Teller of tales

Young adult au­thor So­man chainani takes great plea­sure in play­ing with fairy tales.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - By SHARMILLA GANE­SAN star2@thes­ just in­cred­i­bly clever. She wants to eat chil­dren, so to lure them she builds a house out of what they eat.

IF any­one takes fairy tales se­ri­ously, it’s So­man Chainani. His young adult (YA) best­seller, The School For Good And Evil, not only deals with fairy tales ex­ten­sively but also plays with the sto­ries and turns them on their head – so much so that he makes you ques­tion the way you look at the genre it­self.

Mak­ing its de­but on The New York Times’ best­seller list ear­lier this year, The School For Good And Evil (SGE) fea­tures be­guil­ing art­work by Io­copo Bruno, and marks the be­gin­ning of a tril­ogy.

Com­ing from a screen­writ­ing back­ground (he stud­ied film at Columbia Univer­sity), New York­based Chainani also stud­ied English and Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard Univer­sity, where he spe­cialised in fairy tales.

Th­ese in­ter­ests are very ap­par­ent in SGE, where his vivid sto­ry­telling style com­bines hu­mour, drama and magic to great ef­fect. The book tells the tale of the fa­bled School for Good and Evil where chil­dren are di­vided into Evers and Nev­ers and trained to be­come fairy tale he­roes and vil­lains re­spec­tively.

When best friends So­phie and Agatha are kid­napped and taken into the school, So­phie fully ex­pects to be put into the School for Good; af­ter all, she’s the dainty one with pretty dresses who has de­voted her life to good deeds, while Agatha is surly, frumpy and even has an aw­ful pet cat – clas­sic Never ma­te­rial.

Imag­ine their shock then when Agatha ends up in the School for Good, and So­phie in Evil. Forced to take cour­ses like Ugli­fi­ca­tion and Hench­men Train­ing, So­phie tries ev­ery­thing she can to set things right. Mean­while, Agatha suf­fers through Princess Eti­quette and An­i­mal Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, not to men­tion the un­wel­come at­ten­tion of Te­dros, the most sought-af­ter boy in the School of Good and the ob­ject of So­phie’s in­fat­u­a­tion. As the story pro­gresses, the line be­tween good and evil are in­creas­ingly blurred, and Chainani clev­erly weaves in bits of fa­mil­iar fairy tales with So­phie and Agatha’s quest to dis­cover them­selves.

To fans’ de­light, a movie adap­ta­tion of SGE is cur­rently in the works, with Chainani him­self work­ing on the screen­play. The book cover of the se­quel, A World With­out Princes, due out in April next year, was also re­vealed re­cently, to much ex­cite­ment – par­tic­u­larly since it fea­tures not just Agatha and So­phie, but also Te­dros.

In a re­cent e-mail in­ter­view, Chainani shares his thoughts on the tril­ogy, the char­ac­ters, and fairy tales in gen­eral.

What was your ini­tial in­spi­ra­tion for SGE?

As a re­lent­less stu­dent of the Grimms’ tales, I loved 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 or the ap­ple-car­ry­ing crone at the door – and relief upon sur­vival.

In re­cent years, fairy tale mashups, retellings, and re­vi­sions have be­come pop­u­lar, and for good rea­son, given how en­dur­ing and in­spir­ing the source ma­te­rial is. That said, I had my sights set on some­thing more pri­mal: a new fairy tale, just as un­leashed and un­hinged as the old, that found the anx­i­eties of to­day’s chil­dren. To ac­knowl­edge the past – the alumni of the genre, so to speak – and move on to a new class. As soon as I started think­ing in those terms, I knew I wanted to do a school-based novel. The first im­age I had of it was a girl in pink and a girl in black fall­ing into the wrong schools.

What is the core mes­sage you hope to send with the tril­ogy?

Each book will ex­plore the ever­last­ing ten­sion be­tween two “sides” at war: Good and Evil in Book 1, Boys and Girls in Book 2, Old and Young in Book 3. Early on in life, we learn that to be on one side means we can­not be on the other. But the goal of this tril­ogy is to awaken to the space be­tween th­ese sides, and the thrill of not quite know­ing who hero or vil­lain is, even un­til the very last page.

I wanted read­ers to feel like they were tak­ing a rich, strange jour­ney with char­ac­ters they love, but also a jour­ney that felt sin­gu­lar. I grew up watch­ing Bol­ly­wood movies, and I’m in awe of how jam-packed they are – ro­mance, magic, ad­ven­ture, ac­tion, com­edy, mys­tery – as if you’ve been in­vited to a sump­tu­ous ban­quet. So I just let my sub­con­scious un­leash, putting ev­ery genre to­gether that I love.

