Q&A: Stephen Chbosky on His Love of Pittsburgh and His New Novel
The author’s second book, “Imaginary Friend,” is a literary horror novel, differing from his much-loved coming-of-age tale “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” published in 1999. But one thing they have in common is numerous references to Pittsburgh.
No matter what the project, Pittsburgh seeps into Stephen Chbosky’s work.
The Pittsburgh native’s latest book, “Imaginary Friend,” which hits shelves Oct. 1, includes nods to Sarris Candies, Kings Family Restaurant, Grove City Outlets and numerous other references only locals will understand, including one line from a nurse who offers an apology during a heated moment “in her kindest Western PA.”
Like his debut “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Imaginary Friend” is based in present-day western Pennsylvania. But “Imaginary Friend” is a work of fiction, and the events are as surreal as could be.
A 7-year-old boy named Christopher moves with his mother to the small town of Mill Grove. Christopher goes missing for six days, and he returns with a mission: He must build a treehouse in the woods before Christmas or else everyone in the town will die. But the larger story is a battle between good and evil, heaven and hell, as Christopher must defeat the sinister forces attempting to prey upon his inherent innocence.
The author was eager to speak about the local connections, his love for the horror genre and the possibility of a movie based on the novel with Pittsburgh Magazine.
Pittsburgh Magazine: The story is local, but Mill Grove is fictional?
Stephen Chbosky: Mill Grove it not real, no. It was a fictional township that I gave where Charlie was from in the movie, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” So, I just thought that whenever I publish western PA, just like Stephen King with Derry, Maine, that I would always set it in Mill Grove.
PM: I noticed a reference to Kings restaurant, which figures prominently in Perks.
SC: Oh yeah, of course. I always talk about Kings. I always talk about Sarris chocolate pretzels. And of course the Steelers, always the Steelers.
PM: Sally Wiggin also makes an appearance.
SC: Always Sally Wiggin. You know why? Because Sally to me, and I’ve met her a couple of times and she’s so nice, she was always the lady on the television from when I was pretty young, and so Sally Wiggins to me … there are certain local legends, and Sally Wiggins was a big one to me.
I remember when I was touring with “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” the movie and Sally interviewed me and I was starstruck. They’re the celebs. It was like meeting George Romero when I was 17 years old. It’s a local legend. There’s nothing like it.
When I was 16 years old, my family took a vacation to Los Angeles and we went on the Universal Studios tour. We rode the Universal Studios tram, and it just so happened on that day that Anthony Perkins was standing outside of the Psycho house, for real, and he was greeting people, just saying hi. And seeing him in person, that was an amazing moment, but not more amazing than a year later when I met George Romero.
PM: I felt this novel captured the youth of today just as Perks captured a generation ago. Christopher and his friends try to fool their parents by texting them from their parents’ respective phones, and you write: “The boys didn’t know how kids got away with anything when people actually talked to each other.”
SB: I have to say I really enjoyed writing that line in that section as a little warning to the parents, how technology might get them played. We’re not there yet (Chbosky’s children are ages 4 and 7). It’s amazing because my wife and I decided we won’t give our daughter a phone until she’s at least 13, so I have six more blissful years of peace.
I’m very grateful that our children will grow up in the kind of post-social-media understanding. Our kids aren’t the guinea pigs, it’s the generation right before, so I think, hopefully, sociologists, experts, educators, will figure out a lot of the bumps and bruises that come with it along the way.
PM: Why did you decide to write a horror novel for your second book?
SC: To me, the change of genre was like returning to a first love, because growing up … my favorite writer really has been Stephen King my entire life.
When you go back to where I was Christopher’s age in the book, or a little older… horror movies are some of my favorite movies of all time, John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” “The Exorcist” and a little later “The Sixth Sense” … And so what was fun was trying to find ways to write a genre that I loved as a fan but also as somebody that is well aware of the multitudes of people who don’t usually like horror. My wife, Liz, she doesn’t like horror at all, so I wanted to write a book that horror fans would love but that my wife would love as well, and I was very gratified when she did.
