Author portrait © Joni Kabana

I meet Cheryl Strayed in the offices of her British publisher in Russell Square. She joins me after a breakfast script meeting with Nick Hornby, who is adapting her global bestseller Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found for the big screen. Her excitement about the movie is palpable.

Strayed shot to global fame in 2012 with Wild, described by the New York Times as “a profound meditation on the nature of grief and survival”. It’s a riveting tale of her experiences hiking a gruelling section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a wilderness path that runs across nine mountain ranges extending from Mexico through California, Oregon and Washington to Canada.

Prior to Wild, Strayed won the Pushcart Prize for her essay ‘Munro Country’, and wrote the critically acclaimed novel Torch. In 2010, while writing Wild, Strayed joined the literary collective The Rumpus, anonymously writing the ‘Dear Sugar’ advice column. Strayed’s approach was unusual in that she responded to letters using her personal experience of sexual abuse, infidelity, loss and heartbreak to help readers who found themselves in a quandary to become unstuck. A collection of her advice columns was published in 2012 as Tiny Beautiful Things – Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who’s Been There.

Everything I’ve ever written is my attempt to transform what is ugly and painful or difficult into something that’s beautiful and transformative, like the phoenix rising from the ashes.”

In Wild, Strayed takes us on the PCT with her. For three months in 1995 she hiked 1,100 miles “in order to save myself”. The book has a dual narrative running through it. One story, set in the present, is about Strayed’s epic hike and the challenges she faced, from encounters with bears and rattlesnakes and men with guns, to the camaraderie of fellow hikers; from the exhausting frustration of reaching a dry waterhole and to the despair of losing a boot over a crevice. Intercutting the wilderness adventure is a parallel tale in which the story of how Strayed came to be on the PCT in the first place unfolds. It’s a physical adventure thriller fused with an emotionally charged history.

Four years before she first set foot on the trail Strayed found herself in a bad place. Her 45-year-old mother died within three months of being diagnosed with lung cancer and Strayed, at 22, became “unmoored by sorrow”. Her siblings and her stepfather scattered in their despair, and grief led Strayed to “pitch herself over the edge”, to roam and stagger in isolation and confusion, lose herself in adulterous sex, find heroin, and destroy her marriage to a man she very much loved. Incidentally, Strayed is a nom de plume, chosen because “I had strayed and I was a stray”. She first wrote about the harrowing loss of her mother and her downward spiral in the raw, deeply moving ’The Love of My Life’ (collected in Best American Essays, 2003).

So why did she choose to surrender to the natural world in order to find her way back to the person she used to be?

“I think that I instinctively knew the wilderness is where I felt the most gathered,” she replies. “I needed to go to a place where I would not be distracted from myself but sink more deeply into myself. And also to feel in the presence of the divine, the magnificent, the glorious, you know? And I knew that the wilderness would offer me that. I also knew that being alone was important. You get involved with other people in a way, and they sort of stand in for whatever work maybe you need to do. So I needed to be alone. I needed to be in the wild. And I needed to be doing something physical. I didn’t realise until I got out there how important that physical part was. But what ended up happening is I got out there and it was so much harder than I thought it was going to be. It was all physical. I thought I was going to be weeping at sunsets and having spiritual epiphanies. And instead I’m like: ‘OK this is really hard, my feet hurt, and I have to find water.’ It became this very practical endeavour that was very challenging. Of course what ended up happening was that this lent itself to a deeper emotional transformation. To get out of my head and into the body allowed me to go deeper in my head.”

I wonder if the arduousness of it all took Strayed’s mind off her despair, and offered her solace and pleasure.

“Pleasure? That’s a weird word to use. That’s what’s so complicated about it. Because some people will say, ‘God you were in so much pain, didn’t you have any fun?’ I had a blast! But it was a kind of blast that you have that’s really hard! I’ve been a long-distance runner in the past, and trained for a marathon. Is it fun? It’s painful. I’m always glad when the run is over. It’s a kind of retrospective fun. You’re glad you did it!”

Strayed came to the idea of doing the PCT by chance. She was standing in a checkout line at a shop, picked up a guidebook, The Pacific Crest Trail, Vol. 1: California, on a nearby shelf, and read the back cover to distract herself. She later returned to the store to buy the book.

