Feeling classically teenaged and outcasted in my freshman year of high school, I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)—an epistolary novel by Stephen Chbosky, narrated by a young boy named Charlie. On the first day of school that year, I’d eaten lunch in a bathroom stall. Over the next ten months, I endured my first heartbreak, received a failing grade on a report card, and attended a football game at which I recognized only three boys from my school bus. I skipped school to drink alcohol at a stranger’s house and, par for the course of a freshman, nobody invited me to prom. I wore braces in my yearbook photo. On Perks’s narrator Charlie’s first day of high school, he was alienated by his middle school friends after he fist fought a classmate and cried afterwards. Over that year, he performed shirtless in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, experimented with LSD and marijuana, and stood in the bed of a truck driving through a tunnel. He read twelve books recommended by his English teacher, Bill, and accompanied his older sister to an abortion clinic. He dated a girl who talked too much. And at the end of the year, while in bed with his crush, Sam, Charlie’s deeply repressed memory of sexual abuse bubbled up, causing him to spiral into a deep depression.
As I write this, I am reflecting on the knowledge and experience attained over the twelve years since I first read Perks. But when I was fifteen, the novel was something else entirely: it was larger. The Perks of Being a Wallflower handles subjects like rape, homosexuality, and depression with both naivety and grace. Charlie is our trusted, wide-eyed narrator, who is advised by Sam that “You can’t just sit there and put everyone’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love” (200). The novel is an honest and, at times, heartbreaking coming-of-age story, one that closely mirrors the high school experiences of its author, Chbosky, and strangely—perhaps even unintentionally—helped me to feel less alone. In Charlie, I had a friend. I scribbled the novel’s most memorable lines in spiral notebooks. My daily mantra was, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” I cried when Charlie felt infinite, arms outstretched, the quote-unquote perfect song playing over the truck’s speakers.
Perks was the first time I saw myself in a novel. I’m not unique in this—in the seventeen years since its publication, Perks has developed something of a cult following. During his reading at Antioch University’s December 2015 residency, Chbosky shared one of countless letters he’s received from his readers, this one from a young girl who had contemplated suicide before reading Perks in one sitting. She thanks Chbosky for saving her life.
Since 1999, Chbosky has gone on to write the scripts for Rent (2005) and Beauty and the Beast (2017), as well as write, direct, and produce the screen adaptation of Perks (2012). He is at work on a novel, one whose details he’s keeping hushed.
I interviewed Stephen Chbosky over a barbeque chicken sandwich (for him) and, thanks to crippling nerves, ice water (for me) in Antioch University’s courtyard in December 2015 during the MFA program’s winter residency.
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I was troubled at the time—I didn’t understand why so many good people let themselves get treated so badly, including me, including the people I loved. And in creating Charlie, I created a character that I thought so deserved great things to happen, so when bad things did happen to Charlie, there was no metric that said that he deserved it. And seeing that, it helped set me free.
Lyndsay Hall: Once in an interview, you said you wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower for deeply personal reasons and that you saw the world the way Charlie did. What’s the experience of writing a fictional story you’re so close to and invested in?
Stephen Chbosky: It’s hard to talk about the experience because at the time I was so invested in living the moment that I didn’t think about it in terms of historical experience. I was just a kid. I was a young person living in New York City, broke, writing a book. Like many, many, many, many, many, many, many others. And what I found in the process of writing the book was a great catharsis. I was troubled at the time—I didn’t understand why so many good people let themselves get treated so badly, including me, including the people I loved. And in creating Charlie, I created a character that I thought so deserved great things to happen, so when bad things did happen to Charlie, there was no metric that said that he deserved it. And seeing that, it helped set me free.
LH: How did you maintain distance, or did you not?
SC: I didn’t bother. I’m from Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh motto should be, “walk it off.” Keeping a distance is built into how I approach things. Now, that’s not to say that I don’t become incredibly emotional—I do when I write. I could almost be like a method actor doing it. However, when the emotional moment is over, if what poured out of me was sentimental treacle, then I would call it such and try to revise it.
LH: I read Perks for the fourth or fifth time just recently, in one sitting, nearly seventeen years after its 1999 publication. Immediately I was pulled back there; I was in high school, crying over lines like, “We accept the love we think we deserve,” and “Things change. And friends leave. And life doesn’t stop for anybody.” I wondered, now in my late twenties, whether I ever did or ever will outgrow my inner-Charlie. How does it feel to have written a novel that not only stands the test of time, but also resonates so deeply for those outside its original target audience?
