In a 1929 letter to The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway expressed that writing wasn’t terribly hard work, that “the good parts of a book may be something a writer is lucky enough to overhear, or it maybe the wreck of his whole damn life.” For punctuation and punchline, the Nobel Prize winner added, “One is as good as the other.” When Cheryl Strayed several years ago put pen to paper to tell the true story of her 1,100-mile solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother’s untimely passing in 1991, it was, in fact, the wreck of her whole damn life she sought to excavate and release. The resulting book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, was published in early 2012 to critical hosannas and commercial fortunes that included a long run atop The New York Times Best Seller List and a plum spot in Oprah Winfrey’s book club.
Strayed's artfully written chronicle is unvarnished in its harrowing, ferocious depiction of a 26-year-old woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown who, over three rigorous months in the implacable wilderness, discovers the sweet liberation and relief of self awareness. The book has sold more than 1.75 million copies in print, while the film version, starring Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, directed by Dallas Buyers Club’s Oscar-nominated Jean-Marc Vallee, hits theaters this weekend, haloed by much Oscar buzz.
In conversation, Strayed is tender and forthright, sweet and candid, vulnerable and aglow. If her early years were wild, Strayed does not seem, at 46, tamed, but rather, awake and alive, which is, in all likelihood, magnificent news for readers the world over.
In the time-honored tradition of overnight successes, you’ve been writing professionally for almost 20 years, but it’s really been the last two years − with the publication of Wild, your second book − that the world has come to know your work.
(Laughs) Exactly! I’m the '20-Year Overnight Sensation!' It’s been a long time coming, and it’s been glorious and unexpected.
Before Wild, there was a novel, Torch, some award-winning stories and essays, and a peppy, audacious advice column at TheRumpus.net. When did you begin making sentences?
When I was, like, six. As soon as I knew how to read and write, I knew that I loved doing it. You know, it's interesting, because I can actually trace my wanting to be a writer back to an experience I had when I was six. My family didn't attend church, but I spent the night with a friend one Saturday night back then, and in the morning, her family took us to church and put us into Sunday School, and the Sunday School teacher handed out these little books, these pamphlets really, from the 1970s. These books had these watercolor paintings with little palm trees, pictures of butterflies and flowers, all that stuff, and there were these little poems that accompanied the pictures. I remember reading the little books and being pierced to my soul by the way these words could create these feelings inside of me. I just remember thinking so clearly, 'I want to do that. I want to create that kind of power and beauty with language.' I was so amazed that those feelings could be made by words on the page, you know?
You had a moment of awakening.
Yes! Though I’m pretty sure I’ve had more of those moments since then. But that was a big one! (Laughs) Ever since then, I wanted to be a writer. I mean, as a kid, I didn't think very specifically that somebody like me could be a writer. It was kind of a class and culture thing, I think. I wasn’t surrounded by people who got to do great things, so I didn’t really understand how to get from who and where I was to that mysterious realm of 'People Who Write Books.' But I felt that sense of calling inside of me from the age of six.
When did you begin to sense the possibility that you could actually be a writer?
It took me some time. I remember when I was a teenager, I subscribed to Ms. Magazine, and they did a story on Joyce Carol Oates. I’d never heard of her, but there she was, on the pages of Ms. Magazine, with photographs even to prove that this woman really existed and was alive and was actually writing books. I thought, 'Wow! Maybe I could be like her.' I think that was the moment becoming a writer was something I believed to be possible.
So Joyce Carol Oates played her small, albeit passive, role in bringing Wild to the world. The author Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, also coaxed you along, right?
Yes. I had discovered her writing when I was 19 or 20. I just picked up one of her books at this used bookstore in Minneapolis. I had no idea she was famous; I was just, for some reason, drawn to the book. I read it and, of course, I was really blown away – in a way that I had, maybe, only really been once before in my life, when I read the little book at church. I was just so inspired by what she wrote and the way she spoke to me, so when I won my first contest for writing a short story and then that story got published, I sent her a copy of that book with a fan letter. I couldn’t believe it, but she wrote me back right away. I was, like, 23 or 24. She read my story, and said so many nice things about it. That letter she wrote to me, its one of my greatest treasures. She was so supportive and encouraging.
What a gift!
That kind of generosity has been shown to me by so many writers along the way, and I do my very best to extend the same kindness and support to other writers. When you receive that kind of thing, it can feel like this glorious light suddenly shining on you. That’s the kind of thing you really hold onto as a writer because rejection is so much a part of the game.
Wild has been a game-changer for you. It’s an exquisite book and a truly beautiful, moving film. For some reason, audiences are captivated recently with stories of these protagonists who embark upon literal journeys of self-discovery – Wild, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, to name a few. Why do you think this is true?
