Soman Chainani is the author of The New York Times Best Selling series ‘The School for Good and Evil’ and the upcoming novel ‘Beasts and Beauty.’
The School for Good and Evil is Chainani’s debut series. Acclaimed by both critics and fans alike, all six of the books in the series debuted on The New York Times Best Seller list. The series has sold more than 3 million copies and has been translated into 30 different languages across 6 continents.
Netflix is adapting The School for Good and Evil into a film starring Charlize Theron, Kerry Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Yeoh, Sofia Wylie, Sophia Anne Caruso, Kit Young, and more. Set to come out in 2022, Chainani is an executive producer of the highly-anticipated film.
Chainani’s new book, Beasts and Beauty, comes out on September 21. The book puts a new spin on classic stories, transforming them into fresh fairy tales for a new era and generation. Chainani dives into the world of Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, and more.
The Knockturnal recently had the chance to speak with Soman Chainani about all things writing, producing, and more.
The Knockturnal: How has your personal identity impacted the style and kinds of stories that you enjoy writing and creating?
Soman Chainani: I don’t write from a conscious place. There are no outlines, no story maps, no cerebral sense of where I’m going. Even when I was writing The School for Good and Evil, with 6 books, 150 characters and 70 plotlines, there wasn’t a single outline or notes document or plan – my friends used to joke that if I died, no one would know how to finish the series, since the whole story was in my head. Everything I write comes from the deepest part of me, to the point that I don’t even know what I’m writing until it’s out there on the page. My writing is who I am, more than my identity. That said, there are certainly patterns to what I write. I grew up the only non-white kid on an island in Florida, the only gay kid (as far as I knew), and significantly underweight. I felt like a different species from all the other kids around me. I’d tell myself it was simply a product of being Indian, that there was a whole subcontinent of people like me – but then we’d go to India and because I didn’t speak the language and had a very American vibe, I was just as alien there. My work reflects all of this: there’s never a clear sense of place. The setting is always floaty, like we’re not just in a fantasy world, but a world of in-betweens. Beauty is relentlessly questioned. Difference is currency. Difference is beauty. In the worlds I write, the young version of me would have been valued instead of ashamed. It’s why the crest of The School for Good and Evil is a black and white swan. In a flock of white swan, is the black swan the aberration or the prize? We learn about beauty and goodness from fairy tales – those age-old stories where difference usually means you’re a villain and will die. Fairy tales are the original sin. The seed of reductive good and evil, black and white, moral and immoral. But the world has changed. What would new fairy tales look like? This is where Beasts and Beauty came from. The desire to go back in time and rewrite these primal tales, with a view to the future in which we would one day inherit.
The Knockturnal: What do you believe the power of storytelling is in how it can start conversations about gender, diversity, sexuality, and more?
Soman Chainani: Fiction is always ahead of reality. I remember when M.T. Anderson’s Feed came out 20 years ago, predicting exactly the dopamine-obsessed, neurally-plugged-in culture that we’re in now. Our job as authors is to live our life in a constant state of thought experimentation. What if? That’s the question that guides us. In Beasts and Beauty, every story is a mini-thought experiment. What if Snow White was the only black girl in her kingdom – and named ironically by her mother? What if Sleeping Beauty was a prince, who’d repressed his desire to marry another prince? What if the Little Mermaid was the true witch of the story? Storytelling is about asking questions that have no answer at first and then imagining the pathways into different futures, alternative futures, before we’re asked to live them in real life.
The Knockturnal: Can you talk about your upcoming book Beasts and Beauty? What can fans expect from this new story?
Soman Chainani: One of the goals with Beasts and Beauty was to write that holy grail: a book for both young readers and adults. The Grimms’ fairy tales had that quality – they worked for every age, because there was the story on the surface for children and the thrilling, sinister subtext for the elders. So when writing these new fairy tales, I didn’t pull any punches. They’re dark, intense, and relentlessly honest, as if I’m telling these stories around a campfire to an audience of any age. Each story is set in the 18th and 19th centuries, but has its pulse on the timeless and universal. Beauty and the Beast is about how being an immigrant in a new land means you often can’t be seen for who you truly are. Bluebeard is about a rich, mysterious man, who preys on boys from orphanages, only to meet his match. Peter Pan is the story of Wendy growing up, only to realize she prefers a pirate to Pan. Everyone can see themselves in these stories. And already it seems that publishers are recognizing they work for every age – in the U.S., it’s being published for ages 10 and up, while in the UK, it’s being published as an adult literary novel. That disparity is the highest compliment I can imagine.