Do you have a favourite char­ac­ter in SGE, and why?

When my brother was read­ing the book, he called me up and said, “You know this So­phie girl ... she’s the real you.” Though it’s a rather un­char­i­ta­ble as­sess­ment, I have to say that writ­ing So­phie is the high­light of my day. She de­liv­ers mono­logues as if the whole world is lis­ten­ing, and I rel­ish the tightrope act of mak­ing her at once lu­di­crous and al­lur­ing.

Though I’m not nat­u­rally in­clined to­wards chil­dren con­fronting the grotesque or the im­moral, one must ask the ques­tion of why the orig­i­nal fairy tales were suit­able for chil­dren 200 years ago and why we serve them the warmed-over, sani­tised ver­sions now.

With SGE, I wanted to start in that kind of world with true con­se­quences, where there is bal­ance be­tween Good or Evil – which is in fact the re­al­ity of our world to­day. And I wanted to deal with the no­tion that Good has been win­ning ev­ery­thing, and what did that mean? Why does Good al­ways win th­ese days in sto­ries? And is that what chil­dren re­ally need to learn?

Per­haps by ask­ing th­ese ques­tions we can start to write our own mod­ern-day fairy tales, that find the anx­i­eties of to­day’s chil­dren and of­fer them a sur­vival guide that will stay rel­e­vant long into their adult­hood.

A World With­out Princes? It’s just such an epic book! Even big­ger and wilder than the first. I know there’s been a fair bit of de­bate online over whether Agatha and So­phie would even be in the se­quel. Af­ter all, the end of Book 1 should have been their happy end­ing. But many ques­tions re­main, (and) the de­li­cious thing about Book 2 is that nei­ther girl can re­ally share their an­swers with the other with­out open­ing up old wounds. Div­ing in and an­swer­ing th­ese gi­ant ques­tions is both a chal­lenge and a de­lec­ta­ble op­por­tu­nity.

The se­quel is very dif­fer­ent from Book 1. Al­ready (from the cover), read­ers will sense that this is a darker, fiercer world – and the boys have a greater role this time, given Te­dros’ ap­pear­ance. The end­ing to the first book cer­tainly stirred up a bit of a storm, and I can also as­sure read­ers that the sec­ond book will have its share its con­tro­versy.

At the end of Book 1, Agatha and So­phie have shat­tered the bound­ary be­tween Good and Evil, putting the fu­ture of the school in doubt. Is it still the School for Good and Evil? Will Evers and Nev­ers go to school to­gether? Who will run the schools?

When So­phie and Agatha re­turn, they’ll find the an­swers to th­ese ques­tions, as will we. But all the char­ac­ters are dra­mat­i­cally af­fected by what hap­pened in the first book. And there are def­i­nitely some new ad­di­tions to the ranks, both in the stu­dents and teach­ers.

The good news is I started as a screen­writer be­fore I be­came a nov­el­ist. So I’m fully aware of how the film form works from a cre­ative and com­mer­cial point of view. I won’t let the movie com­pro­mise the spirit of the SGE universe – that’s why I’m tak­ing on the ex­tra bur­den of writ­ing the film, even though I’m so busy with the books.

That said, the film will be a very dif­fer­ent an­i­mal. Part of the priv­i­lege of get­ting to write it is that I’ll en­able fans to ex­pe­ri­ence the world in a brand new way. No one wants a pure trans­la­tion of the book, scene for scene. Be­sides its im­prac­ti­cal­ity, read­ers’ imag­i­na­tions al­ready have done that much bet­ter than we au­thors ever could!

What are some of your favourite fairy tales, and why?

Hansel And Gre­tel is my favourite, be­cause it feels so deeply real in its threat. Gre­tel has to sur­vive a ter­ri­fy­ing sit­u­a­tion and save her brother, with poise, skill, and wit. I also love that witch in the story: she’s

Mak­ing mod­ern fairy tales: So­man chainani has set his sights on cre­at­ing a new type of fairy tale, one that ad­dresses

the anx­i­eties of to­day’s chil­dren.

Fans of chainani’s first book, TheS­choolOfGoodan­devil, were thrilled to be given a peek at the cover of the se­quel due out next year, aWorldWithoutPrinces, that has a ma­jor char­ac­ter — Te­dros — from book one on it.

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