The Rumpus Book Club Interviews Cheryl Strayed

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The Rumpus Book Club talks with Cheryl Strayed about Wild, finding forgiveness through writing, Sugar, being photoshopped, and more.

This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.

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Cheryl Strayed: Hi sweet peas!

Stephen Elliott: Hey Cheryl, Isaac, everybody!

David B: How is the book tour?

Cheryl Strayed: My book tour has been so much fun, David. Thanks for asking.

Janeen: Hello! And I have to get this out of my system, just once: SUGAR!! Yay!!

Cheryl Strayed: It’s really amazing to meet many of the people I’ve met through online through my Sugar column. Lots of them show up at the readings. Others who come have never heard of Sugar.

Hah! Janeen. You made me laugh.

Ann: Welcome. Loved the book. Connected with the journey in solitude.

Telaina: I am so excited to see you on the best-sellers lists. I did a little dance.

Cheryl Strayed: Thanks, Ann! Telaina, I’m stunned about the bestseller lists. And grateful too.

David B: Did your toe nails heal?

Cheryl Strayed: David B, my toe nails did in fact heal. It took a few years for them to grow back, but they did.

Telaina: How are the kids handling you being gone? Or are they coming with?

Cheryl Strayed: Telaina, it’s been a challenge for my family that I’ve been gone so much lately (and also very busy before I was gone), but we’re doing okay. I talked to my kids about it a lot, trying to prepare them, but we all really miss each other.

Betsy: What caliber weapon did you use to shoot that horse?

Isaac Fitzgerald: We’re jumping right to the horse? 6:01 and we’re doing the horse. Heavy.

Stephen Elliott: That is definitely the quickest we’ve ever gotten to the horse.

Cheryl Strayed: The horse. Oh dear.

David B: The horse scene still haunts me.

Cheryl Strayed: Did I not write the caliber in the book? It was in there in one version. (Paging through my book now….)

The thing about the killing my mom’s horse is that it went terribly wrong even though nothing actually went wrong. My brother shot her exactly where and how he was meant to. It was that I had a different, tidier idea of how it would be to kill an animal. Things up close are usually more beautiful or more horrible than we imagine.

Brian: Hi Cheryl! Like the PCT, also tidier in the abstract.

Cheryl Strayed: Exactly, Brian. Like the PCT. Tidier in the abstract. Killing Lady is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and writing that scene was very painful for me.

Eileen: Did any of your family members read the manuscript before you submitted it for publication?

Cheryl Strayed: Eileen, I did not send it to any of my family members to read to grant me permission or anything, but I did give my brother an advanced reading copy. He loved the book and was deeply moved by it. After he read it, we had a very important conversation that I will never forget.

Telaina: I wondered about your family also… The unwillingness and/or hardness of being with a terminally ill person… I know everyone was doing the best they could but it just seems like such a cop-out to say “I can’t bear to see her like this.

Cheryl Strayed: That was hard for me for a long time, Telaina, but in writing about these things I’ve found forgiveness.

Frances: Today is my mother’s 93rd birthday and I was telling her about the book. We discussed the unfairness of life. I am much older than your mother was and my mother is still alive and functional.

Cheryl Strayed: Happy birthday to your mom, Frances. How wonderful! Thank you for your kindness. I’m sorry my mom died so young, but I am so lucky she was my mom.

Ellen Feig: Wondering about the issue of memory, i.e. when you write about events that happened years previous – how much is based on diary/journals an how much is based on perception?

Cheryl Strayed: I kept a very detailed journal, Eileen, so that was helpful in the writing, but I also relied on memory. I write a lot about my life and I have a good memory, so it’s a muscle I’ve worked a lot (the more you work on remembering, the more you remember). I also talked to others who I met on the PCT and asked them to share their memories of our time together.

Betsy: Did you anticipate the success of the book or can that kind of thing just not be anticipated?

Lisa S.: I was wondering that, too, Betsy. Seems like this book has really exploded. Did you see that coming?

Cheryl Strayed: That kind of thing cannot be anticipated. This would be the same book if 12 people read it or 200,000. I wrote the book I wanted to write. The rest is very much outside of me. I’m really amazed and pleased that so many people are interested in reading it.

Chris: As a parent did you struggle with writing something so revealing that your children will eventually read? I’ve always been honest with my kids but in small doses. You laid it all out there. That would be a struggle for me.

Cheryl Strayed: Chris, I think my kids will read the book when they are adults. I don’t talk to them about many of the things I wrote about in WILD (or in the Sugar column), but I think someday they will come to it on their own.

