SALON TALKS

What would today's fairy tale look like if you could "un-Disney-fy people's brains"?

Author Soman Chainani's "Beasts and Beauty" repairs classics, from Brothers' Grimm to Disney and Harry Potter

By D. Watkins
Published September 28, 2021 4:00PM (EDT)
Sleeping Beauty from "Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales." (Illustration by Julia Iredale, Courtesy of HarperCollins)
Sleeping Beauty from "Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales." (Illustration by Julia Iredale, Courtesy of HarperCollins)

As a child born in the '80s, I never saw myself in a book. It was actually very easy for me to believe that African Americans, and other POC had little to no place in literature. I never argued or put up a real fuss –– but I did end up doing something more dangerous. I stopped going to the library, paying attention in English class and kind of did away with books. A few years later, I discovered a couple breakout titles like Nathan McCall's "Makes Me Wanna Holler" and Sista Souljah's "The Coldest Winter Ever" that spoke to my generation and my American experience. Even still, those titles were few and far between. 

It is now 2021, and we are finally seeing the change that we all deserve in books for kids, with a tremendous influx of writers who represent every color, gender and ethnic group. They are claiming their stake in the literary world, taking up space, diversifying stories, and finally giving voice to kids like me who never got a chance to see themselves in books. This is a revolutionary moment in literature, happening in real time.

Soman Chainani, author of "The School For Good And Evil" young adult fantasy series that is soon to be a Netflix film, has emerged as one of the most important figures in this movement. He is continuing to push the conversation forward with his newest book, "Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales." 

I spoke to Chainani, who has sold over 3 million books that have been translated into 30 languages across six continents, about how he spent the pandemic writing "Beasts and Beauty," where he remixes some of the most popular stories from the Brothers Grimm, which are familiar to many because of their Disney adaptations. Chainani turned Snow White into a Black woman, made Sleeping Beauty a man and completely twisted some of the world's most classic stories in a way that not only is extremely creative, but will allow so many young people that represent so many different groups to simply feel seen.

On "Salon Talks," Chainani and I discussed what representation looks like and how an author can achieve that for lots of different audiences. "For me personally, I have so many different facets to my identity because I'm Indian, but I'm American, but I'm also gay, but I grew up an athlete," he said. "I don't seek out to do sort of gratuitous representation for any sort of moralizing or sake or anything like that. I just seek out to represent different traits in myself, which tends to be universal because they fit other people's identities as well."

You can watch the episode with Soman Chainani here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear about how he changed up the classic fairy tales and what we can expect when his wildly successful "School for Good and Evil" is turned into a Netflix movie starring Academy Award winner Charlize Theron and Kerry Washington and directed by Paul Feig.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How has being in the pandemic affected you creatively? Were you able to write like business as usual, or did you kind of take a step back?
It's such a good question because I think every writer has handled it differently. I had a very specific set of circumstances, which was, I finished the last of "The School for Good and Evil" books on March 11 of last year. I turned in the final draft that was going off to the press. It was the sixth in the series. It was a 10-year journey. And that was supposed to sort of end the phase of my life. I had planned to take the rest of the year off and I was going to go to a tennis academy in France and basically just go on an Australia walkabout and find new energy and inspiration for something new. Then lockdown happened 48 hours later.

I went from just almost retiring as a writer and thinking that I was going to have a year where I wasn't going to write to suddenly being trapped in a small space. I think in those days it'll be very hard for us to go back and actually remember what that headspace was like when the pandemic started, of how sort of doomsday and apocalyptic everything felt. And I remember thinking that now, if any time was the best time to write and I had to find a way to put my feelings into something. It almost felt like the world had gone wrong like we had made a wrong turn and somehow inflicted this upon ourselves.

I thought, look, I write fairy tales. That's what I do. So why don't I go back to the originals, the original Grimm's stories and just redo them and teach the right lessons this time as if we could do the whole world over again from 1600 or 1700 from when they were written. And it was such a big challenge, but it filled my time very dependent kind of, all right, I'm going to redo them as if I was the Brothers Grimm and that really gave me the energy and the inspiration to get through lockdown.