PM: I think I saw it described as a literary horror novel. It’s not just a book meant to scare you; it’s very deep.
SC: I’m glad you think so. I tried to get there.
PM: Can you talk a little bit about the struggle of good versus evil in the book?
SC: I think what I was trying to say is that sometimes the struggle of good versus evil is as much an internal struggle as an external struggle. Early on in the book, when you see this boy get lost in the woods and then later talking to his imaginary friend in the form of the white plastic bag, there’s the question, is all of this happening inside his head or is this really happening? And then maybe a larger question of, what’s the difference? And I was really interested in how that applied to our day-to-day life. For example, all the negative things that people can make themselves. People can be very harsh with themselves about how they look or what their worth is or how they feel or their overall confidence or anxiety, and I was fascinated with the idea that, what if those voices are not ours? What if those voices belong to something else? And again, if it’s all in our own voice, what’s the difference?
It reminds me of that moment when Kate Reese, the mom, is remembering what her late husband said, “What are the two types of people who see things that aren’t there? Visionaries and psychopaths.” It’s that idea. Is it happening or is it not, and what’s the difference? And if you’re talking to yourself or you’re praying, what’s the difference? These things that you’re seeing, are they true or are they fiction? And all those questions lead deeper and deeper into what I hope is a very empowering and positive message for the reader.
PM: How so? What message?
SC: Well I guess it’s like this, without giving anything away … I really wanted to talk about: what is the source of evil the way we’re taught it, being Catholic. … It’s like what Mary Katherine (a teenage girl who rescues Christopher) says … when she realizes that heaven and hell are not destinations, they are decisions. That’s the message of the book. The message of the book is, is it real or imaginary, are you praying or are you talking to yourself, is that voice in your head you or something else? Is hell real or is it really just an illusion behind your eyes? I want each and every reader to read the book then say, “All of this is a decision that I can make. And I can either believe the negative voice or I can believe the positive voice,” and whatever it is, I want people to choose good. And I want people to choose their own empowerment.
And I’m also hoping that some wicked people out there would read my cautionary tale about what might be awaiting them and maybe change their tune. That would be very gratifying. Because if you’re doing bad things and you read this book, and you realize, “oh, that could be my fate,” I’m hoping it scares the living hell out of us, no pun intended.
PM: It’s a very cinematic book. When’s the movie coming out?
SC: I don’t know if it’s going to be a couple movies like “It” or if it’s going to be a series. I do have another installment of the story, should I find the time to write it. I wrote it as a novel to be a standalone, but I have to admit that, considering adapting “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” book was one of the greatest artistic experiences I’ve ever had, I would be remiss to not adapt “Imaginary Friend” as well.
PM: How does it feel to come here and talk about your newest work? (Chbosky will appear as part of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures New & Noted series on Oct. 7.)
SC: My visits home are the highlight of every tour that I do. As much as I love to travel the world, and my last two tours, “Wonder” (for which Chbosky wrote the screenplay) and now this, bring me to London and New York and all these exciting fancy places, Pittsburgh is always my favorite stop because I love my hometown. I’m very proud to be a Pittsburgh son. I get to see my family and they’re going to come to my event, and I get to watch the Steelers with my dad and my mom at their apartment and I can’t wait. To me, coming home is the best. And trust me, I will have either O fries or Primantis. One or the other. Probably O fries because I just can’t get enough. And I will definitely have Sarris. I love coming home.
People have asked me over the years, whether it’s the “Perks” movie or book or the “Wonder” movie and now “Imaginary Friend,” and they ask me, “What is the throughline to all of your work?” and I always say Pittsburgh. Because Pittsburgh is such a unique and beautiful place, whether it’s the blue-collar ancestry or the inherent good nature of a Pittsburgher or the respect that people have for each other that I always bring to my work. And that is how I’ve been able to tackle emotional subjects in a way that doesn’t feel sentimental, and I’ll continue to do it. I’m gearing up to work on [the film adaptation of] “Dear Evan Hansen” the musical, and it’s the same approach. It always comes back to Pittsburgh for me.