Published on 11 April, it’s fair to say that Candice Carty-Williams’ debut novel Queenie has been one of the most anticipated debut novels of 2019. Detailing the 25 year old Queenie’s struggle to find herself and her place in the ever-changing world around her, the novel has been rightly championed for delivering a compelling and relatable central character young black women can identify with. But who is Candice Carty-Williams, the prodigal 29-year-old author behind Queenie?
A lot of South London. Born in 1989 Carty-Williams’ childhood saw her, at various times, residing in Croydon, Clapham, Streatham, Ladywell and Lewisham. It was whilst living in the latter of these locations, as a teenager, that the young Carty-Williams really first immersed herself in novels and reading. Excluded from school for a week, her stepfather sent her daily to Lewisham Library.
A self-confessed ‘loud’ student at her secondary school, the young Carty-Williams often found herself placed in lower academic sets, something which led to her question her own aptitude and abilities. As she explained in an interview with Lewisham Ledger “growing up I never felt I could write… writing wasn’t something I thought I could do”. It was through an internship with The Guardian that she first made a name for herself as a writer, and has become a regular contributor to publications including i-D and Black Ballad.
Working as a marketing assistant with the publishing house 4th Estate, Carty-Williams became aware of the underrepresentation of BAME authors and writers in publishing. Realising that few new or upcoming writers would have access to agents or the industry she pitched the idea of a BAME Short Story Prize to her employers - with the aim of offering writers a step towards publishing or literary agent representation. With a budget of £48 - the cost of setting up a website to field submissions - The Guardian and 4th Estate BAME Shorty Story Prize was born.
A fervent reader, Carty-Williams found herself struggling to relate with the key characters of the fiction she read. Unable to find one to which she really connected, she chose to write her own. The result is Queenie and a novel with a compelling yet flawed protagonist who has to navigate the challenges of being a young black woman in today’s world, the plot drawing on Carty-Williams own experience and the experiences of black women around her; the family, the workplace politics, the relationships and struggles with mental health.
Set in Brixton, Queenie also gives focus to a number of the challenges faced by twenty-somethings trying to make their way in the city. From the extortionate and undoubtedly broken world of private renting, to gentrification, casual and not-so-casual racism, and the complexities of multiculturalism, Queenie’s is a very relatable London that rarely finds literary pages.
Having submitted a first draft of Queenie to literary agent Jo Unwin, Carty-Williams soon found her text the subject of a four-way bidding war between publishers. The author eventually chose to sign with Orion, who reportedly acquired the novel for a six figure sum.
The clamour from publishers has brought a lot of hype and attention to Carty-Williams debut novel, but mercifully Queenie delivers as hoped. Championed in some quarters as a ‘black Bridget Jones’, Antony Cummins reviewing for The Observer feels that underplays the author’s work; “This story about finding yourself, not Mr Right, isn’t a ‘black Bridget Jones’ so much as a 21st-century one”. The Times’ Kate Saunders has also heaped praise on Queenie, describing it as a “funny, clever, heartbreaking lightning bolt of a first novel, by a writer bristling with talent”.
Candice Carty-Williams appeared in conversation with June Sarpong here at Southbank Centre in a sold out event on Wednesday 17 April.
The venue for London Literature Festival and Poetry International, Southbank Centre is the home of literature and spoken word events in the UK. Throughout the year we host talks, discussions, readings and more featuring bestselling authors, award-winning poets and inspirational writers.