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Cheryl Strayed: "I’m so over myself! The world has really heard enough from me"

The Books Interview.

Your memoir, Wild, describes the hike you took along the Pacific Crest Trail when you were 26. Were you writing while you were hiking?
When I was hiking the trail, I was very much a writer; that was my passion. I wrote all the time. Once I finished the trail, I was able to go to a deeper level with my writing.

What’s the relationship between the notes you took at the time and the book you wrote 17 years later?
Wild is certainly not a translation of my journals but they were a great resource. The whole point of Wild is not that I took a hike. I didn’t write a book because I took a hike – a lot of people have hiked further, more heroically.

I wanted to bring to bear everything I could offer as a storyteller, which is essentially the consciousness that I came to have about what that trip meant to me. What does that hike mean? I didn’t know what that hike meant until I’d gone further and deeper into my life. I couldn’t have written Wild two years after I hiked.

So the meaning of the hike, which you began at a difficult stage of your life, only became apparent later?
Grace Paley said that she would write so she could taste life twice – she’d have the experience and then relive it in writing. I think that that’s true for me, too.

I couldn’t have written this book at 26. I wasn’t yet the writer who wrote Wild. It takes years to become a writer. I had to throw myself into that experience and then I had to grow up to understand what it meant.

You’d never hiked before you set off, so you were taking quite a risk. I saw you described somewhere as “a glutton for experience”. Does that ring true?
Absolutely, I recognise that as myself. I quoted Grace Paley saying she writes to taste life twice; I will say that the experience of publishing Wild has allowed me to taste life three times. I lived it, I wrote about and then I got to hear what other people had to say about it.

I do think I probably am somebody who has sought out a lot of experiences. I think that I’m a “yes” person and that has been dangerous sometimes. To have a happier life, I’ve had to learn to reel that in.

Your first marriage ended before you walked the trail. It was at this point that you gave yourself the name “Strayed”, wasn’t it?
That moment was so much about redefining for me – redefining who I was going to be and the world without my mum. I was trying to find a way to build my life again. And being a person who loves words, that last name meant everything to me.

It feels really like my name. It feels like my heritage, a heritage that I bore myself, that was born of me. And it’s really important to me. I love my name.

You’ve spent most of the past year promoting Wild. Are you itching to get on with something else?

I’m so over myself! The world has really heard enough from me. I have begun working on my next book, a novel, that has nothing to do with me except that it’s set in Portland, Oregon. The characters are completely fictional; there are no dead mothers. I’m done writing about the dead mother for a while.

I know, having been a writer for a long time, that my next book probably won’t be as big a seller as Wild. I have writer friends who study what makes a bestseller and then try to write one. I could never do that.

But you’re not going to be able to forget Wild just yet – it’s being turned into a film, with Reese Witherspoon playing you and a screenplay by Nick Hornby.
Meeting Reese, I realised I was talking to another artist. I was talking to somebody who not only really understood my book but also had her own vision.

With Nick, I knew his work and admired it. The minute I heard that Reese wanted to hire him, I was just so excited, because he got the book. He understood it. I feel really lucky to be working with such intelligent people.

Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild: a Journey from Lost to Found” is published by Atlantic Books (£12.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap