Candice Carty-Williams, PEOPLE PERSON

Candice Carty-Williams, PEOPLE PERSON

Candice Carty-Williams, the bestselling author of Queenie, joins Zibby to talk about her latest novel, People Person, which follows five half-siblings and their larger-than-life father. The two discuss how the writing process for this book differed from writing Queenie, the impact Covid had on Candice’s work and her personal life, and how being shy affects her interactions with fans. Candice also shares how she started writing through working in the publishing industry and why she currently loves reading poetry.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Candice. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss People Person. Can you please tell listeners what People Person is about?

Candice Carty-Williams: I can. I absolutely can. People Person is my second novel.

Zibby: Wait, you’re saying that very nonchalantly. Your first novel, Queenie, was a huge, massive hit in every single way and so critically acclaimed and, oh, my gosh, everything good.

Candice: Thank you. That is true. It is true. It’s really hard because, obviously, you’d love to follow up Queenie with another Queenie. I was like, no, I think this one has to be something completely different. Yes, Queenie was, gosh, years ago. I wrote Queenie when I was twenty-five. I’m now thirty-two. A lot of time has passed. I don’t feel like a completely different person, but I’m definitely a smarter person, which is very good.

Zibby: Wait until you’re forty-five like me. Then you’ll be super smart.

Candice: I cannot wait. I cannot wait at all. People Person, it was meant to be about one person, but it ended up being about six key people. We have, in the center of everything, Cyril Pennington, who is this father of five. He is in his early fifties. He has five children with four different women. He doesn’t have relationships with any of the children or the women, but he sees himself as this amazing people person. The people who are trying to emulate him and also be “people” people are his five siblings. They are, from the top down, Nikisha, Danny, Dimple, Lizzie, and Prynce.

Zibby: Prynce with a Y.

Candice: Prynce with a Y. Thank you. One night, Dimple, who is the middle sibling — even though she hasn’t grown up around her other half-siblings, she very much is a middle child still, somehow. There is an emergency. There is a crisis with her ex-boyfriend. I won’t give any spoilers away. She doesn’t know who to call because she cannot call the police, and so she ends up calling her bigger sister. Next thing you know, all of her siblings are around her. They’re all trying to figure out what to do and how to get through what they need to get through. Then unfolds the novel. What we have is these five people, who are basically strangers, trying to get to know each other and trying to get to know themselves and trying to understand their relationship to each other but also to this man, Cyril, who has no idea who any of them really are.

Zibby: Wow. It’s so crazy because the novel opens with the dad driving all around town and picking up one kid after another and throwing them in the car. Not even kids; fourteen, seventeen, whatever. They’re all like, what are we doing here? Some of them didn’t even know they had siblings, half-siblings. It’s just such an amusing little scene here with him in this gold Jeep picking all these kids up and them looking at each other. It’s almost like they’re stuck in an elevator. It seems that random. When you throw people together and their suddenly forced interaction, what happens with them? What parts of people’s personalities come out? I think that sets the whole stage for the rest of it.

Candice: That was the thing. I wrote it in lockdown. Most people did write their novels in lockdown because we had more time on our hands but somehow, less time on our hands. I was so lonely when I was writing it. I was just by myself living in a really small flat, or an apartment. I think I wrote all of those characters because I just needed to hear voices and people and to hear conflict and to hear laughter and to hear all of those things. I ended up writing all these five characters who’ve got very contrasting personalities, as you can tell. They became my half-siblings. They became my family.

Zibby: When you were in lockdown alone in your flat, how long did you go without seeing somebody else?

Candice: The first lockdown we had, maybe four months.

Zibby: Without seeing anyone?

Candice: Not even my mom. I eventually went to see my mom. She was the first person that I went to see. She saw me, and she just cried and cried and cried. I was like, “I can’t hug you because what if I have COVID? What if I give you COVID?” She was just like, “I don’t care. I do not care. I haven’t seen you. You’re my child.” She hugged me. I was like, I’ve killed my mom. She was fine. We didn’t have COVID. I didn’t have COVID. She didn’t have COVID. It was a really hard time. In that time, I felt very lucky, very privileged that I was able to channel all of my thoughts and feelings and loneliness into a piece of work because a lot of people had to go out and actually work.