Congratulations on "Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales." It's one of the wildest books I've ever read. I thought it was funny, dark and brilliant. It left me wondering, what was your relationship to some of these tales anyway? Did you come up on the Brothers Grimm tales?
It's a good question because I think my relationship was similar to what most Americans' relationship with these stories, which is I learned them from Disney. You grow up with the Disney versions of the fairy tales, and the Disney versions are completely wrong. The Disney versions are contorted so that the good guy always wins. And so you grow up with this very kind of skewed sense of good and evil and moral or immoral.

I think it's so bad for us and kind of toxic in the way that we learn our fairy tales, that it ultimately extends all the way to our politics, right? There's the good guys and the bad guys and either you're with the good or with the evil and there's no shades of in-between, there's no nuance. There's no understanding of balance that sometimes you have to let the other side win in order for your side to have meaning and things like that. And the Grimm's stories that's what all of those were about; they were the survival guides to life back then.

When I went to college, I ended up in a fairy tale seminar where I learned the original stories and I was like, "Oh my God, my entire life was based on this ridiculous lie of these Disney stories." So I think that gap, the fact that I felt I was lied to as a child is what caused my obsession with fairy tales and this desire to un-Disney-fy people's brains, whether they're kids or adults. Just get the Disney fairy tales out of their heads.

One of the things that made me laugh is when I found out that you made Snow White Black.

It's funny, with Snow White I didn't know what I wanted to do. I wrote this fairy tale collection in order. All the stories I wrote precisely in the order that I wrote them except for Snow White. Snow White I think I did four and I remember thinking like, what am I going to do with Snow White? Who wants to read about Snow White? No one. And then I thought, well, that's the joke. The joke is that you have an all-white kingdom where, the only Black woman in the kingdom is who the prince marries because the prince is so sort of in love with himself, that he wants to bring the one Black woman into his fold and then of course kind of treats her poorly. 

When she has a daughter, she named her Snow White almost as an ironic kind of jab at this kingdom where Black beauty is not recognized or acknowledged or understood. It's funny, it's a personal story in all the ways because I grew up on an island where I was the only brown kid, right? I was only the kid who looked like me and I remember that feeling very well. And so I wanted a fairy tale to be about that, to be about difference.

While reading your book, I was thinking about when I read the Three Little Bears to my daughter. I was laughing because I was like, this white lady is out of control. She went inside of somebody's house. She tried the porridge. She lounged on a couch. She slept in the bed. She probably took a dump. She did all of these things. And then these bears are coming home like, "I literally just made the bed, it's wrinkled. I literally just put this soup out and somebody . . . " Goldilocks is out here eating other people's food in a pandemic like how could you be so gross.

One hundred percent. Goldilocks really represents – there's a lot of depth to that story and I think I referenced it in Snow White because when I have Snow White come to the dwarfs' house, she basically does the same thing. She pours herself a glass of wine, makes a salad, all these things and ultimately the dwarfs are like, "Now you have to do something for us in return." And what they want more than anything else in the whole world, because the dwarfs are Black too, is they want stories that have characters that look like them. It's the one thing that's missing, right? 

I think the Goldilocks story is interesting because it really is a story of a girl who kind of takes whatever she wants and runs, and in this case I wanted to do a story where the bears in a way have their revenge, at least the bears gets their say.

Are there people who push back on the classics being remixed?

I think what ends up happening is every fairy tale has to speak to something universal. It has to feel like it taps into something that you've seen or you know because the whole purpose of these to begin with is they were meant to teach you a lesson about life that you would take forward. I think the key about how to write these stories is to always look for something that would feel universal to everybody, even though Snow White is the only Black girl in the kingdom, it doesn't mean that only Black people reading that story are going to understand it.

It means that anybody who has felt that sort of bitterness of not being acknowledged and understood because there is a different stereotype or a different model of what beauty is and what intelligence is or whatever it is, is going to recognize themselves in that story. I think the key is to be able to push past that resistance and find the universality.


