In the late nineties, one novel—film director and screenwriter Stephen Chbosky’s only novel—resonated with a self-conflicted yet emotionally rich generation of young adults. Since then, he has been dubbed one of the most moving and intimate storytellers for young American readers, turning the spotlight on teen issues, childhood trauma, and lasting friendships.
Chbosky was born on January 25, 1970, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his mother a tax preparer and his father an executive and consultant at a steel factory. As a fan of “the classics, horror, and fantasy, the young Chbosky admired the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, and J. D. Salinger—particularly The Catcher in the Rye. A few days before graduating from Upper St. Clair High School in 1988, he met Stewart Stern, the screenwriter behind the acclaimed 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, who would become Chbosky’s close friend, mentor, and notable influence in his works.
While majoring in film writing at the University of Southern Carolina, Chbosky worked on and released his first film, The Four Corners of Nowhere (1995), which he wrote, directed, and starred in. The independent film was featured at the Sundance Film Festival of that year, earning critical praise and earning Chbosky his first agent. A year before the film’s release, however, Chbosky had already begun working on his first and only novel—The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999).
The novel’s conceptualization began with a line Chbosky had written for a “completely different novel,” which goes, “I guess that’s just one of the perks of being a wallflower.” In a 2001 interview, Chbosky admitted he “wrote that line. And stopped. And realized that somewhere in that [sentence] was the kid I was really trying to find.” In the novel, a shy, introverted high-school freshman and “wallflower” named Charlie struggles to express himself and relate to his peers until he befriends two quirky high-school seniors, Patrick and Sam, and discovers a passion for writing. Together, the trio experience the various ups and downs of young adulthood: parties, football games, drugs, sexual awakening, depression, self-harm, and heartbreak, as well as feelings of alienation, self-realization, and hope for the future.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower was published in 1999 by MTV Books and instantly became the publisher’s best-selling title, with 100,000 copies in print in 2000 and over 700,000 copies sold in 2007. SparkNotes dubbed Chbosky’s work as a “modern-day cult novel,” owing its status to numerous references to other cult classics, such as The Catcher in the Rye and the legendary horror-comedy musical film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as well as the novel’s ability to reach not only adolescent readers but also adult readers with nostalgic leanings.
Despite the novel’s commercial success, however, it received mixed critical reception and was even pulled from several school libraries because of its mature content, earning a place in the American Library Association’s list of top ten most frequently challenged books—six times. Nevertheless, despite content backlash and censorship pressure, Perks persevered as a well-loved YA classic for years and was later adapted into a 2012 film (also written by Chbosky), which earned both critical praise and commercial success. In the same year the film was released, the novel landed a spot in the New York Times Best Seller list for children’s paperback books, which it would hold for two years.
Following the novel’s and film’s respective successes and rise in popularity, several reviewers and interviewers praised Chbosky’s ability to tell compelling, moving stories both on paper and on the big screen, though Chbosky has clarified that the two writing processes—novel writing and screenwriting—couldn’t be more different. “The nature of the two art forms is very different,” he said in a 2012 interview. “Novels just pour out of you . . . it’s a very comprehensive process, one that flows easily . . . Screenplays, on the other hand, are very deliberate and incredibly precise . . . you have to find the perfect picture.”
Chbosky resides in Los Angeles, California, with his wife and fellow YA author, Liz Maccie, and their two children. He is currently at work on a second novel, slated for release in late 2019, about a single mother and her son who become involved in a string of mysterious child disappearances in the small town they move into.
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