The story of Soman Chainani’s first book, The School for Good and Evil, sounds like a kind of modern fairytale: Young writer lands on the bestseller lists with his first novel, which is promptly sold to a major movie studio for an enormous sum. And Chainani, born in Miami and raised in Key Biscayne, sounds like a creative golden boy, a driven, prize-winning student who graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and racked up fellowships and awards.
But neither Chainani’s life or his novel are quite the fairytale they seem. School for Good and Evil revolves around beautiful blond Sophia and resentful black-haired Agatha, who live in Gavaldon, where two children are plucked each year for schools that will train them to inhabit real fairy tales — either as princesses and princes or witches and villains. But instead of learning to be the princess of her dreams, Sophia becomes a villainess in training, while outcast Agatha must learn to negotiate balls and proposals.
Chainani, 33, says that growing up in one of the only Indian families on Key Biscayne, as one of just two Indian students at Gulliver Preparatory Academy, an elite private school in Pinecrest, he felt more outcast than princeling.
“In Miami I felt very different,” Chainani says. “I definitely felt like an outsider. Deep down I felt much more like the Agatha character who didn’t fit in.”
He escaped into the fantasy world of fairy tales and Disney films. And into making up his own fantasies, pounding out poems, stories, extra assignments for school on the typewriter his family kept before getting a computer. “My way of dealing with it was to become dependent on writing as a way of expressing myself,” Chainani says. “I was constantly finding some reason to write.”
His escapism has blown his world wide open with Good and Evil, which was published by Harper Collins on May 14 and quickly landed on The New York Times Children’s bestseller list and the Indie Bestseller List. Almost immediately, Universal - where Soman’s Gulliver classmate Maradith Frenkel is VP of production - snapped up the movie rights for seven figures (Chainani won’t say exactly how much). He’ll co-write the screenplay for the 2015 release, with a team of producers of high-powered modern fairytales: Jane Startz, producer of Ella Enchanted, and Joe Roth and Patek Patel, the pair behind Oz the Great and Powerful and Snow White and the Huntsman.
“It’s a life-changing amount of money,” Chainani says. “I haven’t processed the whole thing yet. I’m such an over-achiever and have such high ambitions, I always want amazing things to happen. But when they actually do it’s a little disorienting.”
The book has earned raves from Entertainment Weekly, Wicked author Gregory Maguire and R.L. Stine, of the Goosebumps series. Even better for Chainani have been the hundreds of kids who have turned out for readings in schools, plastering walls with homemade posters, taking a character test of good and evil — “Evers” and “Nevers” — he invented.
“They got so into this, am I an Ever, am I a Never,” Chainani says. “At first a few kids took the quiz every day. Now like 800 or 900 a day take it.”