An Interview with Tracy Chevalier

1.    New Boy is amongst a series of novels that have attempted to retell Shakespeare’s plays. Was Othello a clear choice for you and how did you first approach the project?

Actually, first I thought of doing Romeo and Juliet, but my teenage son talked me out of it, saying it had been done in many different ways before and was cliched. That told me! When I started thinking more carefully about the Shakespeare plays I knew well, Othello immediately stood out as the quintessential story of the “outsider”. I am also an outsider, having lived my adult life as an American in Britain. I clearly don’t have the challenges Othello faces as a black man in a white society, but my experience made me interested in exploring his experience more deeply. Then I considered my “outsider” experience as a child, going to schools in which I was a minority for 8 years, and that’s when it hit me that I could set Othello in a school.


2.    What was your own experience of Othello both as a play and as a standalone story?

I’d seen Othello performed several times, most notably in an RSC production where both Othello and Iago were black! That was interesting. And I studied it extensively at university. What always struck me about it as a play and story is how much it is about Iago. It’s evil, manipulative, scheming, funny, mesmerising Iago the audience follows, rather the way Lucifer is far more fascinating in Paradise Lost than Adam and Eve are. It’s not exactly that we’re rooting for Iago, but he is more interesting than noble Othello, who has beautiful poetic lines but can come across as a little dull. Iago is like watching a car crash.


3.    The end is perhaps the point where we come most close to the tragedy elements of this story – how did you face the challenge of interweaving tragedy into a schoolyard?

It was hard writing the novel and knowing what the end of Othello was, and that I would have to respond to that somehow - either overturn it or find a “playground” version of it. I didn’t want a happy ending. Racism in America has no happy ending; we are still living it. So I didn’t want to sugar-coat the tragedy. 

On the other hand, New Boy is a more realistic story than Othello, and I couldn’t see having the playground strewn with bodies the way the play ends up. I had to find other ways to indicate a kind of “death” - maybe a social death (Dee), maybe a catastrophic life change (Mimi), maybe a political gesture (Osei).


4.    Did the characters of New Boy come to you fully formed with Shakespeare’s own attributes? How much tweaking was required to make these kids your own? 

Some tweaking was required for some of them. Ian/Iago came fully formed - though unlike Shakespeare where we have no idea why he is the way he is, I felt I had to hint at a back story for Ian, that there is violence in the family that is being taken forward. And Osei mirrors Othello pretty much, except that I gave him a political dimension, inherited from his sister, that makes him more aware of what’s happening to him than Othello is. But I worked to flesh out Dee/Desdemona and Mimi/Emilia more than Shakespeare did. I wanted them to be more interesting, and more instrumental to the story.


5.    The language of Shakespeare is so heavy from imbibed meaning and performance over the centuries, how does Shakespeare’s poetry convert to modern prose?

Well, it doesn’t. Not really. One of the first decisions I made was not to try to “do a Shakespeare” with the prose: make up words, come up with interesting metaphors and poetic phrases. I would just get compared unfavourably to Shakespeare. Instead I would simply steal the story - much as he borrowed stories from other sources, including Othello - and focus on that. It’s interesting, all of the other Shakespeare Project writers clearly reached that decision as well.


6.    Writing pastiche is often one of the methods of writing suggested to budding authors – did you find it a challenging exercise?

It was challenging. Usually, my stories come from my gut. Something strikes me and the story grows from how I feel about something. New Boy was much more an intellectual exercise - Take a Shakespeare play and turn it into a modern novel. I had to find a way to make it come from the gut rather than just the head. That’s why I set it on a school playground in 1974, when I was 11 (the age of the characters). It allowed me to tap into nostalgia and my own feelings about the time.


7.    Shakespeare is still a subject many struggle to comprehend in school – do you think more novel adaptations could be a way of bringing Shakespeare into schools in a new and interesting way?

Yes. Shakespeare is hard to follow and understand even when you’ve studied it and seen several productions. His plays can be incredibly intimidating for students, and there is always that question lurking for kids: “What’s the relevance to ME of this old dude?” Adaptations like New Boy can bridge that gap so that students might then go to Othello and think, “Yeah, I get it.”

Leave a comment