Books

This Bestselling YA Author Makes a Case for the Villains

He has sold more than three million copies of his young adult series, The School for Good and Evil, which debuted on The New York Times Bestseller list and was translated into 30 languages across six continents. And he’s just wrapped production on Netflix’s film adaptation from Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, starring Charlize Theron and Kerry Washington. To say the least, it’s been a good couple of years to be Soman Chainani. The author, who penned the YA sensation after attending Harvard and Columbia, continues to earn recognition as a gay Indian American, representing and exploring LGBTQ themes through his characters. 

Chainani’s latest book, Beasts & Beauty, will be released September 21st via HarperCollins. In the book, Chainani re-spins 12 classic stories into fresh fairy tales for a new era. Readers will discover Red Riding Hood, in which the prettiest girl in town is marked for death by wolves each spring; Snow White, the story of the only Black girl in the kingdom; Sleeping Beauty features a young prince who is consumed by a demon’s nocturnal visits; Bluebeard reveals a predator who takes boys from orphanages; and Peter Pan looks at a grown Wendy after her adventures in Neverland. 

Below, we spoke with Chainani on what it takes to get published, coming up with the first book on a walk through Regent’s Park, rooting for Voldemort and Darth Vader, and why he believes in giving villains a fair shot.

LEO: What made you want to write YA over any other category? Which came first, the idea for the story or the concept of writing YA? 

SOMAN CHAINANI: I thought The School for Good and Evil was an adult novel when I finished it. The genre of YA was fairly new at that point and I wasn’t well-versed in it, so I’d try to write a sophisticated fairy tale in the vein of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. So when we started sending it out to editors and hearing that they thought it was for teenagers, I was a bit nervous that I’d have to take all the edges out or somehow reduce its complexity. But in the end, we realized that’s what made the book different; it’s provocative and controversial and goes right at the heart of all the things in fairy tales we hold dear. 

How did you come up with the story for your first book, The School of Good and Evil?

A number of years ago, I found myself in an argument with my friends, who insisted that I was an evil person because I’d been rooting for Harry Potter to die. Or more than that, I wanted Voldemort to win. This wasn’t the first version of this argument I’d had. From a very young age, I’d rooted for the villains. I’d cheered for Darth Vader to beat Luke Skywalker, Smaug to vanquish Bilbo, Ursula to defeat Ariel, and the Wicked Witch of the West to rule all of Oz. My parents told me I had a mean streak. To root for the villains is evil, I was told again and again.

But why? I’d asked. Shouldn’t good and evil fight on fair terms? Why should good ALWAYS win? To stack the odds against the villains over and over and over seemed… evil. If only there was a book that gave villains a voice, I thought. A story that gave them a real chance to win. 

Many years later, I was walking through Regent’s Park in London. I remember stopping to tie my shoe and an image popped into my head: a girl in pink falling into a rotting black castle… and a girl in black falling into a beautiful, glass castle. A princess and witch switched into the wrong schools. As I walked round and round the park, I came to see the idea was the tip of an iceberg, the world of the Endless Woods already fully formed and waiting to be brought to life. 

All those years ago, I had searched the storybooks for a balance between good and evil. I’d never found it. I’d given up. But my soul hadn’t, it seemed. Its secret elves had gone to work to give the world a true battle between good and evil. That’s how the first book was born.

Did you need to get the rights from Disney for this or how does that work?

Not at all, because I’m working from the original versions of the stories. The Disney versions tend to get the fairy tales all wrong and create this impression that good always wins, when they most certainly don’t in the original tales. Take The Little Mermaid, for instance. In the Hans Christian Andersen version, she’s clearly the villain of the tale—a disobedient, shallow, traitorous girl who the sea witch makes a fool of, and the mermaid essentially dies as punishment. Disney somehow turns her into the heroine of the story, even though all the seeds of her villainy are still there. So I’m more interested in the gap between Disney and Grimms and the original tales than working with any of the Disney tropes. My hope is to help children reclaim their fairy tales from Disney. It also helps that in my books, all the old fairy tale characters are dead. We’re starting with a fresh class of students and wiping the slate clean.

Walk us through your writing process from idea to finished first draft.

I wish there was a process! I don’t outline; I don’t keep notes or a scrapbook; and I don’t have files. The stories are all inside me, and the act of writing is a process of revealing what my unconscious already knows. There were times when during the writing of The School for Good and Evil, there were 150 characters to manage, 35 kingdoms, 70 plotlines… and I thought I was sliding into madness. It’s impossible to keep all of that straight. So you have to surrender completely to your own inner engineering and hope it has a grand plan. And it does. It always does. So faith is my process. Faith in the fact that the story is already written, and I’m just the vessel to uncover it. At the same time, there are things I can do to help it. On a daily basis, I need to find a flow state, so my unconscious can have pure, complete control over my consciousness. Usually that means a whole lot of exercise. I’m in the gym with a trainer most days of the week, plus I’ve been playing competitive tennis my whole life and start the days off with that. So between lifting and tennis, those are the ways of clearing my head, and I organize my writing blocks around them. Sometimes to take pressure off, I just tell myself I’m an athlete who writes. 

What was the process of finding a publisher for your first book? This seems almost as daunting as finishing an entire novel in the first place.