Eileen: Why did you wait so long to write it? How would it have been different if you had written it closer to the events?

Cheryl Strayed: It took me a while to write it because it took me a while to become a writer who could write a memoir. I needed to write TORCH first. That was the book that was bursting to come out of me. Then I had two kids. Life is full. I wasn’t ready to tell the story until now. I think it would be a lesser book if I’d written it earlier.

David B: I just read Torch and loved it.

Lisa S.: Agreed with David B. about Torch. One of my favorite recent discoveries.

Roxane G: Torch is one of my favorite books.

Cheryl Strayed: Thank you for all the sweet words about TORCH. That means a lot to me.

Molly: Cheryl, when you were writing this, what about your story did you hope could help others? Or was the meaning of writing it something else entirely, and if so, what drove you to do this?

Cheryl Strayed: Molly, I wasn’t ever thinking of writing it to help others. I just wrote it really out of a sense of wanting to tell a story that felt true in the biggest possible way. I wanted to excavate everything I could about that time in my life, that journey.

Molly: Thanks. Can you explain more about that feeling about wanting to tell a true story in a big way?

Cheryl Strayed: I guess what I mean is I just really wanted to write the best thing I could write about this long hike I took. So I went in with everything I could. I tried to be honest and real, to write even the things that made me wince, to create something that made me feel more human by creating it.

Molly: Something that made you feel more human by creating it. Thanks Cheryl. That nails it for me. Thanks for the book it hit me at a time I needed it. Shockingly so, in fact.

Betsy: I so wish I could figure out what “being honest” means in writing about yourself. Don’t try to answer; I just wish I understood it.

Cheryl Strayed: Being honest in writing [...] Stephen has a great way of explaining it. It involves a genuine willingness to grapple with ones own uncertainties, flaws, strengths, fears, wishes. When a writer is honest he/she does not know exactly where the story will land.

Jen A: Hi Cheryl – Thanks for writing a phenomenal book [...] The girl I’ve mentored for 10 years is now almost 22. The book inspired me to have a serious conversation with her about living each day to its fullest (your mom’s approach to life) and working toward independence because you always need to be able to count on yourself.

Cheryl Strayed: Thank you, Jen A. I do believe we all must be responsible for ourselves. And we also must all help each other. Both. Hardcore.

Betsy: A few of us during the discussions wondered how you got involved with heroin and didn’t get hooked. It seemed so easy, I almost want to try it. I’m kidding.

Cheryl Strayed: There is this funny thing in our culture where we equate using drugs with addiction. I was not a heroin addict, but I was on my way there for sure. I pulled myself out at just the right time. It was compelling, destructive, and confusing as hell. I got sucked in, but not addicted… I was a dabbler.

Telaina: The part where you didn’t have any money until the next box? I soooo wanted to reach back in time and buy you a cheeseburger…

Cheryl Strayed: Hah! You can buy me a cheeseburger now, T.

Janeen: I was really moved by the family stories, your childhood, your mom. The hike was fun and interesting, but I liked the way it gave you the excuse to talk about your family.

Cheryl Strayed: It was so tricky to write about my family. It’s easy to tell the happy stories. The not so happy ones were more difficult. I wanted to protect those I wrote about.

Janeen: Yes, that makes sense that you’d want to show your family in a good light. But we all relate to the non-perfect family stuff so well. We all want to know other families are messed up like ours are.

Denise Lanier: I was fascinated with the way the “violence” & danger of hiking the PCT – blisters, bruises, exhaustion, too hot/too cold, bloodied toenails, injuries worn over so many times that callouses formed, some near misses with snakes & bears & human feral-kind, periods of being lost – mirrored in a way the violence your mother suffered at the hands of your father. There’s something there, a kind of echo . . .

Cheryl Strayed: Denise, that’s interesting. To me the echo was more in the relationship to physical versus emotional suffering. One helped mellow the other in my experience.

James Wade: Editing this book must have been extremely difficult. I feel like every event and situation that lead up to the hike could have been a book in it’s own right. You somehow managed to find a great balance.

Cheryl Strayed: James, you are right. I could write another memoir about my 20s and not talk about my hike. In fact, I sort of have in the Dear Sugar columns.

Isaac Fitzgerald: “Tiny Beautiful Things” Coming this Summer! Look for it People (sorry, can’t help myself).

Betsy: Is Tiny Beautiful Things the compilation of Dear Sugar columns?

Stephen Elliott: Yes.

Isaac Fitzgerald: Some unpublished. (I think.)

Cheryl Strayed: You’re right, Isaac. Some are original to the book. TBT!

