Cheryl Strayed: "I’m like the accidental self-help author"

The author of "Wild" on Reese Witherspoon's portrayal of her, seeing her life on-screen, and befriending Oprah

Published December 5, 2014 4:00PM (EST)

Cheryl Strayed; Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in "Wild"     (Random House/Joni Kabana/Fox Searchlight)
Cheryl Strayed; Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in "Wild" (Random House/Joni Kabana/Fox Searchlight)

In the spring of 1995, reeling from the death of her mother, Cheryl Strayed walked 1,100 miles alone across the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon and emerged from the wilderness anew. In 2012, she wrote a bestselling book about her journey called "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," which hit the New York Times bestseller list, became the first pick for Oprah's Book Club 2.0, and sold more than 1.75 million copies. And Friday, "Wild" -- the adaptation of her book produced by and starring Reese Witherspoon and directed by "Dallas Buyers Club's" Jean-Marc Vallée -- hits cinemas, where it is sure to find a mass audience, possibly some golden statues, and turn Cheryl Strayed into a veritable household name (not that she doesn't have enough devotees already). Suffice to say, it's been a wild ride.

On the eve of the film's release, we spoke to Strayed -- who comes across as warm and wise as her books and her iconic Rumpus advice column, "Dear Sugar," would have you think --  about what it was like watching the film for the first time, Reese, Oprah, meeting Leonard Cohen's Suzanne, navigating the Hollywood media frenzy, and more.

What did it feel like to watch your life play out on-screen for the first time?

It’s so crazy. It’s as surreal and fascinating and bizarre as you can possibly imagine. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it no matter how many times I see the movie — and I've seen it many times. I watched it being made, and all along the way I was involved, but when I sit in a theater and see Reese [Witherspoon] reenacting scenes from my life and calling herself Cheryl I’m like, “What?!?” It’s amazing, and it’s fun, too. It’s something I never imagined. I never really played that game, “Who would play you in the movie of your life?” It’s this experience that I’m getting to have that I never aspired to or expected.

When you watch the film and see Reese's character throwing her boot over the canyon or having these intense breakdowns, does that feel like you’re watching scenes from your own life? Or does it feel like something else?

Different scenes have different impacts on me. Some things are so much like it really was that it’s all I can do to keep from standing up in the theater and shouting to the audience, “This is exactly how it was!” Other scenes, I have less that feeling about. They’re like an approximation of how it was, and then there are a couple of other scenes where that’s not how it was at all. I think there’s that range of reactions I have while watching the movie.

Two scenes I can think of that are just so true to life — and there are many, the film is really true to the book — when Reese is trying to get her backpack on for the first time just cracks me up. I’m like, yes. I couldn’t lift my pack! I tried to figure out a way to get it on. Also the death of my mom, the way that it’s depicted in the film, the way that Reese and her brother find out that their mother is dead, all of that is just really accurate. The surgical glove packed with ice on Laura Dern’s eyes, that is from my life. That’s what happened; that was my first image of my dead mother, and so to see that on the screen, I always cry.

It’s just heart-wrenching. I know your daughter plays the younger version of you in the film. Have your kids seen the movie?

No, because it’s rated R. My kids are 9 and 10, and it’s funny because it’s not like there’s actually that much sex and drugs in it, but the flashes of it that are there are just too intense. They’re very mad that they can’t see the whole film but they’ve come to accept it.

Do you think you’ll feel OK having them learn about some of the darker aspects of your past? When they’re ready, of course.

Yeah, and I’ve certainly talked to them about it. I haven’t talked to them about my promiscuity because they’re at the point where I’m explaining sex to them and they’re, like, repulsed. On top of that, "Your mom in her 20s had a lot of fun ..." -- I think they’ll never be ready to hear about that, but we are a very open family. I’ve always tried to be honest with my kids, but in an age-appropriate way. Once they’re teenagers, if they want to see the film I certainly won’t stand in their way, but right now it’s more just about protecting them as children. I think parts of the film will be very hard for them to watch. I mean, I am their mother, after all. Same with the book; they can come to the book whenever they’re ready to and it’s up to them to choose when that time is.

