Cheryl Strayed does not shy away from saying exactly what’s on her mind.
At last night’s Library Foundation of Los Angeles ALOUD event, which featured the New York Times best selling author in conversation with High County News contributing editor Judith Lewis Mernit, one of the first things Strayed shared with the small, intimate audience was how, as a young girl in graduate school, she coped with her mother’s untimely death: “I had sex with men and women and all kinds of things. Actually, just men and women.” The crowd erupted with laughter.
Strayed’s purple-prose memoir, Wild, has received widespread acclaim (Dwight Garner! George Saunders! Oprah!) since its release last year. The book chronicles her impulsive decision to hike over 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail—alone—four years after losing her mother. She charmed last night’s crowd with her candor, wit, and occasional use of profanity; here, she continues the trend, revealing her innermost thoughts on teaching life lessons to strangers, the extent to which memory (or lack thereof) determines truth, and the authors you should be paying attention to right now.
Wild has received abundant praise since its release last year, but yesterday you mentioned that a few reviews referred to you as an “author who came out of nowhere.” How have you reacted to that?
In maybe two or three articles that were written about me, a couple of journalists had called me an overnight success or used that kind of phrasing. I wouldn’t say it’s the predominant thing that’s been said, but I guess what I just do is correct people wherever I can. Often at my events I talk about how Wild is my second book, and people seem kind of surprised by that. In all of my talks, in some way I try to inform people about the situation beyond Wild, what’s happening in the literary culture of the United States. So many of the good books that are being written aren’t bestsellers. I was a successful writer before Wild had become a best seller, had achieved all of the things I had set out to do, and I talk about that. People don’t mean to be insulting, but we forget that just because we haven’t heard of someone, it doesn’t mean they’re not an amazing writer.
You also write a very popular advice column for The Rumpus called Dear Sugar, much of which has been compiled for the book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice On Love And Life From Dear Sugar. Do you think it’s necessary to be an expert in a field in order to give advice? Was that something you struggled with at the outset?
My first impulse was to ask myself that question. It didn’t take me very long—a matter of minutes—to move past that. Our best advice comes from a variety of sources: friends, parents, a stranger at the grocery store. You don’t know where wisdom is going to come from. When I undertook to write that Dear Sugar column, I thought, this is what I’ve been doing as a writer, asking those questions: What does it mean to be human? Who are we, really? We all know that real humans are more contradictory than any of us would like to believe—a mix of positive and negative, dark and light. As a writer, it’s my job to wrestle with those things, both with my self and with the characters on the page. Undertaking other people’s situations just seemed natural.
Many memoirs—A Million Little Pieces, for example—have been exposed as partially or wholly phony. What part do you think honesty plays in both fiction and non-fiction, and where do you think it’s best to draw the line (if anywhere)?
I am of the camp that you should really do your very best to tell the truth in non-fiction. In non-fiction, you’re saying, this actually happened to me. I think the events that you’re writing about should be objectively true. Did she hike this trail when she said she did? Yes. Did she meet these people? Yes. These memoirs that have been uncovered to be fake have given memoir this bad rap. It really does muddy the waters of readers understanding what this form is: a highly subjective telling of an objective truth. I took great care in Wild to write what happened as I remember it.
Can a memoir based on half-truths be successful if it’s banking on the reader’s ability to accept fiction as fact? Why do you think James Frey didn’t just call his book a novel—is there something more powerful about reading a story like his if it’s marketed as non-fiction?
Does non-fiction have more power as a genre? I don’t think so, not truly—I can be as moved by fiction as I can by non-fiction. But when it comes to marketing and publicizing, people tend to be attracted to true stories. I know this because when I was on tour for Torch, people would always ask about the non-fiction aspects. I think fiction is harder, at the outset, to sink into. Once I read that Frey was initially trying to sell that book as a novel, I felt a lot of sympathy for him. I can see how what happened to him ended up happening. Like many first novels, Frey’s book is very autobiographical in nature. There’s a writer said something like, “We used to have a different word for memoirs: a first novel.” I think that [Frey’s] agent couldn’t sell it as a novel, so they tried to sell it as a memoir. I also think, without knowing every little in and out about the book, that a whole lot of it is true. Here’s this book and it’s like, 82% true; the other 18 percent is exaggeration, composite characters and omissions. Let’s just let it be. Why should that emotional reaction change if a reader finds out that not everything is true? I’m not saying I condone lying, but I’m saying why not make room for this form? People think that [my first novel,] Torch is mostly a memoir. But no, it’s a novel. We always want to push our fiction toward non-fiction and our non-fiction towards fiction. Why can’t we have a novel that meets in the middle?
I feel like in fiction, readers can attach themselves to any number of characters in the story, but in non-fiction, the only person a reader can attach him or herself to is the author. It’s a very different relationship, identifying with a fictional character vs. identifying with a real person.
I have gotten thousands of emails from people who tell me they feel like they know me, and then there’s a smaller percentage of people who read Wild and they just hate me. And that was a thing before Wild came out—I was very stressed. I was terrified. It’s bad enough having your book reviewed as fiction, but non-fiction—if they don’t like it, they don’t like YOU.
