Monday, May 13, 2013

The School for Good and Evil-Interview with Soman Chainani

I have fallen madly in love with a book. From its stunning cover to each magic laden page inside, I’m just absolutely crazy about The School for Good and Evil. It even has the most epic trailer I’ve ever seen for a book! 

So how awesome is it that I get to present Soman Chainani, author extraordinaire, to the Inkpot, and also a chance to win a SIGNED hardcover of THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL! I admit that I’ve been quite shy around him. Soman is basically a genius. He is a Harvard summa cum laude and a graduate of the MFA Film Program at Columbia University where he walked away with the school’s top prize, the FMI Fellowship for Writing and Directing. See what I mean? He’s totally brilliant and he wrote this marvelous book I adore and admire so much. Kind of how I feel about J.K. Rowling is also how I feel about Soman. But how lucky am I that we have the same wonderful editor at HarperCollins, which meant I got to read an ARC early on and get my own personal introduction! And what I found was that this brilliant author is also a really nice, awesome guy. Even in the midst of preparing for his big 11-city tour and writing the screenplays for the movie adaptations of SGE as well as finishing up book 2, he still made time to stop by the Inkpot. So please welcome Soman!

(EO) - Hi Soman! Thanks for stopping by the Inkpot! You know how much I love your book. I pretty much twitter stalked you obsessively after reading it. And after reading SGE, I found myself running to the library and taking out all the Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books again, the ones that came in all the colors. I felt so nostalgic for them. Did you read those as a child?

(SC) – First off, let me say that long before we made contact, I’d heard so many wonderful things about you, as both a writer and a person, that I felt quite honored when you read my book, let alone enjoyed it. So it’s quite a privilege to be here at Enchanted Inkpot.

I feel quite ashamed to say I haven’t read Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books, even though I was deeply obsessed with fairies as a child. I used to make paper doll fairies out of tissue paper, slather them with glitter, and enact grand melodramas with them under the bed. My mother couldn’t understand how I could go through an entire box of tissues a day, but just learned to put up with it. I think she always did – and continues to – find me quite mysterious.

Your question brings up another funny story. When I was in England a few years ago pitching new project ideas, the studios over there kept demanding I do “something like ‘the Fairy Books’” because they were apparently a cash cow. I heard it about ten times before I trekked over to Foyle’s, the massive bookstore in Leicester Square, and discovered the Rainbow Magic Fairy Books… which look EXACTLY to me like Andrew Lang’s, now that you mention it. In fact, I can’t quite tell the difference between them. So like werewolves and vampires, it seems like fairies are constantly rebooted these days too. However, the fairies at the School for Good and Evil, as the trailer points out, are much trickier creatures. For one thing, I wouldn’t get too close to them. And second, I have boy fairies, which are non-existent in most fairy books. (Ludicrous!)

(EO) – Oh the Rainbow Magic Fairy Books ARE the same thing! Ok so, when I heard that you wrote your thesis at Harvard on why evil women make such irresistible fairy-tale villains, I immediately thought, now there’s a thesis that I want to read! So I have to ask you, who are these irresistible fairy tale villains to you and why?

(SC) - To me, I never understood why Disney used female villains so sparingly. In the 50 or so animated films they’ve made, only six or seven have wicked women – but these are the ones we love the most. Ursula, Maleficent, Cruela, the Wicked Queen… (not to mention the rather effeminate qualities of Scar and Jafar). What makes female villains so alluring is the fact that they cannot rely on brute strength. Instead they must deliciously manipulate – through subterfuge, seduction, and disguise. Only with the females do we really sense the attraction of Evil and the sheer charisma, cleverness, and force of personality it requires to vanquish Good.

(EO) – Yes, Malificent was always my favorite villain and really the only reason I liked the Sleeping Beauty film, to be honest. I do think that a great villain can make a story great. But in SGE, you muddied up your own thesis by playing around with the idea of good and evil! You have the classic battle of good versus evil, and yet nothing is as it seems. It’s like you took all our fairy tale notions and said “OK, let’s have some fun with this!” And then you literally let all hell break loose. I bow down to your genius, by the way. While the idea of playing with the fluidity of good and evil is not new, this is seriously fantastically original stuff. And it’s definitely more Brother’s Grimm than Disney. I love that! So what came first for you? The plot, the character, the world?

