At a moment of profound loss—the death of her mother, depression, divorce and even a dangerous flirtation with heroin—25-year-old Cheryl Strayed set out to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail through California and Oregon. Strayed captured both the physical toll and the hard-won healing process of her long-distance hike in her honest and affecting memoir Wild.
Wild was one of BookPage’s Best Books of 2012, as well as a Readers’ Choice Best Book of 2012, and our reviewer Catherine Hollis called it "one of the best American memoirs to emerge in years." Wild, Strayed's second book following her debut novel Torch, is out this week in paperback.
The editors of BookPage caught up with Strayed to discuss the success of her memoir, readers’ responses to the book and more.
First things first: Wild was an incredible, well-reviewed, best-selling success. How has the response to Wild changed your life? How has it changed your approach to writing?
The response to Wild has been tremendously exciting, but it hasn’t changed my approach to writing. It’s still just me and the page, the way it’s always been. I’m still terrified and delighted by the act of writing, still uncertain of what’s ahead. The success [of] Wild has been thrilling, but it’s oddly outside of me. It’s what the world has made of my book, not what I did in the act of writing it, which would be unchanged, no matter how others responded to it. I will always be stunned by Wild’s reach—not just in the U.S., but all around the world. I’m grateful and amazed. The experience has made me feel more connected to more people from every walk of life because so many of them opened up to me and shared their stories with me after they read mine.
Right around the time that Wild was published, you also announced that you were the writer of the Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus. Did writing those columns inform your work on Wild in any way?
I’d written the first draft of Wild by the time I began writing the Dear Sugar column, and I was revising Wild when I was writing a bulk of the Dear Sugar columns that appear in my book Tiny Beautiful Things, so they come from the same place—the writer I am at this moment in my life—though I don’t think they directly inform each other. Having said that, some of the advice I give as Sugar is certainly rooted in things I learned on my long hike.
At the time of your hike, you took along books by William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Adrienne Rich, rather than leaving the extra weight behind. Are those writers still important to you today? Which other writers have joined their pantheon?
"My greatest intention as a writer is to illuminate the human condition. You can’t do that while hiding behind the safety of your own cloak. So I write fearlessly, even when I’m afraid to do so."
Books were my saving grace out there. Reading offered me a much-needed escape from the monotony and solitude of the hike. Those books were worth the weight for sure. Plus, I didn’t carry them all the whole way. I carried the Adrienne Rich book with me the whole time, but I burned the Faulkner after reading it and I traded away the O’Connor book. Those writers are still important to me, alongside writers like Mary Gaitskill, Raymond Carver and Alice Munro, among others.
Wild is a deeply personal story. Did you have any qualms about revealing yourself in this way?
Yes, of course. Before Wild was published I was afraid of being condemned, misunderstood, disliked, mocked. Those things have all happened! But only by a handful of haters on the Internet. Far more often I’ve received understanding, kindness and love from readers. It’s tremendous, the number of people who say to me, “YES, I RELATE!” That's the power of telling your truth. You find that other people have that truth, too, even if they conceal it most of the time. I can’t imagine not revealing myself in my writing. The entire point of literature is revelation. My greatest intention as a writer is to illuminate the human condition. You can’t do that while hiding behind the safety of your own cloak. So I write fearlessly, even when I’m afraid to do so. It’s only brought me good things.
Many readers found your lack of planning for your hike infuriating. What would you like to tell those readers?
I would tell them to lighten up. Wouldn’t life be miserable if we never learned anything the hard way? Were none of these infuriated readers ever young? But also, I’d say “lack of planning” isn’t an accurate criticism. I planned quite a lot. I bought all the gear (even though I carried too much of it), I prepared and organized and boxed all the food I’d eat for the entire summer and all the supplies I’d need. I figured out where and when to have those boxes mailed to me along a wilderness trail I’d never set foot on. I accurately calculated the amount of ground I could cover in a given time over three months. That’s quite an organizational feat, wouldn't you say?
So there were many things I planned well and did right. I think that gets overlooked by people who get worked up over my alleged lack of preparation. I took too much stuff. I didn’t train before I went on my hike. I didn’t know how to do certain things until I had to do them. I didn’t understand all the challenges before I faced them firsthand. But that’s pretty much it.
Most backpackers make these same mistakes when they begin. I don’t think there's anything wrong with that. I think the world would be a rather sad place if we only did things we were entirely prepared for. All the best things I’ve ever done were things I learned how to do along the way. Becoming a parent is a prime example. Most parents have very little idea about what to do with a baby before the baby’s in hand. You learn fast.
At what point on the hike did you feel your strongest? Your weakest?
The final day of my hike was profound. I felt strong, humble, grateful, fully alive. It’s one of the most unforgettable days in all of my life. I felt my weakest in those moments of total despair, when I wanted to give up because my feet hurt or when everything was miserable. I remember those moments and laugh now. That’s the best thing about that kind of suffering—the kind you have on a long-distance trail—it’s always funny later.??
Would you ever attempt to hike the PCT again?
Yes. Without hesitation.??
Do you see yourself having another adventure to compare with the one chronicled in Wild? (We’re not asking you to go deep-sea diving without a tank, just FYI.)
I do. I would love to. I have two young children, ages 7 and 8. I’m just waiting for them to be old enough so we can all go off on a grand adventure together.
You're still touring for Wild (we're looking forward to your Nashville stop!). How do you like having the chance to interact with readers face-to-face?
It’s been the most gratifying aspect of this past year. Every event I do I meet people who tell me exactly how and why they felt moved by Wild or one of my other books. Sometimes they say what I wrote changed their lives. It feels like a gift every time.??
Any especially surprising or moving encounters with readers?
So many I cannot even count them anymore. I wish I had a camera strapped to my head at each book signing just so I could share that beauty with the world. It’s unbelievable and yet I totally believe it, too, because I know the power of a book. I know how it feels to be changed by words on a page. I’m honored that my words have done that for others.??
What's next for you?
Another book! A novel, I believe.