A young boy who has a hard time connecting to the world finds his way through the help of friends he loves.
With The Perks of Being a Wallflower, author Stephen Chbosky wrote a novel that still reverberates decades later with anyone who has ever felt like a loser or an outsider by uncovering the deep, unbreakable bonds that can form between fellow outcasts.
Now, almost exactly 20 years after publishing that YA classic, Chbosky has written his second book, Imaginary Friend, changing gears from heartwarming to chilling.
What if the voices that reach out to a young boy who feels lost and alone can’t be seen or heard by anyone else?
The book, debuting Oct. 1, follows 7-year-old Christopher, who moves to a new town with his single mom Kate and struggles to find his place until someone — or some thing — reaches out to him, appearing as a face in the sky, or a voice whispering on the wind.
It gives him a mission, to build a treehouse in the woods, and tells him about long-buried town secrets (sometimes literally so.) It’s a voice Christopher trusts, although it’s not clear that he should.
Not all friends are true ones, especially those that hide who they are.
Chbosky, who co-created the TV series Jericho and directed Wonder and his own screen adaptation of Perks, spoke with EW exclusively about his return to books, and the story that has haunted him for nine years.
Entertainment Weekly: Imaginary Friend is the first book you’ve published in 20 years, but it’s a very different kind of story. That was a YA novel, a coming of age story. How would you describe this one? A horror story? A mystery story?
Stephen Chbosky: I think it’s all of the above, you know? It has all the heart, and all the soul, and all of the emotional components that Perks had, and in a lot of cases it’s about a lot of the same themes.
But told in a more unsettling way.
There’s some mystery in it. There’s certainly some horror in it. There’s an epic small town story. And a lot of fun scares. But at its heart, it’s always a story about a mother and a son, and about being young and being vulnerable.
What kind of kid is he when we meet him?
Christopher is a very kind, innately good little boy. He became that way in large part because his mother, Kate, loves him so much. But he had a very, very difficult early childhood. There’s tragedy around his father, and his mom made some bad choices that she’s now coming out from… So he grew up kind of rough, but his way of dealing with it is being kind, and being sweet. However, he has a lot of intellectual problems.
He’s dyslexic. He has a lot of problems with math. And when this story begins, he’s not… He may be a world class kid, but he’s not a very good student. That is of course until he goes into the woods.
And he disappears. We’ll avoid spoilers because the book is several months away from being released. But what leads him away?
Imaginary Friend came from this what-if premise. Remember when you were a little kid, and you’d lay in the grass looking at the clouds We all did it. You’d look at the shapes, and say, “That looks like a dog. Or a hammer, or a face, or whatever.” My what-if was, what if a little boy looked up at the clouds, and realized that for the last two weeks it was always the same face looking at him?
And he’s the only one who notices?
Imagine the moment outside of his school, where he’s all alone, and the last of the school buses go away, and he looks up and he sees the cloud. He looks over both shoulders to make sure that no one’s watching because it looks crazy if he’s doing that.
But he goes, “Hello…? Can you hear me?” And there’s a thunderclap in the distance. It could be a coincidence, so the little boy says, “If you can hear me, blink your left eye.” And the cloud does, and it blinks, and then it floats away. And then Christopher follows the cloud.
That’s the scene that grew into the book?
To me that was the origin of this whole thing. What I’ve spent the last nine years doing was following the cloud. It has led me to places that I could not have predicted, and it was so exciting to write it and figure out what it all meant.
In the book, Christopher has a lot of people in his life who are looking out for him. His mom, Kate. He has the sheriff. He has a little group of friends, who are similar outcasts to him.
My favorite is his friend, Eddie, who everybody calls Special Ed.
But it’s clear that there’s more than one entity that’s watching him, that’s speaking to him. He is able to pick up on things that maybe others can’t see — both in the real world and in this perhaps-supernatural one. It seems like his arc is to figure out who to trust.
Yes, that is part of it. But also the absolute number one person that he needs to figure out whether or not he can trust is himself.
Maybe all this is in his head?
There’s a moment in the book, when his mother remembers Christopher’s father saying “Kate, there are two kinds of people who can see things that aren’t there. Visionaries, and psychopaths.” A good portion of this book is wondering which is it. What’s really happening here?
Will people who know you only from The Perks of Being a Wallflower see this as a bigger genre leap than it really is? You’ve dealt with suspense and thriller elements in your other work as a screenwriter and a director.
In terms of speculative fiction, I was one of the creators of Jericho. That was a show about what would happen in a little town if a nuclear bomb was seen over the horizon, and you realize that we were under attack, and there’s no phones, and there’s no cable. There’s no TV. There’s no internet, and nobody knows what’s going on. What would that do to a town? I co-wrote the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, and god knows that certainly had a lot of action and suspense moments.
And supernatural moments, too.
This book came from my history as a reader. My absolute favorite writer of all time is Stephen King. I remember when I was a kid, and I told my dad that I wanted to be a writer. I was 12. And he said, “Great writers are great readers.” It was good advice.
So things like Jericho, that was a bit of my tribute to The Stand, which is my favorite Stephen King book of all-time. But really it was just as a fan of his work, and also some of the other masters, George Romero, who was a Pittsburgh guy, and a big hero of mine. As much as I’ve done movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder, that were more for young people, this was a chance to put those two loves together.
Was part of Imaginary Friend taken from your own childhood growing up in Western Pennsylvania, playing in the woods…?
There are so many woods! It always reminded me of the stories of the Brothers Grimm, Hansel and Gretel, and things like that. There’s a lot of fairytale overtures in Imaginary Friend as well.
I got lost once, and I remember how long it took me [to get back.] In Western Pennsylvania, the woods are unbelievable. You go five minutes in this direction, you’re looking at the middle of a fairy tale, and the witch is coming for you.
Did writing this feel like getting lost, taking you to strange places?
When I started the book, like I said, I was just following the cloud, right? I knew some of the places it was going to lead, but I would say about 90% of what comes, I had no way of predicting at all. I hope that most people who read this are going to be very surprised by the end.
You think you know what it is, but little by little, bit by bit, it kind of creeps up on you. Until you’re inside it, you didn’t even know it was a trap.