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One of the things that I really appreciated about your book was just this whole idea of how the Brothers Grimm just got it wrong. In so many of these things that we subscribed to. So many books and so many lessons and things that are just forced on us as young people are not right. I think it's difficult for a lot of people to latch on to that at times, but I think you do a great job at pushing the conversation forward.

Well, I think sometimes what you have to do in the story is actually identifying where people have been brainwashed or gone wrong. The Little Mermaid is a key example. In the Disney version of a Little Mermaid, she gets her happy ending at the end. She goes off with her prince and gets all these things. But that story makes no sense because Ariel is clearly the villain of that story. She's the one who disobeys her family. She's the one who falls in love with the prince, even though she knows nothing about him. She's the one who goes to her father's worst enemy, the sea witch, and makes this deal. She's the one who signed the contract and then somehow has a problem with that later. She's the one who consistently is the villain, right?

When I wrote my version of The Little Mermaid, I just wanted it to be a conversation between the Ursula character and the Ariel character where Ursula is like, "I am not the problem. You are the problem. Let's be very clear, you are the villain in this story." You have them actually argue that out of who's good, who's evil in this story.

I think sometimes it just takes having someone point out that the story doesn't make sense. I even think of The Lion King. Lion King makes no sense because Scar is set up from the beginning of that story as a character who doesn't fight, right? He's skinny, he's afraid of fighting. He will never fight you, right? He's so unwilling to fight Mufasa that he waits until Mufasa has a child. For years Simba grows up so that Scar can use Simba to kill his own dad, right?

At the end of the movie, Disney has a problem because they need Simba to beat Scar and win the movie, but Simba is not good at anything. Simba is not very smart. He is not clever. He is not funny. He doesn't have any good qualities, right? So what did they do? They have them fight. They have Scar fight Simba, which makes no sense because the entire movie is about how Scar doesn't fight and gets other people to fight for him.

Two non-fighters fighting.

It made me crazy because I'm like, "You're just cheating." My job as a writer is to point these things out and find a way to kind of undo it.

Maybe they could have cut in a scene where Simba got like a gym membership and hit the heavy bag or something like that.

Yeah, or something with Scar . . . I don't know. I just think the whole point of Scar is that he doesn't fight, and it was disappointing.

Representation plays a major part in your work and is something that you should be championed for because we need it. Was the lack of diversity that exists in children's literature something that got you into the way you write?

One hundred percent. I think it's funny because with "The School for Good and Evil" 10 years ago, if you were an author of color, you had to write about white characters. I mean, that was your only way into the industry if you were going to write a sort of big fantasy. I kept thinking what I wanted to do was take those Disney characters and stuff we thought we knew — the blonde prince, this sort of dark-featured witch, the blonde princess — and sort of completely dismantled them, right? And then as the years went on I was able to pump those stories with so much diversity — characters from all different backgrounds, different sexualities, different ways of thinking and modes of being and all those kinds of things. I was able to do that as sort of like a reparative to the Disney upbringing. And also even Harry Potter because Harry Potter is so straight and so white. And with "Beasts and Beauty" I was able to really from the ground up, be like, "Okay, this is going to reflect the world, right?"

Every story takes on some element of, not necessarily diversity in the world, but a virtue of representation in the world that we haven't really seen in a fairy tale. Sleeping Beauty is about a prince, not a princess. Beauty and the Beast is about an Asian family that immigrates to France and they're trying to make a business, even though there's quite a bit of racism against them there. Every story sort of finds an angle. We do a familiar tale in a different way.

You are a person of color who has had success in the publishing industry, which is historically very white. Do you feel like things that are finally changing for the better?

I think so. I think what's happening is, luckily publishing is filled with smart people, you know what I mean? That's where you're going to find the smartest souls in the world in a lot of ways. I think they caught onto it quite early, that if you didn't have books that reflected a larger experience, then you were sort of shortchanging the world and you were also losing money because you weren't serving a large part of the audience. And because of that, I think you've seen a lot more books published that represent a wider range of experience. 