SC: I’m very proud of that because, I said I wrote it for personal reasons, but when you publish a book you hope people like it, you hope people connect to it. What I found is truly awe-inspiring and humbling. The letters I’ve received, the people who’ve reached out to me, the careers that were changed, along with the destinies found, it’s a remarkable position to be in, and it never ceases to inspire me.
“You publish in part to help end the silence, whether that silence is about rape or incest or violence or drugs or homosexuality, or anything that society sweeps under the rug.
When you’re standing in front of the crowd and you’ve just had a reading, and you look out—there’s so many ways to look at a crowd like that. There are some people who wish there were more people, and that’ll be their one takeaway. And there are others who will be like, “thank God there were as many people as there were.” And there are other people that look out at the crowd and say, “Okay. Everyone in this audience has read my book, has an entire life destiny, loves, heartbreaks, triumphs, and if you connect all of those people through any cognitive experience, whether it’s a book or sports team or country or patriotism or whatever, you’re describing unity.” What I see from my vantage point is an inspiring level of healing, an inspiring level of passion, an inspiring level of artistry.
LH: Why do you think Perks still holds up, all these years later?
SC: I think what has helped the book, and I did this deliberately, was I tried to the best of my ability to not make it of its own era. In other words, I wasn’t writing a ’90s book. I did my best to disguise it. Even though it says 1991, so you know there is some pop culture that is dated, it was not about [the era]. I wanted to write about a young person’s love of music, not the specific bands. Specific bands don’t really matter; it’s the love. That’s eternal. I concentrated on universal experiences that most people have. In the book I did it unconsciously, the movie I did it consciously.
LH: How did you know you had to write Perks, and how did you decide to write it the way you did?
SC: I loved the title, I loved the idea of the character, I loved the three friends, I loved the tunnel, and I loved the general tone. How did I know to write it? I didn’t really know. I just had to write it. Some things you just have to write. Then you let time decide if it was any good or not for other people. It was great for me. And if nobody read it, you know, it would be a disappointment, but I’d still say, “God, I thought I wrote a really good book there.”
I didn’t choose it because it was epistolary; I didn’t even know what that word meant. I didn’t choose it because I thought it was catchy. I wasn’t guessing any market. For me, it was the most authentic voice to tell that story.
In terms of the form, I love the letter format because it felt very intimate with the reader. I didn’t choose it because it was epistolary; I didn’t even know what that word meant. I didn’t choose it because I thought it was catchy. I wasn’t guessing any market. For me, it was the most authentic voice to tell that story. The point of view was exactly right. I would look at really great coming of age novels written in first person and I would always ask myself, why am I reading this? How did I, the reader, get this in my hands? There’s a built-in façade; somehow I have access to these people’s brains. The letters made it more real to me that there was a way every reader could’ve been reading this.
LH: Perks broached topics my household never discussed—rape, sexual abuse, homosexuality—and emotions that plagued me in my adolescence. While Perks is so widely admired, it has also been challenged because of its sexual content and outright banned in some school districts. Meanwhile, I teach creative writing, and I recommend this book to all of my teenaged students. I can answer this for myself, but why do you believe teenagers need this book?
SC: I wrote the book for personal reasons, as I said. But you publish it in part to help end the silence, whether that silence is about rape or incest or violence or drugs or homosexuality, or anything that society sweeps under the rug. Teenagers need respect. Teenagers need truth. Teenagers need somebody to talk straight to them, and they also need someone to listen straight to them. It’s all about respect. If I’d written about all of these topics in an exploitative way, it would’ve been horrible. If I had swept them under the rug, it would’ve been irresponsible. I am never going to say people need my book because that would sound very arrogant, but I will say all young people need their experiences and their truths and their feelings validated.
LH: How do you respond to the censorship of Perks in some school districts?
SC: Censorship is, by design, a silence. Let’s say a school district forced a student to read a book against their religious or moral beliefs. I’d be the first person to say the school district should not do that, because there are some people who don’t want to deal with the stuff at all and they should be respected. I believe that. But in the same sense, I don’t understand why people are meddling in what other people read. It doesn’t do any good. At the end of the day, censorship is silence and silence is more pain.
LH: Your background is in screenwriting. You wrote the screen adaptation of the play Rent, as well as the forthcoming live-action film, Beauty and the Beast. How is your process different for writing screenplays versus a novel?
