Q&A with Robin Desser, the Editor Behind Cheryl Strayed’s Bestselling “Wild”

Sunset in the Mojave Desert, where
Sunset in the Mojave Desert, where "Wild" author Cheryl Strayed began her solo hike. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

If you’re looking for a true story that might make you laugh, move you to tears, shake your head in disbelief, and inspire you to go to the place of your dreams (or at least somewhere along the way), Cheryl Strayed’s Wild,” published earlier this year, is for you -- and everyone you know, apparently. With more than thirty weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (and seven at number one), the accolades for the book and its well-rounded author keep rolling in.

Last month Vintage reissued Cheryl's debut novel Torch in paperback, and her anonymous and extraordinarily successful “Dear Sugar” advice columns for The Rumpus were compiled in this summer’s Tiny Beautiful Things.” Amazon just chose “Wild” as the #1 Best Book of 2012 in the biographies and memoir category, and Reese Witherspoon’s production company has the movie rights, with Witherspoon set to star as Strayed and Nick Hornby as screenwriter. Oh, and one more little thing: Oprah Winfrey selected "Wild" for her Book Club 2.0 (click here to watch Cheryl and Oprah hit it off).

It's not often that we get to have a wide-ranging conversation with the acquiring editor behind a book as unforgettable as "Wild," so we were on the edge of our seats as Knopf senior vice president Robin Desser opened up about finding the partial manuscript, knowing immediately that Knopf had to publish it, and getting to know Cheryl as they worked on the text and a friendship developed.

The tale of Cheryl's solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail at the age of twenty-six in 1991 -- complete with bloody, blistered feet and the exhilarating thrill of finding herself in the middle of nowhere while coming to terms with a recent divorce and grieving her mother’s sudden death from cancer at the age of forty-five -- begins in southern California’s Mojave desert and ends in Oregon on the Bridge of the Gods. Robin joined us from her office in New York, and we are thrilled to share her story behind the story with you.

I imagine the book hit you pretty hard emotionally. What was your gut feeling when you first read it? How did you come across it?

The book was sent to me by an agent whom I knew by her stellar reputation but didn’t then know personally -- Janet Silver. I started reading it because her letter about the book interested me. But then something magical happened. Right from the first page of the manuscript, I knew this was something special from the visceral, funny, immediate way this writer conjured an image of a young woman, standing alone on top of the mountain with only one boot in her possession; its partner has fallen off the trail and skittered out of sight forever. The writer tells us what kind of boot it was, in perfect detail, then tells us she is left with an "orphan" of the remaining boot, which she then hurls off the edge of the trail to join its companion. Because, after all, what use is one boot? It is an indelible scene, so funny, so vivid, so real, and it perfectly sets the tone for what follows, including the larger meaning of a particular moment in life. I was grabbed instantly: the writing was so immediate, so good. There are an awful lot of memoirs that one reads in this job, and yet it is not often that one finds a voice and a story that match with equal force, truth, and power. It was a partial manuscript that had been submitted; as I read on, I soon hit the scene where Cheryl has to go off the trail, and finds herself on the road below, where she sees these three guys who seem to be just hanging around. But they’ve been working on-site, and tell her that she came off the trail just in time.

Oh right, I remember that part as being creepy. 

They tell her, pointing to the place she just came from, that she’s lucky to have found them -- because they were about to blow up that mountain. A bit later, she’s in the front seat of a truck with one of them. She’s already checked out the contents of the glove compartment, where she found a flask of whiskey and a gun. He asks her if she’s a woman like Jane as Tarzan and Jane -- which for obvious reasons makes her nervous. He’s the kind of guy that when you’re alone with him, anything could happen, she says.  First he reaches into the glove compartment and gets out some whiskey. But then, suddenly, he reaches further down, under the driver’s seat. Cheryl’s heart starts hammering, and ours does; I thought that it was going to be another weapon or something, too. But instead, and slowly, he pulls out a clear plastic bag, full of red licorice. And he says to her, “You want some, Miss Jane?” And I remember so well putting the manuscript down at that moment and thinking, “We are publishing this book. We must.” I shared the manuscript with colleagues, all of whom loved it, too, and we bid on it just a few days later. To all of us who read it, here was a book that had an irresistible combination of voice and story. The material in the early part of the book about Cheryl’s mother’s illness and death was one of the most beautiful, harrowing, difficult- to-write pieces I have ever read. I found it so heartbreaking and true.  To this day, I’m not exactly sure how Cheryl got herself to put those scenes on paper. But they were absolutely, heart-stoppingly beautiful. And they stay with a reader forever, as do so many moments of Cheryl, alone on the trail.

