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Apr/May 2012 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Cheryl Strayed

by Elizabeth P. Glixman


Buy now from Amazon! Cheryl Strayed is the author of three books: Wild, a memoir (Knopf, March 2012), Torch, a novel (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) and Tiny Beautiful Things (forthcoming from Vintage, July 2012), a selection of her "Dear Sugar" columns.

Strayed's writing has received praise from both readers and seasoned writers. Ursula Hegi writes, "In language that's lyrical and haunting, Cheryl Strayed writes about bliss and loss, about the kind of grace that startles and transforms us in ordinary moments."

Strayed's writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, Self, The Missouri Review, Brain, Child, Creative Nonfiction, Water Stone Review, and The Sun. She is the winner of a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been published in The Best American Essays and The Best New American Voices. She lives in Portland with her family.

 

EG     I am glad to meet the Queen of the Pacific Crest Trail and the author of the amazing memoir Wild. As a preface to the book, your editor Robin Dresser, a VP Senior Editor at Alfred A. Knopf, writes:

Here is a voice as unforgettable and inspiring as the adventure it brings to life: the true story of a solo hike through the astonishing beauty and untamed landscape of the American West, told with humor, wisdom, and some of the most captivating writing I've ever read.

You are a gifted storyteller with a unique voice and a powerful tale to tell in Wild. What motivated you to write this particular book at this time, years after the hike?

CS     You're very kind, Elizabeth. Thank you. I'm sad to tell you the title of Queen of the PCT did not come with a tiara or a castle, but your words of praise are enough. I started writing Wild by accident. I'd written several personal essays, and in 2008 I had this idea that I'd put those essays together and publish them as a collection that loosely told the story of my childhood and young adulthood. The one big hole was the story about my hike on the PCT, so I began writing it. I really thought I could cover it in the space of 20 or 30 pages, which is, of course, ridiculous, I now see. Once I began writing, I could not stop. That's how Wild was born. Out of necessity.

EG     Did you make an outline for the book, create a visible structure, or did all the memories flow out and then were edited?

CS     I never write from an outline. Once I'm deeply into something, I often jot down notes about trajectory or what material I think I'd like to include, but I generally write more intuitively, following the story where it takes me. This isn't to say I write in one big stream-of-consciousness gush. I write, then revise, write and revise. Because of this my first drafts tend to be pretty polished, though there's still lots of work to be done. But I don't write in any structured way that involves advanced planning. One of the most important scenes in Wild came to me only after I'd written a couple hundred pages of the book.

EG     Writing intuitively, no advanced planning... this admission will make you the envy of many writers who struggle with outlines.

CS     Really? That's funny because I would not think many would envy that. Writing in this way can be overwhelming and messy. I've always envied the writers who make intricate outlines, and so when they write, they know where they are going.

EG     Well, maybe most writers won't be envious. I had a grass-is-greener writing moment reading about your "organic" writing method. I am one of those writers who, even when I write an outline, have trouble knowing where I am going. How long did it take to write the book?

CS     It took me about a year and a half to write the first draft of Wild, though there were big chunks of time in that year and a half where I was not working on Wild because I was writing other things—essays, mostly. After that, it was another eight or nine months of revising the book—again, with big spaces of time in there when my editor had it, so I wasn't working on it that whole time. I did one major revision of the first draft and then two or three smaller revisions to make the book you read. It's been completely done for quite some time—since November, 2010, in fact, so I've had to be very patient waiting for the book's publication.

EG     I finished reading Wild a few weeks ago. Every time I think of the story my feet hurt, my back hurts, I crave water, showers, baths, cheeseburgers, French fries, and Snapple. I experienced vicariously many of the aches, pains and emotions you wrote about, the physical exhaustion and deprivation in the extreme heat and cold on the trail with your backpack Monster rubbing your skin raw weighing you down as you hiked. The toenails falling off were almost too much to bear. You spared no details. Your writing is vivid and sensory. Where and/or how (educational background, authors you emulate) or where did you learn to create this sensory magic in your writing?

CS     Thank you. I always wanted to write that way, ever since I could read. I reach for the ultra-real. I want my writing to feel like life to readers. I majored in English with a focus in creative writing, and I have an MFA in fiction, and while those experiences were valuable to me, I learned how to write by reading and trying to emulate the writers I loved. Alice Munro, Mary Gaitskill, Richard Ford, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Edna O'Brien, William Maxwell—they were all very important to me in the early years. One of my earliest serious reading experiences was Ernest Hemingway's short story "In Another Country." I was about 11 when I read it—too young, really. I'd happened upon it on my mother's bookshelf, published in some anthology of stories. I'd never read anything like it, and though I couldn't entirely grasp it, I recognized its power. I wanted to do that, to make that on the page, even though I didn't have even the foggiest notion of how I might go about doing so. I haven't read that story in more than 30 years, but I can still feel it in my bones.