Zibby: You are actually working.

Candice: It’s work, but it’s a different kind of work. Key workers, all those essential .

Zibby: Okay, fine.

Candice: I know what you mean. I know. I do have a tendency to play down what I do. I get in trouble for it a lot. Yes, you’re right. I was also working. It’s just not key work.

Zibby: I feel like when I’m alone for blocks of time, I end up talking out loud to myself a lot. Do you do that, or no?

Candice: I talk to myself all the time. I talk to myself constantly. A friend of mine asked, “When you talk to yourself, how do you refer to yourself?” I said, “Usually, we. We can do this. We’ve got this. We’re going to do this.” She was like, “That’s really weird.” I was like, yeah, maybe I’ve split myself into two. It’s me and my brain together.

Zibby: That’s so funny. Okay, good. Now I don’t feel so bizarre.

Candice: No way.

Zibby: Without any structure to the day, writing this book when lockdown was just like, who knows, morning, noon, or night, did it affect how and when you wrote it versus your process with Queenie? Compare and contrast.

Candice: For sure. With Queenie, I was writing when I was in full-time work, and so I went away to a writer’s retreat. As anyone who has understood the genesis of Queenie knows, I went to a writer’s retreat at Jojo Moyes’ house. That was an amazing time. That was just me getting a load of it out in that one week and coming home. Every single weekend, I would lock myself away. I would come home from work on a Friday, go to the shops, get some food. Then I wouldn’t emerge until Monday morning, go back to work, and then do it all again. My friends had to understand, you’re not going to see me for a bit because I’m working on this thing. I’m not really going to say what it is. Trust me, I’m working on something that I think is important. I think it’s going to matter. Then I worked really hard and finished that. This time around, I was by myself. I wrote another version of People Person before Queenie was actually released. I was editing it in lockdown. That was what I was meant to be doing all the time. I was on edit. Every single day, my editor was checking with me. I was like, yeah, it’s going well. Yeah, I’m working on this. Yeah, I’m thinking about this. I’m just at this point in it. At one point, I was like, Candice, you just don’t like this novel. You’re not going to be able to talk about it convincingly or with authenticity. That’s a word?

Zibby: Yep.

Candice: With authenticity if you don’t believe in it, and so I got rid of it. I binned it. I started a whole nother one. Then the next time I saw her when we were able to see people but from a distance, she’s like, “You’ve been really quiet. How’s the edit going?” I was like, “Well, I’ve started another book.” She was like, “Okay, we’re going to push it back again. Okay, I get you.” This time, it was different. I remember one night when this idea came to me, just suddenly seeing all five of these characters really clearly in front of me. I remember where I was sitting. I remember what I was eating. I remember what I was doing. I just saw these five people. I was like, oh, it’s their story. The first night, I wrote eleven thousand words. I’m one of those. I’m a really intense writer. That was between eleven PM and six AM. I just wrote the first ten thousand words. A lot of that hasn’t really changed from my head to the first draft to now because it was just like what they’re going to do. Then spent the rest of the time refining it and editing it and going through it and making sure — I was always checking in with who those characters were. It was a very different process because this time, I wasn’t inspired by people on the street, people on the bus, my colleagues, my friends. I just really had my own brain to go off. That the novel even came out, I’m always very surprised that we have something here in front of us.

Zibby: How do you know when something is good? What you wrote in the middle of the night, do you read it the next day? Do you ever read it out loud? Did you just get this feeling like, this is what it is, I just feel it?

