Change of Scenery

Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring au­thor Tracy Che­va­lier ditches his­tory for a 1970s retelling of Othello.

Fashion (Canada) - - Culture - —Alexan­dra Breen

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 pre­pubescent 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.

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