That makes sense. The scene in the movie with your mother's horse was pretty incredible. Did that feel true to life?

The horse scene is very different in the movie than it is in the book. The same thing happens, ultimately; my brother and I [ed: Spoiler alert] put our mother’s horse down, but in the book I described it in a much more moment-by-moment, visceral way. It is interesting because we think of film and cinema as a visual form as opposed to writing, which is not, and yet there are some things that we can depict on the page that can be made more vivid than they are if you’re filming them. In the movie, they didn’t really shoot a horse, they pretended to shoot one, so that was a very complicated scene to shoot. In my book, I could write, moment-by-moment, what was happening.

Obviously it’s powerful in the film; it always makes me flinch. But yeah, in the book I think it’s a bit more graphic. In fact, it's something a lot of readers have posted on my Facebook page and tweeted, inquiring, “Is that scene in the movie? Because if it is I don’t know if I can bear to see it,” and I’m always like, it is in the movie but it’s actually gentler in the movie than it is in the book. I totally get that. If I were reading "Wild" I would have skimmed those very pages that I wrote. It was really hard to write and I know it’s really hard to read.

How is Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed different than you?

Obviously the book is all about interiority. I could explain things in a more nuanced way; I could say that I felt this way and that way. I think it’s not so much that Reese is different but maybe the character arc and the screenplay, the way that Jean-Marc Vallée, when he was editing the film, had to make a clearer line between the way Cheryl felt at the outset of her hike and how she transformed by the end. I think maybe Reese plays an angrier Cheryl than I was outwardly, whereas those emotions and that trajectory are a little more muddled in the book — I don’t mean muddled like confused, but things existing alongside each other more, if that makes sense.

It’s so different with a book.

Yeah. I do think Reese portrays me really accurately, but obviously I’m me and she’s playing me. I definitely feel like she nailed the character, and yet there’s also absolutely more to the story. There always is, right? Jean-Marc Vallée and I have talked a lot about how we hope people will take these stories in, that the book drives them to the film and the film drives them to the book, because there are layers of things that are revealed when you read the book and see the film. They’re slightly different.

The book has been treated like a self-help book in a way, and a lot of people look to your journey of self-discovery as an inspiration for their own. Did you ever intend for that to happen? 

I think it’s really cool that people have been inspired to go hiking after reading "Wild." Some people read it and they’re inspired to go hiking; other people read it and they’re just inspired to accept themselves or forgive themselves or, in the case of people who are grieving, someone they loved, and say to themselves, “I’m not crazy.” So often I see people really feel alone in deep grief, and one of the things I hear over and over is how "Wild" told them that they weren’t alone. I think there are all these ways in which "Wild" has functioned as what we refer to as a self-help book, even though I honestly didn’t intend to write it that way.

I didn’t know I was writing an inspirational tale, and sometimes when people hear me say that they think I’m saying I don’t want it to be inspirational. That’s not true; I’m actually really grateful that it’s inspirational. What I mean by that is that I didn’t sit down with the intention of being inspiring. My only intention was to write the best book I could write about this experience, using my story, my life, as the material to tell a story that I hoped would do that thing we hope literature does and reach across that divide between the writer and the reader. I didn’t just want to tell a story about myself, even though I was telling a story about myself. I think I would have been doomed if from the start I had been like, “I’m so cool, I should tell everyone how awesome I am that they might be inspired to become like me.” That’s absurd, and it’s contrary to everything I think about my life and my hike.

I always say I didn’t write "Wild" because I took the hike, and I think that’s a piece that people sometimes miss. I wrote "Wild" because I’m a writer; I didn’t write "Wild" because I took a hike. The difference there is that when you write a book because you think you did something exceptional or suffered something that’s greater than anyone else, you ultimately are trying to hold yourself up as an example of someone who can guide others. I don’t feel that way about myself and my life. I do believe that books are powerful, and books have helped me — literary fiction and literary memoirs are my self-help. I don’t read self-help books but I’ve been deeply consoled by the books that I have read.

