An Interview with Cheryl Strayed, by Whiskey Blue

Reading WILD for the first time, I wondered, Why can’t Cheryl Strayed be everyone’s mother? There’s a wisdom – a tough, deeply loving wisdom – in every sentence of Strayed’s book, which of course is an exploration of Strayed’s loss of her own mother. In the film by director Jean-Marc Vallee, Reese Witherspoon plays a bereaved Cheryl setting off on a life-changing hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Much like in the book, the film’s protagonist confronts grief and hopelessness (not to mention danger) with a most human mix of gusto and desperation. As Strayed explains in this interview, WILD is about bearing the unbearable, which seems like an impossible task in terms of writing (not to mention surviving). Here I talk to Strayed about WILD’s transition from lived experience, to book, to the film adaptation that succeeds in paying tribute to the agony and brilliance of Strayed’s life-changing story.

In an interview with Oprah about WILD (the book) you say, “I needed to carry the weight I couldn’t bear. Wild is about bearing what we cannot bear.” Of course the weight of your backpack was material but can you tell me what that other weight – the metaphorical weight you could not bear, yet did – was?

When my mother died I felt I could not go on living without her. The idea that I’d have to live every day of my life for the rest of my life without ever again seeing or talking to this person who was so essential to me seemed utterly impossible. This sounds dramatic, but it’s really how I felt and over the course of my writing career, I’ve learned I’m not alone. So many people have talked to me in response to WILD and my other books, telling me that what I wrote about my grief was a precise expression of their own griefs. I was aware when I was writing WILD that I was telling a story that wasn’t just about me, but rather about anyone who has ever had a big loss, anyone who has ever had to bear what felt unbearable. One of the things that my friends often said to me in the months and years right after my mom died was “Oh, I couldn’t bear to lose my mother.” Though I know they meant to be consoling, those words only stung because what I wanted to say in reply is “I can’t bear it either. I just have to.” That’s the thing about bearing the unbearable. You don’t have a choice in the matter. You just have to do it. I thought about that a lot when I was writing that scene in WILD when I’m alone in the motel room and I have to lift the pack that I cannot lift and I think about it when I see that same scene in the movie too. At some point in life we are all that woman alone in a motel room with a pack she cannot lift that she must lift. So the whole thing is a metaphor, even though it was also the literal experience. The metaphorical weight in my pack on my PCT hike was mostly made up of my grief, but there were also other things I had to learn how to bear. The fact that I’d never have a good father. The fact that I’d done things I wished I hadn’t done, when it came to lying to my ex-husband. The fact that the family I once had—the one my mother made with me and my siblings and my stepfather—was dead and gone. All of these sorrows were weighing on me when I set out on my hike. One of the things I came to understand is they would always be true but they didn’t always have to keep me from moving forward.

In a 2012 interview with Author Magazine you talk about letting go of parts of the material world. Specifically you describe wanting to release your mother’s ashes at a time when you weren’t ready to, so instead you swallowed the ashes. Perhaps the meaning of this letting go isn’t always quite as acute as it was on the Pacific Crest Trail, but how does this letting go figure in your day-to-day life in recent years?

Acceptance is a key concept for me, accepting life for all of its complexities, its ups and downs and joys and hardships, losses and gains. To me letting go means welcoming all of it with an open heart. I don’t always succeed at that, but I try. The last lines of both the movie and the book are “How wild it was, to let it be.” To me, it’s about accepting all of it and feeling grateful for it all too.

What process of letting go (if any) did you experience throughout the making of the film WILD?

From the very beginning I was very clear about the difference between the book and the movie, so I didn’t have to struggle too much with letting go. I always knew the movie needed to stand on its own legs and not simply be a reiteration of the book. One thing that helped me is that I always assured myself about the fact that the book is my creation, it’s the work I did. It’s my vision. The movie is someone else’s vision. It’s interpretation of my book, yes, but has its own identity. Of course that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel nervous sometimes when I thought about letting this very personal story be told by other people. At every step along the way—from screenplay to production to editing to the finished film—I had moments when I had to talk to myself a bit and remember that letting go was part of the process and it was a good part of the process. I’m grateful I didn’t have to do an awful lot of it. The movie is extraordinarily true to the essence of the book.

