Young adult author Soman Chainani takes great pleasure in playing with fairy tales.
IF anyone takes fairy tales seriously, it’s Soman Chainani. His young adult (YA) bestseller, The School For Good And Evil, not only deals with fairy tales extensively but also plays with the stories and turns them on their head – so much so that he makes you question the way you look at the genre itself.
Making its debut on The New York Times’ bestseller list earlier this year, The School For Good And Evil (SGE) features beguiling artwork by Iocopo Bruno, and marks the beginning of a trilogy.
Coming from a screenwriting background (he studied film at Columbia University), New York-based Chainani also studied English and American Literature at Harvard University, where he specialised in fairy tales.
These interests are very apparent in SGE, where his vivid storytelling style combines humour, drama and magic to great effect. The book tells the tale of the fabled School for Good and Evil where children are divided into Evers and Nevers and trained to become fairy tale heroes and villains respectively.
When best friends Sophie and Agatha are kidnapped and taken into the school, Sophie fully expects to be put into the School for Good; after all, she’s the dainty one with pretty dresses who has devoted her life to good deeds, while Agatha is surly, frumpy and even has an awful pet cat – classic Never material.
Imagine their shock then when Agatha ends up in the School for Good, and Sophie in Evil. Forced to take courses like Uglification and Henchmen Training, Sophie tries everything she can to set things right. Meanwhile, Agatha suffers through Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication, not to mention the unwelcome attention of Tedros, the most sought-after boy in the School of Good and the object of Sophie’s infatuation. As the story progresses, the line between good and evil are increasingly blurred, and Chainani cleverly weaves in bits of familiar fairy tales with Sophie and Agatha’s quest to discover themselves.
To fans’ delight, a movie adaptation of SGE is currently in the works, with Chainani himself working on the screenplay. The book cover of the sequel, A World Without Princes, due out in April next year, was also revealed recently, to much excitement – particularly since it features not just Agatha and Sophie, but also Tedros.
In a recent e-mail interview, Chainani shares his thoughts on the trilogy, the characters, and fairy tales in general.
What was your initial inspiration for SGE?
As a relentless student of the Grimms’ tales, I loved how unsafe the characters were. You could very well end up with wedding bells and an Ever After; or you could lose your tongue or be baked into a pie. There was no “warmth” built into the narrator, no expectations of a happy ending. The thrill came from vicariously trying to survive the gingerbread house or the apple-carrying crone at the door – and relief upon survival.
In recent years, fairy tale mash-ups, retellings, and revisions have become popular, and for good reason, given how enduring and inspiring the source material is. That said, I had my sights set on something more primal: a new fairy tale, just as unleashed and unhinged as the old, that found the anxieties of today’s children. To acknowledge the past – the alumni of the genre, so to speak – and move on to a new class. As soon as I started thinking in those terms, I knew I wanted to do a school-based novel. The first image I had of it was a girl in pink and a girl in black falling into the wrong schools.
What is the core message you hope to send with the trilogy?
Each book will explore the everlasting tension between two “sides” at war: Good and Evil in Book 1, Boys and Girls in Book 2, Old and Young in Book 3. Early on in life, we learn that to be on one side means we cannot be on the other. But the goal of this trilogy is to awaken to the space between these sides, and the thrill of not quite knowing who hero or villain is, even until the very last page.
SGE combines several familiar tropes, such as fairy tales, the classic boarding school story, the odd couple and satire, in unusual ways. How did you bring such differing stories together so neatly?
I wanted readers to feel like they were taking a rich, strange journey with characters they love, but also a journey that felt singular. I grew up watching Bollywood movies, and I’m in awe of how jam-packed they are – romance, magic, adventure, action, comedy, mystery – as if you’ve been invited to a sumptuous banquet. So I just let my subconscious unleash, putting every genre together that I love.
Do you have a favourite character in SGE, and why?
When my brother was reading the book, he called me up and said, “You know this Sophie girl ... she’s the real you.” Though it’s a rather uncharitable assessment, I have to say that writing Sophie is the highlight of my day. She delivers monologues as if the whole world is listening, and I relish the tightrope act of making her at once ludicrous and alluring.
Your story deconstructs the idea of the fairy tale. Do you still think then that fairy tales have a legitimate place within global popular culture, and where do you see them fitting into today’s world?
Though I’m not naturally inclined towards children confronting the grotesque or the immoral, one must ask the question of why the original fairy tales were suitable for children 200 years ago and why we serve them the warmed-over, sanitised versions now.
With SGE, I wanted to start in that kind of world with true consequences, where there is balance between Good or Evil – which is in fact the reality of our world today. And I wanted to deal with the notion that Good has been winning everything, and what did that mean? Why does Good always win these days in stories? And is that what children really need to learn?
Perhaps by asking these questions we can start to write our own modern-day fairy tales, that find the anxieties of today’s children and offer them a survival guide that will stay relevant long into their adulthood.
What are some of your favourite fairy tales, and why?
Hansel And Gretel is my favourite, because it feels so deeply real in its threat. Gretel has to survive a terrifying situation and save her brother, with poise, skill, and wit. I also love that witch in the story: she’s just incredibly clever. She wants to eat children, so to lure them she builds a house out of what they eat.
What were some of the challenges you faced while writing the sequel, A World Without Princes?
It’s just such an epic book! Even bigger and wilder than the first. I know there’s been a fair bit of debate online over whether Agatha and Sophie would even be in the sequel. After all, the end of Book 1 should have been their happy ending. But many questions remain, (and) the delicious thing about Book 2 is that neither girl can really share their answers with the other without opening up old wounds. Diving in and answering these giant questions is both a challenge and a delectable opportunity.
The first book ended on quite a shocker. Now that it’s been revealed that the second book will continue the story of Sophie, Agatha and Tedros, could you share whether these characters will be significantly different in the sequel? Will you be introducing any new major characters?
The sequel is very different from Book 1. Already (from the cover), readers will sense that this is a darker, fiercer world – and the boys have a greater role this time, given Tedros’ appearance. The ending to the first book certainly stirred up a bit of a storm, and I can also assure readers that the second book will have its share its controversy.
At the end of Book 1, Agatha and Sophie have shattered the boundary between Good and Evil, putting the future of the school in doubt. Is it still the School for Good and Evil? Will Evers and Nevers go to school together? Who will run the schools?
When Sophie and Agatha return, they’ll find the answers to these questions, as will we. But all the characters are dramatically affected by what happened in the first book. And there are definitely some new additions to the ranks, both in the students and teachers.
Movie adaptations of YA books are obviously very popular at the moment, but there is also a certain degree of commercialisation associated with them. Being involved in the production, how do you keep to the spirit of your book while balancing the more commercial aspects?
The good news is I started as a screenwriter before I became a novelist. So I’m fully aware of how the film form works from a creative and commercial point of view. I won’t let the movie compromise the spirit of the SGE universe – that’s why I’m taking on the extra burden of writing the film, even though I’m so busy with the books.
That said, the film will be a very different animal. Part of the privilege of getting to write it is that I’ll enable fans to experience the world in a brand new way. No one wants a pure translation of the book, scene for scene. Besides its impracticality, readers’ imaginations already have done that much better than we authors ever could!