You say you don’t read self-help books, but I know that you yourself were an advice columnist [for the Rumpus, under the alias Dear Sugar].

Isn’t that crazy? I’m like the accidental self-help author. I should amend that — I think we have this one thing in mind when we say “self-help.” I think a lot of us think of a self-help book as one thing, and it isn’t true. It occurred to me that when I was pregnant with my kids I read every book on pregnancy that there is, and I guess those are self-help books, so I have many times turned to books that are more overtly instructive. I don’t think they are by nature negative, it’s just that with "Wild" I wasn’t trying to be instructive. When people ask what the message was that I wanted people to take away from "Wild," I didn’t want to implant a message into "Wild" but I’m so glad that people have found meaning in the book and learned something about themselves after reading it.

Have you read Kathryn Schulz’s piece about you in New York magazine that just came out?

Yes. I thought it was the best profile that anyone’s ever written of me.

She made this point that you used to harp on your mom for being overly optimistic but that you, in a way, have become your own version of that. Do you think that that's a fair characterization?

I thought it was funny. I think a sign of maturity is when you can say, “OK, I totally get how someone could find that annoying in me,” so I really laughed with my editor when she called me out for writing all these one-sentence paragraphs … I laughed because I was like, yeah, I totally love doing that and I’m going to keep doing that even though I know it can be too much sometimes. My editor, when we were editing "Wild," was always trying to get me to cut back on those one-sentence paragraphs so I did, and it would have been worse without my editor.

That’s the great thing about life and getting older, you can look at that and say, “Yeah, I can see the criticism but that is who I am.” I laughed when she said that here I had been criticizing my mom about being such an optimist and now I’ve led so many people to become her in this way. I think that’s right and I think it’s lovely. I’m grateful for that. One of the most moving things for me is to realize how many ways my mom actually gave me the tools I needed to survive her absence, and that's one of them.

I read somewhere that you joked if you could say something to your mother now, it would be "Mom, Laura Dern is playing you in a movie!"

Just because it would be so shocking! That’s the hard part for me. My mom has been dead now in my life for longer than she was alive in my life. Really, more than half my life I’ve had to learn from her in her death rather than in her life, and I’ve traveled so far that sometimes I think she just wouldn’t believe it. To think that there’s this movie and that people around the world know who she is, it’s so surreal. My mom lived a very ordinary, quiet life, which was extraordinary, the lives of so many ordinary people. So yeah, it stupefies me, and I love that point that Kathryn made about my optimism. I love too that she said I’m totally sincere about it when you’re talking to me, which is what my mother was, too. It did become a guiding light to me and a value by which I lead my life.

You’re friends with Oprah now. Do you think that sense of optimism is something that you guys related to in each other?

Yeah, yeah. Before I met Oprah I always admired her so tremendously. Say whatever you want to say about Oprah, but one thing you cannot say is that she wasn’t self-made, that she wasn’t a hard worker who rose up against every adversity. She is a really inspiring person in that way. I absolutely have respect for her in that regard, and I think that’s what she responded to in "Wild."

There’s something kind of weird in writing a memoir like this, in that your life becomes subjected to a very, sort of, schoolmarmish sort of scrutiny from people: "She should have done this" or "Why did she do that?" Is that weird, having people hold up a magnifying glass to your life like that?

It’s ridiculous. It is weird, and it’s hard. I’ve had to take a deep breath a lot and get really centered with myself and not rely on what other people say about me: good, bad, judgmental, condemning, affirming, whatever it is. It’s tricky, and a lot of times people will make assumptions and say untrue things about me. For example, people said I went out there unprepared and, yes, I make a lot of comic hay about that in the book and it is true that I took too much stuff, but that’s, like, the most ordinary backpacker mistake in the whole world. I have seldom met a backpacker who didn’t take too much junk the first time out there. It’s not like I was walking through the forest in a pair of high heels. Yeah, my boots screwed my feet but a lot of people have also gotten blisters. Sometimes some of the mistakes I’ve made are exaggerated.

