An Interview with Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower)
Few books have the impact, emotionally and commercially, of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Chbosky’s coming-of-age novel about a 15-year-old boy unable to repress any emotions has sold nearly half a million copies, birthing a cult of fans more dedicated than the weirdest of Star Trek geeks. According to Chbosky, Perks has convinced some teenagers to choose life over suicide; if you speak to a random sampling of high school or college students anywhere in America, Perks inevitably emerges as a favorite novel.
Due to its popularity, however, the book has become a target for anti-obscenity moralists. Two school districts have banned Perks, and many more have challenged the novel for its depictions of adolescent sex and drug use. In November 2004, a group of Wisconsin parents challenged Perks when a teacher assigned the book. After public hearings that 200 citizens attended, along with ACLU representatives and students carrying posters proclaiming "Keep Perks" and "Reading Promotes Thought," the Wisconsin school board declined to remove the book from the curriculum. ("Now I want it banned," parent Karen Krueger told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Their parental notification is ineffective.")
Chbosky spoke about the fiasco from his home in L.A.
MB: So what exactly happened?
SC: The book had already been taught. It was an elective; the kids could opt to read the book. There were permission slips, so the parents could say it’s fine. What happened with this family—their name was Krueger—was their son elected to have the book, and I guess they signed the permission slip not knowing the nature of the book. He allegedly had been home-schooled until his sophomore year, so his first foray into public education was Perks. His family, basically for reasons of morality, said it appealed to the prurient interests of minors.
MB: Do you know how many schools have banned Perks?
SC: I know of two specifically—Massachusetts and Long Island—but I’ve heard rumors of many, many others.
MB: You wrote a letter to the Wisconsin school board, defending the book. Had you ever done that before?
SC: No, usually I’m called after the book is banned. The other times it was too late, and this was after the presidential election. It’s not that I begrudge anybody his or her religious or moral beliefs, but at the same time, it just felt terribly unfair. This was just one family—and a few families joined their cause to have the book banned—but so many kids in the school district responded to the book, and so many teachers and educators saw the value in the book... I didn’t understand why a handful of people could deny it to the whole student body.
MB: Tyranny of the minority.
SC: Right. At this school district, if the parents object, their kids can read an alternate title. It’s not like they’re forced to read this book.
MB: So these parents didn’t want anybody to read it, even if other parents were okay with it.
SC: And other parents were. Many parents showed up at the school board hearing in support of the book. If the school district were forcing kids to read this book, I’d say that’s not fair, because there are some things in there that would upset some people for moralistic reasons. But there was a choice involved, and it really bothered me that this one group wanted to eliminate that choice.
MB: George W. Bush has met five times with an Alabaman legislator named Gerald Allen who wants to remove all books featuring gay characters from public libraries and schools and “dump them in ... a hole,” according to the December 9, 2004 Guardian (U.K.) How do you feel about the future of literary freedom in America?
SC: I’m very optimistic about it. Let’s look at it realistically: This isn’t a dictatorship. Maybe the president will meet with this gentleman a thousand times, but if that law got passed, it would be immediately challenged, it would go immediately to the Supreme Court. The Florida election notwithstanding, the Supreme Court is in favor of state’s rights. It would be very difficult because of the Constitution and the laws that are in place, and the general feeling from the public. I can’t imagine that law going through and being upheld.
MB: When people challenge The Perks of Being a Wallflower, they don’t put the offensive scenes in context. They say there are drugs and sex in the book, but, while it’s not anti-drug or anti-sex, it’s certainly not glorified. (The plot includes a bad acid trip and a drunken rape.) But it seems like these censors believe that if kids read about it—in any context—they’re going to engage in it.
SC: When I wrote my letter to the school board, I wanted to reach out to the parents who challenged the book. I don’t want to disrespect those folks. That’s not the point, because I wanted to create a dialogue. I would find the thing a lot less upsetting if I understood where the parents were coming from, but when they present their case, they take certain things out of context and put them in the worst possible light. There’s a part of the book, where Charlie—when he’s 12 years old—witnesses a date rape. If you take part of that section out of context, it seems like a very graphic account. Every time it’s taken in front of a school board, they always cut a section where Charlie says he’s going to be sick and hides his head in the pillow. It’s not supposed to be titillating at all, but these parents take it out of context to make their case better. Or maybe they just don’t get the context, I don’t know.
MB: Your book really affects kids positively though; it’s even saved lives.
SC: That’s happened twice. A 14-year-old girl and a 17-year-boy wrote me and said they didn’t commit suicide because they read the book. ... It’s very overwhelming. It’s beautiful on one hand, because you’re just grateful that you’re able to impact somebody that positively. It’s almost beyond words, but at the same time it’s very sad, because you realize that a book did this, as opposed to a friend, a parent, a priest or someone in the young person’s life. It’s bizarre that a book would be that final barrier between life and death. I’m happy that nobody died, of course, but I’m just sad that those young people reached such points in their lives that that’s all that was left.
MB: Part of the reason why Perks connects with so many kids is because the situations described in the book are so universal, but it seems like the people who challenge the book don’t want to admit these things happen. If these moralists sanitized everything—took all the reality out of books—would fiction have any impact on kids at all?
