The Cheryl Strayed Interview
Today I speak with writer Cheryl Strayed. You may know her from her long-running advice column Dear Sugar, which she writes for The Rumpus, and which was adapted into the best selling collection Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. Strayed's writing has been featured in everything from The Washington Post Magazine and The Best American Essays to Allure and Self. Her memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, hit #1 on the New York Times best seller list and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as the first selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0. The book, which describes Strayed's 1,100 mile solo hike after her mother's early death, has been optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon's production company, Pacific Standard.
The book itself: I knew it wasn’t just about hiking and would try to tell that to people who thought, “Oh, I’m not a hiker,” before it came out. But I’ve been amazed by how resonant it’s been with people from different age groups, life experiences and genders. There’s a lot of things that people talk to me about, like the scene where I see a fox and I yell “Mom, mom!” after the fox walks away. I remember writing that and thinking it was this weird, inexplicable moment, and I still don’t know how to make sense of that; but so many people have written to me about that moment and told me stories about how they believe the spirit of someone they love who is now dead is now in an animal. One thing I’ve found in my writing life that the most personal things we see as strange are often the most universal experiences.
If your kids commemorated you with a tattoo the way you got a tattoo to commemorate your mother, what do you think it might look like?
I’ve never been asked that question. My first thought is that it would be a word — words are my thing — and that maybe it would be some word they really associate with me. . . maybe something as simple as "love" since obviously that’s the main thing I give my children. I really do believe that’s the heart of my work, too, and the whole reason of me being there. Maybe the Latin word for "love." It’s totally corny, I know.
What are your biggest camping etiquette pet peeves?
I find it appalling when people do things like have a boom box or any kind of electronic noise. I love music, but come on. We’re out in the wilderness, I don’t want to listen to your song. I find that really rude and it doesn’t occur to them that it's not okay.
Was there anything you ate to death while on the trail that you’re sick of now?
All those dehydrated Lipton noodles, rice and sauces. When you’re on a wilderness trail it’s the easiest thing, and when I was out there it tasted great. But whenever I have them now, not that it’s very often, I’m just like, no — I’ve eaten so much of that. A lot of hikers take out Snickers Bars; a lot of people got sick of them but I never got sick of those. I also can’t eat any of those PowerBars or Clif Bars to save my life. That happened three-quarters of the way into my trip — I started leaving those in hiker free boxes.
How much was your book vetted or fact-checked, if at all, by Oprah’s people prior to being selected for the book club?
I’ve wondered the same thing. I’m assuming that they did to some extent, because they wanted to avoid an embarrassing situation. They certainly didn’t involve me. It’s pretty easy to vet Wild because there are pictures online of me on the trail with people who I wrote about. And since the book came out, people who who know me have posted things online. The Knopf legal team went through what I was saying before it was published.
Between being #1 on the NYT bestseller list and being in Oprah’s book club, do you feel more pressure or more freedom when it comes to your next project?
I’m trying to feel neither. I’m trying to feel like I always felt. I’m a writer — I’m going to write a book. With the first book I thought, “What if this never happens?” It would be very embarrassing to me to know I never managed to write it. When I finish [this next book], I'm gonna feel quite stressed out. Not so much for myself, but hoping that my publisher is happy with it; that’s the hard part, not wanting to let other people down. I’ll just write the best book I can write and see what happens. Who knows why a book doesn’t well on the marketplace? A lot of great books don’t become best sellers. I don’t know if I will write another best seller; I can’t try to.
How do you attack writing without succumbing to myriad distractions, both legit (family) and not (Facebook)?
It’s a challenge. Social media is great: It’s like our water cooler; it’s fun to take a break and communicate with our fellow humans but it can be totally distracting. You mean to write for two hours but you spend two hours on Facebook instead. I had to really learn how to look at things over the long time. A lot of times I’ll get freaked out on a micro level, like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got write this week,” and then someone gets the flu and the kids are home and you can’t write that chapter. But if this gets done three weeks later, that’s not really a big deal. But it feels like it is. It always feels like I’m not doing enough, but then I look back at all the work I’ve done.
Which Dear Sugar topics tended gave you the most pause?
Many of them — when I initially read them, I thought, "What the hell am I gonna say?" But the one that gave me the most pause was The Obliterated Place, the guy whose son was killed by a drunk driver when he was 22. I knew I had a lot to say about grief and I knew what it was like to lose someone so essential to your life; but I hadn’t lost a child and I hope I never will. I just felt like, OK, I can meet him on a certain level; but I was fearful that I would say the wrong thing to him. Suffering is hard enough, and if you feel as if no one understands your suffering it adds another level to it. I struggled; I spent a lot of time crafting that reply.
What nonfiction books have you read that made you want to get to know the author personally?
Mary Karr is a poetry teacher at Syracuse. She was never a teacher of mine — I only took part of a class that she taught — but I was a fan of hers for sure. This last year I read Lit and I was completely blown away. Here was this experience of someone I do know, not terribly well, and then I read the book and I thought, "I really want to get to know this woman." Also, Mira Bartok, with The Memory Palace; I had just met her at AWP, so I don’t know her. But reading her book made me feel like I wanted to be her friend. My friends who publish memoirs and people who know me have this experience, too: They can know me on another level. In some way you’re creating a persona on the page, and yet you’re also telling your most intimate thoughts and experiences and how you really experience the world.
The other day I went on Tumblr — I have one and I don’t really know how to work it — and I started posting a couple of things and then went away and couldn’t find it, and I had to go through Google and instead of my Tumblr coming up, I was brought to this Tumblr search page where it had all these other things that people had posted about me. One was this interesting little piece by this woman Lynn Salisbury who I went to high school with. We went to this tiny, tiny high school — 40 kids in the whole class. I didn’t know her very well, and I was very popular in high school and concerned with being loved, the way all teenagers are. She was not in my crowd, but she wrote about reading Wild and her memories of me as a teenager. She said, “I wish I had known her better. I wish I hadn’t assumed who she was.” Looking from the outside, this popular girl, everything’s great. I think a memoir, what you’re allowed to do is see the inside. That’s a truer place. A lot of my friends even got to know me on another level, one that the people we’re close to don’t even know.
How does it feel to be the 326th person interviewed for Zulkey.com/WBEZ?
Hahaha. It feels magical and magnetic and magnificent. Everything beginning with the letter "M." Honestly, I feel honored! I always feel honored anytime anyone wants to talk to me about something I wrote. I’ve been all over the country these last several months for both books, and most places I’ve gone, I’ve walked into a room packed full of people and I’ve thought, “Wow, I’ve thought three people would come.” I should be able to understand why, because I’ve been reached by other people’s writing, but I’ve thought, “Wow, really, me?” Thank you.