Well, I think most of us, at some point in our lives, think of picking up and going to a new place and escaping our lives. I think that’s a part of life today. Maybe it always has been. But I feel like my hike was not about escaping so much as it was about going more deeply into life, my life. Wild, I think, is actually about the reverse of escape. It’s about when I gave myself the opportunity to find some perspective and reflection, really discover for the first time what was true. It was a powerful experience for me, as I think it is for most of us, and in some way it’s been happening since the beginning of time. Some of our most ancient narratives are about that journey. We go out into the unknown and we return changed. That’s timeless. Even in American literature of the last 50 years or so, the books we think about as Great American Novels, most of them are about people who make a new home for themselves in a brand new world, casting yourself into a wider world, having a transformative adventure.
A hero’s journey, if you will.
Exactly. I mean, while I was writing Wild, I knew I was touching on these Joseph Campbell “Hero’s Journey” things, these classic themes like “man versus nature,” these ancient narratives, but I had no idea the book would resonate with so many people.
You’ve probably been asked this before, but if you were to stuff your backpack today for the 1,100-mile hike you did 20 years ago, would you pack differently?
You know what? That’s such a complicated question. There are actually two completely true answers. One is, “Yes, absolutely. I would pack fewer things.” And, of course, I’d go back in time and erase all of the mistakes I made and ease all of the suffering I endured and that I may have caused. On the other hand, I wouldn’t do any of that because all of the mistakes I made contributed essentially to the meaning of the hike and the power the hike had in my life. The physical hardships of the hike – the blisters, losing the toenail, the ill-fitting boots, the overweight backpack I called “Monster” – were just enactments of the painful work I needed to do on the inside. For me, it’s always resonated: you never forget a lesson you learned the hard way. If I hadn’t had the experience I had, I don’t think I would have gained the wisdom that I did.
How would you summarize that wisdom?
Sometimes you just have to keep moving forward, even if it really hurts to do so.
Are there regrets from that period of your life?
I sometimes shake my head at myself over some of the choices I made back then, but when I think about being able to go back and change them, I kind of think the lessons learned would be obliterated for me. And I think I really needed to learn the things I learned.
Writers of fiction often struggle mightily in devising metaphors that elevate their stories, but with Wild, it seems like all of the metaphors simply happened in your life. We couldn’t really make this stuff up, could we?
(Laughs) There is probably an assumption that writers are sitting around trying to come up with good symbols or metaphors, and that probably does happen all the time. But with Wild, yeah, the truth is: the things I did – like, really, truly, actually, literally did – I had to tone them down for the book, or play them out very delicately, because they were so clearly symbolic in retrospect.
Things like naming my backpack “Monster.” The only reason I named it that was because, you know, it was monstrous. It was monstrously big. It was so heavy. So I’m writing the book and I’m, like, 'Wow! You know, here I am, actually carrying a monster on my back!' And finishing the hike at Bridge of the Gods. If Wild were a novel, any editor in the world would’ve said, 'Uh, that’s too heavy-handed. You really can’t end your hike at Bridge of the Gods.' But that’s exactly what I did. It was just a literal fact. It happened.
To the credit of the filmmakers, they really honored your book. There do not appear to be any efforts to radically reinvent the book or to “sanitize” some of the trickier choices you made on your hike.
That’s Reese, all the way. She read the book. She loved it. She promised me she would honor it and protect it and make the best film she possibly could. And then she brought on this extraordinary team of filmmakers and that’s what they did. I completely expected to get notes from somebody along the line that this Cheryl Strayed character just isn’t very likeable, that some of the things she does are just wrong. (Laughs) But that didn’t happen. I could care less about likeability in stories or films. Likeability isn’t important to me. Credibility, that’s what matters to me. And by the way, I think I’m actually a pretty likeable person! (Laughs)
This may be Internet apocrypha, but there are some articles that suggest “Strayed” is not your actual surname, that it’s a name you gave to yourself.
“I once was lost, but now am found.”
Right! (Laughs) Exactly. Like the little book in Sunday School!
So if you could change your name again today, what would you choose?
I would never change my name again today. Never. When I chose Strayed for my name, I wasn't looking at the word’s negative connotations. I was aware at that time in my life that I'd really lost my way, that I'd gone off the path. But the other definitions of that word “strayed” are very powerful too, you know? A stray is somebody who makes, or has to make, his or her own way in the world. A stray is someone who lives without the essential mother and the essential father, which is how I lived. So I was embracing that word, that name, for all of its darkness and all of its light, and I hoped I would keep growing and living into the name, sort of embodying it in my life, you know. I’ve had the name Strayed the longest of any name in my life. It’s like my heritage. I feel it is my real name. When people ask me if it’s my real name, I’m, like, 'Yeah.' And that’s the truth.