Candice: I think because I believed it and because I believed them — obviously, the plot of the novel, I’m really pushing fiction to the limits. I’m just kind of like, you know, it’s a book. Queenie was based in so much realism and so many real conversations, so many real relationships. This was a big departure from that. It was like, no, I’m going to play with the fact that I could write a fiction novel. When I read it back, I was just like, I do believe it. I do believe these people, even though it’s a fictional story. That was it. Then I kept going with it. As with all second novels, I would imagine, there is a confidence wobble because you’re kind of like — it’s definitely not the first thing I wrote. I remember my copyeditor, my British copyeditor, not my American one, had sent me — she’s called Sophie. She copyedited Queenie. She sent it back. I was going through all of her notes. I was like, yeah, that doesn’t make sense, what was said there. At the end, she was like, “This is amazing and I think even better than your first.” I was like, thank you. That really meant something. That was the first independent set of eyes on it. It really mattered that — she’s been on a journey with me. She was reading Queenie when I was twenty-five, twenty-six. Now she’s back with me. She felt that. She doesn’t have to say anything at all. I was like, okay, I believe her, so that’s good.

Zibby: That’s amazing. How did you get into writing to begin with?

Candice: How did I get into writing? I worked in book publishing. I just remember looking around and being like, there’s nothing here on these shelves that I can really relate to. I set up a short story prize in the publishing house that I worked at. Then after that, I was like, this is great, but things aren’t moving fast enough. What if I just try and write? Toni Morrison, if you can’t , write it, effectively. That was it. It feels like it’s been a really simple journey when I say it like that. Of course, there is the writing of it and the sleepless nights, anxiety, , the conversations, the pressure. Also, I’m a very shy person. No one understands that. Whenever I have to do publicity, do talks and talk to people, I’m always in a state of trauma. We have to do this, Candi. Talk to myself and be like, we’ll get it done. Then you can just go home and be by yourself. It’ll be great. It’s okay. There’s been a lot of that stuff. The reward is when I get to talk to people in the signing que and it’s a one-on-one and people get to come. Some people, they come over, and they’re shaking. They’re like, “I’m so nervous to meet you.” I’m like, “Oh, I’m the one shaking. Don’t you worry. We’re both shaking together.”

I enjoy all of that. I enjoy the talking to people one on one. I enjoy getting messages from people who are like, I know this life. I know this person. I know what this means. I’ve been this person. That really means a lot. That’s why I do what I do. I know that I don’t do things for social media validation, for external validation. I just really want people to be able to be like, ah, yeah, thank you for seeing me. I did an event on Monday. A woman in the question-and-answer period, she said that I was very forgiving of Cyril Pennington. She said, “My dad is a Cyril, and I wouldn’t have been that forgiving. Reading this helped me to let go of that . It helped me to understand that I should forgive.” I was like, if I can do one thing, it’s that. I was very tearful because it was really amazing. From where I was then when I was younger and being like, I just want to connect with people in the way that allows them to see themselves, and to now, I see it as being able to achieve that. That’s amazing to me.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. It’s so awesome. Very inspiring. When you read, what are your go-to books? What are some of your favorites? What are you reading right now?

Candice: I actually really love poetry. I love to nourish my mind, but it’s so hard to find time because we are all so busy, as we know. I’m not even a mom. Can you believe? I’m just busy with work.

Zibby: This podcast is for everyone. I have it that way because I’m a mom, and that’s the view from which I see everything. It’s for anybody who’s busy and wants to learn about books. That’s most people in the world.

Candice: Exactly. I really love poetry because I love to — I think that poets are so amazing at packing so much meaning, so much heart, so much feeling into a handful of lines. I think it’s an incredible thing. I always try and have a poetry book nearby so that if I do have a minute or I have fifteen minutes, I can do a bit of reading. At the moment, I’m reading Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire, who is an incredible, incredible poet. I keep this on my desk. I read it over and over when I have downtime from writing or between interviews. I’m about to read —

Zibby: — I read that. It’s so good.

Candice: Did you love it?

Zibby: Love.

Candice: As you can see, the difference is vast.

Zibby: Oh, we should say because we’re on a podcast, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois.

Candice: Yes. The difference between this and the poetry is large, but I am determined because I have heard it’s incredible. I cannot wait for that.

