A Walk on the Wild Side with Cheryl Strayed
At the age of twenty-six, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s rapid death from cancer, her family grew apart and her marriage soon crumbled. With seemingly nothing to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to walk eleven-hundred miles of the west coast of America – from the Mojave Desert, through California and Oregon, and into Washington state – and to do it alone. She had no experience of long-distance hiking and the journey was nothing more than a line on a map. But it held a promise – a promise of piecing together a life that lay in ruins at her feet. Strayed’s account captures the agonies – both physical and mental – of her incredible journey; how it maddened and terrified her, and how, ultimately, it healed her. Wild is a brutal memoir of survival, grief and redemption: a searing portrayal of a life at its lowest ebb and its highest tide.
Hazel Gaynor spoke to Cheryl while she was in London recently. In a very honest and open interview, Cheryl gave a fascinating insight into the experience of writing Wild and explains what it feels like when Oprah Winfrey rings you!
I always know a book is special when I read it in two days. From the description on the back cover of Wild, I knew it was a book which was going to make me cry, as the subject matter was very close to my heart, having lost my mum to cancer when I was in my early twenties. Half afraid of what emotions Cheryl’s words were going to stir within me, I sat down and started to read. I was hooked immediately and couldn’t put the book down. For two days I ignored my family and felt as though I walked every step of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) with Cheryl.
This is a brilliantly written memoir in which the author shares her deepest, darkest moments. Yes, I cried like a child, but there are also moments of gentle humour and gritty determination which made me laugh and smile. This is a book you don’t want to end, but when it does, you simply cannot help but stand up and applaud Cheryl Strayed, the bereaved daughter, for reaching the end of her incredible journey, and Cheryl Strayed, the writer, for typing ‘The End’.
For an experience which was so personal and so powerful, I was fascinated by how challenging Cheryl found it to translate her experience into words.
‘Part of the reason I write is to go to those deep, dark, difficult – and joyous – moments of life,’ Cheryl explains. ‘Writing into those truths is how we reveal what it means to be human. My mother’s death was something which devastated me; the end of life as I knew it and the start of my next life in a world without my mum. I really felt that I had to write about my grief – how could I not write about it?’
Even so, Cheryl didn’t set out to write about her hike. ‘I was an aspiring writer at the time, and some of the writing I did while on the hike eventually became my first novel, Torch, but I certainly didn’t take the hike to write a book about the hike. There was never really a plan to write about it, but at the same time, I’m not surprised that it became a book. I had always kept a very detailed journal, so I had that to draw on when writing Wild.’
Having taken her epic hike in 1995, I wondered why Cheryl had waited until so many years later to write about her experiences and whether that distance of time made it more challenging to recapture her experience and tell her story.
‘It simply didn’t occur to me to write Wild straight after the hike, also, I thought of myself as a fiction writer at the time, not a memoir writer! Looking back now, I honestly feel that so much of the experience would be missing if had written Wild straight away. I had to learn what the hike meant to me and that was something which only came with the perspective that the intervening years have offered. Writing Wild as a forty-something-year-old looking back on a twenty-something-year-old gives you a different interpretation of events. Of course it was such a profoundly striking experience that I was never going to forget it, but my journal helped me remember what I was thinking and feeling about the experience at the time and I was able to use those thoughts as a guide. Plus, I’ve had the opportunity to become a better writer over the years since the hike.’
In addition to writing about her mother’s death, Cheryl also writes about other significant experiences in her life: a brief spell of heroin use, the breakdown of her marriage, destructive relationships and a particularly harrowing scene involving the death of her mother’s horse. Did she find it very difficult to go back to those very dark places?
‘Writing is an exchange between the conscious and subconscious,’ she explains. ‘With a memoir you write what happened and then think about what that means. It is a mixture of retrospect and perspective. Yes, I wondered about leaving in some of those scenes, and wondered if readers would think I was crazy, but I have learnt that when my first impulse is to take something out of my writing, the reality is that I really need to keep it in.’
As well as writing, Cheryl also teaches writing classes. So, what is her advice to aspiring writers?
