Girl with a Pearl Earring Author Tracy Chevalier Ditches History for a 1970s Retelling of Othello

It’s been nearly two decades since Tracy Chevalier, in her late 30s at the time, burst onto the literary scene with her blockbuster novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring. The book, which became a feature film starring Scarlett Johansson, showcased Chevalier’s fierce storytelling ability and her crazy meticulous knack for nailing historical detail.

Her latest effort, New Boy, marks a radical departure, however. It’s a reworking of Shakespeare’s Othello, and it’s set in a 1974 Washington, D.C., schoolyard filled with pre-pubescent kids. The characters and plot come from Shakespeare, but Chevalier gave it her own spin by setting it in her own childhood.

“I lived in Washington, D.C., in an integrated neighbourhood [and attended a] mostly black school,” she explains over the phone from her home in London, England. “In 1974, around age 10 or 11, the idea of race really kicked in. Eleven is the age when kids aren’t quite teenagers yet. Puberty hasn’t hit, but they are the oldest at school. They’re at the top of the playground, so they feel like everyone is looking up to them and treating them like they’re the adults.” It was the perfect setting, she says, because, like the original story, “it is essentially about being an outsider and the price you pay for that difference.”

Chevalier says she especially enjoyed developing the female characters and adding in playful twists. For example, in Act 3 of Shakespeare’s version, there’s a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries. In New Boy, Act 3 features a strawberry-patterned pencil case. And Desdemona’s “Willow Song”? Well it’s swapped for “Killing Me Softly with His Song” by Roberta Flack.

Chevalier admits that moving away from writing a historical novel made her uneasy because she prefers to “look at the world through fresh eyes and not obsess” about her own life. “I’m private, and, in a way, I hide behind history,” she says.