The Cheryl Strayed Interview

Today I speak with the author of #1 New York Times bestseller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the New York Times bestseller Tiny Beautiful Things, based on the "Dear Sugar" advice column on and the novel Torch. WILD was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her first selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0. It has been optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon's production company, Pacific Standard. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, Self, and elsewhere. Her essays and stories have been published in THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, THE BEST NEW AMERICAN VOICES, and other anthologies. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota. You can learn much more about her here.


Were there any parts of the WILD that you were surprised resonated with your readers that were just matter of fact to you?

The book itself: I knew that it wasn't just about hiking. I was well aware of that and would try to tell that tell people who thought, "Oh, I'm not a hiker," before it came out. I've kind of been amazed by how resonant it's been with people with different age groups and life experiences and genders. There's a lot of things that people talk to me about, like the scene where I see the fox and I yell "Mom, mom!" after the fox walks away. I remember writing that and thinking it was this weird inexplicable moment, and I still don't know how to make sense of that, but so many people have written to me about that moment and told me stories about how they believe the spirit of someone they love who is now dead is now in an animal. One thing I've found in my writing life that the most personal things we see as strange are often the most universal experiences. I've had thousands of emails and conversations with people at my readings who tell me about their lives and what part of themselves they recognized in it. I think that that's been pretty interesting to see that this book about me has been a book about a lot of us.

You talk about the day you finished Wild and how exciting that was: how did you know it was finished?

I'd been working on that first draft for a couple of years: the thing about writing the book is that you're finished with it about five different times. When I say "finished," I mean that first really polished first draft that's time to hand over to my editor. I know I'd gotten to the end when I'd really gone over and over the book enough that I knew I'd done my best and there wasn't anything I could have made better by myself, with either time or other people's opinions, so that's how I knew. Sometimes when I say "first draft," some people think I just sat down and wrote it out. But with that first draft, I had written that chapter ten times. I know consciously, my editors will come to me and have significant changes. The first time is the biggest time.

What did you do to celebrate?

With all three of my books that I finished, I felt this deep sense of gratitude and ecstasy that's very emotional and very private. In each case, for the first celebration I went for a long walk and I cried and I thought about everything I've done. Later I did things like drink champagne and eat cake. Those were more public, but something as an author, the work you do is ultimately so very private. The real celebration was that feeling inside of me of accomplishment and relief. 

If your kids got a tattoo to commemorate you the way you got a tattoo to commemorate your mother, what do you think it might be of?
I've never been asked that question. I think that my first thought is a word. Words are my thing and that maybe it would be some word that they really associate with me, maybe as simple as "love," since obviously that's the main thing I give my children. I really do believe that's the heart of my work, too, and the heart of the whole reason of me being there. It's totally corny, I know, or maybe the Latin word for "love."


What's your biggest camping etiquette pet peeves?

Anytime we're in a state park or even city parks, when we're in a place is to be out in nature, I find it appalling when people do things like have a boom box, any kind of electronic noise. I love music, but come on, we're out in the wilderness, I don't want to listen to your song. I find that really rude to other people and it doesn't occur to them that's not okay.

Was there anything you ate to death while on the trail that you're sick of now?

All those dehydrated, dry lipton noodles, rice and sauce--whenever I have them now, not that it's very often, I'm just like no, I've eaten so much of that. You do eat dehydrated foods when you're on a wilderness trail, it's the easiest thing, and when I was out there, it tasted great. Snickers bars are the candy bars that a lot of hikers take out. A lot of people got sick of them: I never got sick of those. I also can't eat any of those Power bars or Clif bars to save my life. That happened three-quarters of the way into my trip. I started leaving those in hiker free boxes.


How much your book vetted, if at all, by Oprah's people in terms of fact-checking prior to being selected for the book club?

I would just guess that they probably vetted to some extent. The Knopf legal team went through what I was saying before it was published. They didn't make me aware of it, but it's pretty easy to vet Wild because there's pictures online of me on the trail with people who I wrote about, and since the books' come out, people who know me posted things online.-I've wondered the same thing. I'm assuming that they did, because they wanted to avoid an embarrassing situation. But it's pretty easy to find proof that I was on the trail when I was. They certainly didn't involve me.

Between being #1 on the NYT bestseller list and being in Oprah's book club, do you feel more pressure or more freedom when it comes to your next project?

I'm trying to feel neither. I'm trying to feel like I always felt. I'm a writer, I'm going to write a book. With the first book I thought, "What if this never happens?" It would be very embarrassing to me to know I never managed to write it.


The feeling I have about the next books are excited to get back into it: I'm so thrilled with what happened with Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, it's beyond anything I ever imagined. But I also really miss the routine of writing and finding my way into a new story.


When I finish the book, I am gonna feel quite stressed out, not so much for myself, but hoping that my publisher is happy with it, that's the part, not wanting to let other people down. There's nothing I can do about it. I'll just write the best book I can write and see what happens. Who knows why a book doesn't well on the marketplace. A lot of great books don't become best sellers. I don't know if I will write another bestseller: I can't try to. The two books I have in my head right now, I really want to get back to fiction and also write another memoir and I feel like I'm just going to write a book. I just wrote Wild.