I didn't grow up among educated people in a house full of books. I remember having only a smattering of books as a child, but my mother read out loud to me from novels when I was very young. The two that made a big impression were Black Beauty, the Anna Sewell novel that was published in 1877, and Bambi, A Life In the Woods, by Felix Salten and published in 1923. When I mention those titles, most people think of the various things those novels were turned into for modern mass consumption—animated Disney films, books made for children that entirely gut the original story—but my mother read me the full novels, which were written for adults, though they happened to be about animals. The stories were wrenching and real. I laughed. I wept. I felt entirely taken up in the merciless and miraculous world they created. I was three and four when my mother read them to me—I know this because she was pregnant with my younger brother when she read them. I would never read those books to my kids at three and four! And yet I'm so glad my mother did.

EG     Your mother gave you a literature-rich environment, which is an environment many educators promote to help young children cultivate a love of language and reading. It worked for you. Was your mother a good storyteller?

CS     She was, but I'm not sure I recognized that when she was alive. I asked my mom a lot of questions when I was a child. I was very curious about her life to a degree that she found both comical and annoying. I'm so glad I asked her to tell me so much.

EG     I admired how candid you were about your intense feelings about your mother's death, as well as about your use of heroin and sex when you were married to your first husband. The reader knows many intimate details of your life. Is there ever a point in writing a memoir where experiences or feelings are off limits? Did you ever experience this while writing the book? Did you ever ask someone close to you, say family, do I need to leave this info out or in?

CS     I think experiences and feelings are off limits when they unfairly expose someone else, but never when it comes to myself. The memoirist's job is to write outside the comfort zone, which is different than just blathering on about all the bad and secret stuff you did. I try to push in the direction of the greatest truth and to spare myself nothing in that effort. If I'm not feeling afraid and freaked out about what I wrote at various points along the way, I've failed as a writer. The whole deal about writing about oneself is revelation, and there is some pain in that.

I do write about other people, and I have occasionally written about some of them in ways that they might not appreciate or agree with, but I do so with a tremendous sense of responsibility and also forgiveness. I never write out of revenge or hate. When I have something negative to say about others, I do my best to protect them. I change names or make them as unidentifiable as possible. It's up to them if they want to stand up and say, that's me. In cases when I need to write something unflattering or difficult about another person, I write as little as necessary in order to convey what must be conveyed.

Writing about others is difficult, but impossible to avoid. Anyone writing a memoir is going to have to account for certain essential people in his or her life. Where one came from is a question that must be answered, and if one came from a family that is less than perfect, one has to write about that and let the chips fall where they may. And they will fall. If you have abusive family members, they aren't going to come to you and say, Yes, honey, write your truth. They are going to try to shut you down at every turn. But you don't need anyone's permission to bear witness to your life.

EG     In many scenes the reader can feel your vulnerability under your strength, as when you were reflecting as you hiked about your mother's decision to donate her body organs. You recalled the conversation you had with the person at the organization who facilitated the donation. You wanted to see your mother's eyes again in someone else even though there was a strict privacy agreement.

It wasn't the entire eye that was transplanted, the woman explained, "but rather the cornea which is—" I know what the cornea is, I snapped. I'd still like to know who this person is. To see him or her or her if I can. I think you owe me that.

Do you have longings about your mom? If so, are they different now that you are older and had the experience you had on the PCT? You are a mother, too. Some people keep locks of hair or articles of clothing, besides pictures and inner memories. Do you think people ever get over the loss of someone or a time or place in their lives they loved?

CS     I love my mother endlessly. There are terrible parts about not having a mother all these years, and it never stops being terrible. But the beauty is bigger than the terribleness. Love wins. It's bigger than loss. I'm astonished by it, really, how much I love my mother, even after all this time. I would cut off both my legs if you'd give her back to me. She is everywhere in me. Always with me. I miss her every day. The feeling around that longing and sorrow changes. It's a lot easier than it was in the first years after her death, though "easier" is not quite the right word. I've gotten used to living without my mother. I accept it as my fate, and hers. But once a year or so, the fact of her eternal absence hits me, and I howl in agony.