We sent out an early sample to seventeen publishers. Sixteen of them said they weren’t sure who the audience was—that it fell between YA and adult, and they didn’t think there’d be a market for them. They also said there was way too much romance, and boys avoid romance like the plague. The seventeenth publisher was HarperCollins, who gave us an offer for three books in the series. The editor at the time, Phoebe Yeh, thought the reasons the other publishers had rejected it would work in the book’s favor—that in the wake of Twilight and Hunger Games, young readers were on the hunt for sophistication and romance. Even boys.

What do you think separates this series from other YA novels that helped make it a bestseller? 

It’s hard to say what makes one book sustain over another, but I think The School for Good and Evil was just a bit shocking for its time. And still is. When it came to books about fantasy school, the world was still used to Harry Potter, which is so warm in its morality and quaint in its flirtations with romance. At their heart, those books are about the Gryffindor kids. I’m more interested in the Slytherins. The bad kids. Because that’s what I am—a contrarian, a diva, a flamethrower. My idol growing up was ’90s Madonna. Erotica Madonna. The Madonna who blew up all the rules. I wanted a book with that energy, where nothing was sacred and anything could happen. So when kids started reading it, they must have sensed its danger. Its subversiveness. I hear many a story of parents telling me their kids hide the books from them because they don’t want mom or dad reading it. That’s what you want in a book for youth. You want it to feel renegade.

What’s the marketing process like for you? How involved are you?

They’ll tell you I’m too involved. The School for Good and Evil is a global franchise at this point, especially with the movies coming, and I’m very specific in how I want every detail presented. So I’m involved in everything, from the initial marketing plans; to the tour planning; to the movie tie-ins; to the last pixel on digital banner ads. I’ve hired the animators for our six book trailers and any concept photo shoots for the books are usually handled by my team. Part of it comes from the fact I was trained as a film director first—long before I was a novelist—so there’s something about running the business side and the visual look of the SGE world that feels natural. I think Netflix has learned that about me, too. There’s no detail too small for me to chime in on. Luckily, both HarperCollins and Netflix are dream partners. I can’t imagine working with anyone else. 

How did it come about that Paul Feig would make the adaption of your book—can you talk us through that process?  

The School for Good and Evil had been at Universal, where I’d done a couple drafts of the script. We had to deal with an executive shuffle and the usual roller-coaster of writers and development, but meanwhile, the script was improving. Bit by bit, we were distilling a 500-page novel into its own unique cinematic experience that would appeal to audiences beyond the reach of the book. So when Netflix acquired it from Universal, the script was in great shape. Paul Feig was always the first name on the list. For one thing, he’s my favorite director. And a tremendous writer. His work on the SGE script took it to a whole new level. Every movie he makes is so specifically his, whether Bridesmaids, Spy, or a Simple Favor. Plus, who else can balance all the genres in the book—fantasy, comedy, action, thriller, horror—except Paul? Also, his experience directing teenagers, given Freaks & Geeks, is peerless. When he read the script, he was in right away. From the moment he officially stepped on to when cameras were rolling was less than a year. But all those years of development were worth it, so we could get a screenplay that someone of Paul’s stature would read out of his pile and says, “Yes. This one.”

What was your reaction to that news? It seems like it would be any writers’ dream come true. Not to mention that cast.

I don’t think I fully processed it. I still haven’t. I’ve become friends with Paul, spent weeks on set, am close with many of the cast and crew, so many of them heroes of mine… and I’m still in denial. I think that’s the only way to keep focused on the work, stay professional, and do what needs to be done. At the end of the day, it’s about making the best movie possible—not just for the fans, but for the world. Especially given Netflix’s global reach. So I feel tremendous responsibility to make sure we deliver something incredible, given the potential of the franchise. I’m always thinking: what more can I do? That seems more productive than celebrating. 

Did you have a sense when you wrote the first book that it would turn into a series? Is this something you visualized or intended from the get-go?

The plan originally was nine books, structured in three trilogies, like Star Wars. The first trilogy would be the School Years, the second trilogy would be the Camelot Years, and then the third trilogy would be an adult series, about the characters when they were older. It was a privilege to get to write the first trilogy. The fact that the series was successful enough to warrant the second trilogy still boggles my mind. I loved writing Books 4, 5, and 6, and think I grew as a writer tremendously in those few years. If the movies are successful, I’ll consider doing that adult trilogy, because you’d have a whole audience of kids who grew up with the series and would surely get a kick out of continuing with it in a whole new way. I don’t think that’s ever been done before. A series for young readers evolving to the adult. Wouldn’t that be something?

What advice do you have for any aspiring writer but especially someone looking to get into YA books?

It comes down to whether you’re mimicking books that are already out there or generating a unique story that only you can tell. That’s the only important piece of advice I can give—ask the question of whether the story you want to tell can be written by anyone else. If it can… then you’re setting yourself up for a difficult challenge. If it can’t, if it’s wholly, specifically you, then the story is meant to be told. 

What is the hardest or most challenging part of being a professional writer?

Some days, the engine isn’t there. The creative spark can’t catch the match. But I have to push forward, even if it isn’t my best day. That’s where having played tennis my whole life is supremely helpful. On so many days, you aren’t at your best, but you still want to win. So you find a way. Writing is the same. You want to write a good book, you want deliver for your audiences, but you can’t be in the zone for all 300 days it takes to write a novel. Or even most of them. Still… you find your way. That’s the mark of a professional.

What is the most rewarding aspect?

Meeting the kids who’ve grown up with the books. To know they’ve spent so much time playing in the sandbox of my imagination… each and every one feels like my own child. 

CHECK OUT SOMAN

IG @SOMANC