“What stayed with me was a feeling: I should do this thing. This will be good for me. This will be incredible,” she almost whispers the words. “And then the practical things behind it meant that it was something I could do. I could pull it off. I could just barely afford to do it financially. I couldn’t have pulled off travelling to Europe and go on the Eurorail for three months. I didn’t have the money. And you don’t spend money in the wilderness. I could save up my money, buy the gear and have just enough to do this. So it was a combination of that feeling of I want to do this, I know the wilderness is a place that will make me feel strong. I just knew that line-up of things would be good for me. And I could make it happen. Just barely…”

So what is the essence of Wild that millions of readers all over the world, from different cultures, have connected with?

“You know, it’s such a thrill that so many everywhere relate to Wild. They understand this idea of journey, this idea of need in difficult times. They understand my failures. They understand my sense of having failed myself, being weak in some ways, and needing to go on a journey to find my strength. And it is a pretty ancient tale. I think that some people might condemn me and say: ‘She’s so stupid, she didn’t know what she was doing, she shouldn’t have even been out there.’ But let’s face it most of us don’t know what we’re doing in most of the big things we undertake, right? You learn, trial and error… and most people just laugh and say, ‘I’ve been there!’ Even if they’ve never put a backpack on. They understand that sense of needing to try something. So I think many can relate to that. People who have lost somebody relate deeply, profoundly, to the grief. People who had a tumultuous youth in their twenties!”

The night before our meeting, Strayed was in conversation with Psychologies editor Suzy Greaves in a sell-out event at the School of Life. How did the audience respond to her sharing the lessons she learned about fear, anger, grieving and healing?

“One of the fears I had was that people would shy away from the emotional material in the book and the deeply, what’s the word… raw and essential, almost primal ways in which I write about grief and love and sex, you know, all of these things – and pain and suffering and joy. And instead I found that people are really excited to be talking about that. I think books can do that. You know, they can read a book in the safety of their home or in a private space and have their emotional response to it. And when they come to an event and the writer is on stage boldly talking about those feelings that are so often kept silent, I think it makes people feel welcome to have a conversation about it.

“Suzy Greaves’ parents both died when she was in her teens. She talked to me about being really deeply affected by Wild because she felt it was the first thing she had read where the writer had hit every note about grief. That I had expressed everything that she had felt in her own grief. It’s something I hear over and over again from thousands of people.

“Another common response I get is: It’s obvious you loved your mother, but why did you grieve her so hard? They’re mystified. And whenever people ask me that question I know that they have never lost anyone really essential to them. I too had this idea of grief before I was grieving my mother – that it was a much more sanitary, self-contained process, and that it may be a few months and then you’d move on and it’s sad and you accept… but it’s so much bigger and gnarlier and darker and longer and more complex than I’d ever imagined.”

This leads me to question the genre of the book. I’ve seen reviewers describe Wild as a travel book, or a rite-of-passage, a quest narrative based around love, loss, self-destruction, challenge, healing and redemption. For me Strayed has written a modern Western about a woman who walked once upon a time in the wild.

“Yes! It really is. Absolutely it’s a contemporary Western. I was really aware that there are so many narratives including man against nature. But I’m a woman and it’s not ‘against’! It starts against and then becomes ‘with’. There is an American pioneer narrative – moving west to start a new life – and here I am walking along the Western Trail. And even out there, sometimes I would be walking/hiking and I would think about those people who walked or rode in their covered wagons. And I understood. When you’re in the wilderness like that – yes, I had my contemporary hi-tech gear, but when it comes right down to it you’re having essentially the same experience as those people who came before you. There’s a timelessness. This is absolutely a story about the American West and it’s connected to the landscape. I was inspired by John Muir, who wrote about his adventures in the Sierra Nevada in the 19th century. I felt aware of a connection. I do think it’s a story of the West. The female aspect of the story doesn’t get to be told so much. I can’t think of any cowboy story where the narrator is talking about putting in a menstrual sponge!

