Last month, as part of our newly refurbished Flavorpill Book Club, we suggested that you join us (and let’s face it, pretty much everyone we know) in reading Wild, author and Dear Sugar columnist Cheryl Strayed’s phenomenal new memoir about her experiences hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. We collected your posted and emailed questions (and added a few of our own) and sent them off to Cheryl, who has graciously answered them below, with as much searing honesty and wisdom as we’ve come to expect from everything she writes. Click through to check out our reader-sourced interview with this fantastic author, and if you haven’t read the book yet, we highly suggest you pick up a copy.
There seem to be so many moments in the book when you’re in real danger — whether in the form of the environment or the people who you met along the way — only to land on your feet. I’m curious what you think your mother would have made of the story of your journey, and how you would feel about your own kids doing the same thing one day.
I have a black and white photograph of my mother that was taken by my ex-husband on my twenty-second birthday, six months before she died. It’s a really lovely photograph. I put it in a frame after she died and every where I went that photo would be nearby. In fact, it’s about two feet away from my computer right now, as I type these words to you. For years after my mom died every time I looked at that photo of my mom I would hear her say go. Go. That might sound sort of crazy, but it’s true. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that. I had an overwhelming feeling that my mother wanted me to go off and do the things she never got to do. She raised me with that kind of hope. So I did.
My mom would have been worried about me on my PCT hike, as most people’s mothers are if they happen to have mothers who are alive and involved enough to worry. That I didn’t have that mother — or father, I should mention — magnified the intensity of my aloneness on the trail. When I write in Wild that no one was expecting me to call at my resupply stops, that’s true. I had great friends, of course. It wasn’t as if no one loved me or cared about my safety. But they weren’t my guardians or keepers.
My mother would have been proud of my hike. I would love for my own children to have such adventures someday. I hope they do. I hope the word that comes to them when they see a photograph of me in twenty years is go.
You’re clearly in a very different place — personally, professionally, emotionally — now than when you were hiking the PCT. Was it painful revisiting such a difficult time in your life to write Wild?
Some parts of it were painful, yes. Writing about my mother’s illness and death was hard. And writing about killing Lady just about killed me. I wrote that scene over the course of three or four days that I spent alone in a cabin in northern Minnesota, not far from where I grew up. I wrote and sobbed and took a walk in the woods and then came back inside and wrote and sobbed some more. It was devastating in real life and devastating to bring to life on the page. Having said that, the overwhelming feeling I had while writing about that time in my life was nostalgia. I longed to be back on the PCT. I felt so lucky for that time, for those days. Remembering them was a gift. Like I got to have two hikes instead of one.
Were you prepared for any backlash as a result of outing yourself as Dear Sugar?
Not really — and I was glad to see there wasn’t any, or at least none that I noticed. In the days before I revealed my identity a couple reporters asked if my decision to do so was some sort of publicity stunt, but that never got anywhere because it was just so plainly not true. I always knew I was going to tell people I wrote the “Dear Sugar” column — I said so over and over again in the column itself. By the time I did, many people had figured out who I was, so I think I came out at just the right moment. People were wonderful about it. I’ll never get over the love and kindness I received in the weeks following my reveal.
To what extent is Torch autobiographical?
It’s complicated to answer that question because there are really two answers. One is: very. The other is: far less than most people assume. I grew up in a place that strongly resembles — but isn’t — the setting of Torch. I had a family that strongly resembles — but isn’t — the family in Torch. And of course the situation that family found itself in is precisely the one my family did — the book is about a young mother who dies of cancer and the grief her children and partner experience. But it’s very much fiction. I used my life as the starting point and then turned it into whatever served the story. People often assume I’m the character of Claire in the book, but I’m not. My brother is not the character of Joshua. The bar where their mother works in the novel is not a fictionalized version of a particular bar where I grew up, but rather a conflation of all the bars I knew as a kid and my own imagination.
The piece of the story that’s the most autobiographical is the illness and death of the mother who dies in Torch. I fictionalized that character — her name is Teresa — but there are many things about who she is and how she loves her children and how she died that are straight from life. Those who have read both Wild and Torch will see how those parts of the books echo each other. I feel a bit funny about that, a tad embarrassed that I couldn’t let this story go, that I had to rehash it so many times — I’ve written about it in my essays too — but it is what it is. For whatever reason, as a writer, I’ve found it impossible to resist writing about my mother and her death.
In that vein, how did writing about yourself, writing a memoir, feel different than writing fiction? And how were they the same?
It feels the same in that in each I am trying to achieve precisely the same effect. It’s all narrative. I want to tell a good story, to take the reader vividly into the world I’ve made with sentences. So when I’m doing the work, it feels the same. But it’s also different. When writing fiction you’re entirely in command of the plot. If your character needs to get knocked up or go off to India or fall in love with her employee or argue with the neighbor to serve your purposes, all of this is possible. In nonfiction it’s not. Whatever happened is all you have and your work as a writer is to make sense of it and build meaning from it. You have to do the same thing in fiction, of course — make it mean something — but you can fiddle around with what that might be.
It’s also different on the sheer level of self-exposure. To write a memoir is a terrifying thing. You can’t hide behind it. The opposite is true.
Is it exhausting to be as completely open and giving as you seem in your columns and books?
Sometimes. But I can’t see writing any other way. It’s simply what I’m interested in, as both a reader and a writer. I believe pretty fiercely that a writer’s task is to search for and reveal the truth, or rather the many truths. You can’t do that if you’re holding anything back.
What’s your favorite tearjerker novel?
It’s always hard for me to name a favorite in any category. I love so many things. But Cormac McCarthy’s The Road devastated me. Not because it was sad — though it was — but because it was beautiful. The love and the light in that book astounds me.
What do you listen to when you write?
My inner voice. Also, the writing itself. I read what I’ve written out loud to myself.
Would you ever hike the PCT again — or do something similarly difficult and courageous — for fun?
Yes. Without question.