Before she was Cheryl Strayed, she was Cheryl Strayed: an accomplished essayist with a novel, Torch, under her belt and a lot of friends and admirers in the literary community. In 2010 she began her (then-pseudonymous) tenure as the advice columnist “Sugar” for the literary website The Rumpus (where I also write a column) while wrapping up edits on her memoir, Wild.
And then everything changed. “Dear Sugar” exploded. Sugar’s signature phrase, “Write like a motherfucker,” was emblazoned on coffee mugs and posters. Sugar’s identity was revealed in February of last year, Wild was released in March, and the memoir — about Strayed’s 1100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail after the death of her mother — became a New York Times bestseller. It was chosen by Oprah as the first selection for the return of her Book Club, and was optioned by Reese Witherspoon, who will star as Strayed in the film. A collection of her “Dear Sugar” columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, was published to much acclaim last July.
I saw Tiny Beautiful Things and Wild on airport newsstands across the country and thought: it’s like the writer’s version of hometown girl-makes-good. I talked to Strayed about sudden fame, roots, and transcendence.
You’re having this really interesting moment where you went from “making it” as a writer in a way that a lot of us initially kind of hope for, to “making it” as a writer in a completely different stratosphere.
It’s been one of those years that I honestly think it’s going to take me a long time to actually absorb. I’m going to AWP. I think those are my people, that’s my crowd. Or the Rumpus writers. I am just the writer I always was.
So many people have said to me, “It’s like when your favorite indie band suddenly hits it big.” Some mainstream journalists will write about me; they’ll say, “Nobody ever heard of her until Wild,” and I’m always like, “Well, that’s not true.”
50,000 people are in our little literary orbit who actually have heard of me for many years. I mean, I’m grateful for it; it’s exciting. It’s incredibly moving because at the heart of all of that is that my book connected with so many different people from so many different walks of life. Men and women, and young, and old, and gay, and straight, and people who read and people who don’t read. Literary people liked Wild, and people who had never read a book before liked Wild, literally — I talked to people who said, “This was the first book I ever read.”
I met a woman in Santa Cruz — she came to my reading, and afterward in the signing line she just started weeping. She was in her 50s, a Latina woman, and English was not her first language. And she said to me that she was a maid in a hotel, and somebody had left Wild behind. She wasn’t a reader and had never read a book before, and she for some reason picked up my book and started reading it, she said, and she couldn’t put it down, and she read the whole thing. She was sobbing while she was telling me this story. So that kind of experience, where the book has had reach, is just really profound to me.