Last month I published my novel New Boy, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello, and did things a little differently. Here’s what changed:

  • Normally I write historical novels. New Boy is set at a school in Washington DC in 1974, and so is more nostalgic than historic.
  • Normally I make up the characters and plot. Here Shakespeare handed them to me.
  • Normally I write with adult readers in mind. This time I thought of everybody, figuring young people might respond to the story too.

It can be hard for readers to respond to change. You read a writer, you think you know them, then POW, they send a book out into the world that is completely different. It’s the same with artists, actors, musicians. We want what we've come to expect from them, except just a tiny bit varied so it doesn’t seem like they’re repeating themselves.

I don’t regret doing something different. For one thing, it was kind of great not having to do months and months of research before I put pen to paper. What did my characters eat for lunch? I already knew, because I’d eaten it myself many times in school cafeterias: Salisbury steak (don’t ask, it’s that bad), tatertots (ditto) and Kool-Aid. In books set in 17th-century Holland, 15th-century France, early 20th-century London, I had to find out what they ate, as well as what it was called (usually dinner, not lunch, in fact).

It has also been really refreshing talking with younger readers, who have gulped the book down. I spoke to a bunch of them in the signing queue at the Hay Literary Festival, and they confirmed that the school playground can indeed be a nasty place. Teachers have told me they think students would love to read New Boy alongside Othello, to understand just how timely and relevant Shakespeare still can be. As far as I’m concerned, that’s Job Done!

I leave you with a photo of one of the best events I got to do for New Boy. This was at the National Theatre London in early June, sitting on the sofa with David Harewood (yes, CIA director David Estes in Homeland!), dishing the dirt on Othello and New Boy. Here he is reading a scene from Othello that I thrust upon him at short notice. Of course he sounded fabulous.

davidharewoodcrop

 

I’m having a new experience this month. My latest novel, New Boy, is not an historical novel – unless you think 1974 is history. To me it feels like yesterday, since I lived through it. Indeed, I was 11 in 1974, same age as the characters in the book. I had lots of fun being nostalgic about Partridge Family lunchboxes and Big Buddy bubblegum while I was writing the book. (For a little hit of that nostalgia, have a look here.)

Now, during the promotion, I’m getting asked a lot about my childhood, going to an integrated school in Washington DC, playground politics, and the casual racism of the 1970s. It has made me realize how much writing books set in the distant past has sheltered me from all of that personal scrutiny. For instance, I have never been asked if I resemble the maid Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring, or Quaker Honor Bright in The Last Runaway. Readers don’t assume I have had the experiences those characters have, since they took place in 17th-century Holland and 19th-century Ohio. Actually, though, I think there is indirectly quite a lot of me in both of them, camouflaged behind a historical setting.

Now, having peeked out at the contemporary world, I am heading back to my hiding place, this time in Winchester in the 1930s, sprinkling the odd drop of myself into my heroine, Violet. When you read it in a few years, maybe you’ll recognize those drops.

partridge family lunchbox two

In May my next novel, New Boy, is published. It has been a bit of a shock to start doing interviews and events again just a year after my last novel. New Boy is a special project - a retelling of Shakespeare's Othello - so I wrote it fast; normally there's a 2-3 year gap between books. I don't know how writers who produce a book a year do it! I'll be doing events in the UK and US and Canada, as well as some tv and radio, which I'll post about on Twitter and Facebook.

The very best thing I've done, however, is to be guest DJ on BBC Radio 6 Music, one of my favourite stations.The show is called Paperback Writers and runs on Sundays at 1pm British time. I got to choose and talk about and play all kinds of stuff: from my childhood (Stevie Wonder, Queen, Roberta Flack) to my college days (Talking Heads, Elvis Costello), to my early years in London (The Beat, Billy Bragg), through to the music I listened to on research road trips (Lyle Lovett, Blind Pilot, Gillian Welch). I prerecorded it, thankfully - hard to talk live without freaking out! It runs on April 23rd (Shakespeare's birthday). You can listen to it afterwards for a while, here.

For the Othello fans among you, just to say: Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" is the "Willow Song" in New Boy. I'll say no more - you'll have to read it to see!

 queen    steviewonder  talkingheads  gillianwelch  thebeat

 

 

2 March 2017 is World Book Day. To celebrate, a very cool project called 1000 LONDONERS has posted a short film about me. I talk about the writing process and quite a lot about quilting too! Have a look. And check out the other 200 short films about a wide variety of the people who make up London. Happy World Book Day!

 

 

Earlier this month I went on a short US paperback book tour to St. Louis and three Ohio cities, with Miami FL thrown in at the end for good behavior. One day I went from Cincinnati (18F/-7C) to Miami (80F/26C)! My favorite stop was Toledo OH. I would like to state here that Toledo gets unfairly bad press. It has one of the finest art museums I've ever visited, and I was lucky enough to read there that night to 420 people! Here they are:

ToledoMuseumofArt1

How gorgeous is that room! Thanks too to the Toledo Public Library who co-organized the reading. I was told they have a rocking building downtown. I just looked it up and indeed it rocks!

ToledoMainLibraryext         toledomainlibraryint

In fact, my most successful events on the tour were all organized by libraries. They seem to have taken over from bookstores as the rallying point for book lovers.

[True or false: as a child I wanted to be a librarian as much as a writer. True!]

As for the rest of the tour: as you can imagine, with a new Administration in Washington, and a lot dividing the country, things are a little...tense. If you are curious about that, read THIS. If not (or even if!), go to the library and take out a book. You will be keeping Toledo Public Library happy - or any library, for that matter.