(SC) – It’s funny, I started writing THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL about six months before the fairy tale craze started happening in Hollywood and in publishing – and I remember asking myself the same questions everyone is asking now. Why do fairy tales matter so much? Why do we respond so deeply to them in every age? And I think the answer is that they feel like a Survival Guide to Life, no matter what age you are. They present such a clear-eyed view of the world, without Disneyfied happy endings or even the expectation of happy endings. At the end of the Grimms’ stories, kids often end up baked into pies, losing tongues, or being turned into birds, just for making poor decisions.

So with THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL, I wanted to start in that kind of world with true consequences – and where there is balance between Good or Evil (which is in fact the reality of our world today. Balance might even be called optimistic.) 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?

So just by starting with fundamental questions, I realized I could actually conceive a school around these principles. And so the book begins with the quite provocative idea that every child’s soul fundamentally skews towards Good or Evil, that each child is born the inclined to create… or to destroy.

(Which seems quite accurate to me, by the way. To play with this idea, I created the entrance exam to The School for Good and Evil on the book’s website, which tests what percentage of your soul is Good and what percentage of your soul is Evil. Over 10,000 people have taken it so far… and it’s pretty balanced between Evers, or those that skew Good, and Nevers, or those who skew Evil.)

To take the exam - go here. 

(EO) – Speaking about your main characters, I seriously adore Sophie and Agatha. I think you have accomplished so much in this brilliant novel, but what I love the most is how you literally had me switching my allegiance from Sophie to Agatha, back to Sophie, back to Agatha, and then the absolute best, most satisfying conclusion I could have ever hoped for! Can you tell us a little about how you came up with your two main characters? Who are they like? Who did you channel?

(SC) – This question makes me light up, precisely because one of my biggest goals in the novel was to keep the ground shifting under your feet. Disney films always open with the blond princess singing her big ‘I WANT’ song, where she speaks of her wish for true love, or a new mother, or a different life – and Sophie practically opens the novel the same way. So subconsciously, readers invest in her as the protagonist. It’s been fascinating to watch the reactions once Agatha is introduced and she and Sophie begin their fraught relationship. Certainly some readers are uncomfortable with shifting allegiances (they want their Good Good and their Evil Evil) – but I wanted to tell a story where you’re forced to judge the characters’ actions instead of investing in an abstract archetype.

As for who they’re like, it’s not a coincidence that the SGE Playlist that is hosting is littered with Madonna songs and videos. There’s a lot of Blond Ambition in Sophie. My family, meanwhile, would answer your question differently. 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. In fact, Sophie was born first – I heard her voice for weeks, bawdy, cooing, and warm. In time, Agatha’s began to answer her, throaty, brutish, and cold. I wanted to create the ultimate odd couple – the idea that they’re at once inverses of each other and yet can’t live without each other.  

(EO) – Also, I want to say off the bat that anyone trying to make any comparisons to another magical school for children couldn’t be more wrong! The School of Good and Evil and the fairy tale creatures that inhabit it is both a dreamland and a nightmare, on both sides! Its more Wonderland than Hogwarts because everything is so strange and wondrous and also quite terrifying. I kept wondering, what was Soman thinking when he came up with this?

(SC) – One of the strangest elements of writing a fantasy novel is that you have to abandon all control. I can’t even begin to tell you why the world looks like what it does. It’s just how it surfaces in my imagination as I write – and I try not to doubt it. But I remember looking at Iacopo Bruno’s mind-blowing full-color map that opens the hardcover edition – and having this moment where I had to admit to myself… This world doesn’t exist. It’s all in my head. It was a sad moment, actually.
I think the biggest relief so far is that no one has compared this book to Harry Potter at all. And you hit the nail on the head – I think the reason why is because in Rowling's series, we know who our protagonist is. We know what Good and Evil is -- and Hogwarts is a safe place of learning and good intentions, for the most part.

At the School for Good and Evil, all of that is destabilized. We have no idea who's Good. We have no idea who's Evil -- and we're not even sure which one is supposed to win. There's nothing even remotely safe about this world. You choose to attend Hogwarts. You're kidnapped to the School for Good and Evil.

(EO) – This next question is a bit of a spoiler so I'm going to change the font very light. If you want to read it, just highlight it. I do want to talk a little about one of my absolute favorite scenes of the book. Agatha has always thought she was ugly and she undergoes a makeover, or so she thinks, and believes she is beautiful. But in actuality, nothing physically had changed, except her confidence. To me, this was a powerful message. When you are always told you are ugly, you come to believe it. But when you are self-confident in your worth, than you are beautiful. This is such an important message and you captured it brilliantly.

