) another sister was born to a different woman the same year. “It’s never clear!” she says, trying to work out how many mothers in all. “Your dad has how many kids?” she was always asked as a child, but it never really bothered her. “That’s my life. And there are people who have that life, too. I want to connect with those people and make them feel less lonely.”
Unlike the gregarious Cyril in the novel, her father is not a people person, she says, showing me an old photo of him looking shyly at the camera on her phone. When he worked for London Underground she would visit him at the depots in Kennington or Morden. “We would just sit in silence together, and that was cool.” Earlier this morning, her mum was over for a visit. “She’s the funniest person I know,” Carty-Williams says. “We just get on.” But that hasn’t always been the case. It took her many years to realise that her parents were their own people and couldn’t really look after her, she says. “And it is really, really tough.”
Her childhood was “very lonely and very shit”. She moved all over south London with her mother, ending up in a mouse-infested council house with no proper kitchen – it has since been boarded up. When she was eight they moved in with her mother’s new partner in Lewisham, which meant that her nan was no longer living round the corner, and a year later her sister was born. A turning point came when she was sent home from school for a week for bad behaviour and her stepfather made her go to the library every day. She discovered Sue Townsend, Louise Rennison and Malorie Blackman (“she has my heart in so many ways”) and books became her escape from the “chaos” in her head and the unhappiness around her.
But in her early 20s, after university (communication and media studies at Sussex), she had “a terrible nervous episode” following the death of her best friend, Dan, from cancer – Queenie is dedicated to him. Eventually, with the help of a course of CBT on the NHS, she recovered enough to apply for a couple of internships and landed the marketing job at HarperCollins. “I just had so much fun,” she says. Although she was unable to ignore the lack of diversity: “It is men at the top and loads of white women in the middle; overwhelmingly so.” In 2016 she set up the Guardian 4th Estate BAME short story prize. “Obviously in this world if you are Black and you want to do something you still have to get permission from lots of white people to do it. Which is sad,” she says. And while there has been an improvement in the last few years, publishing still has a long way to go. As she says, the prize would never have happened had she not been given a job in the first place. “If you are there, you can see it and say it.”
Then came Queenie and Carty-Williams was the one winning prizes. When she found out she had won the Nibbies’ book of the year award, the first thing she did was find a therapist. “I was in such a place of not liking myself,” she says, that receiving public accolades was just too much. She has been with the therapist ever since: “It has changed my life. I’m going to be with her until I don’t need to be with her again, which won’t be any time soon.” Although she is more settled than she has ever been, she still finds happiness difficult: “I’m not naturally a very happy person. But that’s all right because I’m used to it.”
Both Queenie and Dimple struggle with insecurity and anxiety, and she is keen to challenge the stereotype of Black women as strong and resilient in her fiction (Queenie is the first person in the family “to go to psychotherapy!”, her Jamaican grandmother declares in horror). Although rooted in what she knows (she would never write a book set in west London, she says), her novels are not autobiographical: she is so fed up with people assuming that she is Queenie that she refuses to give readings. “I wouldn’t want anyone to hear me speak in her voice and think we’re the same person.” As she likes to point out, nobody asks Ian McEwan if he suffers from premature ejaculation, referring to the crucial scene in On Chesil Beach. “Nobody! Of course women would have to write about all their emotions and feelings,” she says. “But we also have imaginations.”
As well as adapting Queenie for Channel 4, she is also writing a TV drama called Champion for the BBC, about a rapper who comes out of prison – in south London, “obviously”. Rereading Queenie for the first time, she is shocked at how dark it is in places, and the “absolutely wild” sex scenes. “Oh my God, did I really write that?” Neither her mum, her nan or her sister have read the novel. “They are not really fussed,” she says. “They know what I do.” Although her mum promises to be first in the line to buy People Person.
Writing has introduced her to a new community, and she stresses how fellow authors such as Zadie Smith, Diana Evans and Raven Leilani have supported her. “When you are a young Black writer, I think you’ve got to hold each other up. We are always in it together and you kind of have to be.”
There’s “pride and there’s sadness” in being a Black woman in publishing, she says. “It is amazing seeing all the authors who are being given opportunities because publishers can finally see that Black books sell. And they win prizes.” One of her favourite recent books is Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, which won the Costa first novel award this year, but which she believes might not have been published 10 years ago. Queenie not only transformed her life, but has helped other young writers like her. “It’s always going to be my special ‘little project’, as my nan calls it.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism