Cheryl Strayed: 'Wild' and Beautiful

Cheryl Strayed turned her back on a world of experiences that had left her bereft and began to walk, in solitude, to learn how to survive alone. It took her a novel and two decades to make sense of that decision.
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Cheryl Strayed did not set out to discover herself with a $200,000 book advance and an inner compass set to taste, meditate and indulge. She turned her back on a world of experiences that had left her bereft and began to walk, in solitude, to learn how to survive alone. It took her a novel and two decades to make sense of that decision. When her collection of advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things (Vintage, July 2012), is picked up by readers today, it will be easy to see that Strayed is a writer mature enough to celebrate the fact that Wild (Knopf, March 2012), has reached #1 on the NYT Bestseller list, but wise enough to be able to keep it real, to know that professional success is but a part of a complex, and often imperfect, yet brilliantly lit life.

RF: I have to get the big one out of the way: you brought Oprah Winfrey herself, the undisputed Monarch-Maker of writers, out of retirement. After two years without the book club, she said, "I was on the edge of my seat reading the book and I was like, 'Where is The Oprah Winfrey Show when you need to announce and tell everybody about this book? I need the book club.' So I created Book Club 2.0 for this book, Wild by Cheryl Strayed!" Would you like to take a bow on behalf of all the writers out there who would like to thank you for persuading her to reinstate Oprah's Book Club?

CS: I've been bowing every day since Oprah called me. I'm still stunned. I've been an Oprah fan since way back. I admire her tremendously. She's a totally self-made woman who trusts her passions and works her tail off, then she uses her success to do good in the world in so many directions. I'm grateful to her for picking Wild for her book club, but I'm more grateful for what she's done for American literature for years. When I spent the day with her I got to look her in the eyes and thank her for that.

RF: Your 1,100 mile solo hike through the Pacific Crest Trail of the United States was one you undertook in the wake of an abandoned love and the defining loss of your life, the death of your mother. You were devastated and felt utterly helpless, but there is a depth to the honesty of that solitary journey that speaks to a reservoir of courage that you obviously had in reserve. Few people choose to throw themselves into the wind that way, to truly cut close to the bone of their sorrow in order to understand it. Where did that strength come from?

CS: It's impossible to say. Why am I this way and you are that way and he is the other way and she is another way still? It's the mystery of the bones. On the first day of my son's life I wrote in my journal that he was sweet and tenacious and the funny thing is eight years later I would still use those two words to describe him foremost. Whatever reservoir I drew on when I decided to take my hike on the PCT and then did was probably with me from the beginning. I think my two qualities are that I was always ambitious and always emotionally awake. Maybe my mother saw that in me on the day I was born. Maybe she nurtured those things so they'd carry me forth when she was gone.

RF: In March, 2010, you assumed the identity of Sugar, and wrote the responses on the Dear Sugar column for the Your advice to a young female writer, "write like a motherfucker," generated a legion of followers to your column, as well as a line of swag like the mug that sits on my table right now. The more critical advice in that column, however, was this: "Writing is hard for every one of us. Coal mining is harder. Do you think coal miners sit around all day thinking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig." In another column you finished with these memorable words to someone who felt that they had been signaled out for a particularly lousy set of cards: "The fuck is your life. Answer it." Despite the country being in the throes of doing rather than perseverating endlessly -- the Occupiers are a case in point -- the literati seems to be thrumming with navel-gazers rife with self-pity. In an American publishing environment that is so full of opportunities from online venues to journals to self-publishing to seven-figure deals, what do you think accounts for this epidemic of self-centeredness?

CS: I understand why writers feel despair. It takes some time to become accustomed to the fact that the world isn't going to stand up and applaud the moment you've written your novel or memoir or blog or book of poems, but the sooner you do, the better off you'll be. The market isn't an accurate gauge of success when it comes to literature. Some great writing is rewarded by the market, but most is not. I know a lot of people will discount what I have to say about this because of the success I've had lately with Wild, but I've been at this for some time. Twenty-three years. And I'm telling you the truth when I say the most successful day in Wild's existence was the day I finished writing it. It's the success that means the most to me. It's the one I remember most vividly. It's the one I hold in my heart. I get as grumpy as the next person about how we fail to support artists, but the coolest thing about art is it's made by a bunch of people who would've done it whether you paid them or not. They did it for love. If you don't think that's a good enough reason to do it, don't bother.

RF: Seven million American girls and women suffer from eating disorders, and 20% of those suffering from anorexia will eventually die from complications associated with the disease, including heart failure and suicide. You have spoken about your relationship with food, your teenaged persuit of being "the skinny cute thing," and your comfort, as an adult, with your body and your love of food. In one of your columns you refer to the "distorted eyes of the all-knowing, woman-annihilating, ruthless beauty god who has ruled and sometimes doomed significant portions of our lives." How did you come to understand that the beauty god had feet of clay?

