Portrait: Carrie Jade Williams, winner of the 2020 Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize © Aoife Herrity
Carrie Jade Williams is a fiction writer and essayist. We had the pleasure of (virtually) meeting Carrie at this year’s BPA Writing Weekend, and she told us that she started to write just six months ago after being diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. Already, Carrie has won the Financial Times/The Bodley Head Essay Writing Competition for 2020, been chosen as the writer in residence for the Irish Writers Centre and had publisher interest in her debut novel.
I asked Carrie some questions about what motivates her to write and how the industry can be more accessible for neurodiverse writers.
What made you decide to start writing?
When I received my diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease it was explained to me that due to the progressive nature of HD I would lose the ability to communicate, so I decided to embrace writing. On my bucket list I had stated I wanted to write a book to leave behind to my loved ones and once we were plunged into a lockdown I took a lot of workshops, really to escape boredom.
I always joke that writing was a hobby that snowballed! I started 2020 extremely unwell, facing a disease that would eventually steal my ability to communicate – never in a million years did I think I would be ending the year signed by an agent. I will always be grateful to Emma Haynes at Blue Pencil Agency, as well as other writing platforms, for the support and encouragement I have received.
Here at BPA, we found your The Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize winning piece ‘My brain is in a war it will lose’ incredibly impactful. What inspired you to represent voice controls in the text and how has the response to the essay been?
Honestly, I attended a workshop where all the feedback I received was around the fact that the margins around my work were smaller than normal. When I explained that I rely on assistive tech and asked could the feedback be focused on the words I had written rather than the formatting on the page, this really got me thinking about how much of my writing process is removed by the editing process – and if that could be explored as a way of exploring communication styles.
For me, I just write. I am not inspirational or anything like that – I’m doing what thousands of writers are doing; I just do it a little bit differently as I can’t hold a pen anymore.
After meeting you at the BPA Long Writing Weekend, we’ve seen you engaging in the writing community on social media, arranging feedback sessions with other novelists, recording podcasts and working with Writer’s HQ to improve their site’s accessibility. What does being a part of the ‘writing community’ mean to you?
This sounds ridiculous, but I definitely think we all need a cheerleader – someone who gets behind us and just cheers us on. In writing, when you trust that person to invest in you as a person you will trust their feedback (and be open to taking it on board). As a beta reader I always enter in knowing I am privileged that someone is sharing their work – so I have to have earnt the right to be shown their work. That’s why I always try to just meet writers where they are and build a community focused on removing excuses and sharing work with the world.
In my day job, I have always been very active in women’s business forums. I believe we are all better when we work together and support each other. I am blessed that to me writing is always fun, but I know for a lot of writers committing to writing on the page is a stressful experience. I like to try and engage in the writing community as a cheerleader – to learn, grow and share ideas.
When I committed to getting 100 writing rejections in a year, one of the positives of this vulnerability was that I got to meet so many amazing writers and platforms. It doesn’t take much to set up a Zoom link and create a space for writers to share their fears and create a plan to overcome them, but for some writers that can be the difference between giving up on a manuscript and finishing it.
With regards to Writers HQ, I have to give them huge credit for their commitment in ensuring inclusivity and accessibility at the forefront of their approach. I think we are going to see a lot of very talented writers coming out of Writers HQ in the next year.
What are some books that have influenced your own writing?
Due to my Parkinson’s type symptoms, I can no longer hold a book and as my temporal lobe is impacted I rely on audiobooks, which is a completely different experience compared to reading a book.
As a writer with a Neurological illness, I have to say Susannah Calahan’s Brain on Fire. This is a really important book.
I was really a non-fiction reader before this year (I still am at heart) but have enjoyed exploring different genres this year and seeing where I can possibly experiment as a writer. I definitely think that is where platforms offering writing courses can introduce new writers in a more inclusive way. For example, some writers will start out blogging (and I love encouraging them to make the switch to writing content for podcasts, which is currently paying well and offers the financial freedom to then undertake other courses or projects).
During my writing retreat, as part of my Irish Writers Centre residency, I was privileged to meet the amazingly talented Naimh Campbell, so her gorgeous book This Happy always reminds me of the advice she shared with me. As a writer, I now appreciate books more as I know how much effort goes into them.
How do you think the publishing industry, and related companies such as consultancies, literary agencies and writing groups, can be more accessible to neurodiverse writers and those with disabilities?
I think the main focus with accessibility needs to always start from a position of inclusivity. Accessibility is a right, and any platform wanting to engage with writers needs to make it as inclusive as possible. Closed captioning will help more people than simply those who identify as having a disability.
Accessibility is about ensuring information can be provided in a variety of ways, and often that involves reaching out to disabled writers like myself and asking: how can we achieve or improve accessibility?
If we want more diversity and authenticity in books we need to ensure diverse writers can access platforms that support and encourage their writing. Removing accessibility barriers does not have to be a costly or time consuming process and I am more than willing to share advice. No book is published without the support of an editor, so, as a community, support should be an expectation of our writing process.