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.”
Growing up in Key Biscayne, Chainani, the second of three boys, devoured fairy tales and the books of Roald Dahl. He idolized Madonna (Sophia has a good bit of Madonna’s blond pop ambition to succeed) and was fascinated by the powerful, malevolent female villains of both the Brothers Grimm and Disney. At Harvard, he deepened his absorption, studying fairytales and writing a senior thesis on female villains that won several academic prizes.
Although he had loved Disney animated films as a kid, as an adult Chainani came to hate the way the company had transformed the dark, moralistic, often frightening visions of the Brothers Grimm into the glittery pink Disney Princess sales empire that he believes has monopolized young girls’ image of themselves.
“I think once they grow up they don’t believe in pink princesses anymore but they do believe in the idea of being swept off their feet and a boy being enough for happiness,” Chainani says. He puts a Grimm twist on such stereotypes in Good and Evil.
“I wanted to riff off what Disney had done to our culture — the way little girls raised as Disney princesses want to embody that,” he says. “Sophie is so indoctrinated with fairytale values and the idea that good always wins she wants to be kidnapped, be swept away to a place where she’ll meet a handsome prince. She’s so obsessed with going to the school for good she’ll do anything to get there. … Meanwhile, Agatha believes that boys only cause misery, she’s a big believer in solitude and getting away from beauty and all these things preached by fairytales.”
One of Chainani’s hopes for his book is that it will make fairytales, which were originally full of strange, gory and scary events and twists, safe for boys again. “The original fairytales were a huge source of entertainment for boys and men,” he says. “Boys were just as fascinated as girls because of how grotesque and scary those stories were, the way they gravitate to R.L. Stine now.”
After Harvard, Chainani studied screenwriting and earned an MFA at Colombia University. He wrote and directed two short films that played festivals and earned a number of prizes. But most of his film projects never got made, leaving him increasingly frustrated. “I was sort of cursed in not being able to bring something to an audience,” he says. “I kept working on movies that kept not being made. I was tormented — I was getting paid, doing my best work, getting awards. But nobody actually saw anything. It was like this weird deal with the devil.”
When what was to be his first full-length feature was suddenly derailed after the production company went bankrupt in 2010, Chainani began working on Good and Evil. He originally envisioned it as a movie, but Jane Startz, a friend with whom he’d worked on an adaptation of the children’s classic The Pushcart War, persuaded him to turn it into a book trilogy. (The second book is slated to come out next year, and the third in 2015.) Startz quickly sold the idea to Harper, and optioned the movie rights herself.
In some ways Good and Evil echoes other popular children’s franchises that have penetrated the broader realm of pop culture: magical schools like those in the Harry Potter series; children kidnapped for a mysterious, malevolent purpose, as in The Hunger Games; and two close friends who are unexpected opposites, as in Wicked.
In fact, Gregory Maguire, author of the book on which the blockbuster Broadway musical Wicked is based, is a friend. The two met through the Harvard professor who oversaw Chainani’s thesis. “He was fascinated with the reinvention of witches, I was obsessed with the reinvention of princesses,” Chainani says. “The books are both about reinventing archetypes.”
But although he saw the musical and acknowledges being a fan of J.K. Rowling’s series, Chainani says the world he envisions in Good and Evil is darker and different.
“You choose to go to Hogwarts — it’s a much safer world,” he says. “Mine is a lot of scary stuff. The teachers are not about keeping you safe. They’re about survival of the fittest.”
But he thinks children can handle those fears, and he’s entranced by the idea of appealing to and unnerving them, of digging into the inchoate, alluring, uncontrollable side of their imagination. “My goal with this book or 20 books from now is to simultaneously entertain and scare them,” he says. Much like Roald Dahl did for him as a child. “I wonder what would happen if you had given Roald Dahl the freedom to do an epic,” Chainani says. “His books are terrifying — he really goes for it, there’s no winking. I believe in that too — in no winking.”