Well, I think she had the benefit of twenty years. That’s the difference between this and so many memoirs that come out.

I wholly agree, and that’s something she answered beautifully in the book -- the reason why she wrote this story now. If she had written this book right after the journey, or when she was twenty-nine, or maybe even in her mid-thirties, it wouldn’t be the book that it is. She’s had all this time to think about the meaning of the trail, to grow up and to have kids of her own, and to think about the many things that have happened to her since. The book affords you a perfect depiction of a young woman in her twenties, the immediacy of that, but then again it’s filtered through a wise, funny, mature voice. The magic is that it has that perspective but is still so fresh; she makes you feel as if you were right there on the trail with her.

How much of the book’s theme was in the original manuscript? Or did you help to develop that?

Many houses and editors were interested in the book when it was on submission and, happily for us, Cheryl decided to come here to Knopf. As I mentioned, it was a partial submission, and we spoke about it by phone before we acquired it. I remember her asking me if I wanted to see the manuscript as she was writing it, if she should send me pages, chapter by chapter. But I had such confidence in what I read -- and anyway, an editor shouldn’t be hanging over the shoulder of any writer when the material is first being drafted -- that I suggested she just go off and write the book. She handed in a first draft several months later. It was nothing but pleasure during the process all along. Cheryl is so smart, so wise, so warm; she brought more and more to the book with each iteration, each draft, until the book was complete.

Was this one of your better experiences as an editor?

I respect, admire, and, yes, adore Cheryl Strayed. Everyone here at Knopf and Vintage has fallen in love with her. She’s completely delightful to work with. The good news is that the success hasn’t changed her foundations; all the while, she’s stayed grounded and has retained her fabulous sense of humor. Everybody here who read "Wild" early fully believed in it and its potential. And Cheryl herself was so brilliant about reaching out to potential readers, and to audiences as she read from and talked about the book. And then the whole “Dear Sugar” thing happened…well, that was an unexpected boon.

The fact that she did that column anonymously doesn’t surprise me. In general, she seems to write from her heart and out of a love of literature, rather than for fame.

You are so right. This is a versatile writer who isn’t limited to one voice or form. Cheryl wrote a brilliant first novel, "Torch," that we have just reissued here at Vintage. And I know she’s going to write many, many books. She has a great future ahead of her, one that I am truly excited about. I greatly look forward to what she does next -- as soon as she can go to a quiet room for a while [laughs]. There’s a lot of demand out there for her right now. But at heart this is a writer who will always go back to the page and deliver something real and true -- because she herself is the real deal.

Right. Which brings us to Oprah. How did she come across “Wild” for her book club?

O Magazine was a great and early supporter of the book, and the book got into Oprah’s hands through the folks there. We’re so very grateful to Oprah and all the people at O who saw what was unique and powerful in this story, right from the very beginning. They were moved, and then they moved thousands. But of course, that’s the magic of Oprah.

Well, it’s right up her alley.

That may be. But from a certain perspective, when this kind of thing happens, it feels not just like serendipity, but a bit miraculous. However, it turns out that Oprah and Cheryl have a genuine rapport. I watched the show of their interview, where they had a conversation outside, at Oprah’s house.  You can see Oprah’s face when she’s talking about what amused, horrified (those fallen-off toenails, the frogs, the beautiful mysterious fox) and moved her about Cheryl’s journey. She responded to the book on the level of its writing and its emotion, just like so many other readers have.