CS: I think I always knew it. I think we all know it. How can we not? It's so empty, so ugly. And yet, the struggle is how to allow that knowledge to manifest itself in our lives. It's one thing to say looks don't matter, to say we value what's inside rather than outside, but it's another thing to live it. It's not as if I never struggle with beauty, but the way I've managed to come to grips with those self-annihilating impulses is to decide, ultimately, that I will not annihilate myself. I won't starve myself thin. I won't have surgery so my breasts sit round and high on my chest for all of eternity. And I won't do these things even though I sometimes feel crappy about my body. The shift for me happened slowly over the years and it had everything to do with power, with letting go of the paltry power beauty grants girls and women and exchanging it for something else--a deeper kind of power, one that didn't come from others.

RF: One of my personal favorites from your Dear Sugar columns was this advice to a man trying to decide whether to become a father (Dear Sugar #71). You wrote, "I'll never know, and neither will you of the life you don't choose. We'll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn't carry us. There's nothing to do but salute it from the shore." In your writing what comes through is a human being who has marched without foreknowledge and, if not always with complete confidence, certainly with total immersion down each alley and highway -- and trail! -- that you stood before. If you could describe a sister life that could match the one you have, what shape would it take?

CS: My sister life would have to be the one in which I was not a mother, since it's motherhood that's most profoundly altered my daily existence as well as my life in the grander scheme of things. In that other, childless life I'd do all the things I love to do a whole lot more: write, read, travel, sleep, hike, poke around in thrift stores, hang out with my friends, have sex in the afternoons. Sometimes my husband and I will be on a walk together and we'll catch a glimpse through the windows of a tidy little place where it's clear no child lives -- maybe we'll spot someone sitting with a book in hand and hear a bit of jazz filtering out into the street and we'll say, "Remember that? Oh my God, remember?" I'd rather be a pile of dust than live without my children, but for my sister life I'll admit an occasional touch of longing.

RF: You have said that our work in life is to "build a house," one composed of a moral code that tells us exactly what to do in any given moment. Has there ever been a time, as a writer, when your own "house" seemed inhospitable or when, no matter how solid it seemed, the gray areas made it difficult for you to know "the right thing to do?"

CS: Life is gray, it's true, but when I wrote about "building the house" I wasn't writing about life in general. I was writing about the internal compass we all have, which can be a clearer, truer thing than life if we allow it to be. It can lead us through the gray. Most of the time when I feel conflicted, I see upon closer examination that it's really more of a situational contortion I've put myself in. I know what the "right thing" is, but I don't want to do it because it will disappoint someone or it will interrupt some misguided sense I have about who I'm supposed to be or I'll be attempting to justify my actions to myself, even when I know damn well what's what. Having said that, I'm still lost about a quarter of the time. Hence, the phrase "we are here to build the house," rather than "we are here to lounge around the house and drink margaritas."

RF: The columns collected in Tiny Beautiful Things, draw deeply from the width and depth of your life experience. Most of the time what a reader gets is not only a specific response to a specific question, but an insight into your way of being in the world, as well as you private world, particularly the one you have built with your husband, the film-maker, Brian Lindstrom, and your children. How do you reconcile the essential quality of privacy, or even secretiveness, that are the definition of intimacy between two people, and the way you share those moments with strangers in order to shine a light for them?

CS: I choose carefully. I don't tell every story. The art of personal storytelling is an art of omission and inclusion. What to tell, what not to tell; what is necessary for the story and what isn't. Because I write so openly and intimately about my personal life people often assume I've told them everything. But I haven't. There's a difference between my writing and my life; between knowing my work and knowing me.

RF: You often quote from an array of wonderful writers -- Tomas Transtromer, Carlo Levi, Louise Erdrich -- people whose words and, perhaps, ethic, see you through your own life. How important are your contemporaries, those people whose work though sometimes well known is hardly quotable in the larger world, to the work that you are doing now? Are there any among that group that hold you up or inspire you?

CS: Other writers are my lifeblood, especially my contemporaries, because not only do I have their beautiful words, but I also have the camaraderie of their existence. There are too many to list but you are high among them, Ru.

RF: You chose a name for yourself that reflected the things you didn't have in life -- a father, a mother, a home -- as well a the passion you did have -- to go forth in search of, to depart from the direct in favor of the unknown. How does the name Strayed (which I've always pronounced as Stry-ed!), suit you now that the course is a little more circumscribed both by choice and by your stature as a writer?

CS: When I chose my name I was leaning heavily on its meaning. It reflected my life then and it still does, though of course my life has changed. Like all good surnames, Strayed tells the story of where I came from. It's my heritage. I've settled into it. I'm not making a statement with it anymore and yet it tells you something about my origins, like any name does.

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