Like most kids, Soman Chainani was raised on a steady diet of Disney growing up.
“We didn’t have Nintendo, Netflix, video games, all the stuff that kids have today. We had Disney movies,” Chainani says in the latest episode of Fast Company’s podcast Creative Conversation. “All 45 animated movies were at my house, and I just watched them 24/7. I knew every movie, every frame, every line.”
Disney’s grip on Chainani was so firm, in fact, that he applied to work at the company as an analyst in strategic planning fresh out of college.
“If I had got that job, I think my life would’ve been completely different,” Chainani says.
Chainani operates in the world of fairy tales as a young adult (YA) author, but his vision is far darker and more complex.
Consider him the “alt Walt.”
“I started to realize that my childhood, in a lot of ways, was based on a lie and that these Disney fairy tales teach the opposite of what the original fairy tales taught,” Chainani says of Disney’s source material largely comprised of sanitized versions of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. “The original fairy tales taught that sometimes good wins, sometimes evil wins. Both sides are aware of each other, but you don’t actually identify with good or evil. You have to be a little bit of both in order to slide your way through life.”
Chainani’s debut novel and series The School for Good and Evil, which Netflix is adapting as a film with director Paul Feig at the helm, is a direct subversion of the typical princess tale.
The main catalyst for the series stems from two girls getting dropped off at the wrong fairy tale academies. Sophie, the beautiful blonde ripe for a future prince gets stuck at the school for evil, while her brooding, misanthropic friend Agatha is dropped off at the school for good.
“That is a corrupting influence, the idea that you are either good or evil and you’re on one side. And I think it infects everything in this country. I think it infects everything up to our politics,” Chainani says. “That seeded in my head that so many kids like me were growing up with Disneyfied values when the true fairy tales taught something very different. That’s where the seed of an alternative fairy tale universe started.”
Chainani recently extended his universe with Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales, a collection of Brothers Grimm fairy tales with a modern twist.
For example, the story of Snow White turns the titular princess into the only Black girl in the kingdom, adding a deeper layer of complexity to her struggle with her white stepmother and who the fairest in the land truly is. Little Red Riding Hood becomes a reflection of society’s disregard for women, with the townspeople routinely sacrificing their prettiest maidens to a pack of wolves so they may be spared.
“I thought, in an immense act of hubris and ambition, ‘I’m going to pretend I am the original writer of these tales. So what do I want the generations to learn? Let’s redo them. Let’s make them work for today’s world,'” Chainani says. “It was a lofty ambition, but I think I needed that in order not to be precious about the stories and start from the seed of what they actually were about.”
In this episode of Creative Conversation, Chainani goes deeper into his alternative vision for fairy tales, why the rules of YA novels need to be broken, and more.
Giving princesses power
What’s so interesting about the Disney version of the stories is that the idea of good and evil doesn’t occur to the hero or heroine. They just happen to be virtuous and kind, and they’re oblivious. They’re almost passive vehicles for their story. And what I was more concerned about is, we live in this world where good and evil are defined for us and thrust upon us. To me, that’s what we wrestle with every day. Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing the wrong thing? These are the big questions, and I feel like we need fairy tales where the character’s actually awake, where the character’s actually self-aware enough to be thinking to themselves: “What’s the right thing? What’s the wrong thing?”
Breaking the YA Rules
With this new book, Beasts and Beauty, I set out saying, “I’m going to write a book that’s for adults and kids are going to read it and I’m not going to change any of it to make it kid friendly. It’s going to be an adult book and kids are going to be super into it.” Ultimately, a lot of these rules [in publishing young adult fiction] are just old. I think coming in with a fresh perspective of the publishing industry means you can disrupt and you can be a little bit of a flame thrower, which I do. I’m always challenging everybody to break the rules a little bit, because books are fighting an uphill challenge. Kids have video games, TikTok, YouTube, and everything. We’ve got to make it sexy again. The only way we’re going to do that is to make it feel renegade. So every one of my books has to feel like it’s pushing and it’s making kids feel like they’re in on a secret.
Writing from the “unconscious”
I believe the best writing comes from the unconscious. I rarely try to make any decisions consciously or in a cerebral way. It has to be instinctive, and it has to come from the gut. In order to access that, it’s very difficult. You can’t just sit down and work. You have to be able to tap into it. So, there’s a whole process. I exercise a ton. I’m into meditation. There’s a certain amount of sleep you have to get. You have to live life almost like an Olympic athlete, because you’re trying to summon this kind of muse and spirit that isn’t within your conscious control. You have to be so surrendered to it. So it’s difficult, and it definitely means my life is highly disciplined. But I think the end result is when I sit down to write, it almost feels like you’ve got into this fugue flow state where you’re not in control of it.