The Knockturnal: What did it mean to you to have your debut series The School for Good and Evil be so well received? What was the experience like to have all six of the books in the series debut on The New York Times Best Seller List?
Soman Chainani: The School for Good and Evil — especially the first book — felt so personal. I had no real ambitions for it. I had been so bottled up after years of creative frustrations and failures that I wanted to let loose with no filter, no censor, no expectations. It’s just very me. The tone, the mischief, the naughtiness, all of it. A subversive fever dream that I hardly remember writing, because I was so in it the whole time. So when it blew up and became mainstream, I felt almost embarrassed, to be honest. The book was my own private diary of fantasies and suddenly it was out in the world, being experienced intimately by so many readers. In time, I grew to appreciate it. There’s no greater honor or compliment than having someone put down their phones, disconnect from the world, to mind-meld with your specific imagination. With each successive book, I felt more and more responsibility to make that time I spent in each reader’s hands worth it. Every book had to be better than the last. It certainly was a lot of pressure, but pressure is a privilege and I am so thankful for every day I spent writing those books.
The Knockturnal: The film adaptation of The School for Good and Evil recently wrapped production, can you talk about what it was like to bring your words to life on screen? What was the process of adapting the series like?
Soman Chainani: I went to film school at Columbia University as a screenwriter and director so film was my natural language. In a lot of ways, The School for Good and Evil was already conceived in a highly visual, three-act structure. The adaptation could build from cinematic bones. When it was at Universal, I did the first couple drafts of the script with Malia Scotch-Marmo, my fabulous screenwriting professor from Columbia, who had written Hook, Madeline and Once Around. The challenge really was that the book just has so many big setpieces. If you try to adapt it as is, you’re talking a 12-hour movie with a trillion-dollar budget. So there were choices that had to be made – we have to give the fans the key moments they want and those big, iconic scenes from the novel, while also streamlining it so it really works as a movie. I think coming from a film background meant I was less precious than most authors.
The Knockturnal: What was it like to see the characters and the world that you created come to life? What are you most excited for fans to see in the film?
Soman Chainani: When Paul Feig came aboard as director, it was a serious pinch-me moment, because Paul is one of my favorite directors on the planet. He can do anything – comedy, action, fantasy, thriller – and here he got to combine all those genres in one film. I’d been warned by my author friends that being on set and having your book made into a film is an awkward experience, given that it can never live up to your imagination. But I never felt that for a second – Paul’s vision for the film is just so grand and clever and ambitious and at the same time, so committed to the source material, that I could just sit back and enjoy the process of watching him work. My first day on set, the sheer scale of the school left me fumbling for words. There’s very little CGI in this film, compared to your usual fantasy movie – it’s all very tangible, practical and real. Naturally, there are differences from the books, made to give the movie its own unified shape, and yet, it also feels like the most faithful adaptation of a fantasy book I’ve ever seen. I’m so grateful for Paul and all the fun we’ve had and hope our adventures together are just beginning, given the potential for sequels. Also, Netflix is just the greatest place to work for an author. I can’t tell you how collaborative they’ve been with me from the beginning. That hasn’t always been the case with other studios. Netflix puts a premium on the value of authors and the fan base of a series and it’s why so many prominent authors are choosing to work with them. As for what I’m excited for fans to see, I think just seeing how inclusive this world is will feel like a revolutionary experience at the movies. Just the lead cast itself: Laurence Fishburne, Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron, Michelle Yeoh, Sofia Wylie, Sophie Anne Caruso, Kit Young… This isn’t Hogwarts. This is the fantasy school of the future, where anything is possible. As I say in Beasts and Beauty – “The old fairy tales are dead.”
Beasts and Beauty comes out September 21.
Image credit: Chad Wagner & Steven Trumon Gray