By Matthew Petras
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
During a recent interview with Stephen Chbosky, I told the author that I remember his Pittsburgh-based horror novel Imaginary Friend more for its beauty than its terror.
“Oh good,” he said. “I’m glad that you did.
“My intention was to use the conventions of horror to talk about all of the themes that have interested me over the last three decades, whether it’s about a parent’s love for a child, or it’s about the secrets that we keep and how those poison us, if it’s about empathy, if it’s about traditional, coming-of-age themes.”
On October 6, the Upper St. Clair native and Perks of Being a Wallflower author’s second novel, Imaginary Friend, releases in paperback, about a year after its commercially and critically successful hardcover release.
In the two decades between Perks of Being a Wallflower and Imaginary Friend, Chbosky has written, directed and produced a slew of television and film projects. He wrote the screenplay for the 2005 Rent film adaptation and co-wrote the live-action Beauty and the Beast movie from 2017. He’s directed films too, like the 2012 film adaptation of Perks of Being a Wallflower and the 2017 movie Wonder starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson.
Chbosky spoke by phone from Atlanta, Georgia, where he’s directing the upcoming film Dear Evan Hansen, packed with big names like Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Amandla Stenberg. He spent years and years working on Imaginary Friend in between projects like this. In the year since Imaginary Friend finally released, Chbosky has seen a great response. It cracked the New York Times bestseller list right away and received critical acclaim.
He’s happy with this because it had been so long since Perks, and Imaginary Friend appears so different at first glance, a sprawling, 720 page horror novel about a little boy who makes a suspicious, supernatural friend in the woods.
“I’m switching up genres,” Chbosky said. “It’s, actually, I think, a nice cousin to Perks. It’s about a lot of the same themes. It’s about a lot of the same emotions, but just in a different genre. And it was very gratifying to have folks accept the change.”
Imaginary Friend, billed as elevated horror, has creepy monsters, torture and a ton of other frightening bits one may expect from a horror novel, but at its core is an extreme degree of empathy for its characters. Imaginary Friend is more or less a sandwich with Stephen King’s It and Chbosky’s Perks smooshed inside. While writing the book, Chbosky pondered questions like, “What is it like to really understand or empathize with what people are going through?”
The protagonist Christopher and his mother Kate have a wonderfully evocative relationship that represents one of the most important aspects of the book. The two also live in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, which underscores the laundry list of Pittsburgh area references in the book, including Primanti Bros, the Hill District, Giant Eagle and South Hills Village. In one scene, Kate comes into a lot of money and decides to treat her and her son to a fancy dinner at Ruth’s Chris in Downtown, Pittsburgh.
Chbosky drew a lot of inspiration from his wife Liz when developing Kate.
“The love that my wife has for our kids is the most powerful thing I’ve ever been around,” Chbosky said.
Chbosky’s Catholic upbringing influenced the book a lot. It made him ponder God’s ability to be infinitely empathetic, a concept that fed into a lot of the plot and themes in Imaginary Friend. He also thought about how we can never truly, fully know how much we mean to those we love.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could really feel how much they were loved? It would revolutionize the world,” Chbosky said. “But sadly, most people cannot feel how deep it goes, from their families, from their loved ones and from their friends.”
The concept of Hell terrified Chbosky as a young Catholic. I asked if Hell still troubles him, and with his answer, Chbosky revealed that Imaginary Friend has had not just a profound effect on his readers but also on him. Since writing Imaginary Friend, Chbosky no longer fears Hell.
“I defined it. Most things that scare us, they scare us because they are unknown,” Chbosky said. “They scare us because it’s a set of conditions that you are given. Here’s this thing, that you did not invent, you did not create, and that’s bigger than you, that’s going to punish you forever, right? That is a terrifying thing to a child. That’s a terrifying thing to an adult. That is a prison.
“But once I understood, through writing this book, that the prison’s in your mind, it no longer terrified me.”