‘You really have to put your energy into the work and make it the best you can make it. I wasn’t trying to write a ‘bestseller’ with Wild, I was trying to write the best book I could write. After all this time it does seem like magic that Wild has struck a chord with readers. Yes, it is a big hit, but I was turned away many times with other writing projects. Rejection is part of a writer’s life and my advice on that is to not get too emotionally bound up in the rejection and just keep writing the best you possibly can.’
Wild touches on many aspects of life – relationships, marriage, grief, being in the wilderness – and readers have been drawn to, and moved, by Cheryl’s experiences for many different reasons. I asked her about the process of writing Wild.
‘I started writing in 2008 and finished the final edit in September 2010. By April 2009 I had the first 130 pages polished. With a memoir you can submit a partial manuscript. So, I wrote a short summary synopsis and took it out to ten publishing houses. Within a day or two, six were very interested. When I spoke to the editors I eventually signed with, I could really see their vision and I wrote the rest of book with a sense that someone was waiting for it, which added to the pressure and expectation! I had a real sense of dread when I handed it in!’
I find it fascinating that even after writing such a brilliant book, that all-too-familiar sense of dread, which every writer experiences, still doesn’t go away, although I am sure that in Cheryl’s case, it has now been squashed a little at least! So, has she been surprised by the amazing success of Wild and the impact it has had on her readers?
‘No writer ever expects the success of their novel as it happens so rarely. After years of being a writer I have high ambitions and try to write the best books I can write, but to have found an audience of the size and scope which Wild has reached is just amazing. I will never get over the conversations I’ve had with people who have read Wild – it is very humbling and very overwhelming. It is shocking to me that my little life, my little hike has touched so many people. It is really powerful – beyond anything I ever dreamed as a writer and it is nothing at all to do with fame or money but has everything to do with connecting to readers. So, yes, I am astounded by that.’
Undoubtedly, one of the most unexpected outcomes of the publication of Wild was the decision by Oprah Winfrey to take it as the first book in her new book club. I asked Cheryl how she heard this amazing news.
‘It all happened very organically,’ she laughs, the excitement of Oprah’s endorsement evident in her voice. ‘Wild came out in March 2012 and was getting great reviews, including a review in ‘O’ magazine, Oprah’s magazine, for which the editor did a Q&A with me. Wild caught Oprah’s eye, she read it and asked the editor for my number. I knew nothing about this until my phone rang one day while I was in a Milwaukee hotel room on my book tour. I answered the call and a voice said, ‘Hi, this is Oprah!’’
Laughing, Cheryl explains how she and Oprah then had a long conversation about the book.
‘Oprah was very down to earth, said how much she loved the book and wanted everyone to know about it. By the end of that week, I spent the whole day with Oprah at her house in Santa Barbara and on June 1st Oprah’s book club announcement was made and Wild was taken to a much wider audience.’
Following the international success of Wild, there is clearly going to be a large fan base eager to see what Cheryl writes next. I ask her if she has even had time to think about that.
‘Well, the last year has been about bringing Wild to the world – I’ve really had to midwife it along the way! It is coming out this month in the UK and Ireland and in over thirty countries. Really, it is just starting to happen. I’ve written short pieces on the fly, but in the spring I’d like to have a little downtime and write again. I love fiction and creative non-fiction and I think I definitely have another memoir in me – perhaps what happened after Wild. I also have another book coming out in May called Tiny Beautiful Things. Essentially, these are literary essays from the Dear Sugar advice column which I’ve been writing anonymously for years on therumpus.net.’
And with that, my time is up. I reluctantly leave Cheryl to enjoy her cup of tea and views of the London skyline at sunset, but I could have happily spoken to this amazing, inspiring woman for the rest of the day. I urge you to read Wild – it is absolutely worth all the hype and will leave you feeling a little better about that ten minute walk to the shops which you’ve been putting off because it’s too far and too cold.
Cheryl Strayed is the author of Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar and the novel Torch. Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and journals. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Wild was selected as the first book choice in Oprah’s Bookclub 2.0 and was a number one New York Times bestseller. It is now available in Ireland and the UK from all good bookshops.