From <i>Mean Girls</i> to Kubrick: Learning About Good and Evil With Soman Chainani

My sister tells a story that, when Soman Chainani first came to our house the first thing he asked her was: "How are you planning on getting a boyfriend?" Right at that moment, we all knew that Soman understood what teenagers think about.
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My sister tells a story that, when Soman Chainani first came to our house (a long time before he became a New York Times bestselling author), the first thing he asked her was: "How are you planning on getting a boyfriend?" Right at that moment, we all knew that Soman, who was then working as a tutor and filmmaker in NYC, understood what teenagers think about.

Soman's debut book (in what is set to be a trilogy), The School for Good and Evil, was released under Harper Collins in May and has spent its first two weeks on the NYTimes bestsellers list, a remarkable feat for any book, let alone someone's first. I spoke to Soman about what inspired him to write SGE, tips for teens who want to be writers, and why his book tour makes him feel like a member of One Direction.

How do you think your childhood experiences informed the story of The School For Good and Evil?

We didn't have cable when I was young, so all we had was our rickety TV set and VHS tapes of every single Disney animated movie. Until age 8 or so, that was all I pretty much watched. Everything I learned about storytelling, I learned from Disney. (You can imagine what an irritating child I was.) When I went to college, though, I became fascinated by the gap between the original tales and these Disney revisions.

As a relentless student of the Grimms' stories, what I loved about them was how unsafe the characters were. You could very well end up with wedding bells and an Ever After -- or you could lose your tongue or be baked into a pie. There was no 'warmth' built into the narrator, no expectations of a happy ending. The thrill came from vicariously trying to survive the gingerbread house, the hook-handed captain, or the apple-carrying crone at the door -- and relief upon survival. Somewhere in that gap between the Disney stories and the retellings, The School for Good and Evil was born.

You've said in several interviews that your book aims to change the stereotypically "good" and "evil" characters in books for middle-aged readers. From high-school, I've noticed that teens -- maybe following along with the books they read -- lump themselves into those two categories: good and evil, which sometimes manifests itself as unpopular and popular. Have you noticed this trend? Were you trying to repel it with this book?

Absolutely, you're onto something. The issue I've always had with the search for popularity in high school is it often forces you to act against your own nature in order to 'fit in.' It's something that plagues the characters in the School for Good, precisely because they too are trying to achieve fame and fortune. In high school, I remember consciously trying to be popular and twisting, worming, and manipulating to achieve it, a la Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls. I might have been student body president in the end, but felt quite Evil in the process of getting there. (I should write a book on that election. It made Romney vs. Obama look like child's play.)

As for the unpopular kids, I always tell them that the thing that makes them unpopular will surely be the thing that's most attractive about them later. I was always the skinny, gangly kid growing up with untamable hair -- and now I'm a big fan of both my skinniness and my hair. In the end, the 'unpopular' kids learn who they are much faster I'd say.

What was it like to see your book cover for the first time? How about seeing SGE in a book store? Or on the NYTimes bestsellers list?

The first time I held the finished hardcover in my hand, I remember a slightly nauseous and starry-eyed feeling -- a bit like the feeling of falling in love. It's such a physically beautiful book; the team at Harper took special care of it, complete with a full-color Lord of the Rings style map.

I was on a massive 10-city, 11-day tour for the book, when within 12 hours, we hit the NYT bestseller list and then sold the book to Universal for an astonishing sum. The combination was completely disorienting. Both times I heard the news alone while dashing through an airport. But in the end, I still get the biggest kick out of talking to kids and teenagers who've read the book. That's why I write.

Who are some of your biggest influences? What are some of your favorite books? Books teens should read?

Biggest influences: Almodovar, Stanley Kubrick, '90s Madonna, Karl Lagerfeld, Ferran Adria, and Frank Baum. Try to make sense of that list!

Some of my favorite books: Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, The Line of Beauty by Allan Hollingshurst, and The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.

As for books teenagers should read, I think Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone series is brilliant. When I was 13, I fell in love with Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire, which is a bit hardcore for a teenager, but really inspired me to be a writer.

What suggestions do you have for kids and teens who want to get into writing?

Don't just write, which is what most people will tell you. You have to learn to edit. So every time you write a paper or a story or a poem, make sure you show it to people you trust -- and then fix it. You'll only get better by fixing your work and learning how to make it stronger.

How has the book tour been going? What are some of the craziest experiences you've had so far?

The tour was beyond belief. I spoke to over 8,000 kids, got to perform on massive stages, and had moments where I felt like a member of One Direction, simply because of the nature of school presentations. You have an hour, a captive audience of anywhere from 200-400 kids, and you have to bring it or the kids will either go to sleep or boo you off the stage. So instead of a traditional reading, I try to put on a full-scale theatrical 'show,' with videos and slides and interactive games, and all kinds of little surprises that will help kids get access to what it's like to go to the School for Good and Evil.

Every school I went to, something absurd happened. But my favorite was one school where the boys had all read the book and were totally into it -- but had all taken the jacket covers off so no one would see the 'girls' on the cover. God forbid anyone know there were girl characters in their book!

At your appearances you often hand out a test where kids find out if they are an ever (good) or a never (evil). Have you taken the test? Are you an Ever or a Never? Which character is the most like you?

I was so compelled by this question of whether I was an Ever or a Never that I launched an interactive game on 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 percent Evil, 25 percent Good. So it appears I'm a Never after all. Not surprising.

When my brother was reading the book, he called me up and said "You know this Sophie girl... She's the real you." Perhaps because I have my high maintenance moments, like Sophie. Though it's a rather uncharitable assessment, I do have to say that writing Sophie is the highlight of my day.

What are your plans for the future?

I'm currently writing the screenplay for The School for Good and Evil, which will be a Universal movie. I'm working on the second book of the series, A World Without Princes. And I'm hoping when this is all over to get back to directing movies for a bit.

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