SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Christopher and his mother Kate are on the run from her abusive mate. They find shelter in Mill Grove, a small town in Pennsylvania, where Kate finds a job, and 7-year-old Christopher begins to hear voices from clouds that lure him into the woods, where he hears the voice of another little boy crying. "Imaginary Friend" is the title of the new novel, a horror story by Stephen Chbosky, who 20 years ago wrote the bestselling coming-of-age novel "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" - has also directed films, including "Wonder" and the TV series "Jericho."
Stephen Chbosky joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.
STEPHEN CHBOSKY: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Tell us about Christopher. He - truly the kind of little boy who doesn't hurt a caterpillar.
CHBOSKY: Yeah. You know, it's something I - starting with Charlie with "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," I like to write about innocent kids being put into precarious situations. In "Perks," you know, it's high school. And in this one, as you said, it's clouds that may be staring back at him and a woods that may or may not have an evil presence in them.
SIMON: I guess we all look into the sky at the shapes of clouds. What moved you to the voices part?
CHBOSKY: The original idea was - I just thought about when we were all little kids. We all have this experience where you lay on the ground - or roof if you're a city kid - and you look up in the clouds, and you see the shapes. You say, oh, looks like a dog, a hammer, a face, whatever. And my what if was, what if a little boy realized that, for the last two weeks, it was always the same face looking at him? That's where it started.
And then I thought of this moment outside of his school, where he's all alone. And the last of the buses pull away. And he looks up. And what was a small face is now almost as big as the sky. And he says to the cloud, hello? Can you hear me? And there's a little thunderclap in the distance that could be a coincidence. So he says, if you can hear me, blink your left eye. And the cloud slowly does, un-blinks, and then floats away.
That's what I had. And it was fascinating to me. And I wanted to know where that cloud was going. And I wanted to know why it was going. And I wanted to know what was behind it. And a 10 year journey later, I have all the answers.
SIMON: I love Special Ed.
CHBOSKY: (Laughter) Thank you. Yeah. Eddie that they all call Special Ed, yes.
SIMON: Well, tell us about Christopher's friend.
CHBOSKY: Well, Christopher's friend, you know, he's loosely, loosely based on this boy that I knew as a little, little kid, named Eric Olson, who lived up the street. And Eric, I'll never forget, he drove his father's car when he was, I think, 3 years old across the street and into the neighbor's yard. And he always brought bacon on the bus. I remember that, as well. And I just - I was very fond of Eric. He moved away to Appleton, Wis. And I lost touch with him. But I always loved the - I always loved him. And I always loved the idea of this kind of wild kid. So, you know, with Christopher having an innocent friend - much like Charlie had Patrick, you know, Christopher has a wild friend.
SIMON: And without giving away too much, Christopher disappears into the Mission Street woods.
CHBOSKY: Mmm hmm.
SIMON: He's not the same when he gets out, is he?
CHBOSKY: He's not, no. He comes out. And there is a voice, a presence that he feels. And there's this one moment I'll never forget when, you know, he walks into the woods late at night, where there's this tree. And he sees this white plastic bag on the ground. And he picks it up. And he starts talking to the white plastic bag as if it's somebody real that is his imaginary friend.
And that voice and the ability to feel it and maybe the ability to read better and to know numbers better and to understand maybe what people are feeling - little by little, bit by bit, these powers come to him. And he doesn't know if it's real or if it's imaginary.
SIMON: By the way, when you say a moment I'll never forget, that's a moment you created, right?
CHBOSKY: Yeah, I guess technically it is. But I have to say, when you throw yourself into a book - even more than a movie, quite frankly, because I - you know, I've done both - it becomes very real to you. Even the very notion of what is real and what is imaginary changes as you throw yourself into all these pages. You know, these characters on some days were as real to me as anyone I was passing in the street.
SIMON: Why is it that nothing is more frightening to us than what's beneath our beds?
CHBOSKY: I don't know. You know, one thing that was really enjoyable to me writing a imaginary friend was taking all of those, shall we say, tropes of childhood, all these things that we're all familiar with - you're afraid of the closet, you're afraid of what's behind the bathroom door, what's underneath the bed. And really something as simple as Saturday morning cartoons and the idea of like, you know, we all had this experience of watching these cartoons. And what if, you know, suddenly he's watching this little TV show that I made up called "Bad Cat." And Bad Cat's doing - you know, he's seen the episode a million times. And Bad Cat stops and suddenly looks at the screen and says, oh, hi, Christopher. You enjoying the show? Wow. And as Christopher says, how do you know my name? Oh, you're my No. 1 fan. Of course I know your name, buddy.
And I love taking all those things, those universal experiences that we've all had and turning them just slightly to make us look at the world in a slightly different way.
SIMON: When you write, do you hear voices?
CHBOSKY: Oh, of course. Yeah, (laughter) 100%. You know, sometimes too much. I remember writing "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." And I had to stop after about halfway through the book because I would walk around, and I would talk like Charlie. I couldn't do it anymore. So you have to take a break. And so in this case, even though it - I wrote this book, "Imaginary Friend," over the course of 10 years, I had to take a big break some - you know, to - whether it is to make "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" movie or write "Beauty and the Beast" screenplay or to direct "Wonder," all these things I stopped, partly because I had other professional opportunities, but partly because it got to be a little too close to home.
SIMON: Stephen Chbosky, his novel, after 20 years, "Imaginary Friend." Thanks so much for being with us.
CHBOSKY: Thank you so much. It was a great time.
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