“It wasn’t as if I sat down and decided the shape. I crafted a book in literary terms, in the way I know how, and in the course of the revision I improved it in the way you do when you revise. How to write a story is in my DNA. How to begin, how to keep people. The beginnings and ends of each chapter start and end with a ‘pow’, which is my thing! That keeps the reader holding on, wanting more.”

Wild is also a book about books and reading. All along the PCT Strayed carries, collects and picks up books. It’s an eclectic mix, and becomes part of the adventure for the book-loving reader. Which book will she be reading next, by head lamp in the dark in her isolated camp?

At the start of her hike, amongst the items Strayed stuffed in to her monster backpack in addition to her copy of The Pacific Crest Trail, Vol. 1 and Staying Found, a book on how to use the compass, were William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language.

“I took those two at the very beginning – and the others came in the various boxes (she had arranged for a friend to post supply boxes to key refuelling points along the trail, containing freeze-dried food, fresh T-shirts and books). All the things I wrote about in Wild are things that happened – they are what happened in my life. And I wasn’t doing them with an awareness that I would someday write a memoir about this experience. There are memoirs that some writers pitch to their publishing house, and as they’re having the experience they’re mindful of the knowledge that someday this will be in a book. I’m glad this wasn’t my experience because I just did what I did, and years later wrote about it. So the books I chose to bring with me and put in the boxes were in some cases chosen intentionally, but in most cases completely randomly!

“You know we all have books on our shelves that we’ve not yet read. I’d never read Lolita. So I thought I’ve got to read Lolita. I’ve never read As I Lay Dying. I’ve got to read that. And others looked interesting. The Margaret Drabble? Toss it in the box! So that’s how those books were chosen. And along the trail I picked up J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Flannery O Connor’s stories…”

At the end of Strayed’s first punishing first day on the trail, after making camp, the reality of what she has undertaken dawns on her, and she picks up one of the books and reads the first poem out loud, over and over again. In that moment it is her only consolation.

“Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language was a book that had taken on a power for me. It was like a talisman. Especially the first poem in the book – ‘Power’ – which culminates in:

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power

“What moves me so much about this – look at me, I’m almost crying (Strayed’s eyes well up as she reads the words) – is that Adrienne Rich’s whole career was based on the knowledge that her wounds came from the same source as her power. So much of the writing that I’ve done aspires to that too. The deal is, I think, when it comes to artists, and in particular women who are leaders in their field, in some way Adrienne Rich was able to do what she did because Marie Curie was able to do what she did. And the next generation carries that ball further. And I do think that everything I’ve ever written is my attempt to transform what is ugly and painful or difficult into something that’s beautiful and transformative. It’s like the phoenix rising from the ashes.”

Whenever I write something that feels too personal, too private, too bizarre, my first thought is: I’ll take that out. But those are the moments that people notice. It touches a nerve.”

Wild is infused with spirituality. The animal kingdom is present in both narratives. Strayed presents her mother’s connection with animals strongly – as she was dying she responded to animals only she could see, stroking a beloved cat she believed to be sitting on the bed with her. (Strayed’s mother had been working in the field of animal consciousness before her death.) There is a brutal but beautiful act of love involving Lady the horse; vivid animal dreams; and an almost shamanistic encounter with a fox on the hike.

“When I wrote that fox scene I thought, OK, I’m going to have to take this out of the book. Because it’s just kind of weird. This fox comes up and we look at each other and it runs away and I yell ‘Mom, Mom, Mom!’ I don’t really know why I did that it was just this feeling of my mother’s presence. And I thought that’s too nutty, I’ve got to take it out.”

Nutty? Why? Because you were putting yourself in a particular reader’s shoes?

“Right, I was thinking readers would find that too bizarre. So of course I left it in. And of course many, many people talk to me about that moment. They say things like ‘You know, the same thing happened to me.’ And they all have their stories, like ‘My father had died, and I was sitting there and a crow came.’ What I found over and over again in my writing is that whenever I wrote something that felt too personal, too private, too bizarre, my first feeling is: I’ll take that out. Another example is when I swallowed my mother’s ashes. But those are the moments that people notice. Because a) they know I’ve actually told them the truth and b) because many have had the same experience or done the same thing. And they can’t believe somebody’s written it because it’s their secret. It touches a nerve.”

