A Q&A with ‘Wild’ author Cheryl Strayed

  • By Jessi Loerch Herald Writer
  • Friday, May 23, 2014 4:54pm
  • LifeExplore NW

Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild,” is the story of her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail while her life was in shambles.

Devastated by the death of her mother, her marriage fell apart and she fell into destructive habits, including drug use. The trail helped her put her life on a different path.

The book was hugely popular and is now being made into a movie staring Reese Witherspoon. Strayed recently spoke to a sold-out crowd at the YWCA Inspire Luncheon, a fundraiser for the YWCA of Seattle and Snohomish and King counties. More than 800 guest at the event raised $158,000 to support women and families.

After the event, she was kind enough to answer some questions for me via email.

Q: While “Wild” is partially about the PCT, it’s really your story. Do you think you could have written a memoir without that hike?

A: Yes. I was a writer before I hiked the PCT, and I’ve known since a very young age that I’d spend my life writing books. I do think my hike helped me gather myself at a time when I’d lost my way, and so my experience on the trail contributed to my ability to develop as a writer, but the hike didn’t make me a writer.

Q: Would you ever hike the PCT again? How do you think that journey would be different now that you’re older?

A: I would do it again, yes, absolutely. It’s such an amazing, fun, hard, life-changing and heart-filling experience. The journey would be harder on my knees now that I’m older! But I’d be wiser. For one thing, I’d carry a lighter pack.

Q: Now, looking back with years of perspective, what was the best part of the PCT hike? The worst?

A: It’s difficult for me to single out the best thing or the worst thing. The experience was so powerful, that even the bad things were good in the end. I learned from them.

But I will say that the beauty of the trail has never left me — living in that wild landscape marked me forever. And the worst thing has to be my poor feet. They were the source of much pain.

Q: Do you hike or backpack with your children? If so, how is that experience different than hiking on your own?

A: I love to hike with my children. It’s different to hike with them because of course we can’t hike as far as I might without them, and I have to bring lots of treats I wouldn’t eat myself. Namely, gummy bears! I use them as bribes.

Q: Did you or will you ever hike the section of the PCT in Washington state? What about any other long-distance trails?

A: I’ve hiked portions of the Washington PCT but not the whole thing. I’d love to do that. It’s an intention of mine. Many people say that the northern half of the Washington PCT is the most stunning section of the entire trail.

Q: How do you find courage to share such intimate details about your life? Do you ever regret sharing some of them?

A: No regrets! I’ve heard from so many people who feel validated by the things I wrote. I wouldn’t take it back for anything. It’s only been good to be as candid and vulnerable as I am on the page.

It’s scary too, but I’ve become used to that as a writer. I think it’s the writer’s job to tell the truth — not just the pretty truth, but the whole, entire, complex, beautiful tangle that we are have living inside of us.

It’s about revealing, shedding light. The best things happen when you move outside the comfort zone, in writing, hiking and in life.

Q: Did you have further struggles with drugs or addiction after your hike?

A: No. I was never addicted to heroin or any other drugs, though I was on that path. My hike put me on a different path. I never looked back.

Q: How did your experiences on the trail help you move forward with your life after the hike?

A: It brought me back to my strength and wisdom and light. It reminded me who I really was inside.

Q: Someday, do you think your kids will read “Wild”? Have you or will you talk to them about your struggles during that time of your life?

A: My kids are 8 and 10 so I’ve not talked to them about every last detail, but I have shared with them as much as is age-appropriate.

I think they’ll read my books as adults and cringe at times, but I also think they’ll feel very lucky that they have such a clear view into this woman who is their mother.

Q: How has the success and acclaim of “Wild” changed you? What has it allowed you to do you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise? Has it made your life harder in ways?

A: I feel stunned and grateful. So many people have opened themselves up to me after reading “Wild.” They’ve shared their stories and told me how the book impacted their lives, and I’m profoundly moved by that. I’m also really tired.

I’ve been the ambassador for “Wild” around the world for more than two years now. I look forward to getting back into my quiet writer’s groove in 2015, after the excitement of the movie coming out settles.

Q: What is it like to see someone else portray you in a movie?

A: Seeing Reese Witherspoon play me is as bizarre as you can possibly imagine. I don’t think I’ll ever really absorb that fact. She gives an extraordinary performance in the film, and I adore her personally. She’s become a friend and she’s the perfect woman for the role.

Q: Do you still use Monster? Where is it now?

A: I do! Monster is still the pack I use when I go backpacking. Right now it’s hanging on a hook in my basement. It has no idea that it’s famous.

Q: Is a return to Dear Sugar possible? (Dear Sugar is an advice column Strayed wrote for The Rumpus.) Do you think writing it would be a different experience now?

A: I don’t know. I still think of myself as Sugar. I’m just not writing the column right now because I’m so busy doing other things. I don’t think it would be different for me as the writer to take it up again.

I always wrote the column with the awareness that I wouldn’t always be anonymous, so that didn’t matter to me or impact the way I wrote it.

I learned so much from writing the column, but I’m interested in working on the next thing, the next book.

Q: What do you most hope that people take away from your books?

A: I hope they feel more human after reading my work, more opened up to the truth inside of themselves and others.

Q: If someone asks you if they should hike the PCT what do you tell them?

A: Yes! With an exclamation point.

Q: What is one book you think everyone should read? (Other than your own, that is.)

A: Alice Munro’s “Selected Stories.”

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: “Stories We Tell Ourselves,” by Michelle Herman.

Q: Are you working on a new book or books? Any hints on what we can expect from you next?

A: I’m working slowly on my next book. I can’t say much about it because it always ruins it for me. I’ll just say it’s in the works.

Q: I’m sure you have many people who would love to have you speak. What about the YWCA event captured your attention?

A: It’s a great organization that does important work for women and their families. I was honored to support their good work.

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