Soman Chainani '01: Writing for good (and evil)

by Andrew Chow '14

On March 17, 1999, Harvard sophomore Soman Chainani was rejected from the Crimson Key, the Signet and the Prefect Program in the span of 24 hours. "I was a boy on the verge of a nervous breakdown," he wrote a couple years later in a reflection for the Crimson.

People haven’t been saying no to Chainani lately. Fourteen years after that fateful day, Chainani is a New York Times bestselling author currently in the midst of writing a second novel and a movie screenplay for his first novel at the same time. I think it’s safe to say that he’s recovered from rejection.

In fact, he's so busy, it proved difficult to reach Chainani for this piece, but not because he’s aloof. Rather, he was doing three highly exhausting things at the same time: pubbing his first novel, The School for Good and Evil, which came out last May and quickly hit the New York Times bestsellers list, writing the screenplay for the novel’s movie, which was picked up by Universal Pictures, and writing the sequel, A World Without Princes, which is the second in a trilogy and will come out in April 2014.

"They are both on such crazy deadlines, so it’s been pretty intense," Chainani tells me when I finally reach him by phone.

Chainani has taken the young adult fiction world by storm with The School for Good and Evil, which was named to Barnes and Nobles’ Best of 2013 list. The novel tells the story of best friends Sophie and Agatha, who have princess-like and witch-like tendencies, respectively. However, after the demure Sophie is accidently sent to a school for evil and the darker Agatha is sent to a school for good, the character of each becomes increasingly unclear.

"Kids like ambiguity," Chainani says. "I’m trying to throw them for a loop."

Chainani has been studying fairy tales and the relationship between good and evil since his Harvard days, when he studied English and wrote his thesis on the evolution of the witch in modern day fairy tales, such as Wicked (novel and musical).

"They all thought it was going to be this silly thesis," Chainani remembers. "But I really went in depth into all kinds of theoretical frameworks to examine why the witch ended up getting revised instead of the princess."

Before writing his thesis, Chainani also served as the Arts Chair for the Crimson for a year, writing thousands of words of commentary on pop culture at the turn of the millenium. For his first ever article, he interviewed Matt Damon for a little movie called Good Will Hunting, which ended up being nominated for nine Academy Awards and winning two (best actor for Robin Williams and best original screenplay for Damon and Ben Affleck). "Nobody wanted the pitch, because no one had heard of the movie at the time," he recalls. He later used a Hollywood connection to snag interviews with Woody Allen, Kurt Vonnegut, Carson Daly and others for the Crimson. "It was this really fun renaissance of the Arts Section. And without that level of maturity and self discipline, I don’t think I could have done what I did later," he says.

After graduation, Chainani had plans to go to business school but quickly abandoned the idea in favor of pursuing his real passions in fairy tales, film, and storytelling. He worked on directing his own movie for a couple years in London before the economy tanked and the project lost funding. He returned to the U.S. with the idea for a trilogy; with the help of producer Jane Startz (Ella Enchanted, Tuck Everlasting), he sold the three novels to HarperCollins without writing a single word.

When we spoke, he was traveling across the country to various book talks, and working on that second novel, which explores the grey area between boys and girls instead of the grey area between good and evil. "It’s gonna get me in trouble, I’m pretty confident," he says. "This particular book is constantly challenging assumptions."

Chainani has been challenging assumptions for quite a while now. After being told no by one organization after another, he’s finally in the driver’s seat.

Read more about Soman Chainani in the Harvard Magazine.

[Caption: Soman Chainani '01]