Cheryl Strayed has had quite a life.
She discussed bringing her incredible life story to screen in new film “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon.
What was it like to write about your experience in a book?
A: It’s years of working that muscle. Writing is about telling the truth, it’s not about telling a little bit about “What it means to be human?” it’s about showing “What does it mean to be human?” “Who are we?” that’s why we go to art, we are always trying to answer that question about ourselves and about others and so, you know, I wasn’t going to go halfway in “Wild”, or in any of the work I’ve done. “Wild” is just one of my three books I’ve written; I’ve written a lot. One of the sort of hallmarks of my writing style for better or worse is that kind of emotional honesty and I’ve always been interested in this position of the writer being as kind of transparent as possible, you know. This little screen is barely there between the writer and the reader. So it doesn’t mean that it didn’t scare the sh*t out of me, but it scares me, but it’s also what we’re here for you know. I think the best things happen in that space where you’re thinking ‘I’ve gone a little too far.’ And every line of “Wild” that I wrote that I thought, ‘Nope I’m going to have to delete that because it’s too much’ – I always kept it in, and that’s always the line that readers talk to me about. Always.
Q: How did you get there because obviously you were in denial about several things in your life, how did you get to that place of emotional honesty does it take sitting down to write it or what got to you to be able to do it? There’s certain aspects of certain your life that you didn’t, you were maybe not attending to in the proper way or you know.
A: Right, I was attending to them, just not in the proper way. And I think it’s interesting, I actually think that part of you know really what brought me to that bottom point I was at before I went on that hike was how emotionally engaged I’ve always been with myself and some ways that hike was about out my emotions and into the body. Out of the mind and into the body. I didn’t need to get in touch with my emotions, I needed to move on. I needed to learn how to accept and let go and not dwell, not rage against things that I couldn’t control, you know, And so, I’ve always been a really emotionally awake person, I think in the drama of my youth, you know let’s face it; most of us are melodramatic in our 20s, the combination of just that melodrama, not having that perspective. I actually thought that I was capable of ruining my life. I thought I ruined my life, now I’m like, ‘Oh my god, it can get so much worse and it could still be fine.’ You know, you just, you don’t have that perspective, so between that and just the fact, that I then got involved with drugs, things that you’re not thinking clearly. So I got out of the emotions for a while and into the body. And then my writing, I just you know, I was in a sounder place.
Q: Was writing a form of therapy for you in a way?
A:I don’t write for therapy, I write to make literature; I’m all very highfalutin about that, just for the record. But you know I’ll admit it, it’s incredibly therapeutic, it’s incredible. It’s essentially the process of writing; at least the writing I do is it mirrors the process of therapy. You know, you are always questioning an examining what’s true about your life.
Q: How do you get to those places where you give us a little bit of breath and release in your writing?
Ok, as you know there’s that range in the book. The funniest scenes I’ve ever written and most emotionally brutal scenes are also in that book and so I wanted to do that. Also, that’s what life is. I wanted to inhabit all of those emotions. So, I was very mindful of modulating that and I was glad they did that in the film, too, having some of those lighter almost which were just as important as the heavier ones.
Q: When you were on the hike, did you know that this would be a global best seller?
I didn’t even know that it would be a book, that’s why I didn’t write it for years. I took the hike in 1995. I went on the hike just, because it was part of my life and I met my husband 90’s after I finished hiking the trail. And he would always say, you have to write about your hike, you have to write about your hike “No, I don’t have anything to say about it.”
Q: Where did you meet him?
A: I met him, I finished a hike at 20 cents left and a student loan which I paid off on my 44th birthday 2 years ago. So, I got to Portland and I had a yard sale to raise money, I sold my clothes, and this handsome man named Tom who is not my husband came and bought something from me and I flirted wildly with him. And he asked me out to dinner that night and he was going to dinner with his friend Brian and Brian is my husband. So, poor Tom. He toasted this on our wedding, you know we love him so.
So, for years he’d say write about it. So the point of wild isn’t look at me I’m so interesting I took a big hike or isn’t so terrible that my mother died. You know it’s ridiculous, like everyone’s had a great adventure and a great loss like I don’t feel special in any way, that is not the point of wild. The point of wild is what do I have to say about those experiences? What parts of the story are not really just about me? How do I use the self to tell story about all us. And, I really wanted to do that. And so, it took years for me to find that.
Q: What conversations did you have to have with your daughter who is in the film, because there’s some tough scenes.
