Stephen Chbosky’s new novel started with the image of a young boy laying in the grass looking up at the clouds, imagining, as so many kids do, that he sees something in them. A dog, perhaps, or a cow.
But Imaginary Friend (Grand Central) begins with a more portentous tone.
“My original idea is what would happen if a little boy looked up at a cloud and realized, for the last two weeks, he’s always seen a face looking back at him,” says Chbosky, who appears on Oct. 7 as a guest of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures New & Noted series.
Chbosky is best known for his debut 1999 YA novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He also directed the film version of Perks, as well as the 2017 film Wonder, and co-wrote the screenplay for the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast.
But Imaginary Friend breaks new ground for the Upper St. Clair native. Imagine Stephen King and C.S. Lewis collaborating on a novel, with J. R. R. Tolkien as the editor, and you get a sense of the breadth and scope of the 700 plus pages Chbosky wrote over 10 years.
“It took over my life at various points,” says Chbosky of the story, which centers on Christopher Reese, a seven-year-old boy who arrives with his mother in the fictional Western Pennsylvania town of Mill Grove. She is fleeing from her abusive boyfriend. He suffers from dyslexia and is a social misfit.
But Christopher’s life — and the lives of everyone in Mill Grove — change when he wanders into the woods one day after school, re-emerging as a brilliant, confident child.
There are elements of horror, thriller, and even religious fiction in the story, and Chbosky says his recent projects bled into the novel.
“Directing Perks got me back to my Pittsburgh roots,” he says. “It got me back to a lot of the themes I tackled in the book, but in a much more literal way, because film is more literal than fiction. Beauty and the Beast woke up my desire to tell fairy tales. It also got me thinking about writing for larger audiences, from younger readers to older. And Wonder, just working with all those little kids, and the teenagers and adults, was telling a multi-generational story, which I had never done before.”
The religious aspect of Imaginary Friend can’t be revealed without giving away crucial plot elements, but a clue can be found in a famous line from The Usual Suspects: The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
That line — written by Chbosky’s friend, Christopher McQuarrie — hearkens back to his Catholic childhood and the idea of how talking to oneself (which the character seems to do) is closely related to prayer.
But more than that, “the tradition, the identification of being Catholic, never goes away,” Chbosky says. “Just like writing about Pittsburgh, even though I don’t live there, never goes away.”