Yet it doesn’t need to be explained. Some readers get it, and others think Strayed is lost, seeing the world differently in her sadness.

“That’s right. And it is inexplicable. Many people have said: ‘So was the fox your mother?’ And I tell them the true answer, which is that I don’t know. What I wrote in Wild is what happened and also what I know about it, which is that for some reason I had this instinctual urge to yell ‘Mom!’ after that fox, and I don’t know what it means but I know it existed.

“My mother loved animals. My entire life was surrounded by hundreds of animals because my mother would rescue them. Any animal that we came across that needed rescuing my mother would take in. She would help them herself or take them to the vet, and she didn’t always have money to pay. It was so moving to me when she was dying, and she was what we think of as hallucinating, but maybe she was (Strayed pauses for a while before smiling and continuing)… entering some other realm, right? And she believed her animals were there beside her. What is so reassuring to me is that she was with the animals she loved the most. I mean really loved. She had soul heart love for these animals.

“I’m like my mother very much where animals are concerned. And I just want to say something about Lady. I got tears in my eyes because you described it as beautiful. It was horrible, and it was brutal. But hardly anyone has pointed out the beauty part of it. As awful as it was that my brother and I had to kill our mother’s horse, it was my brother and I who killed our mother’s horse. And there was something about that that was actually loving. We loved her and we did this thing.”

In Wild, you state that your mother particularly enjoyed reading James Michener. Yet, when clearing her bookshelves after she dies, you chose not to take your mother’s favourite author. And later on, mid-hike, you come across a copy – and you take it and read it. What was that about?

“That was about class. I made a culture hop. I came from the working class, and I went to college. I wanted to be an educated, sophisticated person, which meant renouncing anything that was associated with where I came from. When I mentioned James Michener to one of my professors, he scoffed at me. And of course at that age I didn’t think ‘Fuck off you snob’ I thought ‘Oh my gosh, he’s right, of course. I mustn’t admit to this.’ And so I understood high culture and low culture, high literature and low literature. You know, it still permeates our culture today. When I was packing up my mother’s books I was still caught in that. I was still trying to elevate myself by association – well, I only read the ‘good books’. So when I was on the PCT a few years later, I came across a James Michener book and I eagerly took it and read it. I was grown up enough, and mature enough to say ‘This snobbery is ridiculous. This book has some value – this writer has value.’ So I was able to take it back in.”

Strayed’s mother is present throughout Wild, an inspiring woman who imbued her daughter with an understanding of what it is to be truly loved. “The first thing I did when each of you was born was kiss every part of you,” she told her children. And a particular strength of the book lies in Strayed openly sharing her descent and subsequent redemption after the one person she loved the most departed and left her unmoored. Strayed almost drowned in her grief, and in her fight for survival she exposed herself to the might of the natural world to remind herself what it felt like to be ‘alive’ versus merely living.

Wild has gone on to sell in the millions. Oprah selected the book to relaunch her Book Club 2.0, and Reese Witherspoon acquired the film rights before it appeared in bookstores. I’m curious about how involved Strayed has been with the film, and the scriptwriting process.

“I’ve been very involved. Nick Hornby is a fan of the book, and he sent me the nicest email when it first came out. Then his column came out in The Believer, and I was blown away. When they asked him to write the script, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Nick has crafted the most beautiful script. At various points along the way it was sent to me, I read it and offered my notes and feedback. And it’s being directed by Jean-Marc Valée who is a wonderful filmmaker. He has a film out soon called Dallas Buyers Club that’s just phenomenal. He’s also done The Young Victoria, C.R.A.Z.Y., Café de Flore. He’s an artist – he has such a strong vision.

“There will be the back story intermingling with the hike story. I’m involved in so many different parts. I’ve shown the crew pictures of what I was wearing. In some cases I’ve handed over my clothes! They’ve recreated ‘Monster’, my backpack! Reese Witherspoon looks like me on the trail in 1995, she’s wearing what I wore, her hair is like mine!”

Filming is now underway in Oregon, and it should be hitting cinemas this time next year.

Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things are published in the UK by Atlantic Books in paperback and eBook. Read more.

Farhana Gani is a founding editor of Bookanista.
Follow her on twitter: @farhanagani11