“You have to have some real solitude”: A Conversation with Cheryl Strayed, Author of Wild [Part II]
By Ethan Gilsdorf
What follows is Part II of Ethan Gilsdorf’s conversation with Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Her book has been adapted into the recently-released film Wild. Read Part I of this interview here.
Ethan Gilsdorf: The journey you describe in your book Wild is an external journey: You go somewhere physically. But you go somewhere emotionally or psychically or spiritually, too. There’s a way to do that on the page via internal monologue. How do you do it on the screen without having long and ponderous voice overs? I felt director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby solved it using flashbacks, and having them play out partly in your character’s head, as things you Reese Witherspoon is saying to herself while she’s walking along.
Cheryl Strayed: That was obviously the biggest challenge. What literature does, I think best, is interiority. That’s just why I love a book so much, why I think so many of us do. You actually get to inhabit another human’s mind and body. As long as that writer does the job of physically letting you all the way in, you get to see the world through someone else’s perspective. And even feel it. So many readers have said to me, “My feet hurt while I was reading Wild.” Cinema has this other challenge of, how does an actor convey what he or she is thinking simply through facial expression or posture, the many different things that actors do. It’s difficult. And it’s a challenge, when transferring that kind of book to the screen. First of all, I think that Nick really had a vision when it came to the way the story would be structured. In the book, you’ll notice that chapter one is me telling you about my childhood and the death of my mother.
Gilsdorf: Right, right.
Strayed: Because my mother’s death was so much the catalyzing incident in my life. That led me both to the darkest places, but also led me to the trail. Nick decided right away not to begin with the death of the mother. If you see how the film goes, it’s really a slow kind of unfurling.
Gilsdorf: That’s right, that’s kept hidden from us. You don’t really know what’s going on. We see your character engaging in some risky behavior and bad things are happening, but we don’t know that your mom is dying.
Strayed: Right. The death of the mother. You see images of Laura Dern [who plays my mother’s character], you see things that you can’t quite explain yet. And then it builds to her death, which doesn’t take place in the film until at least midway through. So I think, first of all, Nick made the structural change. Which was helpful. Instead of a catalyzing incident, which is the way it works in my narrative, in the screenplay it works as a mystery, you know? What’s the story? What’s the story with this woman? And why do we keep seeing these pieces of her mother? And that story, that mystery, solves itself.
Gilsdorf: What was it like working with Jean-Marc Vallée?
Strayed: Jean-Marc, he’s such a kindred spirit with me. Aesthetically, artistically, we have a very similar interpretation of the way memory works. From our very first conversation, I was so impressed with how he wanted to try to get as close to the sort of gritty kind of truth of the way memory functions in our lives and in our bodies, the way we’re haunted by change. Instead of coming back to these long flashbacks --- sometimes there are flashbacks that are full scenes --- but many times, there are just these montages, as you said. And so I just think that he’s a really interesting filmmaker, that he’s trying to get closer to the truth, and in showing us those flashbacks, in a more memory form.
Gilsdorf: How do you feel about all of this, the Hollywood life? I know you’ve had quite a ride with the success of the book, but now with the film, I imagine it’s at whole other level.
Strayed: Yeah, it’s crazy. Just what happened with the book, in and of itself, has been such a thrill, and shocking really. As a writer you’re always hearing all of these kinds of horror stories about what could happen to your book. But I’ve just had a wonderful time. I’ve been very involved with the making of the film, from beginning to end. And every step of the way I’ve been part of the team, making the film. I love the movie. I feel like it very much honors the book.
Gilsdorf: In the process of seeing this book turned into a film, did you find it hard reconciling the message of the book, “It’s OK to go find yourself in the outdoors,” which is a very private, natural, bookish, literary experience, with the demands of the Hollywood machine: answering questions for the media, hyping the movie, being on the red carpet?
Strayed: It’s so fascinating. Just as a writer, I’m soaking the experience up. Because I think that everything in a writer’s life informs, I think, the writer’s work. And I’ve had this very unexpected experience of having a front row seat in Hollywood, watching this film be made and then, I’ve been on the red carpet, with the Toronto Film Fest and at the London Film Fest. I’ve done all these things that I just never imagined I would do, and that’s been really fun. I think that I’m just observing a lot. I’ve been treated with such kindness and respect by Reese and Laura Dern, and Jean-Marc Vallée and Nick. All the people who made this film were so good to me. It’s not been a difficult experience, it’s just been a kind of surprising and glorious one.
Gilsdorf: What’s surprised you the most?
Strayed: I will say that the one piece of it that’s been hard is there is a little bit of a game of telephone with the coming of the film. A lot of people have written about me. They’ll say “Cheryl Strayed” and then say what they’re going to say. They haven’t read the book. They haven’t even often seen the film. They glean these headlines and they’ll say things about me that aren’t true. And that’s been hard. Any time anyone writes about me, I can tell if they’ve read the book or not. Because it’s a lot more nuanced than I think some of the headlines might convey.
Gilsdorf: What are you working on? What’s the next project that we can expect to come from your desk or the bookstore?
Strayed: I’ve been writing a bit, and I’ve started two books. One is a novel, one is a memoir. It’s kind of like riding two horses at once. I’m not sure which one is going to be the one that I eventually sink into and write next. But I do know that in 2015, I am going to sink in. As you know you’re a writer. You have to have some real solitude. And not just physical. Psychic solitude. It’s not the quietest moment of my life right now. I’m just riding this wave. And just like any wave, no matter how big the wave is, it always finds its way to shore eventually. I’m just holding on until it gets there.
Gilsdorf: That’s a nice way to put it. Thank you for your time. This has been wonderful.
Strayed: Thank you. Good luck with your writing.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]
A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf