As both a visual artist and a writer, you have a unique set of skills you bring to your work. Do you feel that you write what you visualize, or do you feel that you are compelled to show others the world that you've written?
Such a smart question. I’ve always been a fantasist. By that, I mean that at age 6, I was already inventing my own worlds to escape the one I lived in. I’d draw maps of farflung places, roleplay with dolls in strange languages, and invent without restraint. But I always had such a clear vision of what I saw. The challenge was to find the language to describe it. So I work from a place of visualization and then try to find the words to capture it, though I know that’s a nearly impossible task. The most beautiful thing about dreams is that they are indescribable.
You graduated from Harvard with a degree in English literature—but an emphasis in fairy tales, particularly their villains. What continues to draw you to this theme? Does it continue through your films as well?
I love fairy tales because of how fundamentally unsafe the characters were. You could very well end up with a pot of gold and an Ever After – or you could lose your head or end up pushed into an oven. There was no ‘warmth’ built into the narrator, no the predictability of a happy ending. The reader vicariously tried to survive the gingerbread house, the hook-handed captain, or the apple-carrying crone at the door just like the characters did.
In recent years, fairy tale mash-ups, 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. The idea of creating my own fairy tale was irresistible. It seemed like a full circle from my days of sitting in front of the television and watching Disney cartoons again and again.
After focusing on film for so long, what brought you back to your college roots and prompted you to write this book? Why did you feel the Young Adult genre was the right fit?
I graduated from film school in 2008 and for two years, was just inundated with jobs for hire. I worked on scripts for movie studios, television projects, animated movies, just soaking up experiences and learning to tell a story from people who had decades more experience than I did. I needed time to grow as a storyteller and figure out what I wanted to say.
At the same time, I had had the idea for THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL a while ago, but I also knew it could only thrive after Harry Potter had finished its run and we had a healthy distance from it. Otherwise the idea of a school-based narrative would suffer comparisons, despite the fact the two series couldn’t be more different. So in 2010, I finally had the chance to sit down and begin laying out the plan for the series. And yet, I still didn’t know whether they should be books or films! Fate managed that part for me – I met producer Jane Startz, who was emphatic I should do them as books first.
I tend to be on the fence about book trailers. Yours, however, is the epitome of what a book trailer should be. Just fabulous! How did you find the process? How much input did you have? Any overall thoughts on book trailers? Marketing in general?
So glad you liked it! It’s where a film background comes in handy. I knew exactly what I wanted and luckily I’ve worked with some genius artists over the past five years. So when I started contemplating a book trailer, I knew right away I had to use Manny Palad and Michael Blank, two master animators and illustrators. They’re extraordinarily picky about projects and at first resisted the idea of a book trailer – but once they read the book, they saw the opportunity to really do something unique. I wrote the script for the trailer and then gave them free rein to bring it to life. Throw in Luciano Storti’s brilliant score and they made something truly memorable. I got chills the first time I saw it. You should see what kids’ faces look like when they first see it. I always think they’re going to explode.
And yet… I’ve never watched another book trailer! What a horrible thing to say. It’s just I didn’t want to have any preconceptions of what they should look like. So I started from the idea of let’s do our concept of a book trailer and see if anyone can make sense of it. The response barreled us all over. Michael and Manny are already conjuring ideas for the sequel trailer.
I know most authors are quite ambivalent about marketing, but I love having my hand in it. Coming from the film world, I know how important it is to present a unified, synergized world to the audience. Everything has to feel consistent and high-quality and most of all, honest. Even the website took a massive amount of work and detail to get right, down to the scoring of the Evers vs. Nevers quiz that tells you which school you’ll be sorted into. Harper has been incredible through the whole process and given me free rein to bring my ideas to life.
THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL and its sequels are already slated to be turned into major Hollywood films—and you're co-writing the screenplays. Was this level of control (which every writer dreams of, but seldom gets the chance to have) a deal-breaker for you? Is this coming naturally to you with your background as a filmmaker?
Absolutely. I can live without the books being turned into movies. I’m completely fine with them existing purely as books, because that’s what they’re meant to be. That said, if we were going to do the films, they had to be done the right way. Luckily I have Jane Startz aboard as the film’s producer, who has produced so many classic children’s book adaptations over the years, including Ella Enchanted, Tuck Everlasting, and The Indian in the Cupboard among them. Now she gets her chance to grow a series from the ground up.
I’ve been working on the screenplay for the film at the same time as writing the book sequel and editing the final hardcover of Book 1. Needless to say, sometimes I wake up completely confused as to which is which. But perhaps it’s fitting karma that for a filmmaker-turned-novelist, I now am co-existing in both worlds.
Can you give us a brief overview of THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL, and its protagonists, Agatha and Sophie? Can you tell us a little about what we can expect in the sequel?
THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL is the first in the first book in an epic new fantasy trilogy, which follows two heroines: gorgeous Sophie, with her waist-long blond hair and her dreams of becoming a princess -- and her black-wearing friend Agatha, awkward and dour, who everyone thinks is a witch. But when they arrive at the School for Good and Evil, where children are trained to become fairy-tale heroes and villains, they’re put in the wrong schools. Sophie is dumped in Evil to learn Uglification, Death Curses, and other villainous arts, while Agatha finds herself at the School for Good amid handsome princes and fair maidens. But the question remains: Is it really a mistake?
The book has so many insane twists and turns that to even tell you who’s in the sequel would spoil the experience of the first book. But I’ll tell you this much: the second book is even more subversive than the first. I look forward to getting into a lot of trouble for it.
Read the Entertainment Weekly review here.
What's coming next for you, both on the page and on the screen?
I’m currently writing the second book in the series as well as shaping the screenplay for the film. So it will be a busy summer.
WOULD YOU RATHER BE TRAINED AS A HERO OR VILLAIN? Tell us or comment on the interview by using the Comments box further down on this page, or commenting on this blog entry on our Facebook page and be entered to win a copy of THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL!
QUICKIES WITH SOMAN:
Writing ambience: A good recliner. Glass of water with lemon. A hoodie and pajama pants.
To outline or not to outline: Outline rigorously...but I throw it out once I start and let the elves take over.
Reading now: THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer.
Book or eReader? BOOK! Given how much I stare at a computer, the idea of an eReader gives me a migraine.
Book(s) he wishes he could read again for the first time: AUNTIE MAME, THE LINE OF BEAUTY, A ROOM WITH A VIEW, and PETER PAN.
Cats or Dogs: Dogs.
Where he'd time travel: Ancient Greece. It just sounds like a time of such possibility.
His greatest fear: Being too busy to enjoy the present. I have to constantly work at that.
His most effective promotional tool: An artfully made book trailer. (See his here- it's the best I've ever seen.)
Favorite independent bookstore: McNally Jackson in Soho, NY.
If he could have one superpower: To be able to hear what other people are really thinking.