How would you describe your involvement in the making of the film? Were you on-set? Consulting? Using real-life items from your hike? Were you involved in casting?

I was very involved from beginning to end. I gave Nick Hornby feedback on the script. I was on-set consulting about backpacking and other details. I spoke to Reese and Laura and other members of the cast about the real life people they were portraying. The people who worked in the props and wardrobe and production design departments came to my house and I showed them my backpack and gear and in some cases the clothes I wore on the PCT and they recreated as much of it as they could. The director Jean-Marc Vallee wanted everything to be as true to life as possible. When Jean-Marc was editing the film he showed me several cuts and we had long conversations about each one. I didn’t expect to be so involved, but we all just clicked on a personal and creative level so it happened organically. There was a deep sense of respect among us all. It was really fun to work so closely with such a wonderfully talented group of people. We all became dear friends.

There’s a great tension in the journey of WILD between physical and psychological suffering; sacrifices made to your bodily health on the path to healing internal wounds. How was this captured in the film? How does it compare to your treatment of it in the book?

I think the film captures that part of the story perfectly. Watching Reese rip off a toe nail on screen brings back a lot of memories, only this time I get to laugh instead of cry.

What hopes and apprehensions did you have at the onset of WILD being adapted into a film, and how do those hopes and apprehensions compare to your sense of the film now that it’s been made? I’m asking you this based on the assumption that you’ve watched the film, but if you haven’t then I would still love to know your impressions based on the making of the film and your involvement in it.

I hoped that the people who made the movie would honor the story with the same passion and perception they shared with me the very first time we spoke about the book. Reese, Nick Hornby, Jean-Marc Vallee, Bruna Papandrea, Laura Dern and many others involved in the film all were so open and emotional in telling me why they wanted to be part of bringing this book to the screen. I trusted them because I felt that each of them truly understood the book on a deep level. All I wanted was for them to bring that truth—their truth—to the work they did on WILD. And the lucky, amazing thing is that they all did. Reese is of course at the center of it all. She gives a beautiful, wide-ranging, powerful, brave performance in the movie and I just feel so touched by it. I feel proud of her and also grateful to her. Laura Dern is amazing too, which was so important to me, since she was portraying my mother. She brings such light and heart to the film.

Earlier this week, I interviewed Sheila Heti about Women in Clothes, her collaboration with Leanna Shapton, Heidi Julavits, and 639 other women. In our interview Heti talked about Joan Didion having a packing list of seven items, two of which are leotards and a mohair throw. About this Heti said, that is fucking Didion. It’s her identity as a thinker – that simplicity and that terseness and that edge. Reading this, I thought of your monster backpack in Wild, and I thought about how you must be doing lots of traveling these days with the successes of the book and now the release of the film. Which essentials do you take with you everywhere you go? What’s your packing list?

 I can’t claim to be as simple and terse as Didion when it comes to packing, but I aspire to it. I don’t know that I’ve ever gone any where without a pair of black leggings, a black tunic top and tall black boots in my suitcase. It may not be as creative as a mohair throw, but it’s an outfit that will do any time of day in any city for any occasion and it works as pajamas too.

Whiskey Blue is the author of Brooklyn Love, a collection of literary erotica. She blogs for Psychology Today, and writes an advice column at Everyone Is Gay. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Atlantic, The Believer, Tin House, Bitch, and more. Follow Whiskey on Twitter @topshelferotica.

Cheryl Strayed is the author of #1 New York Times bestseller WILD, the New York Times bestseller TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, and the novel TORCH. WILD was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her first selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Strayed’s award-winning writing has appeared in THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Salon, The Missouri Review, The Sun, Tin House, The Rumpus–where she wrote the popular “Dear Sugar” advice column–and elsewhere. Her books have been translated into more than thirty languages around the world. The movie adaptation of WILD will be released by Fox Searchlight in December 2014. The film is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and stars Reese Witherspoon, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby. Strayed holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and their two children.