(SC) – I remember in my notes for the outline, I had that she comes out of the Groom Room ‘changed.’ In my head, I always assumed she’d have a makeover. So when I wrote that scene, I started envisioning this physical transformation – and felt myself nauseous over it. I just couldn’t do it. Then I realized why I’d been so vague in the outline. My subconscious knew all along – this was the story of a girl who had discovered beauty from the inside out. But would audiences believe it? That was the difficult part. So I really had to dig in and make Agatha feel so deeply, so honestly that you put yourself in her shoes.

And honestly, I think her transformation is far more authentic than a Pygmalian makeover. I always thought of myself as a bit of an Agatha growing up and despised the way I looked. But I fought past it, accepted myself… and realized that the world just mirrors back how you feel about yourself. I had a line that I had to cut, but I’m sure will show up somewhere else: “Even the boys started smiling back at Agatha. Like monkeys, they reflected the face you gave them.”

(EO) – I completely agree with you and I thank you. There’s so much I want to talk about, and yet I can’t because it would be too spoilery. But I just want to tell everyone to please, please read this book and when you get to the gargoyle scene, you’ll know when you get there, please come back and comment here. Because it is the scene where I cried. I think you win the award for best gargoyle use in a fantasy book.

(SC) – That scene was never in the outline. I was in a hotel in Boston, having just finished this emotionally grueling tennis tournament and was writing Chapter 8, which just wasn’t going in the direction I wanted to. I remember fighting and fighting myself and then being too tired to fight… And the entire rooftop episode came spilling out: the wish fish, the stampede, the gargoyle… All in one go. I remember going to sleep that night thinking, “My god. Why am I trying to write this book consciously? Let go.” It was such an important lesson. Just let go and let the elves do their work. 
One of the things that I love about Phoebe Yeh, our mutual editor, is that she trusts an author’s intuition. She knows when I’m doubting myself and won’t have it. What’s so remarkable about her is that she’s 100% dedicated to making sure the book turns out the way the author wants it – so she’s constantly asking questions and probing to make sure each scene achieves the effect we want. In a way, she’s a bit like that mirror barrier on Halfway Bridge, constantly testing if we’re staying true to ourselves.

(EO) – Oh yes, I think we are so fortunate to have Phoebe and Jess and the fabulous Harper team! OK, I need to talk a little bit about the conclusion. There’s so much I want to say about it, and ask about it, but I can’t because it would spoil the book. But there’s just no words to express how much I loved it. And I wanted to thank you for the unexpected and yet perfect ending. Did you know how it would end when you first came up with the idea or did it come out of writing the whole thing?

(SC) – I did. It was the ending that made me know I had to write the story. Because no one could possibly predict it! It just felt like an opportunity to really bring two girls on a massive journey to a brand new place, both literally and emotionally.

(EO) – And you do a magnificent job! Now I know you are working on the screenplays for the movie version, which I can’t wait for because this is a book that BEGS to be made into a film! And you are also working on book 2. Can you tell us a little of what comes next?

(SC) - You know, it’s a funny thing, because I’d love to – but Harper will kill me. To even tell you who’s in the sequel will spoil the surprises. But let’s just say you can’t possibly predict what’s going to happen in this one either. It’s an even wilder ride than the first, with a lot more provocation, mischief, and intensity. It isn’t your classical Year 2 book, that’s for sure. And the truth is, where writing the first book was a bit daunting, I’m having a blast with the second one. I’m sure you’ll agree with this, Ellen -- once you’re done writing the first book, you can spread your wings and just fly.

(EO) – Oh kill me now! I can't wait. Thank Soman! I don’t know if you set out to do this, but you have written a wonderful tale of girl friendship, strength and empowerment. SGE is a wonderful Girl Power book and one I would gladly give to my daughters and buy copies of to every girl I know. And I, for one, seriously can’t wait for the next installment!!

(SC) And I can’t thank you enough for your support and encouragement. For such a talented writer to help other writers get their work read is a testament to your character, energy, and passion for good books. Thank you so much for having me!

My wonderful editorial team at HarperChildren's has very generously provided a SIGNED hardcover copy of THE SCHOOL OF GOOD AND EVIL for one lucky Inkpot winner! All you have to do is leave a comment about what your favorite fairy tale is and why!! One random winner (US only) will be chosen. Enter as many times as you want! The contest will run for two weeks and the winner announced at the following Shameless Saturday post!