Janeen: Will you continue being Sugar?

Cheryl Strayed: I will continue being Sugar. I miss writing the column. It’s only that I’ve been so utterly slammed in all of this swirl around WILD, and traveling on my book tour. I will be back with a column as soon as I can–late April or early May for sure.

Stephen Elliott: Sugar’s for life. Blood in, blood out.

Cheryl Strayed: Blood in, blood out. I love it.

Jack W.: Mary Karr was a writing instructor for you, correct? She is quite a distinguished memoirist in her own regard — can you explain her influence, if any, in the writing of Wild (and/or Torch)?

Cheryl Strayed: Jack, Mary was not my teacher. She taught at Syracuse, but she teaches poetry so I didn’t work with her. I admire her memoirs, especially Lit, and have learned from her by reading her work.

George Saunders, Arthur Flowers and Mary Caponegro were my teachers and mentors when I was in grad school. Mary Gaitskill was my thesis advisor.

Janine: Cheryl, you were alongside Christopher Boucher at Syracuse, weren’t you? We read How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive and I adored it.

Cheryl Strayed: Janine, Chris Boucher and I were grad school mates. I love him. I read that VW book in class.

Janine: & Kristin Kaschock! (I think I spelled her last name wrong.)

…and Salvador Plascencia! What on earth was in the water at Syracuse? Can I have some?

Cheryl Strayed: I love Salvador Plascencia. I had dinner with him in LA last week.

Jen A: I remember you packed a fancy pants camera in The Beast… Did you end up taking any pictures while you were on the trail? I ask because your journaling was so vivid that you really didn’t need photos…

Cheryl Strayed: Jen A, I didn’t take many pictures. It’s silly, but true. You can see the ones I did take on the book trailer for WILD (on YouTube or my web site).

Ellen Feig: Jennifer Egan spoke to my students a month ago and she told them that she writes longhand daily for 2 hours and then puts her writing away for two months. Two months later she revises. What is your writing process?

Cheryl Strayed: My writing process: write whenever the fuck I can.

Telaina: Can I share Cheryl’s “I write whenever the fuck I can” on facebook? Is that legal?

Cheryl Strayed: Yes, Telaina. I don’t know if it’s legal, but I say yes.

Telaina: I just shared the shit out of Cheryl’s comment. It was fun.

Stephen Elliott: Share Like A Motherfucker. That’s our next mug.

Cheryl Strayed: Share like a Motherfucker, indeed.

Janeen: Are you still in touch with Paul? As a divorced person, I related so well to that relationship and all the complications and good things.

Cheryl Strayed: Janeen, my ex-husband, who I call “Paul” in the book, ended on good terms and we remained active friends for a few years after our divorce. We have not been in contact for about a decade, but not because there had been a falling out. It was more like life moved on. He emailed me last week to say he’d read WILD and that he loved it and he was happy for its success. He thanked me for writing about our relationship the way I did. I was unspeakably touched and grateful for this.

David B: Do you think WILD will lead to travel writing books?

Cheryl Strayed: David, do you mean will this book lead me to write travel books? I don’t know. I started writing a novel last year. I’m about sixty pages in, but I had to set it aside because I’m too busy. Same with this long essay I’ve been halfway working on for ages (by long I mean it’s about 50 pages already and I’m only a third of the way through). I need to get through promoting these two books–WILD and TBT–and then I plan to catch my breath before deciding what next.

Janeen: Do you ever write poetry?

Cheryl Strayed: I wrote poetry when I was a teenager. I’m digging through my files for some now….

Roxane G: Do you find that people make assumptions about what they “know” about you now that they’ve read your memoir? How do you handle that?

Cheryl Strayed: Yes, Roxane, I do find that. Or they fill in gaps for themselves if I didn’t write about something. But mostly I have been met with kindness and generosity. A lot of people relate to the story, but they relate on so many different ways. There are an amazing number of people out there who’ve lost their moms. They cry when they meet me. There are people who are into the hiking aspect, or the divorce/heartbreak thing. It’s wonderful to feel connected to people because of a book, but intense too.

Jack W.: Cheryl, w/r/t Torch & Wild: the events run strikingly parallel (in beautiful ways), especially both chapters 1. Some write to Calm The Mind By Writing Emotively Towards Alleviation. Did writing about similar events in both books (more directly in Wild) help in this way?

Cheryl Strayed: Jack, I do think writing about my mom’s death in both books (and in other things too–essays and the Sugar column) has been healing. I write what I feel driven to write. That keeps coming up. I might have it out of my system now, but who knows.

Holly: Cheryl, any favorite memoirs or memoirists’ structures you had in mind when writing this?

