Stephen Chbosky returns with "Imaginary Friend"

Adrian Liang on October 18, 2019
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Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower dove into readers’ hearts and shot up the bestseller lists when it hit shelves in 1999. He wrote and directed the film adaptation—starring Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, and Logan Lerman—which won over viewers since its release in 2012.

After a long gap between novels, Chbosky returns this fall with Imaginary Friend, a novel set in a town on the edge of the Pennsylvania suburbs where children have, inexplicably, gone missing over several generations. Young Christopher, who is new to town, becomes the next child entangled in a larger battle between good and evil.

I spoke with Stephen Chbosky earlier this year while we were both in New York for BookExpo and BookCon, and I asked him about his jump back into novel writing with this very different book.

Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review: What is Imaginary Friend about, in your own words?

Stephen Chbosky: Imaginary Friend is about the moment that we all have in childhood where you’re lying in the grass, you look up in the sky, and you see the clouds. And you think, Oh, that looks like a dog, or a hammer or face or whatever. What would happen if a little boy looked up in the clouds and realize that for the last two weeks it was always the same face looking at him. That was the germ of the idea…. I thought of it like a great teaser trailer, as it were: A little boy’s outside of his school and the last school bus drives away, and he’s all alone and he’s reading his book. And then suddenly a shadow cuts across the page and he looks up. There’s the face in the clouds looking at him and he says, Hello. Can you hear me? There’s a thunderclap in the distance. That it could be a coincidence. He says, If you can hear me, blink your left eye. And then the cloud slowly closes its eye and slowly opens it up and floats away.

So that’s what I had. That’s all I had, and I was intrigued by the cloud. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know what was behind it. I didn’t know anything but I loved the idea and the title of Imaginary Friend. I love its implications to a bunch of different things, including faith. And so over the course of the last nine years I just followed the cloud, and it led me to places I never thought in a million years I would have gone to.

Imaginary Friend looks very different from The Perks of Being a Wallflower. What would you say to readers of The Perks of Being a Wallflower to convince them to read this book?

In terms of the intimacy of the characters, I think it’s very similar. And in terms of a lot of the themes, they’re very similar themes…. [Imaginary Friend] is not a gore-a-thon. It’s not meant to terrify you on every page the way that some books are. It’s more of a mother-son story, and it’s a story about this little boy and his four friends, and there are teenagers, too. I know many Perks fans who have read it, and they’re all really excited about this new direction.

I want to ask you about the ending without giving anything away. It’s pretty memorable and shocking. At what point did you know as you were writing the book that that was the ending that you were moving towards?

There’s a character named Mary Katherine MacNeil—MacNeil from Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist. (God, I love that movie.) So Mary Katherine—as you know, because you read the book—is the most Catholic girl ever…. What I wanted to do is take somebody who had true faith and through the course of many events take [that faith] to its logical conclusion. [Laughs] It’s really hard to talk about without talking about it, isn’t it?

My favorite character is Christopher’s mother. [Mary Katherine] is my second favorite character. She’s very personal to me. Imaginary Friend is a lot about growing up as a Catholic boy…and the things that they scared us with back then.

Making The Perks of Being a Wallflower movie is what woke up my love of books again…. Emma Watson is a very dear friend of mine from doing that movie together, and we’ve been friends ever since. [While on set together] I decided to pitch her the whole story. So I’m telling her the story, and she’s on the edge of her seat. “And then Christopher goes into the woods…” Oh! “And then Mary Katherine…” Oh! “And then her mom…” Oh!

I get all the way to the end. And then I go, “And the ending is—” She went, Huh…

If you saw the look on her face! I went, “What, not good?” She’s like, Well, ah...no.

I knew she was right because her response before then was so positive, and she would never steer me wrong. She’s my friend. And so it took me two years to think of the other ending. She’s in the acknowledgements, and I said thank you for inspiring the ending on the set of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, because she did.

You mentioned that Christopher’s mom was your favorite character. She was a big hero for me, too, when reading this book. Her husband suffered from mental illness and killed himself. At one point Christopher’s doctor says, Oh, Christopher is also mentally ill; you need him on these drugs. And she says no because she sees through a little bit of what’s going on. But not much of the story is told from her point of view. Can you tell me about that choice you made there?

It is ultimately Christopher’s story, in that Christopher’s the one that is the glue that binds them all together. So mostly it wasn’t a disservice to her so much as it was a service to him. But what I really liked about writing Kate Reese was even though she was a very neglected little girl and very working-class, never really did much schooling, she’s the smartest person in town. And she has a lot of street smarts. And even though she’s haunted by choices that she made in the past and is haunted by things that her late husband had said to her, she will do anything for Christopher. I love the idea of a woman that grew up with abuse and who absolutely not only overcame it but actually used it as fuel. She learned the hard way, but she did learn and that’s what made her ultimately a great soldier in this fight between good and evil.

So, there was a bit of a gap between your two books….

[Laughs] That’s wonderfully understated. Yes, 20 years is a bit of a gap….

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I said to my dad, who is a very avid reader—so is my mom, so is my sister; I was not… I said, “Dad, I want to be a writer.” What I meant to say was “novelist,” but I didn’t say novelist, I said writer. And he said, Well, great writers are great readers, and then he left the room to smoke a Marlboro Red and watch the Penguins [hockey team]. And so what I didn’t know was he was actually giving me really good advice, but my 12-year-old brain didn’t really understand that that was advice. I thought it was a statement of fact. I said to myself, “He knows I don’t read a lot”—because I’m 12 and I play a lot of sports and I watch HBO all the time—“but I guess I watch movies…so, okay, I guess I’ll write movies.” I always meant to do novels. Always. That was my first love, and I just happened upon film in this really roundabout way. And ironically, or not, it was making the Perks movie that made me fall in love with books again. So there will not be a 20-year gap between this and the next one. I’m back, and this is the first of many.

Author photo by Meredith Morris


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