Cheryl Strayed Talks About Wild and How We're All Fucked Up

Apr 10, 2012 at 8:00 am
Cheryl Strayed - Joni Kabana
Joni Kabana
Cheryl Strayed

We first encountered Cheryl Strayed in her 2002 essay "The Love of My Life". It's about her grief after the death of her mother when she was 22. She described her own pain and the pain she caused others with an equal measure of honesty and precision. We were mesmerized.

Strayed's new memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, is, in some ways, a sequel to that essay, the story of her epic solo hike in the summer of 1995 in an attempt to repair a life that seemed irrevocably broken. Strayed writes from her gut, so bluntly and so directly that it hits you straight in yours; Dwight Garner, a book critic for The New York Times, confessed in print that the last third of Wild reduced him to tears.

Strayed, it was revealed last month, also moonlights as "Sugar," the tough, honest and kind advice columnist for the website The Rumpus. She will be in St. Louis this week, reading at Left Bank Books tomorrow evening and at Washington University on Thursday. Maybe she'll assume her Sugar persona and give us some advice on how to become as badass as she is. But we were also happy to talk with her over the phone earlier this week.

Daily RFT: How does it feel to make a New York Times critic cry?

Cheryl Strayed: Oh, my God, I couldn't have written that review any better myself. It's beyond anything I ever expected or dreamed of. I also love that he compared it to Lucinda Williams. I adore Lucinda Williams. But I just wrote the book. I had no idea what anyone would think of it. It would be the same book if 200 people read it, or 200,000.

How do you maintain that level of honesty?

I can't think of any other way to write. It's what I think writing is about -- it dares to tell what's beyond what we say to each other in a conversation. Whether it's fiction [Strayed has also published a novel, Torch] or non-fiction, it's the writing that's most instinctive to me.

But you write about so many things most people would want to hide, like how you cheated on your first husband and how you got addicted to heroin.

I did get scared and wondered what people would think. But it's a muscle I've worked enough that I trusted it. And what I think people will judge or condemn me for is what people say they loved. They recognize themselves. I've gotten very, very few e-mails from people condemning things I've written. Mostly it's the opposite, people saying "Thank you for being honest." People are kinder at heart and less condemning than you'd imagine. We've all done bad things. As I said at a reading last week, we're all fucked up.

How did you remember things vividly enough to write about them after seventeen years?

There was a combination of things I drew on. I kept a journal on my hike. I was a writer by then, so I'd write scenes, like I met so-and-so today and dialogue. So I had that and it was really helpful. I got in touch with some of the people I met on the trail. I wanted to hear from people who had met me then. But it was a memoir and so it's a story from my own memory. You develop certain muscles as a writer, and I've always had a good memory. Once you start to remember, you remember more than you started to remember. If that makes any sense. I did do some research. There was that scene with the empty water tank.

Yeah, you were out of water at the time and the tank was empty, so you couldn't refill your bottle. That was harrowing to read.

I went to the guidebook, which I'd bought again, but it doesn't mention the water tank. I asked people and some remembered it and some didn't. I thought, if I don't know, I can't write about the tank. But then I got my hands on the same edition of the book I was carrying that summer, and there was one line, and I was like, "Thank you!"

There's been some comparison of Wild to Eat, Pray, Love since both are sort of journeys of self-discovery.

Well, Eat, Pray, Love was written because [Elizabeth Gilbert] had a deal to do the book. If I had done that, I might have done stuff to increase the drama. But I really did what I did because that's what I wanted to do.

At the time, did you think you would end up writing a book about your hike?

In 1995, there was not as much consciousness of memoir. I thought of myself as a fiction-writer who wrote autobiographical fiction. People said, you should write about [the hike]. But I didn't feel like I could until I had something to say beyond, "I took this trip." By the time I started writing it, I was more developed as a writer, and I felt moved to tell the story and make some sense of my life at the time.

What are you working on now?

I have a collection of Sugar columns coming out in July. I'm on hiatus with Sugar right now. My life has been insane. I don't know what I was thinking, saying, "Oh, I'll keep writing columns while I'm on this book tour." I want to mellow out after the book tour and get Sugar rolling again. I want to sit with things a bit, write some shorter essays and ease myself back in. I started a novel last year. I'm about 60 or 70 pages into it. But I feel I've earned a couple of weeks on the couch watching reality TV.

Which reality show?

[Laughs.] Maybe The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. Those shows are so unbelievably appalling, that people think it's a way to find love, and yet it's impossible to look away. Survivor first came on when I was in grad school. My husband was like, "Oh, you went on that hike, you should try out."