A “What If” Premise Familiar to Many
By Dawn Ius
Two decades have passed since Stephen Chbosky’s debut coming-of-age young adult book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower earned international acclaim—so you’d be somewhat forgiven for thinking he’s spent the last 20 years riding out that wave of success.
The truth is, Chbosky has been actively carving out a place for himself in Hollywood, attaching to projects such as writing the screenplay for the 2005 film Rent and Disney’s live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. He’s also the co-creator of the TV series Jericho, and most recently, he directed the 2017 drama Wonder, starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. Oh, and he wrote the screenplay for and directed the adaptation of Perks.
But it’s neither those projects, nor his run-away debut success, that have landed Chbosky in the spotlight again—the novelist-turned-screenwriter is back with another book, this time a literary horror that is as robust in page count as Perks was thin.
“When I started writing, I wanted to publish two books—an epic coming of age story, and an epic literary horror,” he says.
Check. And check.
While the two books couldn’t be more different, both stories are about friendship, redemption, family, and survival—and if Chbosky gave much thought to branding, that might be where he’d hang his marketing hat.
The reality is much less calculated than that. Chbosky writes what his heart desires—regardless of genre, length, and medium.
“I admire the authors and filmmakers that can get artistic satisfaction from doing the same thing over and over again,” he says. “I’m not built that way. For me, every word has to serve the story and serve the substance. They are exactly the length they are supposed to be.”
In IMAGINARY FRIEND, all 600-or-so pages are earned.
The immersive story hinges on a What If that will be loosely familiar to almost everyone who has spent time sky gazing: What if the face you saw in the clouds was a real person—and it spoke to you?
For seven-year-old Christopher, that What If becomes reality—and the voice that speaks to him lures him to the woods where an evil presence may or may not live. When Christopher remerges—six horrifying days later—he is unharmed, but not unchanged. The voice now firmly planted in his head has armed him with a single, important mission: build a treehouse in the woods by Christmas, or everyone in town—including his mother, Kate—will never be the same again.
Mom is a vital character, of course, but Chbosky relies on a mostly young cast, which is both nostalgic and a nod to one of the author’s literary heroes—Stephen King.
“The challenge in writing from the perspective of a child is to remember the details,” Chbosky says. “You have to respect children characters on an eye-to-eye level—adults are sometimes dismissive of a child’s experiences. So I had to go back and remember what it was like to be the smallest one in the room.”
Luckily, Chbosky also has young children, and so he was able to do a “gut check” against the characters in IMAGINARY FRIEND for that extra layer of authenticity. That said, he began writing this book 10 years ago, before his eldest, Mary, was born.
“The mother character came directly from my experience of being a father,” he says. “And some of the choices I made in writing the book were deliberate after my kids were born. Even certain character names, for instance.”
Make no mistake, though, IMAGINARY FRIEND is not a book for children. In similar fashion to King, Chbosky has put youth in precarious danger, and added enough spine-tingling details to keep you reading with one eye half closed and your fingers white-knuckling the cover.
Keen observers will also recognize Chbosky’s love of classic fairy tales—a few well-placed Easter eggs will have you scouring the pages for more…until you hit the climactic end that will have you wondering whether or not you’ll have to wait another 20 years to experience Chbosky’s awe-inspiring prose again.
Mum’s the word on that—though he does concede writing IMAGINARY FRIEND reminded him of how much he enjoys the novel-writing process—but Chbosky says he’s certainly not done with this book.
“I’d love to see this as either a movie or a TV series,” he says. “Right now I’m writing the screenplay on spec. I deeply enjoyed adapting Perks. I’ve rediscovered writing books again, but it’s a very lonely process. I’m excited about this book, and want to share the story in as many ways as possible.”