Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams is Bookish’s first Kelly’s Pick, and we want readers to have everything they need for a fantastic book club meeting, including insight from the author! Bookish chatted with Carty-Williams about her debut novel, which follows a 25-year-old Jamaican British journalist named Queenie. Here, Carty-Williams opens up about the inspiration behind the book, Queenie’s character growth, and the three authors she’d want in her group chat.
Bookish: What was the original inspiration for Queenie? Was the character inspired by anyone?
Candice Carty-Williams: Honestly, when I sat down to write, she is what poured out. Years and years of my own experiences, dealing with micro and macro aggressions, stories I’ve heard from friends and family; my poor brain seems to have retained it all, and I clearly needed an outlet for it. Mainly, Queenie a woman that so many of us can relate to because she’s an amalgam of the versions of so many of us at our lowest, when we’ve kind of had enough but are about to learn that it really is darkest before the dawn. People often ask if Queenie is me, and while she’s not me in any literal (or sexual, goodness no) sense, she’s probably a version of me that lives inside my head. She’s a lot funnier than me, too. And a lot more tolerant. None of the men in Queenie’s life could ever come near me.
Bookish: The “Corgis” are such a vibrant part of this novel. How did you go about shaping each friend’s unique relationship with Queenie?
CCW: My starting point was thinking about the type of person Queenie was, who she would have picked up in her life, and where. Kyazike is her long-term friend, also black, and she’s such a great character because, while being absolutely brilliant, and so confident in her own black skin, she shows that there really are different types of black women. Darcy, our well-meaning and well-intentioned white, middle-class liberal, is kind, and the most patient of Queenie’s friends. Through their day-to-day interactions I wanted Queenie to have someone who would see the good and the bad, and wouldn’t judge either way. It was really important to me that Queenie had a set of friends who were different from each other, and who gave Queenie various types of support. Darcy listens, Kyazike defends, and Cassandra commands. I’m very lucky myself to have a best friend tier of people who have helped me through the big problems and the small ones. I’m also fortunate enough to have spotted the frenemies, much like our dear Cassandra, and to have been able to distance myself from them.
Bookish: If you could start a group text with three other writers, who would you pick? What would you name the group?
CCW: This is the hardest question. Okay I’m going to think solely about who would make me laugh the most, and who I admire so much that I’d just let them talk amongst themselves and watch each message flood through in wonder. I’m going to choose Samantha Irby, Roxane Gay, and Lindy West. I think we’d be named after Irby’s second collection of essays, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, because I’d be too intimidated to come face to face with any of them.
Bookish: Both the Me Too and the Black Lives Matter movements are mentioned in the novel, and Queenie even attends a Black Lives Matter march. Can you talk about the significance of having both movements represented in Queenie’s story?
CCW: Queenie’s story very much reflects the political climate of what’s going on around us, even though she—and her story—are fictional. I really wanted to be able to use Queenie as a tool to talk about the society we’re living in. Queenie is both black and a woman, meaning she needs both of these movements. Both Me Too and Black Lives Matter are crucial movements to me and the people around me. They’re each incredibly vital, shine a light on injustice, and stop people from feeling alone. I almost can’t believe there was a time when neither of them existed and so many of us were suffering in collective silence.
Bookish: Queenie isn’t easily convinced that therapy might help her to feel better. Why was it important for you to show this struggle to readers?
CCW: I do not know any person who can say that they’re trouble-free and that some facet of life doesn’t weigh heavily on them at some point. We all have stuff, and everything, big or small, is relative (and important if it’s getting us down). Things can hurt us, or things have hurt us in the past, and we should talk about them. Also, as the “strong friend” to a lot of people, I get a lot of angry, ranting phone calls and flurries of text messages and I just want to say “let me stop you there; have you tried therapy?” because these people are trained not just to listen, but to give us the tools to feel better. That’s why as much as I wanted Queenie to be able to talk to her friends about the various tricky things that were happening to her, she also needed to go and get therapy to talk about the murkiness of her past that was keeping her from handling these things properly. And when she eventually goes, it’s not about an instant fix, it’s about getting the tools to soften the sharpness of her trauma.
Bookish: Throughout the book Queenie finds it difficult to come to terms with negative events in her life—everything from her relationship with her mom to her recent breakup. How do you see the trauma from her youth shaping the denial she finds herself in as an adult when things go wrong?
CCW: It all goes hand in hand, doesn’t it? When I myself had therapy, I had to do a lot of learning and understanding around my inner child, and I was really reluctant to unlock any of that stuff because I just didn’t think it mattered. But as I began to finally do the work, I realized that not seeing myself or my value as a child meant that as I grew into an adult, I lost touch with myself and who I was becoming. Queenie, who has had such a tumultuous and traumatic upbringing full of loneliness and mistreatment at the hands of a man in her childhood, has no idea how to act around men as an adult. Writing a lot of this book made me cry, actually, and one of the bits I find hard reading back over is when Queenie’s therapist asks her to describe herself and Queenie doesn’t really have an answer. That lack of awareness of self is what can happen when you haven’t been able to properly grow up and into yourself.
Bookish: Queenie doesn’t consider herself a victim of assault in the novel. Can you talk about your decision to have her struggle with recognizing the reality of the way she’s being treated?
CCW: We all have to learn about ourselves, don’t we, and that’s what we’re doing with her. So often, many of us are treated badly, and it might not be until later on that we realize the effects of that mistreatment. I always think of it this way; I am really, very good at giving out advice to my friends. I can dissect and solve whatever they’re going through in a second. I’m a real Darcy. If a partner is treating them badly, if they’re scared about asking for a pay raise, if they don’t know how to put together a piece of IKEA furniture, I am there and I am on it. Problem solved, advice given, case closed. When it comes to myself and my own issues, I can’t see the forest for the trees. So many of us are like that, and Queenie is such an example of that inability to see that you even have a problem. I also thought it might be refreshing to create a character who didn’t spend all of her time navel-gazing and picking herself apart. Queenie is just doing what she’s doing and hoping for the best. Like so many of us do!
Bookish: Queenie is the very first Kelly’s Pick, our book club pick of the season! We put together a discussion guide for readers, but we want to know what are two questions you think book clubs should discuss during their Queenie meeting?
CCW: Do you think that the men Queenie encounters had a responsibility to see that she was vulnerable and act accordingly by leaving her alone?
Was it necessary for Queenie to go through a self destructive phase and come out on the other side, stronger and more aware of how she should be treated?
Candice Carty-Williams is a senior marketing executive at Vintage. In 2016, she created and launched the Guardian and 4th Estate BAME Short Story Prize, which aims to find, champion, and celebrate underrepresented writers. She contributes regularly to i-D, Refinery29, BEAT Magazine, and more, and her pieces, especially those about blackness, sex, and identity, have been shared globally. Queenie is her first novel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.