Cheryl Strayed, it’s safe to say, won’t forget 2012 anytime soon. On Valentine’s Day, she revealed that she is the author of the empathetic, quirky "Dear Sugar" advice column on The Rumpus; soon afterwards, Vintage announced they’d be publishing a collection of her columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, in July. Strayed’s best-selling memoir Wild, about the meaning she plucked from hiking the unforgiving Pacific Crest Trail after the self-inflicted dissolution of her marriage, the death of her mother, and her bout with heroin, was published in March. In June, the book was chosen as the inaugural selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. And, oh yeah, her first novel, Torch, was reissued this year.
When I asked Strayed what this year has been like, she talked first about how “magnificent” it’s been, but a few minutes later, she confessed that 2012 has also been “incredibly, incredibly stressful….I haven’t stopped moving for months.” She sat down for a conversation with me in late October before she went onstage at the Texas Book Festival (where I used to be the program director). It’s comforting to know that despite the A-list treatment she can demand given her success, when it came time for her to sign books, she didn’t pull any diva tricks out of her hat, dictating that she’d sign only with a certain style of pen (as some other writers have been known to do). Instead, she did what the readers of Wild, who admire her for her pragmatic self-reliance, would expect her to do: She matter-of-factly pulled some pens out of her purse and signed books, even though no one would bat an eye if Cheryl Strayed asked them to find her a pen.
What has this year been like for you?
I guess one of the most striking things for me is how many people have told me, “Your book means so much to me.” There has not been a day since March that I haven’t been told by at least 10 people via email or in person that my book changed their life. And sometimes that was Wild and sometimes that was Tiny, Beautiful Things. And then, every once in a while, I’ll meet somebody who says “I’ve read all your books and Torch is my favorite one”—I have a special place in my heart for those who favor my first book. And that’s a really profound experience, to have that many people every day say, “Your book changed my life.” And that feels like the greatest gift that any writer could receive, right?
But isn’t there a certain amount of pressure for the next book, all the people you have to satisfy the next time around?
I don’t have to satisfy them. I don’t. I don’t feel pressure; I know that it seems like I should, and I’m sure that I’ll completely freak out before the book is published. I’m not scared about writing that next book because I know that I’m going to go into that deep place that I go to when I write, and I’m going to do my very best work. Will that work be a book that strikes a chord in the way that Wild has? I have absolutely no idea and I also have absolutely no control over that. I didn’t try to write a bestseller. I had no idea that this story about my hike and my grief would resonate with so many people. When people talk to me about my book, they say, “I loved Wild and here’s why,” and they go on about their own lives, and what’s happening is that they’re recognizing themselves in my work, in my life. So many people have said, “We have so much in common.” They say, “We have parallel lives.” How can that be? And maybe the answer to that is, we’re all human, and there’s a universal experience, and the writer’s role and task here is to be the truth-teller, the storyteller. So the next book will be satisfying to some people and not satisfying to others. What I’ve found is that you have to actually detach yourself from thinking too much about who’s going to be pleased by any given work.
But that’s easier said than done.
Yeah. But if I read it to myself and it gives me pleasure and feels alive and is moving to me, I take it to my writing group, my husband, my editor and agent. And if they’re giving me feedback that "this is interesting or good," then I feel like, "We’ll see." But, as you know, there are a lot of really, really great books that never become bestsellers, so we don’t really have much control over that. So will my next book be a bestseller? Who knows?
What is the next book going to be about?I have two books in my head. In some ways, Wild is a coming-of-age tale—it’s not the first coming-of-age when you’re in your teens, but it’s that real coming-of-age when you’re in your mid-20s, when you have to actually grow up. And so this next memoir, it’s that 30s coming-of-age when I got married and had kids. So I want to write about those more recent years, what happened after Wild. The memoir that I have in my head is called Daughterland. The novel is called Pax—it’s about these four characters, set over the course of one year, starting on the winter solstice December 21, 2011, and ending on the winter solstice December 21, 2012, which is the date that according to the Mayans is the end of the world, but I’ll be interpreting that more metaphorically. It’s going to follow these four characters over this year as essentially, their lives end as they know it, and they have to come to grips with different things. I’ve always talked about Torch and Wild in the context of my mom’s death and say that the world I knew changed the day my mother died. So much of that journey has been figuring out how to be in the world without my mom. Pax, I’m happy to report, doesn’t have any dead mothers.