Zibby: I had a really good podcast with Honorée. You should listen to it. She was so open. It was really emotional. In your spare time which you don’t have.

Candice: In my spare time which I don’t have. A lot of poetry but also fiction . I read a lot of nonfiction when I am writing and then fiction when I’m not writing because I’m always scared I’m going to borrow someone’s voice. I haven’t done it yet. I don’t think I will, but I’m always like, just leave that alone.

Zibby: Just in case.

Candice: I’ve just finished reading Viola Davis’s autobiography, which has been —

Zibby: — I have that. I have not read it yet. Was it amazing? My mom just finished it. She’s like, “You have to read this.” I was like, “I know. I know. I have it. I have it right here.”

Candice: I love a broad range of fiction and nonfiction and poetry. At the moment, poetry has a really, really, really big place in my heart.

Zibby: I feel like people who love to read poetry often write in a particular way, not the same way, but there’s something about the pacing or something, the melody you can’t quite hear. I can’t quite describe. The lyricism. I don’t know what I’m even saying.

Candice: I think it’s also the feeling. I’ve been asked by various people, would you try some poetry? Would you try writing poetry? Would you try writing plays? I’m always like, that’s not my medium. My medium is very much novels. To suggest that I could just do poetry I think is kind of, not diminishing what a poet does, but I highly respect poets as having a very specific way of telling a story in a way that I have reams and reams of pages to do that, and they just do it in sometimes five words.

Zibby: I know. It’s so amazing. I remember learning about poetry in school. I’m like, what do you mean? This is it? Just these words? I don’t get it. Then when I started reading more, I’m like, this is actually beautiful. My little daughter actually just wrote a poem in school. She put it in a shape, the words.

Candice: Aw.

Zibby: I know. It was so beautiful, this beautiful poem in a shape. I’m like, that’s amazing. I couldn’t do that. It’s beautiful.

Candice: Can’t do that with novels, can you?

Zibby: Can’t do it with novels.

Candice: I think that poetry is always the winner.

Zibby: You could make, maybe, that shape with the stack of pages, the way you arrange them.

Candice: That’s true.

Zibby: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Candice: The advice I would always give and I always love giving is just, get on with it, and said in the most loving way. I think that we can get in our own way. We can put all of these blocks in place. Other people put blocks in place for us sometimes. The thing I kept telling myself whenever I had writer’s block or whenever I doubted myself was just to get on with it because I’m the only person who can write it. I think that every single person who wants to write and who even doesn’t want to write has a really amazing story to tell because it’s your own story. No one else can tell that for you. Get on with it, in a nice way. It’s really freeing. It’s really freeing to just do that. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Zibby: I think you should write something called “The Confidence Wobble.” You said that earlier. I just loved that turn of phrase, the confidence wobble, very British, but just so encapsulates that feeling and makes it feel like it’s not that big of a deal. Everybody else is going to feel that way too. Oh, this is my second novel. Here comes the — actually, it kind of rhymes. Look, we just wrote a poem. Here’s my second novel. Here comes the confidence wobble.

Candice: put it out together.

Zibby: There we go. We’re writing poetry right and left.

Candice: The confidence wobble is a very, very, very real thing. I think that everyone has it. Everyone loses their confidence. I think it is a wobble. You just have to move with it and let it happen.

Zibby: Love it. Thank you so much for chatting with me today. I hope that this has not been an example of something you had to talk yourself through and that it was easier.

Candice: No, no, no. In front of lots of people is when I’m like, . On Zoom, I’m in my house. I feel very safe. Also, I was very much looking forward to it.

Zibby: Good. I’m so glad. It was great to meet you. Congratulations on People Person and all of your success. Very, very exciting.

Candice: Thank you so much. I’ll see you soon.

Zibby: I’ll see you soon. Buh-bye.

Candice: Bye-bye.

Candice Carty-Williams, PEOPLE PERSON

PEOPLE PERSON by Candice Carty-Williams

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