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.

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