Cheryl Strayed: Hi Holly, I didn’t have anyone or any book in mind when I structured WILD, but I certainly had all the books I’ve ever read floating around in me when I wrote it. The fact that I could hang the narrative on this hike told in chronology was really helpful. The backstory came pretty organically and out of chronology. The hike provided forward momentum.

David B: How do you feel about a movie of WILD?

Cheryl Strayed: On Wild the movie if it happens: I can’t wait to see it. But it feels separate from me. The book is mine. The movie is someone else’s creation.

Ellen Feig: So dream actress to play you in the film?

Cheryl Strayed: Ellen, Reese Witherspoon has optioned the book. She plans to star in it playing me, so she is my dream actress. She’s great.

Jack W.: Do you plan to write about Vogue’s picture of you?

Cheryl Strayed: I do think I will write about Vogue’s picture of me. In fact, I will do it here. They photoshopped the shit out of me. It seems they were hoping to make me look more conventionally attractive, but they only made me look worse. I’m very disappointed and disheartened.

Stephen Elliott: They can’t make you look more attractive. Can’t be done.

Cheryl Strayed: I love Stephen Elliott.

Lisa S.: I have to say this book has inspired a lot of conversations amongst my friends about how long we could last on the PCT (which is not something I ever expected to debate). The consensus is three days. But we’d all want to go longer so we could leave notes at the checkpoints. Because it is awesome that that exists.

Cheryl Strayed: Lisa, that’s funny. I met this woman today whose daughter went out alone to hike on the PCT. She began near the Oregon border. She lasted three days! She never went back.

Janine: Wild has spurred conversations and debate in my life about females going hiking solo.

Cheryl Strayed: I think that women doing things alone is good for women and for all of us. If we continue to believe the narrative about being prey, we will always be prey. Having said that, I understand entirely that my journey would have meant something different if I had been victimized in some way (raped or killed) or if something else bad had happened. It would not have been “what a great trek!” it would have been “what was she thinking?”

Betsy: I confess I did a “what was she thinking” cuz you went out with only a whistle for protection.

Telaina: The issue is why can’t women travel alone? I don’t like that this stuff dictates what women “should” and “shouldn’t” do.

Roxane G: Seriously. The issue is, why can’t predators leave women alone, not women shouldn’t travel alone. It’s not 1850.

Betsy: But on a hike, some of it is safety. Do all avid hikers hike alone? It was a risk, no matter the gender.

Cheryl Strayed: There is controversy about whether people should go into the wilderness alone. Like anything, doing it solo is more dangerous because you have no one to help you if something goes wrong. But I took a calculated risk. I’m so glad I did.

Janine: Yes: risk acceptance. How much risk are you willing to take, because you can’t avoid it wholly, and sometimes staying at home is the riskiest thing you can do.

Cheryl Strayed: I can’t believe no one has asked me about the hot sex with the rad dude who lived in a tent.

I mean really people.

Roxane G: Ha. The writing was so good that our questions on that matter were all…answered, thoroughly.

Cheryl Strayed: Hah!

Kevin: Was he the first person to say “rad” ironically, or the last person to say “rad” in earnest?

Cheryl Strayed: Kevin, I think he was the last person to say rad in earnest. I wonder if he’ll show up at one of my readings.

Janeen: I was glad you wrote frankly about your own sexual desire on the trail.

Cheryl Strayed: It was really fun writing that scene.

Jack W.: Cheryl: that guy — whose hair whipped to and fro on his face determined that you were a “hobo” to be written on — did he ever publish any of that? Did you search for it after your trek?

Cheryl Strayed: I searched for the reporter from the Hobo Times, but didn’t find him. I plan to search again soon. I don’t know if he ever wrote that article about me. Not that I was a hobo.

David B: Thanks Cheryl for your great books and columns and doing this chat.

Cheryl Strayed: Thanks everyone. Nice chatting with you.

Stephen Elliott: Tell us more Cheryl! I know there’s more.

Cheryl Strayed: Mr. Sugar says hi.

The baby Sugars say “set my mama free!”

I say, “will you pour me a glass of chardonnay?”

Isaac Fitzgerald: I need to have kids.

Stephen Elliott: @Isaac you need kids like a unicorn needs a shotgun.

Cheryl Strayed: The last thing I have to say is thank you for reading my book.

But of course I have more to say. I love The Rumpus and I love the community you’ve all created with us.

Stephen Elliott: We love you Cheryl. xoxoxoxox

Cheryl Strayed: Love you too, Stephen, Isaac and everyone.

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