How about “Tiny Beautiful Things”? Did you edit that as well?

Yes. Cheryl was waiting for an edit on "Wild" when Steve Almond at The Rumpus asked her to take over its “Dear Sugar” advice column. And when she began doing the columns, they really started to take off, get followed -- explode. As the months went forward, and "Dear Sugar" was getting more and more online hits, I finally sat down and read the columns, together, and it was clear that it was a book, one with the same wisdom, clarity, and power of the Cheryl Strayed I knew, but in a voice that also belonged to a person/persona called Sugar. "Tiny Beautiful Things" has been a very successful publication as well. Cheryl wrote some new material for it, including some new columns, and was typically brilliant in figuring out how to edit and organize it, including adding short explanatory interludes between columns for the reader.

That skill and intelligence is evident in the pacing of “Wild.” She’s really in control of the material and the reader’s experience. The licorice scene is a perfect example. It’s cinematic, like the work of a film director who really knows how to manage tension.

That’s something I really like in books: when I can see action happening so vividly before my eyes that I forget that I’m actually reading something. So many times that happened to me reading "Wild," either because of the visual imagery or the incredible emotion. When we bought the book, the scene with Lady, her mother’s horse, which plays out like one of those slow-motion scenes in a movie, wasn’t in the partial manuscript; so when I read the first full draft and that harrowing scene was there, I was stunned, devastated.

I was also struck by her ability to articulate the huge range of feelings for her ex-husband Paul and their complex relationship. It could take twenty years to process that sort of nuance.

Yes, it is so true and what I felt as well. And there are a lot of angles about class in the book. Money and class. In fact, "Wild" seems to me to be one of those books that’s about much more than it seems to be, and it radiates out into myriad other issues -- like the issue of having money in America, or not. Or finding, losing, and being in love. About being a parent, a child, a lover. It’s just got all of life in it. In that way, it’s not just a story of “Oh, here’s this young woman taking a long hike all by herself,” though it is certainly that, and does that brilliantly. It’s not just a story of that same young woman recovering from her mother’s death, although it is certainly that too. It is a book with all of life inside.

I really loved the books within the book, especially her relationship with Flannery O’Connor.

I know! Here’s someone who clearly loves books who was reluctantly, tenderly burning (with one notable exception) them along the trail, to lighten her load, whenever she had finished. These are the details that make the book great -- the particularities, idiosyncrasies. And it’s unpredictable. It’s full of humor and surprise. For example, how about that scene where she has the whistle around her neck, and she’s yelling “MOOSE!” at the top of her lungs when she sees what turns out to be a bull, charging her in the wilderness. I would laugh out loud every time I read that scene. We printed a broadside with a quote from the book about fear, which I’m staring at right now; it’s propped up on my desk: “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave.” Does every woman need to hang that on her wall, or have it under her pillow at night?

I read an interview in which you said, “I think it’s funny to interview an editor; I think the editor should stay behind the curtain.” Do you still feel that way? With “Wild,” there must be more interview requests than ever.

Giving interviews is not what I do. To my mind, the job is to work with writers and then to make sure their work is presented in the best possible form. What an editor works on with a writer is so private, and it’s different with every single book. And you never know what’s going to happen because every writer is different; every book is different, both on the page, the story and the language, and how we publish it.  So there’s never a dull moment.

I’ve read that you and Cheryl exchanged a lot of letters. Were those sent by snail mail or e-mail?

They were at first letters, yes, but sent over e-mail. But during the publication we’d often just send loud, red hoorays across the ether at all the good and lucky news.  

Are you reading e-books these days?

I do read some manuscripts and books digitally. But I don’t want to, or rather, simply don’t think I can, edit on a screen. Also, typeface has so much personality. If I saw a page of Cheryl’s book, I’d recognize it immediately by the font and spacing -- the way the letters appear and stand out against the paper’s texture, which are things that don’t render digitally as forcefully. I love that about the work that I do -- the intimacy of text. But I embrace the challenges and opportunities of digital, because it is the future.