Candice Carty-Williams: ‘I see it all the time, it hurts all the time’

The day before our interview, Candice Carty-Williams was driving to the supermarket near her flat in south London, listening to music, when she noticed a police car behind her. “I was at a red light waiting to go, saw the police, and I was anxious,” says the novelist, 30, pulling up the hood of her brown Nike sweatshirt. “I knew I was doing absolutely nothing wrong but immediately I braced myself in case they pulled me over. I don’t trust the police; why would I when my brothers were stopped and searched all the time when I was growing up, for f***ing nothing. It’s abhorrent.”

In her bestselling debut novel Queenie, about a young black woman in London, Carty-Williams talks about police picking out people just for the colour of their skin. It makes the main character feel “scared … like we have to prove our worth just to exist”. The police let Carty-Williams get on with her day but her brother was picked out by them recently — “and he’s a wholesome man; he works in IT”, she laughs dryly. “It’s happening because of skin colour and nothing else. If you think about it too much you will go mad. As a system of protection it doesn’t make any sense.”

Carty-Williams sneezes, reassuring me that it’s definitely hayfever and not coronavirus even though we’re speaking on Zoom. She’s in her kitchen, with a fridge obscured by postcards and a vase of drooping sunflowers behind her, which she hasn’t got round to throwing out. They were a present from a friend last month when Carty-Williams and Bernardine Evaristo became the first black authors to win the book of the year and author of the year respectively at the British Book Awards. “I don’t like flowers as a gift because they are gendered,” she says. “But those are nice so I kept them.” Carty-Williams is so modest that despite having been asked to pre-record an acceptance speech she still feared she might not win. “I thought they might ask everyone to do that so I didn’t get too excited,” she says. “I did stuff round the house during the ceremony, then when it was announced I thought, ‘Wow, OK.’

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“It was bizarre because I’m not in a good place mentally but everyone is telling you that everything is great. It’s not. We’ve all been driven to extreme anxiety by the pandemic, and I live alone so it’s been very testing. Not seeing another human properly is hard — I’d go to the shops and feel better when I saw the security guards were there and fine because the understanding was if you left your house you would drop down dead. And coming out of lockdown is probably more confusing than going in.”

She’s seeing a therapist, “but not an NHS therapist because they are very overstretched at this time. I’m in a privileged financial situation to be able to afford a therapist privately so I’m doing that because it takes the pressure off the NHS.”

After the ceremony, “everything was very loud”, so she put her phone on airplane mode, cooked some salmon and broccoli for dinner, had a turmeric tea and watched the original Karate Kid film. Then she did some writing. “I don’t come from celebrating culture,” she adds. “My family is more like ‘what’s the next step?’ rather than ‘that’s amazing’.” Winning made her feel “proud, but also sad and confused that I’m the first black and female to have won. I hope the industry is waking up to the fact I shouldn’t and won’t be the last.”

Before she wrote Queenie, Carty-Williams worked in publishing and set up the 4th Estate and Guardian short story prize for BAME writers. She’s one of more than 100 writers who signed a letter calling on all major publishing houses in the UK to make the industry more inclusive and formed the Black Writers’ Guild. “We’ve given them a checklist of what to do now to make things better in a meaningful way. I’ve been to a million workshops where nothing ever happens after.”

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She’s deliberately not promoting Queenie in the wake of Black Lives Matter, “because a man has died, are we forgetting that? People should always be reading more widely and be educated but I come at everything emotionally and I’m not going to use what’s happened to sell a book.”

“This has been happening for a f***ing long time,” she states. “Since I was younger I had to reconcile the idea that something might happen to you, your brother or son because of the colour of their skin and nothing else. If you think about it too much you will go mad but I see it all the time, it hurts all the time.” In Queenie, she wrote about Philando Castile, an innocent 32-year-old man who in 2016 was shot dead by police in Minnesota. When George Floyd died in May she “couldn’t get out of bed for a week”. “We know this is happening but to see it so starkly does something painful to you. I’d get up, do yoga then go back to bed and cry.”

