V.V. Ganeshananthan interviews Soman Chainani about his new bestselling children’s book, The School for Good and Evil.
August 12, 2013
Soman Chainani and I became friends about 15 years ago, when we were undergraduates working on our college newspaper and living in the same dorm. A year ahead of me, Soman, a Florida native, instantly struck me as both impressively driven and irrepressibly fun. He ran the newspaper’s arts section, which was infused with his unconventional sense of humor and seemingly unending mental library of pop culture references. A few years later, after completing an MFA in film at Columbia; making several short films, including one (Love Marriage) with the same title as my own first novel; and doing a stint as Mira Nair’s assistant, Soman inked a deal for a series of children’s books featuring princesses and witches. I might have known that his take on fairytales would be anything but good old good ’n’ evil. The first book, The School for Good and Evil, about misperfectlymatched bestenemies Agatha and Sophie, is now a bestseller, and will soon be a film. I took to gchat, our favorite way to catch up, to hear how book tour, screenwriting, and book two were going, to ask him a few questions about writing, and to hear about how boys are picking up a book about princesses—and taking off its dust jacket. Below, an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
V.V. (Sugi) Ganeshananthan: Congratulations on your first book coming out!
Thank you, Sugi! I remember your first book coming out and coming to the reading at the Corner Bookstore and thinking—man. I could never write a book.
The School for Good and Evil is really, I think, unusual in the way it challenges fairytale archetypes.
Well, I think part of it is I haven’t the faintest clue how to write for children. I don’t read children’s books nor was I particularly interested in them as a child, so I just wrote what I thought I wanted to read at that age.
That age being…the target audience of the book is 8- to 12-year-olds, right? But I purport to be a grownup, and I enjoyed it greatly.
I think that’s the thing—in the US there are arbitrary distinctions between Middle Grade, Young Adult, and Adult books, which I find vaguely ridiculous. These don’t really exist in a lot of countries—for the precise reason that who’s to say that a 10 year-old is less mature than a 14 year-old? Sometimes I find 10 year-olds more sophisticated readers. That said, I do make sure the story is intelligible to a younger audience, but I try to layer and layer until there’s enough for everyone to find.
Can you give us the elevator description/teaser? I kind of want us to do it simultaneously and then compare. It’s such a hard thing to do, especially for a book this plot-packed.
Sure. The book is about a town where every four years, two kids are kidnapped to a School for Good and Evil, where one graduates as a hero and one as a villain. Two girls get kidnapped this year, one who’s clearly a princess and one a future witch—only, they get switched.
Yours is good. Mine would have said, “Two girls, Agatha and Sophie, are besties, and Sophie thinks she’s destined to be a Good Princess, and that Agatha is a natural for Evil Witch. When they’re kidnapped and taken to the School for Good and Evil, however, they find themselves confused: Sophie’s in Evil and Agatha’s in Good. Thus begins Chainani’s masterful dissection of the false binaries on which our societies operate.” I got a little academic there at the end, but I really dislike false binaries, and I love seeing nuanced characters in kids’ fiction. So often you just get I AM EVIL and I AM GOOD and then they kind of roar at each other and proceed. By the way, how’s my teaser?
Totally, which I find just as ludicrous as the Middle Grade and Young Adult distinctions. Your teaser is so good I’m going to steal it, and pretend I’m an adept summarizer of my own work.
How did you finally settle on this idea? Did it go through many iterations?
You know, this is going to be disappointing, but I don’t really research or think or plan. I have no notes, no magical notebooks filled with names and ideas, nothing. I just write and write and chip away and write some more until something takes shape. For the first book, I tried to outline and then realized I can’t consciously abstract a book. I have to write my way through it—so my outline ended up being 75 pages. And even then I found it confining.
I remember that outline, or some early version of it, I think, and that’s why I ask.
Yeah plenty of it made it into the book, but the best parts aren’t in the outline.
Oooh, like what?!
The whole gargoyle-wish-fish episode was never planned. Neither were the contents of the Trial by Tale and the Hester/Tedros fight.
Nice. I love that gargoyle. You’ve done a really nice job of making things sympathetic against stereotype. The book is also very funny. How did your background as a filmmaker figure in? Was it useful? Or were you, at points, working against it? I get the sense that film is an industry that uses outlines perhaps more frequently.
I think the trick is that coming from film and specifically working on kids’ films, I know how much kids prize story. They want a big, freaking story. So one of my big things in SGE was to make sure it had more story than anyone had ever seen in one book. Normally there’s one big event at the end of a kids’ novel, the dance, the election, the storming of the castle, etc. I have like 11.
So you didn’t know the ending when you started.
The ending I figured out while outlining. I just knew I wanted an ending no one could predict.
Indeed, the ending is great, and it’s not predictable. So how was that ending received by your readers?
It has been controversial to say the least for so many reasons–including the fact it’s not an ending that resolves everything, though I do consider it a stand-alone book in some ways. I don’t think there would have to be a sequel for that ending to be fulfilling. At the same time, different audiences take different things from it, as you might imagine. And I think that’s what has allowed the book to cross over thus far, that there are just different ways to read the book. And that’s true about fairy tales, really.
