“Perks of Being a Wallflower” author Stephen Chbosky on life, art, and empowering young people

Author+Stephen+Chbosky+sat+down+for+a+wide-ranging+interview+with+Catalyst+editor+Viviana+Freyer+%2720.

Viviana Freyer '20

Author Stephen Chbosky sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Catalyst editor Viviana Freyer '20.

Stephen Chbosky might be the nicest person I’ve ever met. 

I interviewed him as a “Teen Member of the Press” for the Miami Book Fair. He is best known for writing the coming-of-age staple, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, as well as writing and directing the film adaptation. He also wrote the screenplay for Rent, directed the live-action Beauty and the Beast, the film adaptation of Wonder, and the upcoming Dear Evan Hansen movie. Chbosky was at the Book Fair to promote his new novel, Imaginary Friend. It was incredible just meeting him, but what moved me more than anything was his character. Stephen Chbosky, the giant of young adult literature, radiated kindness and empathy; he was the wise and understanding mentor taken straight out of the genre he helped perfect. 

I met Chbosky (pronounced Sh-bosky) in the Miami Dade College library. He listened to me ramble on about how I was a huge fan of his, how I was super excited to meet him, and how I thought about the line from Perks, “We accept the love we think we deserve,” basically every day. Et cetera. These were all things he has probably heard countless times before, but he thanked me genuinely, without a hint of pretentiousness. 

Chbosky knew early in life that he wanted to be a screenwriter, though not necessarily a book author. However, Chbosky, now 49, thought of the idea of Perks in college, and wrote the novel by 26.

“When I wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I was still a movie guy,” Chbosky recalled. “The fact that it was a successful and a lot of people loved it was very gratifying to me. But since I didn’t consider myself a proper author, I thought, ‘Oh I just did that once, and that was fun. Now, I’ll go back to my movie career.’”

Now, twenty-years after Perks was published, Chbosky debuted his second novel, Imaginary Friend. It is a horror epic centering on a young boy named Christopher who hears a voice only he can hear insisting he build a treehouse. Chbosky said the original idea for Imaginary Friend came to him about seventeen years ago, but he took a while to actually start writing. “About ten years ago, when I finished The Perks of Being a Wallflower screenplay, and I fell in love with prose all over again, I said, ‘let’s try this.’” 

Imaginary Friend is a complete departure both in terms of structure and genre from Perks, but Chbosky wanted to challenge himself. “I knew that I could write another book exactly like Perks in my sleep.”

However, Chbosky revisited Perks this year in honor of its twentieth anniversary. Perks is an epistolary novel written entirely in letters from a high school freshman named Charlie simply addressed “Dear Friend.” The latest addition is a newly penned letter; “I wanted to write about what Charlie would say twenty years later.”

The letter is wonderfully reassuring. Charlie informs readers he is in a much better place than he was twenty years ago, and to hang in there, because he believes in us, and it gets better. Chbosky says Charlie’s voice came back effortlessly; he wrote the letter in an hour. But this was a project of the heart. “I am now able to tell the next generation of young people that it does get better and they are not alone, only because I’ve learned it from experience.” 

I felt slightly guilty about how much I was asking him about Perks given he was on a book tour for Imaginary Friend. It didn’t seem to bother Chbosky. 

“I will continue to write books and I will continue to make movies, but I know too much about the business to know that when I die, the first line of my obituary will mention The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” he said.  “I learned a long time ago, that if ultimately, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the thing that I’m remembered for, I’m grateful to be remembered at all.” 

Our interview was initially supposed to only last twenty minutes. However, Chbosky met with me after his event so I could finish my questions. He bought me a coffee and signed both my books with two of the most heartfelt messages I’ve ever received. He was genuinely happy to do it, too. Because he wouldn’t be Stephen Chbosky without devoting himself to empowering young people and giving them a sense of worth and belonging. And that’s what makes his writing, and him, so special. 

I am now able to tell the next generation of young people that it does get better and they are not alone, only because I’ve learned it from experience.”

— Stephen Chbosky

Young Adult Literature took off in the twenty years since Perks came out. And as a reader who came of age in the last decade, YA was inescapable. I’ve seen it all, from books told entirely via text message to dystopian blockbusters where teens organize Guerilla warfare.. I have no doubt in my mind that each of these authors has read Perks, but none of them come close to capturing the emotions and experiences that come with high school and being a teenager like Chbosky did. It’s a simple story about a boy named Charlie’s freshman year of high school and his outsider group of friends, the “wallflowers.” No theatrics, no distant, post-American setting. Yet, it strikes a chord with readers, and that fundamentally stems with how Chbosky views young people as a population. 

“I think that quality art and entertainment for young people is beyond important,” he said. Trust me when I tell you there are a lot of people that I know in many businesses that see young people as consumers they can sell products to,” he said. “Then, there are other people who care so much about just letting a young person know that they are not alone in what they’re feeling. It’s invaluable.”   

Perks has a lot of heavy themes including sexuality and sexual abuse, substance abuse, and mental illness. It is notoriously one of the most contested books on the shelves; many school libraries have even banned it altogether. Unsurprisingly, however, banning the novel is counterproductive.  

“If you write and publish a book hoping to tell a young person that they aren’t alone in this feeling or experience, and then some maybe even well meaning [group] thinks this is sinful and tries to protect everybody, what they’re really doing is creating another silence,” said Chbosky. 

This is exactly what sets Chbosky apart as a writer. He’s writing to help people and give young people comfort, not to keep his name on the Bestseller’s lists. And we can tell. 

“I am now able to tell the next generation of young people that it does get better and they are not alone, only because I’ve learned it from experience.”

I asked him if he thought he was ever going to be done with Perks. He answered that he thought good stories always find their way back, that he didn’t think art was ever done. (Dare I say, then, that art is…infinite?) 

“Life is like this very glassy pond,” said Chbosky. “Art is like taking a hundred pebbles and dropping them in one at a time. The ripples are endless. It’s fantastic.”