Q&A: Tracy Chevalier on New Boy, her retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello

Tracy Chevalier New BoyTracy Chevalier’s New Boy retells the story of Shakespeare’s Othello and is the latest book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which Chevalier joins authors like Anne Tyler and Margaret Atwood in writing modern-day re-imaginings of Shakespeare plays.

In this Q&A, Chevalier shares about how she incorporated Othello‘s themes into New Boy and the inspiration she drew from her Washington, DC, childhood. Read an excerpt from the novel.

Related Event: Tracy Chevalier will be reading from New Boy at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Thu, May 25, at 7:30pm. Tickets are $15.

Tracy Chevalier. Photo by Nina Subin.What was it about Othello that compelled you to select this particular play, over Shakespeare’s numerous others, as your contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series?

Othello’s themes of jealousy and discrimination are universal and tantalizing. In particular, I was drawn to write about the idea of the outsider, as I am a bit of an outsider myself—I grew up in the U.S. and moved to Britain when I was 22. Over 30 years later, I still have an American accent and am still treated like a foreigner. But we all feel like outsiders at some time and place, so it applies to everyone—as does how we treat people different from ourselves.

What was your process in tackling such a well-known work? As a writer, did you find it intimidating to follow in the footsteps of Shakespeare?

It was intimidating until I decided I would not try to tackle the unique way Shakespeare uses language. That would be impossible, and foolish. Instead I focused on the story, and once I was reminded that Shakespeare himself took his stories from other sources, I became less worried about stealing from him. I had read the play before and seen many productions. Before writing, I reread the play twice, then set it aside and didn’t look at it again. I decided it was better not to be too slavish to the original.

Discrimination, betrayal, alienation, and jealousy are central themes in Othello. How did you go about incorporating these facets into New Boy?

In thinking about the central themes, it came to me quickly that these are things children feel deeply—and without the filters adults carefully construct to appear neutral. I thought about where children have some control over their own world, and the school playground became the obvious choice. It is a very intense place, full of passion and intrigue, where adults have only nominal control. Things also happen fast on a playground. It’s like a laboratory. Kids test out romance, switch friends, fight, make allegiances, and start wars—all in the course of a day. Once I chose that setting, it was easy to bring out discrimination, betrayal, jealousy. Kids live through those things every day and they feel them hard.

New Boy is set in a suburban Washington, D.C., elementary school in the 1970s. You yourself grew up in D.C. during the same era. Does the novel draw inspiration from your own experiences at that time?

In thinking about the themes of Othello—namely the idea of the outsider—I was reminded of my own childhood. I had an unusual experience, in that I lived in an integrated neighborhood and went to a school that was mostly black. I often felt different, though it was not always about race. Sometimes I was teased for being fat and wearing glasses. I was able to reference some of those feelings in the novel.

On a lighter note, I also used funny parts of my school experience—swinging on a rope around a flagpole, jumping double-dutch, making fun of the school art teacher. I also got to reference lots of stuff from the 1970s: the embroidered bell bottoms we wore, Partridge Family lunch boxes, the candy we ate, the Top 40 music we listened to, the terrible cafeteria food, the open classroom experimental reading corner.

Over the years, there have been numerous interpretations of Othello in literature, on stage, and on the screen. Having now spent so much time living with and intimately studying the play to craft your own vision, in your opinion, what is it about Othello that has allowed it to stand the test of time?

I think Othello continues to resonate because we are fascinated by a good person turning bad so easily. Iago’s manipulation of Othello is appalling, and it’s like a car crash we cover our eyes from but then peek through our fingers because it’s so mesmerizing and irresistible. And because all of us have felt like outsiders at some point, we wonder if we are that vulnerable and easily manipulated.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading New Boy?

I hope New Boy will remind readers of what it is like to be different from those around you. Whether it’s skin color, religion, age, accent, size, shape, gender, or whatever, we have all felt out of it, and sensed people treating us as different. Conversely, we have mostly all been in situations where we are in the majority. I don’t mean to preach, but that is a position of power and we need to remember to use it wisely and empathetically.