SC: It’s different in that there are so many more people involved in a movie. You have several editors, which is, I would say most of the time, a great thing. Occasionally it’s a tough thing to navigate because you have different opinions around you. [The process is] faster, more furious, and far less forgiving. Movies are like a haiku poem. You have a very brief amount of time to say something that you hope will connect with people and move this story along, especially with something like Beauty and the Beast. I would have to write a scene, and because I knew children were watching, I had eight lines. Okay, so, go do true love in eight lines. But that’s the aspiration. That’s what you want to do. When I write a line, “we accept the love we think we deserve” in my book, and it can touch people’s lives, then I will try to give Belle dialogue as worthy, but for everyone, every member of the family. I’m not legally allowed to tell you the lines I wrote, but I will say there are a few real showstoppers in there that I hope that when my daughter watches and other young women watch, they say, “Oh yeah, I don’t have to put up with that shit.”
LH: You also directed and wrote the screenplay for Perks of Being a Wallflower. How was adapting your own original work into a movie? How was directing it, seeing the pages of your novel come alive?
SC: It was the single greatest artistic experience I have ever had. Directing a movie is a lot like writing a novel because you’re in charge of all the details, the tone, the way that an audience views it. You can write short sentences that read one way, and you can write long sentences that read another way. If you have long takes, it reads another way.
We were filming outside of my house—my literal house—where the luminary on Christmas Eve was shot—that’s on my street. If you turn the camera slightly to the left, that’s my house. At one point Jim Powers, who was one of our producers, asked me, is it weird being here, doing this? And I said no, it’s oddly not. Because when I wrote the book, this is basically what I saw. Now, it’s just people acting it out. So, there was that. That experience was great.
Too many people waste too much time trying to chase the wrong thing, whether it’s an award or sales or fame or notoriety.
Another thing was it was very healing because, see, when you go home to your hometown, you can be nostalgic for growing up about certain things. Maybe they’re painful things, or maybe they’re pleasurable things, but you’re nostalgic one way or another. When I go back to Pittsburgh now, I’m nostalgic as much for making that movie as I was for my actual life. I was able to, quite literally, rewrite my history. That is a powerful thing to do.
LH: What was it like returning to Charlie well into your thirties in order to write the film? Did this new distance help or hurt?
SC: It was as much of a blessing as it was a curse. In my older age I had much more experience, much more craft, much more access to shortcuts, much more access to universal storytelling, so in that sense, I could never have written that screenplay as a young person—there’s no way. I couldn’t have done it as briefly. I would’ve tried to put in too much. I like to say, a song can’t be all chorus. And it would’ve been all chorus. That was the blessing. The curse was, I was 37 when I started writing. It was difficult and took time to go back to that time emotionally from a young person’s point of view. But at the same time, to not vilify the adults in the book, including Aunt Helen, because I wasn’t used to that.
LH: Music and books play a huge role in Perks. Did Bill, Charlie’s English teacher, give Charlie books that you, personally, liked or felt influenced by?
SC: The list of books that Charlie was given by Bill were my favorite books from my young life through college and right after college. It wasn’t just freshman year of high school. It represented about nine years of my absolute favorites, with one exception: I’ve never read the novel Peter Pan. The reason why I included the book, however, my real life Bill, Stuart Stern, who is a wonderful screenwriter and passed away last February, was my hero mentor since I was 17 years old. That was his favorite story, so I included it as a tribute to him.
LH: Because The Perks of Being a Wallflower was the book that made me want to be a writer, what advice would you give 15-year-old Lyndsay, or current 15-year-olds of today who want to write?
SC: Write out your list of ideas, all of them. Register with the Writers Guild of America East, to be safe. Share it with the five or ten people you genuinely think want you to succeed, and listen to them. They will tell you the ideas they really like, and they will tell you what doesn’t work for them. Maybe this little thing over there isn’t the greatest story as a standalone, but could be combined with something over here. Next thing you know, your dramatic stories just became funnier, and your plot-driven stories have better characters, and your character stories have more story. All disciplines get to influence other disciplines.
That and, make sure that you’re genuinely writing in the genre or medium that you belong in. There are a lot of very funny people who write for The Tonight Show or Jimmy Kimmel or do standup comedy, and they would write terrible novels. There are some novelists who should be writing jokes. There are songwriters who should be writing poems, and poets who should be writing lyrics. Just make sure you’re doing the thing you should be doing.
Too many people waste too much time trying to chase the wrong thing, whether it’s an award or it’s sales or it’s fame or notoriety. When you’re young it’s all the same. When you get older it’s not. At the end of the day, the real success of life is in spending it doing the thing you actually should be doing and want to be doing. That’s success, with balance. There are a lot of wonderful writers whose work we love, but were alcoholic bastards who treated their families like shit. I am grateful for their books but I would never call them true success. To me, a balanced approached to life is always success.