I try not to read too much that’s written about me online but if I do come across people who hate the book, what they always say — and I think it’s really fascinating because I’m a woman — is that I had sex with everyone along the way on the trail. I’m always like, really? I was 26 and single and in the course of the entire summer I had sex with one guy one time. Really? That’s me having sex with everyone on the trail? It’s interesting the kind of shorthand we use when we want to be judgmental of people. It’s also interesting to be scrutinized in that way. Obviously I now identify many of these things as mistakes, and I wrote very honestly about them in the book. It’s mostly been amazing, because so many people do see themselves in me, and it’s like I’m a template for who they used to be. It’s interesting.

I hear "Wild" grouped in a lot with "Eat, Pray, Love." How do you feel about that comparison?

It’s compared mostly to "Eat, Pray, Love" and to "Into the Wild," and I’m always taken aback by that. I guess Elizabeth Gilbert and I both wrote about journeys that happened after we got divorced, but the comparisons pretty much end there. I took such a different trip than Elizabeth Gilbert and for different reasons. My divorce, obviously, was a big part of the book but my grief over my mother … It’s much more of a grief book than a divorce book. "Into the Wild" I’m always stumped too, but for the record I like both books a lot so I’m not insulted when it’s compared to them. I just think it’s kind of a sloppy comparison. "Into the Wild," first of all, isn't even a memoir. It’s written by a journalist who’s writing about someone who’s dead. He’s not writing first-person about whatever he went through, so all they have in common is a young person who does go into the wild, but incredibly different.

There's a Simon and Garfunkel song that plays on repeat throughout the movie. Did the inspiration for that song choice come from your life?

I’ve always loved Simon and Garfunkel. Jean-Marc Vallée picked that, but he really has such a vision about the music and the way he used music in the film. It wasn’t me asking him to play the song, but he did pick some songs based on me telling him.

I love the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne," that plays in the film. The funnest thing is that my mom and I knew Suzanne. When I was a little girl, Suzanne Verdal, for whom the song was written, we knew her, by chance. When I was 8 or 9, Suzanne was a casual friend of my mom’s but we never knew that that was the Suzanne, and by chance, many years later, I was in a cafe in Portland and I looked up and saw this 8x10 photograph hanging on the wall of this cafe and I was like, there’s Suzanne! My friend Suzanne who I knew back when I was a kid! I walked up to the photograph and underneath the picture it said, this is Suzanne Verdal, and Leonard Cohen wrote the song “Suzanne” about her. I was like, what?

I wasn’t on the Internet at the time, but I remembered this so when I went back on the Internet I Googled her and I found this article that said she was homeless in California. One thing led to another and I tracked her down and we have corresponded. I have this photograph of me and my sister when we were kids with Suzanne Verdal. It’s totally wild. But my mom loved that song and I grew up listening to it, so in the movie the first scene between Laura and Reese you hear “Suzanne” playing in the background.

"Wild" is getting some awards buzz, and Reese is being talked about for an Oscar nomination. Is this something you care about at all or have any stake in?

Of course I care! I’m just so proud of everyone who made this film. Really, all of them. Nick Hornby and Jean-Marc Vallée and Reese and Laura and everyone involved in it. You always want your friends’ work to be recognized and honored, so there’s that. There’s also, I’ve been a writer a long time and I know the awards are just the icing on top of the cake. What the cake is is all the people who read the book and feel validated or entertained or moved by it, and I think the same is true of the film. What really matters to me is that it finds its audience and connects to audiences and make people think differently about themselves or the world or others. That sounds like I’m being like my mom, all optimistic and sentimental, but it’s true. I’m utterly sincere when I say that it’s been so fun to have this crazy glamour of Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon calling me up and walking the red carpet … that has been a blast.

Did Oprah like the film?

She loved the film. I invited her to the world premiere in Telluride and she came!

That’s exciting.

It was! All of that, that’s great but it’s nothing compared to the power of the thousands of people who have emailed me and come to my events and looked me in the eye and cried and said thank you.

By Anna Silman

MORE FROM Anna Silman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cheryl Strayed Dear Sugar Jean-marc Vallee Movies Oprah Winfrey Pacific Crest Trail Reese Witherspoon Wild