A: I’ve always been really open with my kids, you know because they were like, “Why don’t we have any grandparents?” And, you know talked a lot about my mum and also my dad who is not in my life as you know in my kids’ life. But, it was hard. It was really hard to watch her be threatened and you know he’s screaming. What you see on the screen are flashes while we were shooting the scenes it’s hours of my daughter being yelled at and she’s doctoring Laura’s wounds and stuff. So, my husband and every time you know the producer says, “Cut,” we go “Oh honey are you Ok? And might we have a sec?” And my daughter would say, “Would you guys leave me alone. I know it’s pretend mom.” Quit saying it’s pretend. And then it was interesting cause then it was like this mirror turned around and I just looked at myself and it wasn’t pretend. It wasn’t pretend for me. My kids when I first told them about my father physically abusing me and my brother and sister, they thought I was joking. I had to convince them that I was telling the truth, because they said, “Well, adults don’t hurt kids” and I’ll say, “No, some of them do.” And they just actually didn’t believe it.
Q: How old where they at that time?
A: They were probably five and six. They have never been hurt by an adult. I mean it’s really really interesting that they’re, because you know what we tell them that… well, I didn’t have that luxury. By that age I knew, you know.
Q: What about your cameo in the movie? Can you talk about how that happened?
A: So, we shot in Oregon for 34 days, the final day of shooting was the one day we shot in California. We went to the town of Majave and we went to the place on the trail where you see Reese put on the pack for the first time and walk those first bits. That’s actually where I began my hike and I had not been back there since my hike and it was very emotional. And all through the shoot we kept saying, “Cheryl has to have Cameo!” and I’d be like, “No, please.” I don’t know if you’ve been on a film set, it’s so tedious to be in a film. And so I kept avoiding it and then on the final day we are about to shoot the penultimate scene that we shot where I pull up with Reese on that truck and she gets out and I’m supposed to wish myself good luck.
So, we did this at the last minute they said, “Oh get in there. They put my hair in braid, put a hat on me. “Say good luck,” I do it and Reese got out of the truck and the camera followed her into the motel reception area. I’m just sitting there and watching her. I can see through this glass room, the sun was setting, it was like the whole thing collapsed into my heart and it wasn’t until months later that it occurred to me that I was in the driver’s seat in the movie of my life in which it quotes my mother in one of the things that I’m haunted by that my mother said to me when she was going to die. Listen she broke down cried and she said, “I never was in the driver’s seat of my own life.” (But that’s in the movie). It’s in the book, it’s in the movie, it’s in my life. And I was in the driver’s seat. And you know that’s the legacy. That’s the thing we can give to our parents. The parents who really gave to us. That’s what we are here to do I think, is to be that thing that they sacrificed for and didn’t ever get maybe. So, my mom never got that.
Q: What has it meant to see your story resonate with people first in book format I think it’s safe to say the film is going to do the same thing? What’s been that experience for you to have people connect to it whether they went through something like that or they never went through anything like that?
A: It’s by far the most important thing to me, the most powerful thing. It outshines Oprah calling me. It outshines Reese Witherspoon playing me. It outshines any fantastically glamorous exciting thing I’ve had in response to the book. The most important thing are the people, there are so many so many people that I can’t even … I mean it’s overwhelming to me that so many have talked to me about how much my book meant to them and helped them like it’s really moving to me.
Q: Who called first, Oprah or Reese?
Well, that’s a cool thing about both of them. (She choose it in first collection in her 2.0 series). Yeah, well she restarted the book for a while and she called me up on my cell phone out of the blue. None of her people knew she was going to do this. None of my people knew she was going to do that. She called, my cell phone rang, it was Oprah and what’s really cool both Oprah and Reese said the same things to me about my book that millions of other people have said to me about my book. I mean they said that they they felt it too. Then, Oprah was just like, “I love this book and I want everyone to read it. And what do you think about me restarting my book club for it?” and I said, “That sounds like a good idea,” and she did. (2.0) Just for the heck of it.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the casting process?
A: Reese, optioned it with the understanding she would play me, then it was a big conversation about the mother, of course. And, you know immediately, it was just like Laura doesn’t look like my mum, but Laura is so positive and bright and optimistic and wonderful, and warm like my mom.
Q: What happened to your brother?
A: I have a brother and a sister. The sister got written our of the screenplay. Sorry sis! But we love each other. My siblings are supportive of the book. They have had difficult lives you know and we never have been close like the way we were when my mother was alive.
Q: Your brother seems like a tragic figure.
A: He’s a wonderful person with a beautiful heart and I love him a lot.
Q: Did you have to think, “Oh, is Reese going to be able to do this?” because she clearly did.
A: You know I always believed in her. I always had complete faith in her. I have never doubted it. Reese is so natural. Like she just has something … I mean she seems like a normal person when you’re just with her in a room. But then she’s on camera and like the way she can just have her face in silence, she’s actually present in a way that not everyone is, you know. It’s a very interesting thing to watch.
“Wild” is now playing.