Why I felt so protective of lonely Emma Watson …by Stephen Chbosky, the author whose books about troubled children give hope to thousands of young fans
When director Stephen Chbosky first met Emma Watson to discuss her possible role in his film, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, she was one of the most famous actresses in the world, coming to the end of her run in the Harry Potter movies. ‘She was a star from the age of 11 and all everyone saw was the glamour of her life,’ he says. ‘But when I met her, I saw this very lonely person. From that moment on, I felt fiercely protective of her. I could see that the kind of celebrity she had was very isolating.’
It was a shrewd take on Watson from Chbosky, who also wrote the Perks novel, but he thrives on unearthing the darker facets of human nature. ‘I grew up in Pittsburgh, a stiff-upper-lip kind of place,’ he says. ‘You dealt with things by pushing them under the rug.’ He grins. ‘I was always the kid who looked under the rug.’
‘She was a star from the age of 11 and all everyone saw was the glamour of her life,’ says director Stephen Chbosky of Emma Watson. ‘But when I met her, I saw this very lonely person. From that moment on, I felt fiercely protective of her’
When Perks, a coming-of-age epistolary novel, was published in 1999 it became an instant hit, particularly with teenagers who responded to its protagonist Charlie, a 15-year-old who suffered sexual abuse and resulting trauma. ‘I’ve had letters from fans who have decided not to kill themselves after reading the book,’ he says. ‘It’s very powerful knowing it might save someone.’
It also put Chbosky firmly on the map in Hollywood. After the release of the movie, he went on to direct Julia Roberts in the 2017 hit, Wonder, and the same year wrote the script for the live action version of Beauty And The Beast.
His second novel, Imaginary Friend, tells the story of seven-year-old Christopher, who moves to a new town and feels isolated until he sees a friendly face in the clouds and follows it into the woods. Combining elements of horror, realism, fairy tale and religion, it’s a sweeping homage to his literary idol, Stephen King. ‘If Perks deals with mental illness and the pictures in your mind that you can’t shake, then Imaginary Friend is about the voice that may or may not be in your head.’
Chbosky’s interest in mental issues is, he admits, a personal one. ‘Mental illness has affected my family,’ he says. ‘My great-grandmother committed suicide and there was some depression in my family and certainly some alcohol abuse that came from depression. It’s this invisible cloud that affects people in profound ways and because you can’t see it, it’s not “real”, it’s imaginary. This book was an opportunity to talk about it.’
Stephen Chbosky. Chbosky’s interest in mental issues is, he admits, a personal one. ‘Mental illness has affected my family,’ he says
Given that both his novels have troubled young boys at their core, did Chbosky experience something troubling as a child himself? ‘Yes, but these are things I don’t talk about, because what I’ve been through is not what everybody else has been through and I don’t want to limit my connection with other people. So many people have told me after reading Perks: “It’s like you understand me”, and I reply: “Yes, and that means you understand me too.” But certainly, between the ages of 12 and 14 I had some very rough feelings.’
He wrote Perks at 26 after going through a bad break-up. ‘I was at a crossroads – I could write something or I could go a little mad. So it was therapy for me in a way. I met my wife Liz afterwards and we have two kids, so pretty much everything good that’s happened to me has come from Perks.’
To mark the book’s 20th anniversary, he wrote a new letter from Charlie, describing how he feels now that he’s older. ‘Basically, he says: I made it, so will you.’ It’s a sentiment with which Chbosky himself would wholeheartedly agree.
‘Imaginary Friend’ by Stephen Chbosky is published by Orion, £20