EG     The story in your first book, Torch, a novel, is about a family where the mother gets cancer and lives only seven weeks. I wonder if you will continue to write about situations or themes of death and loss. The belief that writers write what they know.

CS     I think my mother will show up in my work in various ways over the years, but my hunch is these first books—Torch and Wild and also Tiny Beautiful Things, which is the collection of my "Dear Sugar" columns that's forthcoming in July—have a focus on my mother and my grief that most of my future books will not, but who knows. I began writing a novel last year, and though there is a dead mother in the book, she is not mine and she doesn't play a huge part in the story. I don't set out to write what I know, necessarily. It's simply where I've gone most of the time.

EG     Wild is an adventure story as well as a travelogue, a naturalist reflection like those of Annie Dillard as well as the diary of a young women feeling loss, abandonment, and confusion, embarking on the mythical journey of renewal. It is a story filled with different stories brought together in one story. It is never boring. It is a page turner. Do you see yourself as one kind of writer? Have you ever written poetry?

CS     I wrote poetry when I was nineteen. It was my gateway drug into the literary life, and soon I found myself mainlining prose. I love poetry, and I try to make sentences that reflect that love. I care a lot about rhythm and rhyme. It has to sound good, or I won't consider it good. But I'm not a poet. I'm just too much of a blabbermouth. I need more words than poetry will allow! So I write both fiction and literary nonfiction—memoir, personal essays, and my Sugar columns, which are a memoir/self-help/advice cross-breed. People are always asking me about what kind of prose writer I am, as if I must decide between fiction and nonfiction. I love both. I write both. They feel the same to write from a craft perspective. In one I use the actual as material, and in another I use a combination of the actual and whatever I decide to invent. I'm a storyteller. That's the kind of writer I am.

EG    Is Wild a women's book or one for everyone?

CS     I don't write for women. I don't write for men. I write for humans. I'm gratified that both men and women have written to me saying they loved Wild. As a woman writer I've definitely felt the pinch of sexism in the constant need to reassure men—and sometimes other women—that my books are for everyone. There's a constant sense that I must beg or explain or defend myself before I'll be taken seriously by a male audience. That's a sad state of affairs in the 21st century.

EG     I agree about the sad state of affairs. What are you writing and reading these days?

CS     My main focus right now is writing the "Dear Sugar" column while also promoting Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things. I hope to return to the novel I began last year by the end of summer. I'm reading Sara Wheeler's nonfiction book The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle. It's magnificent and terrifying.

EG     Do you still go backpacking?

CS     I have two small children, ages six and seven, and so backpacking hasn't been much of an option these past several years. I still hike, and I have high hopes of turning my children into long-distance wilderness backpackers soon.

EG     Was the hiking shoe on the cover one of yours? It made my feet hurt again to see it.

CS     It was not my boot, but it looked a lot like it.

EG     Another thing I won't forget about Wild was all the ice cream you ate. And the amazing vistas and landscapes you described. Being enveloped by solitude in the wilderness and confronted with our own physical as well as emotional survival is something many of us will never experience. Thank you for sharing your story in this book. I know it challenged me to think about how I handle grief and healing.

CS     Thanks, Elizabeth. Ice cream has never tasted so good as it did on the Pacific Crest Trail.

EG     I read the movie rights of Wild were bought by Reese Witherspoon. You look a little like her. Is she planning to play you in the movie? Will you be involved in writing the screen play?

CS     Reese will star in the film, playing me. I'm still stunned! She is so smart and talented and perceptive. I admire her strength and intelligence. I can't think of a more wonderful actress to bring Wild to the screen. I won't be writing the screenplay. Writing the book was enough for me.

EG     One last question. In Wild you wrote about the moments of fear you felt while hiking the PCT. You wrote how you handled fear mentally and physically, once fleeing an area where you felt threatened by a man. I won't give that scene away. Perhaps it was different times or youth, but would you hike that trail alone as you did then, today in the world we live in?

CS     Absolutely. I would do it again in a flash. The world we live in now is probably safer than it was in 1995. Crime rates are lower, and with the technology boom of the past couple decades, most PCT hikers carry smart phones, so at least sometimes they have a bit of a safety net that hikers in previous years didn't have. I knew I was taking some risks going alone or even going at all, but we take risks every time we get into a car. We just don't think of it that way. Doing things that make us feel afraid requires us to reframe the way we imagine danger. I was safer in the wilderness of the PCT than I'd been anywhere for a very long time.

 

Read more about Cheryl Strayed at her website.

 

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