What was your favorite fairy tale?
I loved Hansel and Gretel. I just found it terrifying. It feels real. I’m always trying to live up to that story in these books–that level of fear and reality, without the grotesque. It’s the threat of the grotesque that makes fairy tales so effective.
Oh, interesting. I like that. “The threat of the grotesque.” Like when Agatha transforms into a cockroach and guides Sophie, as she does at one point in the book. It’s not exactly grotesque, but it’s on the edge of it. She could be so many other things. Are there other examples?
Oh there’s all kinds of weird edge-of-grotesque things in the book. One of my favorites is just the simple fact that when you turn into an animal, when you turn back, your clothes don’t stay with you–I think that’s fairly unorthodox. Normally, like in Twilight, Jacob keeps his little booty shorts, which to me is absolutely appalling. Where do these shorts come from? If you’re going to turn into an animal, you better be prepared for the difficulties of what will happen when you turn back.
Hahaha, I think in True Blood Alcide always loses his. I want everyone to know that I know this from reading an article.
(laughs) Sure. Now I have to watch it.
Just to check the transformations, of course.
Yes exactly. I’ll write it off as research.
I think the article was in our mutual favorite magazine, Entertainment Weekly. So, we’re naturally edging toward my next question, which was about the jokes. This book is quite funny. And attraction is one of the funniest things in it.
(laughs) Well. I have a slightly provocative sense of humor as you know, so I wanted the book to be a bit of a romp.
Talk about a love triangle. You don’t say. Do you know how all those relationships turn out? Do you know the end of the series—and will you tell us?
Not really. I do enjoy the discovery. Let’s say I have ideas. But I think culture changes People change, including me And so do characters. If I nail down the ending now, a year from now it’ll likely seem passe and dead to me. It has to be dynamic.
You are wise, Master Jedi. I did that awhile back and then had to undo it for precisely that reason. It was not fun. And now you’re working on the film version of this book. How is that going and how closely do you hope it will stick to the book? Earlier you said you were trying to cram so much story into this book.
We’re in contracts now, so the writing should start fairly soon. I think the goal is to have a draft by end of the year. The book’s quite dense and insane–I think it would make for a supremely cool 22-episode show, but as a movie, we’ll have to really scale down the story I’d think. We’ll focus more on the love triangle, and stay away from hours and hours of hijinks.
It is kind of telenovela.
Totally. I wanted to write a Harlequin romance for kids. That was really the goal.
You went to England on book tour for your British launch! How was the book tour, in England and America?
I love England. I’m such an anglophile. My first screenplay, called Love Marriage, also the title of your book, is all about my future marriage to a tall blond Brit. The tour was amazing I saw over 8000 kids in 16 cities, it was absolutely insane.
What did you write home about while on book tour? What were your favorite reactions to the book?
I always looked for two things–the kids who had questions about what they read, and then what the boys’ general reactions were, because American boys are quite skittish about books with girls on the cover.
Right, because boys have been buying this book!
Totally, but they take the jacket off. They hide it and pretend it was never there.
Oh, dear. Yeah, we really need to talk to American boys about that.
European boys don’t have this problem. They find books about girls to be quite essential to figuring girls out. Which is in fact the truth.
Yes! That makes sense.
I really give the American boys a hard time about it, but they just grumble–the same way they grumble if they see girls swooning over a boy. I’ll give you an example–I play a mashup of videos dedicated to each character during my presentation. The Tedros clips are obviously of hot princes from cinematic history. In England, the boys tend to find this part rather exciting. In America, the boys just grumble quietly as if watching attractive princes onscreen somehow cheapens their own existence. Meanwhile, most of them are wearing Abercrombie.
Perhaps it’s because the idea of hot monarchy is strange to them?
I think it’s more because they get threatened.
They see the girls around them watching these men and Leonardo Dicaprio and swooning over them and they get this idea that this is what they have to compete with. It’s my problem with the whole ‘princess culture’ in general that Disney has fostered in young girls. It warps both the girls–and the boys, who have no idea how to compete with that image in a girls’ head of the knight on a white horse.
OMG. Yes. This makes sense. I don’t think I was a particularly princess-driven girl, but I’m now affiliated with some small children who are very engaged with hypothetical monarchies. So then the European boys overcome this by just staring at it as much as possible? Trying to figure it out?
I just don’t think they’re Disneyfied in the same way.
Oh, I’d kind of prefer everyone get Pixar’ed myself.
Haha, I completely agree. I think they’re also not as afraid of emasculation. Meanwhile, here in the US, all these boys buy Abercrombie, which I don’t understand–that entire brand sells itself on body image worse than anything girls have to contend with.
So American boys get Abercrombied while their female counterparts get Disneyfied but European boys grow up gloriously aware of women and unafraid of emasculation?
I’m really romanticizing Europe.
Ha, who doesn’t. We must fight this tendency. But on both sides of the pond, they’re picking up your book! Starring a princess-witch and a witch-princess!
I think the truth is my blanket generalizations are more about culture and not the individual kids. Boys have been reading the book and buying it and telling people to read it. But behind closed doors (laughs).
