What Is It About Wild? A Q&A with Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed on the Oregon Trail/Photo courtesy of Cheryl Strayed


In 1995, at the age of twenty-six, Cheryl Strayed’s life was off track. She was stuck working a series of low-paying, dead-end jobs; her marriage had just ended in divorce; her mother’s early and relatively sudden death from cancer a few years prior still haunted her; and she found herself dabbling in heroin. To gain closure, purpose, and some perspective, Strayed (who had no prior hiking experience) decided to take on the Pacific Crest Trail, a designated national route that runs parallel to the western coast of the U.S. and cuts through dozens of national forests and parks. Strayed recounts her 1,100-mile trek from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border in her 2012 book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. The book became a New York Times bestseller and the first selection of Oprah Winfrey’s re-launched book club. The highly anticipated film version staring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed with a script by author Nick Hornby is now in theaters.

Signature recently talked with Strayed about Wild‘s journey from page to screen, how men should be able to enjoy a feminist film, if Wild would have been the same had she made the journey in 2014, and more.

Signature: Did you ever think Wild might end up adapted into a film?

Cheryl Strayed: Well, certainly when I was writing the book I was not thinking about it as a movie. I can’t imagine writing a book and thinking, “Wow, yeah, but for the movie there will be this, this, and this.”

SIG: But there were discussions about making a deal on the film rights before the book was released, correct?

CS: I sent the book to Reese [Witherspoon] in galleys … Because of the vagaries of publishing, they had it and it was completely done for more than a year before it came out. And so we had lots of time to get it into the hands of people who would want to read it. So I said, “I wonder if anyone in Hollywood is interested.” I didn’t know if it would make it into a movie or not; I just thought that it was a great role for an actress. So seldom do we see a woman carry the story on the screen the way that Reese Witherspoon does in “Wild.” So I sent it to her, thinking that she might be interested in having a role like that.

SIG: There are plenty of books and properties that get sold in Hollywood and are never made. Was that something you thought might happen?

CS: It was the main thought I had – that it won’t go beyond the option stage, because there are so many reasons and it’s so hard to get a movie made. But I will say from the start that Reese was so adamant that she was going to make this happen that she promised me that it would get made. So I kind of did think, “Well maybe this one will do it.”

But what was funny was that I had Nick Hornby to keep me in check. I didn’t know Nick before “Wild” came out, but we got to know each other in the process with him as the screenwriter. And along the way, Reese and Bruna [Papandrea, her producing partner] would be like, “This is going to happen. This is going to happen.” And then Nick would always be saying to me, “Don’t you get your hopes up. It probably won’t.” [Laughs]

SIG: You recently did a co-interview with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn for The New York Times. It ended with a quote from you about how you would adapt your own book. Was that in reference to “Wild” or another project?

CS: Yeah, I know. I felt that quote was not quite what I meant to say. What I meant is that I love that Nick Hornby adapted Wild and I’m grateful to him. But also, because I was so involved, I really got an education in screenwriting and filmmaking as I was also always on the set and weighing in on the script. I was really informed in that transformation from book to screen and it gave me a lot of confidence in writing scripts. Before I was exposed to this process, I thought there was some kind of, you know, mystery around how that gets done. And I was so involved that it got be a great education. And I do think that I would love to adapt my own work in the future.

SIG: Your daughter plays you as a child in the film and you were the same age during filming that your mother was when she passed away. Did this affect you?

CS: I was mindful of all of those things. It was a very emotional experience. All of the people involved in the making of the movie were kindred spirits. We shared a lot of our lives with each other. Laura Dern playing my mom – we would talk about just the magic of her bringing my mom back to life. As you point out, I was the same age as my mom when she died. There I was watching her die at the age that I am now. I think the most moving part of the shoot was watching my daughter reenact scenes from childhood, both the hard stuff and the beautiful stuff. You know, the father who was the father he shouldn’t have been – the harsh scenes of rage. And then the scenes of love and light between my daughter and Laura Dern; in some ways it was like my daughter – and my son, who was on set a lot – got to meet the grandmother they never knew. Obviously Laura Dern is not my mom, but she embodied the spirit of my mom and it was wonderful.

SIG: You’ve said in previous interviews how Wild wasn’t a book written for women, and part of the press coverage of the film has been really focused on highlighting it as feminist. Can you comment on that?

CS: I love that the film is being seen as a feminist film. I think any movie, any Hollywood film, where the main character is a woman and her storyline isn’t that she’s looking for love from a man – obviously it becomes a feminist film. Hollywood is so behind the times when it comes to gender. I was reading something the other day that only fifteen percent of films – that’s one-five – feature a female lead, and that’s just absurd. I think it’s wonderful that the film is being talked about in feminist terms. That makes me happy. I’m a feminist myself.

But I think what I was always trying to say when I would say that it’s not a book for women is that it’s not just a book for woman. So often with female writers, when they write a book, their stories – especially if it’s a story like mine that’s about the woman and about things like grief and sorrow and all that sort of stuff – people think, “Oh, that’s a chick book.” I’ve heard that many, many times. But then the experience of the book is that it’s a story about being human, and of course women are going to take another layer of meaning from that. But I can report from e-mails I receive that at least half of them are men and they say the same things to me that the women say. So what I’m trying to assert when I say it’s not just for women is: Hey, women’s stories can be as relevant to men as men’s stories are to women. For years, women had to go into movies that feature men in the lead and I would like to see that cultural shift … that men start feeling that women’s stories are theirs as well.

SIG: Do you think that you could have had the experiences you had in Wild today? It seems as though, with digital technology and the ubiquity of smartphones, things are really different.

CS: It’s profoundly different. When I was writing Wild, I was aware that I was writing about a world that no longer exists, at least in the United States. It has profoundly changed the trail. Obviously, there are upsides. You can go online and they’re updating where the water is … and now there’s this whole network of trail angels [those who help and welcome hikers in stops off trails] … and the way that’s all been set up is through this online network. And we can also find hundreds of trail journals right now, many of them uploaded on the trail.

It’s weird because what the Internet gives us is a portal to the rest of the world. You’re connecting with others; you’re not really alone. How many times have you sat alone in your apartment, online all night, and you don’t feel like you were alone because you were always chatting with someone? Let’s say you didn’t have a connection and then there you are – alone for the evening – and you have to essentially interact with yourself. That’s what I did the whole time on my hike and I really am so grateful. I think having an Internet connection would have altered the experience of solitude for me in ways that would have been significant.

SIG: Since the book came out, there’s been an uptick in hikers on the PCT and other trails that many have attributed to you, calling it the “Wild effect.” Do you think that has anything to do with getting away from that digital connectedness?

CS: Maybe what’s happened with Wild is that it hit a nerve with people who feel overconnected. A lot of people will say I went on my hike to escape or disconnect. Actually I think the reverse; I went on my hike to go more deeply into my life. I wasn’t escaping anything on my hike; I was actually walking toward it, to connect. And part of being connected is not having a chat with someone over Twitter (though I do think there is some benefit to connecting on social media). I think that sometimes we forget that it’s most important that we are connected to ourselves, that we have a sense of connectedness to our own psyches. And maybe that’s what people are responding to when they read Wild and feel motivated to go out and do something like that. Without their phone, hopefully.