SC: Of course it would. If it stopped at morality... well, it wouldn’t, because if they got that far they’d just keep going. But let’s say it just stopped at morality. Animal Farm has no sex and no drugs, but it’s so brilliantly written, and it’s about so many universal themes, it has a huge impact. If we didn’t talk about sex and we didn’t talk about drugs, and all these other things that impact teenagers’ lives, literature would still reach teenagers. But the ones having problems in these areas would be totally left in the dark, and would unfortunately be more ignorant. I would think for parents, with the way that society is now, that they would prefer some of these issues to be discussed in a much more structured setting, as opposed to keeping them in the dark. The more you talk about it, the more you take away its power and its mystery, and people can make much more informed and mature decisions about these things. But most parents don’t want to admit these things exist, and they want to deny that these things exist, so they will blame the book or the TV show or the movie. And for that, I’m very sad. Artists should know the impact they can have, but at the same time, it’s sad to think that a lot of people are running around who believe that artists create these problems.
MB: Is it flattering to have your book challenged, or does it hurt your pride? Or do you brush it off?
SC: It’s hard, because I didn’t write it to be challenged. I didn’t write it to be a controversial book. I can’t really take it as a point of pride because it was banned someplace. The first time it happened, it was... well, exciting isn’t the right word, but I thought, 'Wow, it’s getting all this attention.' And I did think it was kind of exciting, that it was being talked about that way. But after a time, you start to realize that the argument is always the same. I no longer find the argument exciting, and it’s certainly not a matter of pride. It’s more of mourning the fact that people can’t agree to disagree, and people can’t find common ground. The people who object for moral reasons cannot see the value of the book, and the people who see the value of the book don’t realize why it’s upsetting to more religious people.
MB: Is there any irony that when Fox News started talking about your book, it sold a lot of copies? When these people try to suppress something, it winds up being read by more people...
SC: Oh yeah, it’s happened every time the book gets challenged. It is ironic. Again, I’ve never understood the need people have to dictate morality to other people. I really don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s fear or the belief that they know the only right way. Or maybe they see a lot of social ills and social decline, and they really think they have the elixir for it.
MB: Censorship runs both ways with the Left and the Right. Indianapolis and Canada have had feminist-enacted laws that say if a single woman finds a book objectionable, it’s illegal for bookstores and public libraries to carry that title. And the argument was that if literature objectifies women, then women would be objectified in real life too. It’s basically the same thing as Christians who say that if you write about sex and drugs then kids will get the bright idea to have sex and do drugs. These censors deny free will in a way; they believe if you read about something you’ll turn into a robot or a monkey and lose all self-control. What’s your take on that? Not that that’s a leading question...
SC: Obviously we’re not robots, because if we were robots, we would do everything that we’ve ever read or seen in a movie. In that case, nobody would be alive. That impulse to assume people are robots is factually ridiculous. I don’t see it. I think that pop culture and books have an impact for sure, because sometimes people dress like a movie star or whatever, or talk like that person or quote certain lines from that person. However, the severity of the reaction that people think occurs, I just don’t see. When it comes to the Left and the Right, extremism of any nature for any reason leads to these things. It could be for moralistic reasons, or devout Christian reasons, or devout feminist reasons, or devout anything. No matter who they are, I just wish that people were not so severe.
MB: One of the things I really want to do as a journalist is invite Michael Moore to a Wendy’s hamburger establishment for an interview and then secretly invite Rush Limbaugh to the same Wendy’s at the same time, and then just watch what happens when these two fat bastards sit down and eat bacon triple-cheeseburgers together. Maybe they’d make peace over grease.
SC: Right. (Laughs)
MB: Anyway, it sounds like you’re diplomatic about this. You’re really trying to reach out to the people who want to censor your work.
SC: If you can reach across and really talk to people—really communicate—it’s always better. I truly believe that, because then all sides feel respected and you might actually learn something. The Left hates President Bush like I’ve never heard the Left hate anybody, but they’re just like the Clinton haters six years ago. It’s the same exact rage. Passion is wonderful—in politics, in art, whatever—but it’s gotten to such an extreme that it’s strange. For my own education, I drove across the country and listened to nothing but right-wing books on tape: Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Bernie Goldberg... Half the country believes this, so it’s worth considering. I’m still a Democrat, I’m still a liberal, but it was worth it to learn about the other side and learn about that point of view. It’s just good manners. ... You can learn a lot from challenging your own assumptions, and admitting you don’t know everything. Neither side is being diplomatic. It’s like when some conservatives say that liberals can’t believe in God, or when some liberals don’t take the time to understand how seriously religious people take their faith. It’s easy to put my head in the sand and say, “I’m right about everything,” but there’s a lot to learn.
MB: So basically, when it comes to books, you’re saying that if people don’t like it, they don’t have to look at it, but they shouldn’t tell others what they can and can’t read?
SC: Absolutely. But my heart also goes out to parents. More and more and more, people have to work such long hours—and with both parents working, it’s hard to keep track, especially with the Internet. I just think it’s a shame when they look at my book and think that somehow I wrote it in the cynical attempt to exploit kids. Because the impact it’s had has been pretty positive.
MB: One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Robert Heinlein: "Political tags—such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth—are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire."
SC: There you go. That’s a great quote, and that is how I feel about it. You know, I really wish more people were interested in other people being free.