Q&A with ‘School for Good and Evil’ author Soman Chainani

Soman ChainaniSoman Chainani is the author of “The School for Good and Evil.” The following is a complete transcript of his interview with Cracking the Cover.

Why do you write?

Writing has always felt like breathing. If I don’t do it for a while, I start to feel like I’m dying.

Writing also makes time disappear in the most magical way. It challenges every part of me so intensely that I forget who I am, where I am, or how long I’ve been there. I remember once letting out a terrifying scream in a library because someone tapped me on the shoulder while I was writing an intense scene. (He wanted to borrow my power cord.)

Most of all, I love that writing forces you to surrender. You cannot, cannot control your writing – for if you’re not surprised by it, how do you expect the reader to be? For someone as controlling and tyrannical as I am, writing forces me to trust the little elves inside to do the work.

What is it about books for young people that makes them so special?

Young people have no patience for overwriting, indulgence, or poor storytelling. They are absolutely ruthless in their need to be engaged by the story and empathize with the characters. To me, it’s far more difficult to write a successful children’s novel than an adult novel because of how emotional they have to be. An adult novel can take an aloof, analytical perspective and impress with its wordplay. Children want to feel. So when an author can master that balance of story, emotion, and pace, it’s transcendent. Very, very few achieve it. But it seems like a worthy profession to give your life to trying.

Where did the idea for The School for Good and Evil come from?

I’ve been toying with the various aspects of the story for almost 15 years now. For one thing, I’m an obsessive student of fairy tales. As a child, I didn’t have cable – just all the VHS tapes of the Disney cartoons. So I’d watch them until I knew every frame. When I went to Harvard, I literally created my own major around fairy tales, with a focus on female villains. I wanted to understand: What makes a female villain so compelling? The School for Good and Evil seeks to answer that question.

The idea of children being kidnapped is a creepy way to begin a book. How did that idea evolve?

I love reading fantasy, but I’m slightly allergic to books that begin in the fantasy world. I need that portal from the real world into the extraordinary, whether it’s the wardrobe in Narnia or the rabbit hole in Wonderland. So I knew I wanted the kids to be whisked from our world into the Endless Woods. But the idea really took hold when I had this delicious image of a girl who wanted to be kidnapped. Because I suspect a lot of children who read fantasy novels harbor that thought themselves…

SGE-Cover Soman ChainaniWhat was more fun, writing the good or evil bits?

Both schools have so many colorful details and comic characters that I feel equally at home in both. That said, I do wake up a little perkier on the days I’m writing Sophie’s scenes. She’s just such an enormous character that I relish the tightrope act of making her at once ludicrous and alluring. Whenever she and Agatha get together, they’re dialogue sparks so naturally for me. They’re the ultimate odd couple. (My favorite line in the novel is Sophie’s retort to Agatha upon achieving popularity: “If you want to talk to me, Agatha, you can wait in line with everyone else.”)

Which school would you end up in — Good or Evil?

I was so compelled by this question upon finishing the book that I launched an interactive game on www.schoolforgoodandevil.com that helps each reader answer this question for themselves. You can log-on and take a 10-question Entrance Exam to The School for Good and Evil that sorts you into your school as an Ever or a Never. It also computes what percentage of your soul is Good and what percentage of your soul is Evil. The questions change every time (and I’ve written all of them!), so be prepared for a stern test. I, myself, have taken the quiz honestly a few times and consistently get 75% Evil, 25% Good. So it appears I’m a Never after all. Not surprising.

What is your favorite fairy tale?

The Little Mermaid. As you’ll see when you read The School for Good and Evil, I’m attracted to the dark edges that Disney often leaves out of their filmed versions. The original Little Mermaid is harrowing, but also deeply beautiful.

What makes The School for Good and Evil stand out among its contemporaries?

That’s a difficult question, if only because I live so deeply in the world that I try not to judge it or compare it to other books. But what I would say is that one of the reasons I loved the classic fairy tales is that they were a guidebook to life for children and teenagers. They didn’t sugarcoat or warm up their stories to make readers feel safe. Make the wrong choices and a child might lose their tongue or end up baked into a pie. My goal with The School for Good and Evil was to write a modern day fairy tale that let young readers confront their own fears and anxieties with the same honesty.

Are you surprised by the feedback from advanced readers?

It’s been humbling to have heroes of mine already put their stamp on the book – Gregory Maguire, R.L. Stine, Anne Martin, Maria Tatar… These are authors I’ve grown up reading, so the idea that they actually sat down and read my book, let alone liked it gives me stomach cramps.

We’ve already started getting fanart from advanced readers, so I created a Gallery on the website, where I put up everything I get – whether it’s cakes in the shapes of the schools, SGE tattoos, or just cartoons of the characters. To already see readers deeply connecting to the world before the book comes out puts the wind in my sails as I write Book 2.

But the other odd wrinkle is that no one has actually read the final version. We had to make the ARC very early in the editing process to allow for awareness of the trilogy, so even the advanced readers will be in for surprises when they read the final edition (including full-color maps!).

Looking back, how has your writing evolved?

I trust it more now. In the early stages of writing Book 1, which is my first novel, there was always terror that the story wouldn’t come. But it does. It always does. The key is to relax, have a hot cup of tea, and just channel the story instead of force it.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing Book 2 of the series, which has a pretty nifty title, soon to be revealed. I also just completed the screenplay for the film of The School for Good and Evil, which is being produced by Jane Startz (Tuck Everlasting, Ella Enchanted, The Babysitter’s Club). I wrote it with Malia-Scotch Marmo (who wrote Spielberg’s Hook).

Is there a book from your own childhood that still resonates with you today?

The Witches, by Roald Dahl. Of course.