At the same time, that's what feeds movies and TV because movies and TV these days are often based on books, so you're expanding your repertoire of, what stories we're going to be able to see. For me personally, I have so many different facets to my identity. Because I'm Indian, but I'm American, but I'm also gay, but I grew up an athlete. There's just so many different pieces to play with and so I think in a lot of ways, I don't seek out to do sort of gratuitous representation for any sort of moralizing or sake or anything like that. I just seek out to represent different traits in myself, which tends to be universal because they fit other people's identities as well.

That would be like a wow one-liner for a quick bio: "I am an Indian, American, gay, athletic writer."

Yeah, it's almost too many things sometimes where there's a lot of different pieces that I just have to remind myself that it's not just me, it's everybody, right? You go to everybody and you try to get them to sort of boil down their identity and they realize that there's so many contradicting pieces and people are complicated. We forget that, especially when I write characters, I feel like I need that sort of level of complexity because that's who we all are. We don't always make sense.

We're blessed to have you writing because we need that. We need someone who can draw from those many different experiences just so we can learn too. That's kind of what it's about. Congratulations on "The School for Good and Evil" being made into a Netflix movie.

It's definitely going to come out about sometime next year. I can definitely talk about it. I was on set for a while earlier this spring. It was shooting in Belfast. It's being directed by Paul Feig, who's one of my favorite directors and he's just the best. He's made "Bridesmaids" and "Ghostbusters" and "A Simple Favor" and he was the creator of "Freaks and Geeks" and "Spy." 

It stars a whole laundry list of big names on the adult side and some fantastic young actors. On the young actor side, you have Sofia Wylie, who's a big star and Sophia Ann Caruso. And then on the adult side you have Charlize Theron, Kerry Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Yeoh, amongst others. It's just an absolutely fabulous cast that Paul has put together.

The movie looks absolutely insanely incredible. It's one of the biggest movies in Netflix really has ever made, so I'm just excited for the world to see it and get to see the book on screen. It's not Harry Potter, let's put it that way, but it's ultimately kind of fantasy school. Very representative of the world, every shade of the rainbow, every shade of color. It's just so much more diverse than what you thought from Potter.

When we write these books, you get to work on it and it becomes a conversation between you and your editor that goes out into the world. Film is so collaborative, though. When you make these books into films, you have to include so many people and you have to watch your work be picked at and picked at. Did that bother you any?

No, because I think I was lucky in that I came from the film world. I went to film school after college. That's where I started as a screenwriter and as a director. It was what my training was and so in a lot of ways, when I went to write the novel, I almost wrote it with a filmic adaptation or a filmic mind because that was my training. I think it made it easier to write the screenplay because it was already based in a three-act structure.

I was involved so much all along because it had a long sort of complicated development process. And if anything, I think the running joke is that I always pushed for more changes than everybody else. Anytime I had my hands on it, I was moving things around and messing things up because that's what I love to do – these sort of like break structure and things like that. Then they would always put it back to the way it was in the book. I feel like the final result is very faithful to the books and yet has its own kind of cinematic, unity and wholeness to it. So I just think we were lucky to have someone of Paul's caliber do this because it elevates it from just sort of a run-of-the-mill fantasy would be into an event for all audiences.

Should we be looking forward to "Beasts and Beauty" coming to the silver screen as well?

I think Beasts and Beauty will make a killer TV series, almost like a "Black Mirror" where every episode is it's one fairy tale. So that's my dream for it. We're early in the process, but that's the hope that it would be a sort of beautiful, awesome TV series.

I feel like you're going to make it happen. Please tell everyone where they can get the book.
It's available at every retail store you can imagine, but if you go to evernever.com, which is my big umbrella fantasy website, you can get links to signed editions that are available from multiple bookstores. And you can find me on Instagram @somanc or Twitter @SomanChainani, but evernever.com is sort of my big home for the fantasy universe.


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

MORE FROM D. WatkinsFOLLOW @dwatkinsworld


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