So what are the best things readers have said to you about the book? The things that have surprised you most?
Oh. Some just cry. And I’m like, why are you crying!
Yeah, I have no idea–I think they just get scared.
You know, one of your blurbers is the first writer I ever met Gregory Maguire of Wicked. He came to my elementary school when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, well before Wicked had ever come out and I’d read his work and loved him. I remember that although I normally could not shut up, on that day I was abnormally tongue-tied. That’s so cool that you’re having that effect on people.
Well it’s a select few. The boys get crazy about that ending by the way.
I think what’s getting a lot of kids to read it is that in a lot of middle schools, a boy will read it, tell his friend “This is about lesbians” and then all the boys read it and start harassing the girls about it, and then the girls read it, and voila, they’ve got an interschool cultural fight happening where the girls say this book has zeroto do with being a lesbian, and the boys insist it’s a book about two girls kissing. I hear this narrative a lot, which is good, I suppose, because this is what Book 2 is about.
I’m pretty sure this is one of the first things I said to you a few weeks ago after I’d read it, but I’ll say it again. I was rooting for Agatha and Sophie in so many ways that were different from the ways I’d been expecting. So what do the girls think it’s about since it’s “not about lesbians”?
They get that this is a book about those moments in middle school where your best friend is closer than your family, where given the choice between keeping your friend or a boy, you’d pick your friend.
Oh, that’s so well put. I was recently reading this Atlantic article on their website that said that it was hard to find a book about women that wasn’t about romantic love. I could think of so many counterexamples. SGE is certainly one.
Yes that was certainly the goal. Book 2 should provoke strong reactions in a different way.
I was going to ask you to give some advice to kid writers and to talk about any challenges you’re experiencing writing the sequel.
I think the important thing that I learned in writing for kids is that you can’t really think about them until very very late in the process. I write the book as if I’m writing Game of Thrones–I really don’t hesitate to go ‘there,’ however dark it needs to be. I tell the story, and only much later do I read the book and then tone down.
This is good, but I meant writers who are kids.
Oh! Good question. I think the issue with kids is they’re always told to WRITE A LOT and just keep writing, but I think that’s silly. I’d much rather them write one thing over and over until it’s perfect. What I tell kids is, when you finish a story, read it to your friends, read it to your parents, read it to your dog. And get suggestions, feedback, emotional reaction, and keep rewriting it. That’s the only way to get better. No one gets better by writing endless first drafts.
Interesting. So you read your work aloud?
I feel like I do, but I don’t. I definitely hear it in voices.
Did your mother read it before it came out? Who were your readers?
Oh I gave it to a bunch of kids I tutor, ranging from 11-17, and I just had them read it and let them ask me questions. It’s a funny thing in that sometimes adults ask me questions about certain plot points–i.e. “I don’t get how that happened…?” Kids never ask these questions. They tend to fill in. There was this interesting point, where during editing, I kept inserting the word ‘magically’ to clarify certain spell moments, and my editor was like, I’m not putting these changes in. The kids will get it. If the adults don’t get that it’s magic, then they shouldn’t be reading your book. Which was a good lesson. So yeah, having kids read it was a big thing for me–because it made me realize my audience wasn’t critics or librarians, etc. It really was going to be the kids first, and that was the #1 audience to serve.
Ha! That’s great. So will you do the same with book #2? How’s that going?
Sigh. It would be going better if the deadlines weren’t so unreasonable. It just puts enormous time pressure on something that needs more time. We’ll see how that ultimately plays out.
When is it due?
In October. But it’s very different than the first. It’s just a wildly different tone, feeling, everything.
More fun for the writer to take on a different challenge, I’d think. How would you describe that tone?
At its core, it’s a novel about paranoia, distrust, and unreliable narrators.
Ooh. All favorites of mine.
In the past we’ve seen the idea that we trust protagonists because they’re indeed protagonists. But in the sequel, titled A World Without Princes, the ground really shifts all the time—the readers have no clue who’s Good or Evil anymore. It’s hard sometimes to take characters I like and make them make terrible decisions. But that’s what Book 2’s about. It’s about the reality of fairy tales versus the surface we’re used to. We’ll see how the kids take it. It’s different. But there’s still plenty of nonsense. Here I’ll give you a snippet that no one else has seen.
There was even talk of a permanent “one-woman show” for Sophie once she was out of danger.
“‘La Reine Sophie, an epic three-hour musical celebration of my achievements,’” Sophie raptured, smelling the sympathy bouquets that filled the aisle. “A bit of cabaret to stir the blood, a circus intermezzo with wild lions and trapeze, and a rousing rendition of ‘I Am But a Simple Woman’ to close. Oh, Agatha, how I’ve longed to be a chanteuse of the people, a diva of the masses, spreading a gospel of Goodness and light!” Suddenly she looked worried. “You don’t think they’ll stop trying to kill me, do you? This is the best thing that’s ever happened!”
This passage is perhaps the most incidental to the plot in the entire book, but it’s just proof that the book isn’t unrecognizable. Sophie’s still ludicrous.