How do you attack it without succumbing to myriad distractions, both legit (family) and not (Facebook)?

It's a challenge. Social media is great: it's like our water cooler, it's fun to take a break and communicate with our fellow humans but it can be totally distraction. You mean to write for two hours but you spend two hours on Facebook instead. I had to just really learn how to look at things over the long time. A lot of times I'll get freaked out on a micro level, like, "Oh my gosh, I've got write this week," and then someone gets the flu and the kids are home and you can't write that chapter. But if this gets done three weeks later, that's not really a big deal, but it feels like it is. It always feels like I'm not doing enough but then I look back at all the work I've done.


Each kid is 18 months apart, so I was really on the front line with babies, but once my youngest was 2, but I started doing this thing where every six weeks I would check into a hotel a mile from my house for a couple of weeks and just work. My kids were fine without mom for 48 hours and I would get so much writing done. I didn't have to feed anyone and I could stay up till 3 in the morning. It's like exercise: once I start exercising, I'm glad I got into it.

What's the best, most concise lesson you ever learned from a writing teacher?
I'm thinking about George Saunders, Mary Cantenagro and Arthur Flowers at Syracuse. They're really different people and writers and teachers but the core of what they taught me, and it helped me to be told even though I knew this, was to trust myself in terms of both voice and content, that ultimately what I was going to write the best was the thing I really needed to write. What I think is fascinating is that there are all these anti-MFA arguments, as if getting an MFA is a terrible tragedy, like MFA's are these writing factories. I was in an MFA program with people who wrote all kinds of things, and is this really what you want to be doing, and this is what you need to find your voice and your vision. From these many teachers, I learned that you must write what you must. I could have tried to be cooler and write the cool story and be all experimental--That's not to denigrate people who do write very experimentally--but that's not who I am.

Which Dear Sugar topics tended gave you the most pause?

Many of them, when I initially read them, It thought what the hell am I gonna say, but the one that gave me the most pause was The Obliterated Place, the guy whose son was killed by a drunk driver when he was 22. I knew I had a lot to say about grief, I knew what it as like to lose someone who is so essential to his life, but I hadn't lost a child and I hope I never do. I just felt like, OK, I can meet him on a certain level but I was fearful that I would say the wrong thing to him. Yet I knew he deserved me to try to say something to him. Suffering is hard enough and if you feel as if no one understands your suffering, it adds another level to it. I wanted to answer that letter, even if I struggled, I spent a lot of time crafting that reply.

How much do you and your husband collaborate?

He reads all my work, I watch everything he makes, and we give each other feedback. We're really helpful to each other. We're both honest with each other; if there's something I see that I think he needs to change, he does the same. We're also both each other's biggest fans. We've worked together on little things but we would love to do a project together. Life is crazy and full but we would love to.

What's a song or album you've been playing on repeat lately?

Mary Chapin Carpenter's new album, Ashes and Roses. I've known her over the years, and through music, but all these people over this past summer, this album came out this June. She's been on tour, and all these people say "The stuff she says from the stage and in her music just remind me of Sugar." Then she wrote to me and posted on my Facebook page that she's taking Tiny Beautiful Things on her tour with her and I was like "Oh my gosh!" So we got in touch with each other and she's lovely.

What nonfiction books have you read where you wanted to get to know the author personally?

Mary Karr, is a poetry teacher at Syracuse. She was never a teacher of mine, but I only took part of a class that she taught, I was a fan of hers for sure. This last year I read Lit and I was completely blown away. There was this experience of someone I do know, not terribly well, I know her, and then I read the book and I thought I really want to get to know this woman. Also, Mira Bartok, with The Memory Palace, I had just met her at AWP this last year, so I don't know her, but reading her book made me feel like I wanted to be her friend. The people who were my friends who publish memoirs, and people who know me have this experience too: they can know me on another level. In some way you're creating a persona on the page, and yet you're also telling your most intimate thoughts and experiences and how you really experience the world.


The other day I went on Tumblr--I have one and I don't really know how to work it. I started posting a couple of things and then went away and couldn't find it, and I had to go through Google and instead of my Tumblr coming up, I was brought to this Tumblr search page where it had all these other things that people had posted about me, and one was this interesting little piece by this woman Lynn Salisbury who I went to high school with. We went to this tiny tiny high school, 40 kids in the whole class. I didn't know her very well, and I was very popular in high school, and concerned with being loved, the way all teenagers were. She was not in my crowd, but she wrote about reading Wild and her memories of me as a teenager. She said "I wish I had known her better, I wish I hadn't assumed who she was." Looking from the outside, this popular girl, everything's great. I think a memoir, what you're allowed to do is see the inside. That's a truer place. A lot of my friends even got to know me on another level, one that the people we're close to don't even know.


How does it feel to be the 326th person interviewed for

Hahaha. It feels magical and magnetic and magnificent. Everything beginning with the word m. Honestly, I feel honored! I always feel honored anytime anyone wants to talk to me about something I wrote. I've been all over the country these last several months for both books and most places I've gone, I've walked into a room packed full of people and I've thought "Wow, I've thought three people would come." I should be able to understand why, because I've been reached by other people's writing, but I've thought "Wow, really, me?" Thank you.