In his essay Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery, Phillip Lopate says, “In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.” It sounds as if the writer in the present must reflect on a version of themselves from the past. Do you think you managed that in Wild?
That’s exactly it. In Wild, that’s the 26-year-old me, but every word was written by the 42-year-old me. It wasn’t written as a retrospective, but I wanted to bring that to bear on the work. To me, [the past and present selves,] they can’t even be separated. Inevitably, the person I am now is the person who’s writing. That’s why I think it’s good that I didn’t write the story in Wild right after it happened—I let the story marinate, and by that point, I couldn’t even pretend to be the 26-year-old me. In the book, I don’t say much about my life now. I mention it a little in the penultimate paragraph of the book; there’s a thing where I leap forward and say, “Looking back…,” but everything else, I write it as if it’s right back then. I thought the inclusion of the older self would weigh down the narrative.
You mentioned yesterday that the book you were really itching to write ended up being your first novel, Torch. Had you always planned on writing fiction? Did you find it difficult to cross the genre into essay and memoir?
I was absolutely a fiction writer first. And I still think of myself as a fiction writer, but as a non-fiction writer, too. I didn’t find it hard to cross over because they’re very similar—I try to achieve the same things in both forms: make the sentences come alive. The only difference is, one toolbox has “what actually happened” plus “anything I feel like making up,” and the other toolbox only has “what actually happened.” They feel very similar to me; I move back and forth between the two. One of the things that’s funny about fiction, you’re in this genre where you have license to make up anything you want, but so often, the weirder things actually happen in non-fiction. If I put a crazy, real story into a novel, people would think it’s too much. It would seem contrived.
Last week, an article titled How Memoirists Mold The Truth appeared on The Opinionator. At one point, the author, Andre Aciman, says, “Writing plays fast and loose with the past.” As a memoirist, how do you define what’s true? Do you struggle with piecing together your memories and presenting them as fact when another person may recall them differently?
When you’re writing a memoir, you’re committing to your subjective truth. You’re also trying to create a great story. People always ask me, “How did you remember that stuff so vividly?” This is what I do: I work really hard at writing from memory, and it’s a muscle that I work every day. The thing I compare it to is, let’s say you’re going to a high school reunion to see old friends who you don’t remember much about. But then you get to talking, and suddenly you remember all this stuff. You just need to tap the info. That happens in memoir—I would start writing, and more would be revealed as I wrote.
The other thing is, I am remembering, so it might be wrong: if I say, “The wind blew his hair across his face,” that’s how I’m remembering it. If a camera was there, maybe not, but I don’t feel responsible for that—I feel responsible for the story, researching the facts as much as I can. The subjectivity of memoir is what makes it beautiful. We could go line by line in Wild and find what I was mistaken about—for example, I wrote in one section that this guy had Adirondack chairs on his porch, and he emailed me to tell me they’re plastic folding chairs. I remembered that wrong, but there’s a big difference between remembering something wrong and lying. Pam Houston says that all of her fiction and her non-fiction is 82% true. And her argument is, it’s memory. You can’t possibly be 100% accurate.
Yesterday you mentioned that the writer’s task is to illuminate the human condition. Who are some writers that you feel do this especially well, and how do you think this relates to the “self-indulgent” stigma that follows memoir?
I have so many writers I love. Nick Flynn, Poe Ballantine—I think he’s wonderful. Alice Munro is my all time favorite writer. One of my favorite memoirs from recent years is Mary Karr’s Lit. Memoir has gotten this bad rap—anytime you’re talking about yourself, you’re being self-absorbed. Memoir just uses the self instead of an invented character. The question is, why are you telling it about yourself? What are you hoping to achieve? If it’s just confession, it’s not enough. You have to go all the way there and tell all the layers of the truth.
In September of 2002, you wrote an essay titled The Love Of My Life for The Sun. At first blush the piece appears to be about the various affairs you had after your mother died, but in fact, it is an ode to her. Did your perspective on your mother’s death change between writing that essay and embarking on the journey you chronicle in Wild?
In terms of time, that essay explains my mental state right before the hike. It was the darkest, hardest time of my life. I was suffering tremendously, and I didn’t know how to live or why I should be here anymore. And I was just so sad. So writing that essay was a searing experience. I was a graduate student at Syracuse at the time, and my husband was somewhere where we couldn’t even communicate, and I just sat at home and wrote that essay over and over and over again. I wanted to tell the real truth about my grief. I’m not at that place anymore, though. I’m in a wonderful place. I have a happy life and a good life, and I love my mother and miss her, but I’ve come to grips with her death. The piece of it that was really important for me, though, was understanding that I was always going to miss my mom. It wasn’t something I’d ever get over, and I’m still not over it. I don’t cry about her every day or month, more like one or twice a year. For example, all of this great stuff has happened over this past year and I can’t call her and tell her. She doesn’t know her grandkids. That’s the hard part.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
Well my nightstand is in a hotel, so it’s really which books are in my bag! I’ve got Ru Freeman’s forthcoming novel, On Sal Mal Lane, and Life Without Water by Nancy Peacock.