  1. Great interview! Thanks to you both.

    Hmmm... I'm a sucker for BEAUTY & THE BEAST (in all its various reincarnations ;))

  2. Well I can see why your such a fan, Ellen, The School of Good and Evil sounds fabulous! I can't wait to read it. Thank you both for such an entertaining interview!

  3. What a terrific interview! And my goodness, that book trailer! WOW! Looks like a book to snuggle up with on a long May evening. Thank you, Ellen and Soman!

  4. What a great interview! I've been super excited for this book for MONTHS! I can't wait to lay my hands on a copy.

    Now as for favorite fairy tale... I don't think I can choose! A few classics I enjoy are East O the Sun, West O the Moon, Rumpelstiltskin, the Goose Girl, the Riddle, the Wild Swans, Toads and Diamonds, and many, many more. A few retellings I love are Cinder, A Curse Dark as Gold, Entwined, Strands of Bronze and Gold, A Kiss in Time, and many many more. In case you haven't noticed I'm a bit of a fairy tale fanatic!

    Thank you so much for this giveaway!

  5. My favorite fairy tale is Little Red Hood, because its a classic, and there are so many different versions.
    Thanks for the giveaway!

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  7. I like a lot of different fairy tales such as The Star Money, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, the Twelve Dancing Princesses, etc.. I like all of them for various reason, but most of all I enjoy reading them. Thanks for the chance to win! :)

  8. My favorite fairytale would have to be... Little red riding hood. Its a really tough decision, isn't it? Well, thank you for this wonderful giveaway!

    1. Oh, and why! Totally forgot the why. Because I love the whole idea of a little girl in a red hood and a wolf! It has all the elements of a good story, I'd say!

  9. Dynamite trailer and fascinating interview! Makes me want that book NOW!

  10. Ahhhhh I'm SUPER excited for this book now! That cover is simply divine... <3

    Most people usually go for the big ones, like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, but I've always had a special place in my heart for "The Twelve Swans". The title varies from version to version, but it's got your quintenssial evil stepmother, who has inherited twelve sons and one daughter. She turns the princes into swans, and eventually the princess finds out about the existence of her brothers, and finds that to free them from their curse, she must make shirts for each of them from brambles or some prickly bush, and...oh dear, now I'm just rambling. ^^'

    But fairy tales have always held a special spot in my heart, and this adaptation sounds really good! Looking forward to reading it!

  11. This interview is terrific and terrifically useful for those of us who booktalk to kids!

    My favorite fairy tale is Cinderella, of course, told in all its different marvelous cultural traditions. We all feel like Cinderella at times!

    I love J K Rowling's understanding of how important our fairy and folk tales are to our cultures.

  12. I love 'East O' the Sun, and West O' the Moon', I think because our lovely heroess does more than sit around and bewail herself.

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  14. I was interested in this book solely on the strength of the cover but now I really want to read it!

    This is going to sounds so odd but I think my favorite Fairy Tale (in that it has stuck with me more than any other) is this one I've only seen in an old "50 Famous Fairy Tales" book I inherited called "The Pink". I think, when I was younger and devouring fairy tales the fact that this was wholly unique really hit me. It was such a joy to me to find something completely new. Which is why that tale has stuck with me more than perhaps any other.

  15. That really is an excellent trailer and a beautiful cover. Everything about this book sounds amazing and your enthusiasm with your interview really sells how much you loved the story. I'll definitely be reading it! My daughter brought home a Rainbow Fairy book the other day and we're halfway through reading it. From what I hear, they are extremely popular. My favorite part from the interview is the unexpected ending and coming at things from a direction that wouldn't be expected (like the good/evil dynamic). I love books that break stereotype and come at things uniquely.

    Trying to specify a favorite fairy tale is hard! I really like several of George MacDonald's stories. Like The Light Princess - I love his sacrifice and willingness to die so that she will be happy, despite her shallow "lightness". But I especially like the story of the princess who waxes and wanes with the moon. I like how there is no real villain in the story despite the fairy who cursed her and that the test for the prince is his integrity and character rather than physical deeds.

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  17. I read The School for Good and Evil twice, searched the internet for more information on the fascinating author and came across this site. Great interview that gave me insight on both the story and the author behind it!

    My favorite fairy tale would have to be Beauty and the Beast because it teaches to look behind the "beasty" face to see real beauty within.

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  19. This interview has seriously made my day! I adored SGE. Thanks for this interview!!

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