Will the Government’s inquiry into race change anything? Carty-Williams’s answer is direct. “No. It is absolutely f***ing wild that they haven’t got a black person to do the inquiry. No one ever goes to the people involved. Why don’t you go and f***ing talk to people who are in the thick of it? You don’t know how, so you have people so far removed, in terms of race, class, socially, economically, financially.” A friend asked her when will this pass? “That was telling. It shouldn’t be something we get over. What is the point unless change is made. This is not a trend, not a hashtag.”

The toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol won’t achieve much either although it “was funny and a good thing to do”. “They immediately erected better protection for statues than any of the protection that the NHS have been getting. What does that say?”

Carty-Williams is one of 109 famous people who have written for Dear NHS, an anthology put together by doctor-turned-comedian and author Adam Kay, in which celebrities including Emma Watson and Paul McCartney share stories of how the NHS has helped them. It’s number one in the Sunday Times bestseller chart. Carty-Williams’s essay is about her mental health and strength in vulnerability. “I wrote about it in Queenie too — that is about a black woman who for most of her life has endured this trauma and said she is strong, but she’s not fine. There was a long time where I didn’t talk about things and that was detrimental to me and the people around me.”

Dear NHS was a break from her next novel, which didn’t come easily. “I’ve been trying to rid myself of the pressure which came after the attention Queenie had,” she says. “How can this new thing be as good? It’s different and that’s fine.” She smiles nervously. “Probably.”

After a few false starts including a novel about grief which she “wasn’t feeling because we were all grieving for normality and the lives we had during the pandemic”, she is now excited about her second book. She becomes animated when she talks about it. The story is about five half-siblings with the same father who unite when one of them is threatened by an ex-boyfriend. “He’s a scary person and something happens but she can’t call the police because the police in this country discriminate when it comes to black people so she calls her big sister. None of the siblings know each other but their dad introduced them when they were young in case they ended up accidentally going out not knowing they were related. The oldest sister has kept tabs on them all. Before the girl who is threatened knows it, knock knock, her sister has gathered them together and they end up building a relationship.”

Her own father has eight children, “we think. Maybe nine”. She had the idea for this novel after talking with her older sister, who said if anything happened they’d all be there. When she was younger her father wasn’t around but he WhatsApped when he heard about Queenie to ask if Carty-Williams could pay his mortgage. She was “disappointed but not surprised”. “I don’t buy that argument about absent fathers being detrimental to how young people behave, that’s bullshit,” she adds. “My dad wasn’t around but I just won book of the year, know what I mean?”

She’s also adapting Queenie for TV and is in awe of Michaela Coel writing 191 drafts of her BBC drama I May Destroy You. “I’m on draft 10 and I’m shouting at a lot of people.” She wants an unknown actor to play Queenie and is the most excited about casting and music.

Focusing and switching off from social media comes easily to Carty-Williams but she has been keeping an eye on Twitter in lockdown. “I don’t like the term cancel culture,” she says. “People should be able to like who they like and not like who they don’t like.” But what about those who say JK Rowling is making a valid point about free speech? “JK Rowling is ridiculous, I stand against everything she says. She’s made her opinion clear, why does she keep talking and doubling down?”

Carty-Williams is happy being “a commitment-phobe”, but has missed seeing friends and family. After two months without seeing her mother, she drove over. “I told her not to come near me and she wept. It’s only been two months — at some point I want to move to New York, then what will she do?” She had a fight with her nan and they aren’t talking. “She was rude.” They clashed about how “there’s a lot of judgement in my family about how we look — my cousin is the pretty one and I’m the clever one. I’ve internalised that, if anyone gives me a compliment I say you should see my cousin.”

It’s her birthday this week but she’s “not doing anything because I’m worried I’ll put people in danger”. Cautiously, she’s enjoying seeing a few friends but she also has a deadline to meet. “I asked my editor to give me a date to finish my novel by. She’s said October — so now I have to write my f***ing novel.”

Dear NHS is out now, buy it here.


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