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Soman Chainani on The School for Good and Evil, the Dangers of Disney, and South Florida Kids

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Growing up on Key Biscayne, author Soman Chainani was surrounded by lots of good children and lots of evil children. He was able to combine his observations on their behaviors with his imagination to write the New York Times bestselling young adult novel, The School for Good and Evil. This fantasy features Sophie, a good girl who is accidentally placed in the school of evil among witches and ogres, while bad girl Agatha is enrolled in the school of good with princes and fair maidens. The illiterate will be happy to know the book is being adapted into a movie for Universal Pictures.

Chainani,who will be making a homecoming Saturday, November 23, at the Miami Book Fair, spoke with New Times from his home base of New York to discuss how the disparate influences of South Florida and Disney movies collided into The School for Good and Evil.

See also: Miami Book Fair International 2013: The Ten Best Events

Where did you get the idea for 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.

How did growing up in South Florida affect the book's depiction of adolescence and schools?

I think growing up in Miami, there's just so much temptation all over the place. It's not a normal upbringing where you're sealed off and can just focus on 'growing up.' It's a bit like New York City in that kids are anxious to get to a point on weekends where they can go to South Beach and hit clubs before they ever turn 16 or learn how to drive. In the book, I think there is an innate sense of freedom the children in both schools have as a result to make the choices they wish - without adult interference. The adult and teacher presence in the book is quite minimal, by design. I want the children making 95% of the decisions and dealing with the consequences.

Some of this book was written while visiting South Florida. Was there anything in particular about present day Miami that helped inspire the world you created?

There wasn't so much in terms of specific inspiration that came from Miami for the fantasy world, but the pace of the chapters I wrote in Miami certainly varied from the ones I wrote in New York. In New York, the chapters always have a hectic sense of speed, while the ones I wrote in Miami are much more deliberate and slow. It made for a fun variance of pacing in crafting the final book.

In just a few months your books have built up a large fan following. What are some of the strangest fan letters you've received?

The fan letters are the best part of being a writer, because you really get to see the impact the book is having on the kids. That said, you certainly get some amusing ones. One girl insisted on being cast in the movie because it would help her Harvard application, while another threatened to come to my house with her hair dyed blond to show me what she'd look like as 'Sophie.' I try to explain to the kids that I'm not in charge of casting, but they refuse to believe me. But the creativity in some of these letters is astonishing - I've gotten everything from pictures of cakes they made to homemade tattoos to fan fiction to oil paintings to fairy-tale based fitness workouts, etc. The kids really feel like they're living in the book's world.

What are you working on now?

I'm about 90% done with the sequel, called A World Without Princes, which comes out April 15th. I'll be back in Miami for the tour that month as well. I'm also working on the movie script for The School for Good and Evil, which is being made by Universal Pictures, hopefully for release in 2015 or 2016. So... I don't leave the house much these days.

Can you share details about the upcoming movie adaptation?

I can't say too much more at this point, except that I'm writing the screenplay for the film with Malia Scotch Marmo (the writer of Steven Spielberg's film, Hook). It's being produced by the powerhouse team of Joe Roth, Palak Patel, and Jane Startz - who combined are responsible for movies like Snow White & The Huntsman, Alice in Wonderland, Ella Enchanted, Tuck Everlasting, Oz The Great & Powerful... So for fans of the novel, I'm quite confident the movie will not disappoint them.

As for my role, it's safe to say I am plenty involved in every decision, creative or otherwise when it comes to the film. The producers will say that's an understatement. Everyone I work with will say that's an understatement! In that I resemble Sophie, who enjoys control a bit too much.

Do you have any Hollywood horror stories from your days as a struggling aspiring filmmaker?

When I first started in the industry, it was one long horror story. Hollywood is a bit like fashion, in that it's quite difficult to break in, if not impossible. You have to really trust your gut on people the way you would in choosing friends - and only work with people who you really believe in creatively. I remember when I first went out for agency meetings, I met with one agent who said he didn't read any of my scripts because he didn't like the 'titles.' I've always thought titles were my strong suit and tried to defend them. He responded with, "You want a good title? I have a script that came across my desk that's going to make $100M because of its title." He held it up and I read the title page: "INNER BEAUTY, MY ASS." It gives me great satisfaction that the movie was never made.

For fans of The School for Good and Evil, what books can you recommend they read as they await your next volume?

I think kids should read the classic Grimms' fairy tales just to see what they're missing. Too often we rely on Disney for our fairy tales, when the original Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, and Grimms' stories are just so much more imaginative and inventive.

What can audiences expect when they hear you speak at the Miami Book Fair?

I try to make sure my talks work for both kids and adults, because that's the goal with the book as well. I'm not particularly into this idea of targeting 'an audience,' whether it be a book, a film, or a talk. A good story should be a good story in any medium - and so I try to use interactive presentations to make it a fun and enlightening introduction into the world of The School for Good and Evil.

Are there any writers you'll be excited to hear or perhaps meet at the Miami Book Fair?

It is Miami, so I'd love to see Dave Barry. But I'll definitely try to see Amy Tan and Richard Russo as well, as I'm big fans of both.

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