With the Hogarth Shakespeare series respected authors Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, Howard Jacobson and Anne Tyler have retold the Bard’s famous plays as contemporary fiction. In New Boy (Hogarth, £12.99) Tracy Chevalier tackles Othello, which follows Osei, the new boy at school in the 1970s.
You’d arguably be more at home writing a book set in Shakespearian times than updating a story from that time. How much of a challenge was New Boy compared with your other novels?
At first it was a big challenge. I’m used to doing months of research, which gives me the time to formulate characters and situations and live with the material for a while. With this book I did two days of research at the library, reading critical essays on Othello, then thought: “Right, I’m done. What do I do now? Oh, start writing!” At first rewriting Othello felt like an intellectual exercise, but after a while my gut got engaged, especially when I discovered how much easier it is to write something set at a time you know! I didn’t have to look up every little detail about what people wore and ate and said.
Othello and the painting The Girl with a Pearl Earring are both historical artefacts. Did you approach the two books you based on them in similar ways?
No. They may be historical but they are very different. Othello has a whole cast of characters, a plot and themes all in place. Girl with a Pearl Earring is a very pared down painting of a girl, by a painter we know little about. I had to create a whole scaffolding around the look on the girl’s face – which was a joyful experience, as I had a lot of space to create. New Boy in a way was harder, even though – or because – much of the work had been done for me by Shakespeare.
Why did you set the book in the seventies and not the present day?
I decided I would have the main characters all be 11 years old – that strange time when kids are not quite kids but not quite adolescents either. They’re trying out adult behaviour without always knowing what they’re doing. Also they’re the oldest students in the playground, about to go off to their next school and become the youngest again, and that is a big moment. I then thought I’d like to set it when I was 11 – partly pragmatic, to reference my own experience a bit, but also because it’s so hard to get today’s young people right. Setting it in the 1970s took the pressure off of trying to make a statement about the here and now. It’s not quite historical, but it’s not quite current either.
When retelling a story is your obligation to the textual or historical truth or to the reader?
Oh, to the reader. It’s the reader who’s got to read it! Shakespeare won’t care if I take liberties; he took liberties with the sources he used for his plays. I do try to get the history right, though. So I was as accurate as I could make it about all of the 1970s details. But entertainment first, history lesson second.
It’s arguable that Osei is an outsider more because he is the new boy at school than because he is black but Othello is a top ranking insider in the military singled out because of his race. Is that an intentional distinction between the two stories?
It’s not intentional, but I’m not sure it’s really that much of a distinction. I think the Othello story is about being an outsider; race is the thing that makes him different in this case but it’s the difference rather than the thing itself that is the issue. Othello is known in the army, but he is not known in the Venetian society he marries into; he’s an outsider. Similarly, Osei’s skin colour points out that he is different, is an unknown.
Playground politics is often dismissed as petty. Is it more dramatic and significant than adults might presume?
I do think it’s a significant time for children. The playground is their world, with a lot that goes on having nothing to do with adults, no matter how much we think we regulate it. It’s where kids learn to form allegiances, stand up for themselves, sniff out treachery or hypocrisy. In writing New Boy I thought a lot about my time on the playground and how it formed who I am.
Is it important that we teach our children Shakespeare? And should we teach the original texts or are retellings just as good?
I think there are two parts to Shakespeare: the stories and the language. In an ideal production they are intertwined and work perfectly together. But the stories are easier for modern audiences to understand than the language, which is from a different era and requires a lot of concentration and study, even for an adult who has read and seen the plays. Retellings like New Boy can get the story across, but can never replace reading and especially hearing the original, beautifully invertive language Shakespeare uses.