Last Updated on October 25, 2021
Soman Chainani is a bit of an unusual guest for Grimdark Magazine. He is mainly known for the series The School for Good and Evil, a long-running middle grade fantasy series, which has sold more than 3 million copies, been translated into 30 languages across 6 continents, and will be a major motion picture from Netflix in 2022. He is now back with Beasts & Beauty, a highly illustrated collection of dark fairy tales and we had the opportunity to talk to him about retellings, fairy tales and his new book.
[GdM] What inspired you to write a collection of re-written fairy tales?
[SC] The School for Good was my attempt to reclaim fairy tales from Disney by presenting a fantasy school where students learned more nuanced interpretations of Good and Evil. It was a bit like Harry Potter if the Slytherins were as capable – and much more sexy and charming – than the Gryffindors. So, when I was done with that series, six books in ten years, I was ready for a kind of primal unleashing. I found myself going back to the original tales and wishing that I could just redo them from scratch, because the old fairy tales seemed so dead and irrelevant at this point. It was a lofty ambition but being cooped up during a pandemic makes you lose all self-consciousness and fear and just swing for the fences.
[GdM] What was the biggest challenge writing in short form after writing a long-running series?
[SC] A short story is much harder to execute than a novel. It’s the equivalent of the short program in figure skating where you cannot make a mistake – whereas in the free skate or longer program, if you fall once or twice, you can find ways to make it up elsewhere. So, with a short form fairy tale, you have to be so controlled and precise and focused, because any error in the chain will be glaring and disrupt the reader. The vision has to be so pure and directed.
[GdM] What was your favourite version of a fairy tale that you encountered while researching for this book?
[SC] The original Sleeping Beauty story is so wild and intense, featuring a princess who wakes up pregnant, unsure who the father is, the setup for a tale that evolves into cannibalism and child murder. I knew when I did my Sleeping Beauty I wanted to bring that feeling of darkness and feeding and terror back to the tale, which is why I start with a prince who wakes up every morning sucked of blood.
[GdM] Have these stories always been a presence in your life?
[SC] We didn’t have cable or internet or video games when I was young, so all we had was our rickety TV set and VHS tapes of every single Disney animated movie (my parents figured Disney was an appropriate surrogate parent to my two brothers and I). Until age 8 or so, those movies were all I watched. Everything I learned about storytelling, I learned from Disney. When I went to college and took a class about fairy tales, though, I became fascinated by the gap between the original tales and the Disney revisions I had grown up with. Somewhere in that gap, The School for Good and Evil was born.
[GdM] How do you balance writing for your audience, which is mostly younger readers, with the tendency to return your tales to their darker, less sanitised roots?
[SC] I don’t think too much about the age of the audience. I just think about an audience of all ages, gathered around a campfire, listening to a story. You have to entertain at a primal level, the way the old fairy tales did, whether someone is 8 or 88. There’s a way to tell a satisfying story that resonates on different levels for all ages. It’s what the original storytellers did. It’s difficult, of course. Nearly impossible. But that’s what I’m trying to do.
[GdM] How did the looming Disney interpretations impact you while reworking these beloved stories into your own versions?
[SC] 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. I’m more interested in the gap between Disney and Grimm’s and the original tales than working with any of the Disney tropes. My hope is to help children reclaim their fairy tales from Disney.
[GdM] How did you choose which tales to include in your collection, which stories you wanted to reimagine?
[SC] There was no conscious choosing, really. Each time I finished a story, the next one came to me. I tend to write from an unconscious place, so I let the stories guide me. Every time I finished a tale, the next one seemed to appear out of the ethers, with a fully formed beginning, middle and end.
[GdM] What have you been reading or watching recently that you’d like to shout out to our readers?
[SC] Ted Chiang’s short stories are the secret to understanding life. Exhalation and Stories of Our Life are the two collections. Required reading for every human.